Sowing Seeds of Volunteerism in Haiti

TIMA  |  January 14, 2020
Tzu Chi volunteers give without asking for anything in return

Written by Audrey Cheng
Translated by Audrey Cheng and Yves Danel Georges
Photos provided by Yves Danel Georges
Edited by Monique Kuo & Adriana DiBenedetto

Haiti is a mountainous country, which makes farming very difficult. As a result, the scarcity of food is a constant nightmare for Haitians. Many of the most underserved in Haiti are forced to eat “mud cakes” — a blend of soil, salt, and butter — to fill their empty stomachs. The soil, they’d resolved, contained an adequate enough amount of calcium. Unfortunately, parasites and industrial toxins also hide within the soil, causing serious potential detriment to one’s health.  

Born of the deep concerns surrounding the nutrition of Haitians forced to live under this diet, Yves Danel Georges set up the Community Development Promotion Association in 1980. This association operated a canteen to provide food, and at the lowest possible prices. Danel looked forward to the day that Haitians would no longer have to go hungry, and hoped that Haitians could join hands as a community with love in the face of such difficulties.

A Painful Journey

From the “Black Code” as introduced by King Louis XIV of France, to the years of suffering, the long-lasting civil war, and the anguish born of such prolonged struggle, many in Haiti had become trapped in a cycle of overwhelming fatigue and poverty. While Danel was desperately looking for ways to help his country find its strength again, one of Danel’s friends who worked at the Taiwan Embassy in Haiti introduced him to some Tzu Chi volunteers during a charity mission in 2008.

Tzu Chi’s Director of Global Affairs, Steven Huang, led the volunteers from Tzu Chi USA and St. Martin to Haiti to donate essential medicine and supplies required urgently by the National University of Haiti Hospital. In January of the following year, Tzu Chi USA designed a Haiti Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Program to deliver food, hygiene kits, and medical supplies to Port-au-Prince and Cité Soleil, and promoted health education. These actions completely flipped Danel’s perspective: 

“How could Tzu Chi volunteers give so much without expecting or asking for anything in return?” 

Noticing the bewildered look on Danel’s face, Steven Huang explained to Danel Tzu Chi’s mission, and how this vision of compassion drives so many volunteers to contribute. On that day, Danel became a Tzu Chi volunteer and considered Tzu Chi’s headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, is his home. Despite being over 15,000 kilometers away, Danel believed the distance was a test for his devotion to the work of Tzu Chi and Dharma Master Cheng Yen, and believed that one day he will pass this test.

Tzu Chi volunteers and Tzu Chi USA CEO Han Huang readying for a big day in Haiti
We hope to help young people in Haiti succeed through the provision of food and resources

Planting Seeds of Hope

Danel described Tzu Chi as doing “extraordinary work.” He fell in love with Tzu Chi’s dharma teachings immediately, and encouraged his brother, Stephen, to volunteer as well. 

Danel drove the car filled with rice to distribute food to those in need. Seeds of kindness and hope were sowed in Haiti through this humanitarian mission, and the first of many seeds had flourished within Danel, who encouraged local doctors to join hands with Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) to help more people obtain the services they needed.

On January 10, 2010, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck  Haiti. Tzu Chi USA immediately assembled a disaster relief team composed of volunteers from the United States, Canada, Argentina, and beyond, to fly to Haiti to help. Together with local bilingual volunteers, the relief team distributed supplies and located people who needed medical treatment. The local volunteers were instrumental in Tzu Chi’s relief work in Haiti. Danel not only joined the relief team, but also helped build three schools, and set up a ”Moringa for Love” farm to improve the quality of life. Danel said, “With the dharma teachings from Tzu Chi and Master Cheng Yen, and the actions of volunteers, I can see the future of Haiti.”

Transformation Through Love

The services that Tzu Chi volunteers provided shocked many local people because they couldn’t believe the foundation had actually fulfilled their promise. When Mary Anne Primary School was rebuilt, locals had expressed emotionally, “Tzu Chi is one of the most-committed charitable organizations to help Haiti. Not only are all donations delivered directly to the poor, but Haitians have found spiritual support from Master’s teachings and the volunteers’ actions.” 

Danel was proud to be a part of Tzu Chi, and expressed his optimism that all future volunteers could be as dedicated as he was. Because of this passion and high hopes for others, some grew doubtful, and poked fun at him. 

Danel, the first local Tzu Chi volunteer in Haiti, took the responsibility upon himself to explain Tzu Chi’s teachings and values of love and compassion, reaffirming Tzu Chi’s humanitarian missions and motivations. Many were concerned regarding the involvement of a Buddhist organization, and wondered at the foundation’s ability to complete all the reconstruction work. Danel explained, however, that, “Tzu Chi’s dharma is beyond religion, and Tzu Chi works with all religions to help people in need.” 

