A native of Tifton is helping families in Haiti through an American non-profit organization called Haitian Families First (HFF), which is dedicated to Haiti’s most vulnerable children.
Vivian Lee Croft, 36, better know as Lee to many locals who know her, now resides in Pittsburgh, Pa. She grew up in Tifton, graduating from Tift County High School in 1995 and from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in 1997. She majored in journalism and then went on to the University of Georgia, finishing another dual degree at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
While visiting in Tifton, Croft stopped by The Gazette office Friday, along with her mother, Frances Croft.
After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Croft said during an interview, she was working as a freelancer for non-profit organizations when a friend asked if she would put together a fundraiser for sisters Jamie and Ali McMutrie of Pittsburgh, Pa., who founded HFF in 2010.
Jamie, 33, and Ali, 24, have spent much of their adult lives working in Haiti. Jamie has been working in Haiti for 10 years. Ali followed her there after graduating high school.
“Both Jamie and Ali live and work in Haiti full time. I manage operations from Pittsburgh, their hometown and my current home. I hope to eventually split my time between Haiti and wherever I might live in the coming years — Pittsburgh or elsewhere,” said Croft.
After saying yes to doing the fundraiser, she was introduced to the two sisters for the first time in November 2010 when they came to her fundraising event in Pittsburgh, Pa. She said they stayed in touch and then in March 2011, the sisters contacted her through e-mail and asked if she would like to join their HFF board as operations director. She stated that the board is made up of seven members in Pittsburgh, Pa. and four in other states.
Croft said six months later, she traveled to Haiti to see Jamie and Ali for a week. Every day, from 5 a.m. to about midnight, they would work individually with families by going to their homes to educate them on various things such as how to properly hold a baby and what is needed in order to sustain their family.
“We’re educators, farmers, social workers and home nurses,” Croft said, noting that they do their research.
She stated that she loved her visit to Haiti and she loved the people.
She explained that the McMutrie sisters originally went there to work with orphans. They began running an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. However, after the earthquake, they could no longer take care of the orphans. At that time, they had 54 children. They were able to put out a huge call for help to their father back at home. This led to the then-governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, helping to get them all out to Pittsburgh, Pa.
“He got them situated and safe,” Croft said. “All of the kids were orphaned out.”
She stated that Jamie and Ali immediately went back to Haiti, and because of the dire situation following the earthquake, they realized that they needed to help stop children from becoming orphans rather than running an orphanage.
“They decided to start their own organization focusing on the needs they saw as more pressing — poverty orphans, orphans with a family member or caregiver, but that family member being unable to care for the child,” Croft stated. “Over their years of living and working in Haiti, they realized that by helping keep families together, educating them, providing them with basic social services that don't exist in Haiti, poverty orphans don't have to exist.”
Croft further explained, “To get a better understanding, I like to suggest to people that they imagine what would happen should a parent in this country lose a job, become temporarily disabled or otherwise not be able to care for their family. Over the past few years here, it’s not such a hard thing to imagine. Often, these families have other means of support, such as another working family member (while that might not be enough to support the entire family, it can help with some basic necessities), social services such as emergency financial help (from non-profits in the region or federal assistance) or other outreach efforts. Those simply do not exist in Haiti. So, that leaves a mother, father or other family member unable to care for a child and sometimes they are forced to give up the child without realizing that (as there is no temporary care or even day care for children) the child will likely never be returned and instead adopted internationally. The families don't want that but feel they have no other choice. That’s where we come in — to provide choices that help bring a family a little sustainability and for as long as they need help.”
She added that they recently sent 46 kids to school in Haiti.
With enough donations, HFF was able to send those children to school, Croft said. She explained that it costs $180 a year, which is equivalent to a four-month salary, to send a child to school in Haiti. She stated that this is expensive and many families can’t afford it.
HFF is funded by individual, small donations that people send, she said.
“Over 90 percent of all donations go directly to programming,” she stated.
Croft said Jamie and Ali have a good relationship with the hospitals in Haiti. With them being able to go into a family’s home, they are helping educate not just that family, but their neighbor as well. By helping one family, the knowledge spreads to others.
This project may have fallen in Croft’s lap two years ago, she says, but her mother has always known her to be someone who wanted to help people and give back in some way.
Frances, looking at her daughter and smiling, stated that she’s very proud of her. Croft plans to travel back to Haiti for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
“I’m so proud of my work with Haitian Families First and the work that we do to inspire families in Haiti — to provide education, sustainability and healthy living to people who really want to improve these things in their lives,” Croft stated. “All they need is a little lift.”
To make a donation to HFF, visit www.haitianfamiliesfirst.org and click on the “GIVE” tab. You can make a one-time donation of any amount or you can make a monthly payment by signing up for the Formula, Education or Health & Wellness sponsorship programs. Also, for more information, e-mail Croft at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact reporter Latasha Everson, call 382-4321.