Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gifts That Give Back

     "He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore.  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before.  Maybe Christmas he thought...doesn't come from a store.  Maybe Christmas, perhaps...means a little bit more!"

     It's only two days after Thanksgiving and I've already watched "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" twice!  Usually I sing along with Whoville and feel sorry for Max the dog, but just returning from Haiti, the quote above really jumped out at me this time. Now I'm more of a Cindy Lou Who than a Grinch, so I'm not thinking of boycotting Christmas or gifts.  I've decided, however, that I need to concentrate on the "little bit more."

     And one way to do that is by vowing to make sure that I'm buying gifts that also give back (to the artist, a community, or charity).  If you want to join me and focus on the "little bit more,"  here are a few suggestions:

Fairtrade gifts help support artisans, farmers and crafts people.  They provide fair living wages to people in developing countries.  Often times, they use renewable resources so they can be eco-friendly too.

Divine Chocolate ( is the only fairtrade chocolate company that is partly owned by the farmers.  This gives the farmers fare wages and a voice in the cocoa industry, and children are not used to work/harvest the cocoa as other companies do.  Also, the chocolate is AMAZING, especially hazelnut milk chocolate and white chocolate with strawberries!  If you have a Wegmans nearby, you can buy Divine Chocolate there :)

Serrv ( is a fairtrade site with a gazillion (more or less) gifts from around the world.  Good prices too.

Fairtrade Winds ( has stores in Fairfax, VA and Seattle as well as a good website.  A variety of interesting fairtrade gifts from around the world.

Ten Thousand Villages ( sells an assortment of fairtrade gifts from around the world at a reasonable price.

One World Projects ( ) has unique fairtrade gifts, including a good selection from Haiti.  It also some good gifts for kids too.

It's Cactus ( carries lots of amazing fairtrade crafts and folk art from the Americas.  They have some gorgeous Haitian pieces made from old metal oil barrels too!

Hungersite ( has gazillions of fairtrade and ecofriendly gifts, and the prices are ridiculously good.  You can also click on a button each day to donate food for free.

There are also some great shopping websites that use the proceeds of their sales to benefit a good cause:

Betterworld Books ( ) stocks over 9 million new and used books....I've found some pretty obscure titles here!  For every book purchased, the company donates a book to a child in need.  It's over 5 million so far.  They accept donations of used books, as well, and have saved over 40,000 tons of books from ending up in a landfill.  And shipping is free all the time.  One of my favorites!!

TOMS ( was founded on a simple premise:  for every pair of shoes you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of shoes to a child in need (more than a million pairs so far).  My tentmate had a pair in Haiti and raved about them...I'm obsessed now!

Punjammies ( are my other latest obsession.  The organization, based in India, takes in women who were forced into prostitution and teaches them new skills while they make fairtrade wages by producing colorful Indian print pajamas.  Love them!

Thistle Farms (  ) is a nonprofit based in Tennessee that helps provide workskills for women recovering from abuse, drug addiction and life on the streets.  They sell an amazing pomegranate lip smoothie along with bath and body care items, candles and spa kits.

Women's Bean Project ( is a nonprofit organization in Denver that teaches job readiness skills for entry level jobs to women who are unemployed, homeless or recently released from prisons.  They make and sell jewelry and food products.  I just ordered some Malaysian spice rub!

NPR ( has a great online store that sells unique gifts like fun radios and tons of audio programs (such as David Sedaris :)  Who doesn't enjoy a good story told on NPR??

And if you are looking for a gift for someone who already has everything, donations in his/her name are perfect!  A few of my favorite organizations include:

Habitat for Humanity ( ).  Around the world, 2 billion people live in slum housing and 100 million are homeless.  HFH is a good place to start!

Modest Needs ( ) Their goal is to stop the cycle of poverty before it starts for low-income workers in the U.S. who are often forgotten.  A donation as small as $5 will help someone with a short term emergency (eg. unexpected car repair or doctor's bill) that might otherwise send them reeling financially.

