| January 22, 2014 | People
Michael Capponi in Haiti teaching the kids how to surf. Capponi founded his Haiti Empowerment Mission after seeing that country's devastation firsthand.
On January 12, 2010, an earthquake devastated Haiti. Add to that a history of corruption, recent outbreaks of cholera, and a 2012 tropical storm, and parts of the country have become an ecological and economic disaster. Florida developer Michael Capponi took his first trip to Haiti to help the victims just after the earthquake; in 2011 he started his own nonprofit, called the Haiti Empowerment Mission, which provides the citizens of Haiti with the tools and education to break free from dependency. Here, Capponi tells Ocean Drive how he’s helping to rebuild the country, and a small coastal town called Jacmel:
What’s the meaning of the Haiti Empowerment Mission?
Michael Capponi: Haiti is a very complex situation where, for hundreds of years, they’ve never really had an opportunity to learn how to be independent, so it’s been a nation very dependent on foreign aid. I wanted to create a situation where we could empower the people of Haiti by teaching them. It could be anything from harvesting coffee to making jewelry to putting the children in a private school, or just teaching the residents about working at a hotel. So it’s to empower people to become self-sustaining. We put a lot of them in a hospitality school. The more I went to Haiti, I started understanding the problem was a lot bigger than a large group of people who lost their homes in an earthquake and just needed to be put back in their homes.
Capponi (with Scott Gates, RIGHT) transporting a family of Haitians to the local lolo, an open-air food stand.
What kept drawing you back to Haiti after you went for the first time?
I started the Haiti Empowerment Mission in 2011. Many emergency missions have great intentions, but they end at some point. But what do you do after that? We saw the worst human conditions that we ever have and we did what we could, but when we came back home, it was like, do you either pat yourself on the back because you know you were in Haiti for five days after the earthquake, or do you actually go back the next week and help the people you just abandoned? When you come back the second week, do you go back a third time? So the responsibility grows on you. We put a program together that trains people to get jobs and get back on their feet.
How did the HEM start? Was there early help from people in Miami?
It all started when commissioners here allowed me to take Miami Beach fire department guys to Haiti several days after the earthquake. We were at times dealing with 3,500 people through our group, putting them in tents, getting them food and water, giving them medical supplies. There’s really not a lot you can do in one trip. The first year, I think I took 18 trips just basically trying to manage a makeshift camp we had set up. Former [US Ambassador to Belgium] Paul Cejas rented us a full-size plane to get there. But we didn’t have a ride back and we were stuck there. I e-mailed [film director] Michael Bay and I said, “Please send us your jet, we’ve got to get out of here.” I had renovated his house recently. So he sent his plane filled with medical supplies, dropped them off, and then he took us back. People like that in Miami are really able to pitch in on a moment’s notice.
HEM's youngest group of kids at their private school.
After the earthquake, what were these people supposed to do, moving forward, and how could they?
After about a year, we started asking some of the people down in Haiti, “Are you interested in having a future? Would you like to go to the coastline, Jacmel, and learn about tourism? We’ll put your kids in private school.” Jacmel, in the time of Napoleon, was called the pearl of the Caribbean. It was one of the biggest stopping ports in the early 1800s. You revitalize this place and you attract tourism, and you could turn the whole country around. That’s when it became what our mission statement is all about, to empower. Those people who moved from a tent city to a temporary village—which was made of durable, recyclable materials—they stayed in that village for about a year. And then a tropical storm came and leveled that whole village. So we put the people back in permanent homes immediately. The foundation pays the rents for these people for one year at a time, and in exchange all of the kids have to go to school and the parents have to go out and look for jobs. So we would just pay their rents, and that way we could hold the family accountable—we’re not going to pay rent next year unless your kid is in school every day and unless you do something with your life.
It must feel good to be making such a difference so quickly.
Our foundation is a very small charity and certainly isn’t going to take any credit for changing the whole country. But what it can do is that out of all of the people we sponsor, maybe five or 10 of those kids can become real leaders one day.
Children put their colorful handprints on the walls of the local community center, which was renovated by The Paradise Fund, an HEM supporter.
Economics and social issues are a huge problem, but the environment has taken such a hit as well.
There are also the ecological problems. There is so much deforestation. So many trees have been cut down and exported. That’s created some major ecological messes. There’s a river in Jacmel that back in the day would flow like a waterfall in Hawaii; it would empty out and the bay would be like blue water. Now that river picks up all of the trash from Port-au-Prince and it all spits out into the bay of Jacmel. So it’s disgusting and it spreads disease.
There’s still so much to be done, but you’ve really already impacted so many lives.
These are my people. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I walked away from them. My job is to see that all of those kids end up, in the worst-case scenario, being hotel managers when they graduate from high school. We’ve already started to arrange college scholarships for some of the students, sponsored by specific people who live in Aspen and South Beach. So when that student graduates high school, he’ll go to college in the United States. But he signs a contract here that he’s going to go back to Haiti. The whole point of it is that they’ll come back to Jacmel extremely educated.
photography by seth browarnik