The distribution of relief goods also presented another challenge for Danel in the beginning. Danel understood that all the relief goods were purchased through donations from people all over the world. Following the mission of Tzu Chi, Danel was hopeful that the food and other items could be delivered first to all the people who most needed it. Danel appealed to everyone to collect the relief supplies based on their personal needs and with the consideration of others in mind. The fear of starvation prompted some to take extra bags of food and supplies, however, rather than sharing the resources with their neighbors who were also in need. Upon surveying the situation, Danel’s heart sank, although he very intimately understood why it was so. 

When Danel overheard The Spirit of Great Love by Dharma Master Cheng Yen, he said, “In this world, there is no one I do not love, no one I do not trust, and no one I do not forgive.” He felt enlightened. He decided to learn more, visit Tzu Chi in Hualien, Taiwan, to learn from Dharma Master Cheng Yen and other volunteers. Sister Debra Boudreaux then made some timely arrangements for Danel to attend the Four-in-One Training Camp in 2010 in Hualien, so he could fulfill his wish and gain a better understanding of the Dharma Master’s teachings.

Left Hand and Right Hand

Danel was nervous about his first trip to Tzu Chi and meeting Dharma Master Cheng Yen. He washed and ironed his uniform, checking and re-checking his appearance to make sure everything was perfect. And in particular, Danel was determined to get his pronunciation just right, asking how to pronounce “Master Cheng Yen” in Chinese, and practicing during the long flight. He wanted to make a wholly elegant first impression on the Dharma Master. 

When he finally met Dharma Master Cheng Yen, his mind went blank, and forgot everything he’d practiced. Once able to soothe his mind, however, he felt like a son reunited with his mother when he knelt before Master Cheng Yen.

Danel conversed with Dharma Master Cheng Yen with his Dharma name, Chi Zhi. From that day on, he had a new take on life. He told Dharma Master Cheng Yen, “I would be your right hand if I were born in Taiwan.” She looked at him with loving eyes and said, “Return to Haiti, and be my left and right hands.” Danel followed the Master’s instructions: He not only became her left and right hand in Haiti, but also tried to become her voice in Haiti as well. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he hosted a tea party and invited Haitian locals to listen to “Life Wisdom” teachings from Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Once each month, Danel hosts an ESPACE television program where he talks about the work Tzu Chi does around the world and encourages more people to join Tzu Chi as volunteers.

Hoping to further enrich his “Tzu Chi TV program,” Danel concluded he needed to visit Tzu Chi in Hualien again, and recharge. In 2012, Danel set off accompanied by Martin Keh of Tzu Chi USA to participate in another Four-in-One Training Camp. He hoped that revisiting these teachings and gaining new insight would bring him a deeper understanding of Tzu Chi’s dharma and Master Cheng Yen’s teachings. He sincerely believed Master Cheng Yen’s teachings were important to help Haiti heal. 

On this trip, Danel learned how to empty himself and absorb the practices and wisdom from others. Being a volunteer with Tzu Chi, Danel expressed, has been the most amazing journey he’s undergone in his life; he believed that no place on earth could be filled with so much love. Volunteers were incredibly moved to learn that he felt Master Cheng Yen’s teachings guided him to give, forgive, and cultivate further kindness, honesty, gratefulness, and trust.

A Second Chance

At the end of 2015, Danel had been driving through the site of a riot when he was accidentally hit by a stray bullet, fracturing his left arm and damaging nerves. The bullet that went through his arm also went through his chest, just a few centimeters from his heart. The surgery Danel underwent wasn’t successful, and four months later, a local doctor recommended amputation to save his life. While Danel hesitated to make such a decision, Steven Huang and Debra Boudreaux sent the news back to Dharma Master Cheng Yen in Taiwan, who then said, “Send Danel back to me.”

Yves Danel Georges was hit by a stray bullet in 2015, fracturing his left arm and damaging nerves

In March of 2016, Danel arrived at Tzu Chi Hualien Hospital for a series of examinations. Tzu Chi Hualien Hospital’s Honorary Dean, Orthopedic Ying-Ho Chen, performed Danel’s surgery, followed by physiotherapy for half a year. Danel had no health insurance, and Tzu Chi Charity Foundation paid for all of his medical expenses. “Dharma Master Cheng Yen saved my life,” Danel said, “And I will be a Tzu Chi volunteer for life.”

Today, Danel continues to feel deeply grateful to Dharma Master Cheng Yen, saying that, “overseas disciples must visit Tzu Chi in Hualien, Taiwan; it is the home of our hearts and spirits. When you are in that home, you can see the truth of the good deeds Tzu Chi does. Then, you realize how much you have and are able to cherish it. If you don’t ever make the trip, it’s hard to feel the Master’s expectations for you.” Danel returned home to recharge his heart and spirit three times. Each time, he renewed his mission, and returned to Haiti filled with compassion to share Master’s teachings and Tzu Chi’s Dharma with boundless love in his heart.

Check out of Haiti Photo Exhibit “10 Years of Care in Haiti”