Report from the Field: Humanist Charities and Children of the Border

by Sebastian Velez

Last December, Children of the Border, a non-governmental organization, asked members of the American Humanist Association and Humanist Charities for their support. Children of the Border works to provide pre- and post-natal health care of Haitian women working as sharecroppers in the Dominican Republic, and our core principles are well grounded in humanism. The women and their children we serve live in the most appalling poverty seen in the Western hemisphere, with entire families living from less than two dollars a day.

AHA’s membership donated over $7,000, which will be matched by a very generous anonymous donor, and will bring over $14,000 in services to Haitians and Dominicans living along the border between the two countries! We received the news from AHA development director Maggie Ardiente while we were in Haiti doing field work, and it brought a jubilant cheer from everyone.

We returned from the field just a couple of weeks ago, and here is a brief report of what these new funds will continue to support:

Contraception: On random visits to homes, every woman we interviewed said that she was either on the pill, taking the injection, or had her husband using condoms. When one of our male staff members had a motorcycle accident and missed checking in with women for a few months, we were surprised to see so many men in the community requesting condoms. Also, our collaboration with the ministry of health provides oral contraceptives and Pap smear supplies. The humanist clinic now concentrates on maternal health, the 3-month injection pill, and condoms. We are planning to distribute our stock of oral contraceptives to a town near the border on the Haitian side.

Health Services: Dozens of women line up every Thursday for our doctor to do health checks, perform Pap smears, give contraceptive injections, and check children and dispense the nutritional food packets. We’re now able to increase the amount of ultrasounds to three during each woman’s pregnancy.

One of our staff, a woman who three years ago was illiterate and living in a thatch hut with her eight children, is now the doctor’s assistant. She is learning how to read and write, gives talks about contraception, and manages the logistics of the clinic.

Our preventive programs have worked so well, that we might be closing our boarding house in town, Casa de Salud—opened when emergencies where common—and use the resources for the clinic in the village of Las Mercedes.

Sustainability and Entrepreneurship: In the field, all of the problems we try to solve are because people cannot make a living out of two dollars a day. In the United States, we are inundated with ideas from people who want to volunteer, many of whom bring a project idea. These ideas range from water collection systems, solar power generation, to new ways of producing cooking fuel, ideas for schools and curricula, and reforestation projects. The problem with bringing these two together—the communities in need and the energetic volunteers wanting to do something—has always been one of logistics.

This year we are developing an idea by a Harvard undergraduate, Annie Ryu, to use the enthusiasm and energy of U.S. volunteers, together with their ideas, into an integrated program ( that centers on their ideas and experience. The community will benefit with direct employment brought by the implementation of projects, from services to the volunteers (food, lodging, etc.), and of course from the projects the volunteers will implement.

We still have many problems to solve. The community water pump we installed is working, but houses are so far from each other that people can carry only just enough water to drink, but not to keep minimum sanitary conditions. Most people still need latrines, an urgent matter since contact between feces and drinking water is the main threat to a cholera outbreak. We’ve barely touched the issue of adult education. Children are still given away, many ending in prostitution or child slavery, but we have no way of accepting them. Our clinic, while well managed by our doctor and one of our employers, still needs a lot of work with patient data collecting and management. This data problem is compounded by a population where people have no documentation, don’t know their birth date, and where many women can’t recall how many children they’ve had, much less their medical history. Our clinic still has no electricity, and of course no phone and no Internet.

From all of us that work on this project, we want to give our most heartfelt thank you from the people we serve, to you, our donors. It is always a delight to explain to community members that the people paying for all of this do it out of love and concern, not because they believe in God. Unrestricted donations also allow us to operate with great freedom. We opened our clinic in the forest when our collaboration with a group of nuns broke down. They used to provide the space, some medicines, and part of the doctor’s salary, while we paid for the other half of the doctor’s salary, his expenses, and medicines. When the nuns said they would not accept contraceptives there (the doctor, nonreligious himself, was not happy for other reasons), we just opened our own clinic, hired the doctor in full, and stocked the clinic with medicines and contraceptives. This freedom is a privilege granted by our generous donors. Thank you!

Humanist Charities is continuing to accept donations on behalf of Sebastian Velez’s Children of the Border project. Learn more or make a donation now.

Sebastian Velez is the director of Children of the Border and evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. He received the 2010 Humanist Distinguished Service Award from the American Humanist Association for his work in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.