Starksboro barn dance to aid Haitians

STARKSBORO — The traditional contra dance call of “grab your partner by the hand” has taken on a whole new meaning in light of the orphans affected by the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. Local activists who have seen firsthand the plight of the Port-au-Prince orphanage Men Nan Men (Creole for Hand in Hand) have organized a barn dance in Starksboro this Saturday to raise funds to support these children in need.
The Hand in Hand Barn Dance will take place at the Sentinel Farms Barn on Route 116 at the corner of States Prison Hollow Road from 6-9:30 p.m. and will feature music by Pete Sutherland, calls by Rachel Nevitt, and a presentation by Guthrie Smith, Alissa White and Marjorie Stanley. The dance is being held primarily to support the 165 orphans at Men Nan Men, who lack basic needs like food and shelter.
Smith, a Huntington resident, traveled to Haiti soon after the earthquake to help her Haitian-American friend locate family members. On that first trip, Smith waited outside the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince all night, and found herself utterly moved by the songs of the Haitian people waiting around her, not to mention horrified at their lack of basic needs, including food, clean water and shelter.
She returned to Vermont determined to make a difference. She then rounded up a group of 10 workers to accompany her on a second trip, this time to Leograne, the much-neglected epicenter of the earthquake, which had been bypassed by several international aid organizations in favor of the capital city. White, a local artist, gardener and educator, was a member of this hand-selected crew, and accompanied Smith to Haiti in February. While there, the two built a garden and started a lunch program, but according to White, it just wasn’t enough.
The two stayed with Marjorie Stanley, a woman who had financially supported the Men Nan Men Orphanage for years through her own grassroots work.
“When we went to the orphanage in Port-au-Prince, it quickly became all about the kids,” White said. “We met these children who hadn’t eaten in a day, but kids will always be kids — it was amazing how happy and beautiful they were, and they would even sing songs for us. We were very moved, and that’s what sent us down for more.”
Smith and White returned to Vermont, but according to White, Haiti, and those beautiful children, were all that was on their minds.
“A tent could save a family’s life,” said White, “that’s all I could think about.”
Smith and Guthrie decided to focus on bringing shelter to the children, after which, they would be able to provide water, sanitation and a reliable food source.
Living conditions in Port-au-Prince, according to White, were appalling.
“Our translator basically lived in a cleared out space in the rubble in a six-foot-by-six-foot area with his father, mother, wife and children, and all he had was a tarp and a sheet, and this was an important man,” she said. “He could speak both English and Ancient Creole.”
Smith acquired 40 disaster-relief shelters, and set 10 aside for the orphans. Smith and White returned to Haiti in March with the shelters and other donations from the Huntington community, but they ran into unseen obstacles, and were unable to put the shelters in place.
“The biggest challenge really is that Port-au-Prince is a terrifying place,” White said. “We have to build a wall to protect the kids.”
The Hand in Hand Barn Dance will help raise money to build a wall to protect the land that Smith acquired to set up the shelters for the Men Nan Men orphans. According to White, while a bag of cement in Vermont costs just $8, in Haiti, a bag costs around $70. Though Smith and White had procured $5,700 in funding from a nongovernmental organization, Smith discovered that they would need an additional $7,000 to complete the job. Smith is currently in Haiti working with Stanley, the orphans’ original benefactor, to complete the wall. Both women will fly back to the United States to attend Saturday’s event.
White and Katie Gruber, another dance organizer, said that though the traditional Vermont contra dance does not exactly ring of a small Caribbean island, it does reflect something extremely significant: community.
“It’s all about the power of people coming together,” White said. “When people get together, they accomplish so much more. (The barn dance) is a chance to get together and celebrate their collective power.”
According to Gruber, the event planners had some specific goals of bringing the community together and getting neighbors out meeting other neighbors. The group worked to make the barn dance family friendly, and before the dance begins, there will be a raffle, silent auction, and plenty of kids’ activities.
“The space (is) so awesome,” said Gruber. “I love the barn, I love Starksboro and I think that if our goal is to get people to come out to our event, what we really have to do is create something that they want.”
Gruber explained that the Hand in Hand Barn Dance has a “very specific” cause, and one that is two-fold. Not only will the orphans of Men Nan Men benefit from the shindig, but so will Starksboro residents.
“We’re pulling on the local Haiti activists and grouping around them,” Gruber said. “We’re supporting these kids one-on-one, hand-to-hand — it’s grass-roots all-around.
“When you dance, you hold hands altogether, you join hands altogether and, well — that’s the name of the organization.”

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