By Maya Beecham
A journey of 2,186 miles from Minnesota to southern Haiti is a regular trip for Nick and Madeleine Avignon. Throughout the year, they travel to their native country to plant seeds in lives and harvest leaders.
In 2001, with the help of friends, they founded Christian Operation for Health Education and Development (COFHED). The organization’s mission is to engage in long-term community-led development in southern Haiti.
Nick said, “I always had a desire to go back to my home country and do community development work. What sets us apart is we don’t go in[to] villages thinking, ‘We are the powerful ones, we’re prepared, and we know how we are going to do things for you.’ Instead we work with villagers and show them the value and potential they have. They know they have potential but they need opportunities. We create opportunities for them and that makes all the difference in the world.”
Rather than declare the problem and dictate the solution, they work with communities by helping organize their knowledge; identify resources, assets and existing community skills; articulate the social, spiritual, economic and environmental issues of community life that contribute to poverty; actively participate in developing strategies to understand barriers and formulate solutions; and take action to achieve sustainable change.
Various non-governmental organizations have traveled to Haiti with predetermined projects in the hope of helping the community. COFHED wants to help the community from a different perspective. They were determined to learn from the people, and that required relationship building.
Madeleine said, “The people of Haiti are very resilient and have a lot to offer, so we went to tap into this energy and offer something better for them. We wanted to engage communities into appreciating the resources they have. We go at it from an asset-based approach, so communities can build on their resources and create opportunities for their communities. That requires time to build relationships with the people because they need to trust you and we need to trust them. We have to go as learners. We need to give them time to make their plans because they know what they need.”
Currently, COFHED is working with three communities in Haiti, including the village of Lougou, reaching 2,500 people, and will add a new community in 2013. “Our goal is to start a community engagement center so more communities can come to the center to learn and help their villages. Communities that have gone through the training can help us with other communities. We have eight communities waiting for us and we don’t have the capacity to engage more. We need more staff and a resource center that will be open to the entire country.”
On September 30, COFHED hosted their annual fundraiser in support of their work in Haiti at McNamara Center at the University of Minnesota.
Nick said, “It is powerful for me to see a community of people that never thought that they could do anything like that and to see them come alive. And they’re such a powerful force in the community. They are really proud and they see that they accomplished something and it wasn’t anybody else that did it for them — they did it on their own.”
For more information about COFHED, call 651-600-4516 or go to www.cofhed.org.