NACOGDOCHES, Texas - Torn blue tarps serving as the makeshift roof of a cinderblock church gently flapped in the wind as representatives from Stephen F. Austin State University’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture asked questions of a predominantly male group of subsistence farmers through an interpreter. Those in attendance are residents of Merger, Haiti, a small village located outside of the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince, who struggle to produce food in the dry, rocky and erosion-prone soil surrounding the community.
That initial meeting, arranged by One Foot Raised, a nonprofit organization founded by SFA alumni, marked the beginning of a week defined by early mornings, late nights, research, brainstorming sessions and the initiation of long-term agroforestry and sustainable development projects that defy the study-abroad experience typically offered by universities.
“This experience is not just a “let’s go check it out for 10 days and then go home,” said Dr. Shelby Laird, assistant professor of forestry at SFA. “This is an actual service-learning experience where you are going to be doing a lot of work, and when you return home, you will likely still have things to do.”
Becky and Zac Weems, founders of the Nacogdoches-based One Foot Raised, first approached Laird earlier this year with the hope of obtaining agriculture and forestry-based assistance for the villages they serve in Haiti.
“(The communities) came to us and asked for information about planting differently to ensure their crops would be successful, and we didn’t have the skills to do that,” Becky said. “It’s a huge asset to have SFA right in our city because it enables us to access a huge amount of knowledge and skills.”
Martha Carnes and Cody Jones, both SFA seniors pursuing a Bachelor of Science in forestry, said they saw this as a unique, albeit challenging, opportunity to apply the knowledge they have gained at SFA.
“The language barrier and the sheer gravity of what the Haitians need forced us to be confident in our decisions,” Jones said.
To help bolster this confidence, Laird and the students met weekly in the months leading up to the departure, familiarizing themselves with the ecology of Haiti, as well as its history of deforestation, natural disasters and economic instability.
“Experiences like this force you out of your comfort zone and require you to think critically and adapt to challenges,” Laird said.
During their stay, the group worked in two separate villages where they tested soil and led farmers through a series of lessons and activities focused on composting, crop rotation and how to transplant trees to stabilize soil and reduce erosion on sheer hillsides used to cultivate crops. At two orphanages in Port-au-Prince, rooftop gardens were constructed, and children were taught how to plant and properly care for seedlings.
Although the SFA students have returned to Texas, their work continues. Currently, they are developing a report to present to One Foot Raised that will cover all of the material presented at each of the sites, as well as recommended next steps.
Laird explained that one of these key steps is establishing contact with experts who can better assess whether the environmental conditions in the village of Quicroif are suitable for growing coffee as a cash crop.
Because One Foot Raised fills a variety of needs expressed by the villages they serve, Laird, as well as the Weems, hope that similar partnerships can expand throughout the multiple disciplines taught at SFA, benefiting the people of Haiti and students alike.
“A student’s view of the world can be rocked when they are hand-in-hand standing in the home of a guy whom they just tilled a field with, or, in this case, assisted in transplanting a pine tree,” Zac said. “You know that you had a part in making his life better through education.”
Laird explained that although One Foot Raised is a faith-based nonprofit organization, all volunteers from SFA are welcome to participate regardless of their religious beliefs.