Partners in Health ( was started in Haiti by an American doctor, Paul Farmer, to develop community based health care for the poor to fight diseases such as TB and cholera.  PIH now works in 12 other countries as well.  An amazing book was written about Farmer:  Mountains Beyond Mountains....Another Christmas gift idea :)

Heifer International ( ) aims to end hunger and poverty around the world by giving families livestock and training to improve their general income and nutrition.  It is called a "living loan" as the family must give one of the animal's offspring to another family down the line.

CharityWater ( ) uses 100% of its donations to directly fund water projects around the world.  Important since a billion people don't have access to clean water each day.

Kiva ( ) is a nonprofit organization that makes microloans to people who don't have access to traditional banking systems (including the U.S.)  These loans are made to start businesses, pay for education or farm.  When the loan is repaid, you can reloan it to another person or collect your money.

Central Asia Institute ( was started by Greg Mortenson to empower girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan through education and literacy, building schools in remote regions.  CAI's story is told in the book "Three Cups of Tea"  (which would make an excellent Christmas gift itself!)

Free Wheelchair Mission ( provides wheelchairs for impoverished disabled individuals in developing nations.  They're made to be rugged but use parts already being produced (steel frame, mountain bike tires, resin lawn chair). They can be produced at a low cost in high quantity this way which is important since 100,000,000 people need a wheelchair but can't afford one.

Doctors Without Borders ( provides healthcare to people in countries facing war, violence, neglect and catastrophe.  Their courage is amazing!

Women for Women ( is a nonprofit group that provides women survivors of war and conflict with tools and resources to move from crisis to stability.  They offer job training and education to women around the world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Truly Thankful

     Happy Thanksgiving!  I feel like I'll be celebrating the holiday for a second time this month....In Haiti, everytime I looked around, I was reminded of what I'm thankful for:

I'm thankful for a house with four walls and a roof to keep me warm and dry.
near Port-au-Prince

I'm thankful for clean water for drinking and washing.


I'm thankful for having more than enough food.  Every day, I'm haunted by the memory of Maxeau, a future homeowner, who worked all day alongside us without eating, saving his lunch so his wife and 3 month old daughter would have something to eat at night.

our daily lunch at the worksite....more than many Haitians eat all day


I'm thankful for my job.  The unemployment rate in Haiti is over 60% (and estimated to be closer to 80%).

so many people on the streets in need of jobs

I'm thankful for the public santitation department in my town. 


I'm thankful for my health.  Nearly half a million cases of cholera were reported in Haiti in the past year.


I'm thankful for my car and how it makes my days easier.


I'm thankful for the amazing people in my life, especially the inspiring Haitians we met.

Maxeau and Tifat, two future HFH homeowners


And I'm thankful for a spunky little Haitian school girl who reminded me to start the day with a laugh and a smile no matter what the circumstances may be.




Sunday, November 20, 2011

More Than a Dream

     You know that feeling you have when you wake up from a deep sleep?  You're not quite sure of your surroundings and you're grasping to hold onto and make meaning of a dream.  It's been a week since I returned from my Habitat build in Haiti and I'm feeling that way. 

     When people ask about my trip, my first response is the word "intense."  The work was intense, the weather was intense, the living conditions in Haiti are intense, the poverty is intense, the resiliency of the Haitians is intense, the need for help in Haiti is intense, the friendships I made were intense.  To quote one of my teammates in Leogane, I've never felt like I've done so much and so little in one week.

     As I try to wake up and make meaning of my trip, I'll add to the blog, both stories and photos.  For now, I'll leave you with this HFH video with images of the week and a heartfelt thank you to all who donated to Habitat for Humanity Haiti....You cannot begin to imagine how much your support is needed and appreciated there!  (And will continue to be needed....Keep donating!)

                                 2011 Carter Work Project in Haiti

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Passport Procrastination

  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I'm a procrastinator.  I've learned to accept this about myself, knowing that I'll meet the deadline in the end.  So with just nine days until I leave for Haiti, I headed into D.C. this morning to renew my passport.  For others (my mom, for example :) this might have been a stressful day, but I rather enjoyed myself.  Just see for yourself:

It started off with typical commuter traffic and rain, but I was entertained listening to a news report about a man who just received a prosthetic arm that contained a cell phone...Still trying to wrap my mind around that!

For once, I had no problem finding parking, and I even scored the early bird special! 

Walking into the passport agency, there were only 11 people before me in line.  Another dozen people followed me.  That made 24 people scheduled for 8:00 am appointments with only 3 clerks working.  Government math!  It turned into just a 40 minute wait....Compared to the local DMV, the wait time was nothing short of miraculous.  And it gave me some time to read more from my latest obsession:  The Hunger Games series!

Once my application was submitted, I found myself with more time on my hands than anticipated.  So to somewhat quote a famous saying, when in Washington, D.C. on a workday, do what the Washingtonians do:  walk around, shop and eat.  I did just that, minus the D.C. standard-issue power suit!

I walked over to H&M, a favorite since my days as a poor college student, to buy some work clothes for the build.

Along the way, I stopped to check out "Occupy D.C." at McPherson Square.  No celebrity sightings like in Central Park, though.

Randomly, I stumbled across an international horse show just a few blocks from the White House and watched the groomers at work for a while.

Nearby, I noticed the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.  After having spent hours trying to master bricklaying and mortar flicking in Jordan and Thailand with HFH, I was tempted to try to join the union myself :)

That is, until I started noticing all the new food joints downtown.  I was tempted by the idea of a maple bacon pancake....

and was drawn in by the smell of real Canadian poutine (french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds) at the Eat Wonky food truck.....

But eventually decided to take shelter from the rain at the Shake Shack.

Good decision.  Simply the best chocolate malt ever!!

My new passport should arrive on Monday.  Eight days left now...I guess it's time to start buying supplies :)

And it's not too late if you've procrastinated with making a donation to Habitat for Humanity Haiti....We only need $470 to reach the goal of raising $5000 to fully fund a house for a family in Haiti!!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Haitian Packing List

Okay, this is what I'm hoping to avoid, not hoping to pack!!

As many of you know, I'm a bit of a procrastinator, especially when it comes to getting ready for a trip.  With ten days to go until I leave for Haiti, it's probably time to start gathering supplies.  Usually, I'm a light packer, but I'm heeding the recommendations of HFH and bringing along some special items on this trip, including:

some strong insect repellant to keep away pesky mosquitoes (and malaria and dengue fever!),

a bottle of Chloroquine (anti-malarial pills) in case the mosquitoes just can't resist me,

some antibacterial gel since I'm not a fan of cholera,

sunscreen with a high SPF, as anyone with Swedish and Danish genes should,

rehydration packets since I'm not accustomed to heaving around cement blocks everyday,

clothes that wick away moisture and are breathable in heat....thanks to the Underarmor outlet nearby,

my trusty Merrill workboots that have traveled to Jordan, Thailand and Guatemala,

work gloves dipped in latex...important when working cement so the lye won't seep through and wear away the skin on your fingers!  A lesson learned in Thailand :)

fun bandaids just in case I hammer a thumb,

a Haitian-Creole phrasebook to use with the fantastic families we'll be meeting and working with,

a flashlight as electricity will be limited at the camp, and

toilet paper, a lesson learned in previous trips!

Tents, cots, and netting are provided by HFH.  Hoping mine is as stylish as this:

The most important thing I'll be bringing with me, though, is all of your support!  Thank you sooo much for your donations to HFH Haiti. 

And it's not too late to still donate....We're just $670 away from reaching our goal raising $5000, the cost of building a house for a family in need!!!