Fields of grass, soup kitchens at risk in Haiti

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On the edge of a ruined city of concrete and tin, fallen walls reveal what for decades was a hidden refuge: a field of well-trimmed grass.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — On the edge of a ruined city of concrete and tin, fallen walls reveal what for decades was a hidden refuge: a field of well-trimmed grass.

This patch of green, hand cut with machetes, is one of two owned by the nonprofit Haitian sports academy L’Athletique D’Haiti. For nearly 16 years before the Jan. 12 earthquake, the organization used its nearly 40 acres to provide free training, education, meals and medical care. Now add housing to the list: it has 2,000 homeless families on its fields under blue tents and ragged tarps.

The soccer pitches and running tracks in the destitute Cite Soleil slum are a physical embodiment of the grassroots aid experts say is needed in Haiti — an example of Haitians helping themselves. Yet despite the billions donated to Haiti after the disaster, L’Athletique and many other small groups are scrambling to stay afloat amid crushing demand. Less than 15 percent of the $4.7 billion pledged for 2010-11 at the U.N. donors conference in March has been disbursed, along with some debt relief, and donors tend to prefer large, known groups to small community ones.

"I’ll tell you, at one point in time I thought to myself, ‘This is it. We’re done,’" said L’Athletique director Robert Duval, as boys dribbled white soccer balls in the late summer sun. "I was thinking the country was done."

Community groups that provide help to overlooked or rural neighborhoods say foreign governments and international donors have failed to support them.

"The large charities have a lot of money in their bank accounts that’s not getting spent in Haiti," said Melinda Miles of the Haiti Response Coalition, a consortium of local groups that banded together after the quake. "To be honest with their donors, and really be accountable to the Haitians whose names they used to raise the money, they need to put it into Haitian-led plans."

Miles’ group, KONPAY, provides environmental and food support to the quake-ravaged southeast through tree planting, seed distribution and other programs. The group quickly spent the modest donations it received for immediate earthquake relief, and is now struggling to fund its $200,000-a-year budget, she said.

Others are in worse shape. Deeper into Cite Soleil, a group called the Movement of Action for Development has been providing food and art workshops for 400 children and adult women since 2004, but the nonprofit recognized by the Haitian government has never been able to get international funding. Unable to cope with demand, it shut down its food kitchen in the chronically malnourished district.

"I looked for funds everywhere in the international community and local government and nobody responded to help me," said its founder, Dolcine Marie Josette.

Through July, the American Red Cross had spent a third of the $480 million it raised for Haiti after the quake. Country spokeswoman Julie Sell said that pace is a result of careful auditing and an effort not to dump money blindly on unproven projects. The organization supports some Haiti-based organizations, such as the nationwide microfinance bank Fonkoze, but avoids those it deems unviable.

"They may be doing fantastic work but sometimes it’s not something that’s sustainable," she said.

Duval says his group’s small scale helps it quickly sort through problems. While the government and major nonprofits struggle to clear rubble across the capital, Duval paid people to dump 20 cubic yards of debris on one of his soccer fields to help improve drainage.

More importantly, L’Athletique has helped thousands of children like 13-year-old Esther Frederique. The tall girl with braids learned to sprint and race in the grassy field, her shelter from the violence of the surrounding slum.

The quake hit late on a Tuesday afternoon. The shockwave blasted through the field where Esther and friends were training, throwing them to the ground. For days, the capital was a mess of dust clouds, bodies and chaos.

But within days many children began returning to the field, looking for friends and mentors. Their families soon followed.

"I wanted to be closer to where Esther trains," said her mother, Thenante Sylvain, holding her youngest baby outside the nest of plastic sheeting where the family of seven lives. "Besides, we had nowhere else to go."

Duval, who was in Washington, raced back and threw himself into getting the organization running again. Within a month, classes resumed.

Thanks in large part to Duval’s fluent English and media savvy, an influx of foreign volunteers and money kept L’Athletique’s $30,000-a-year program running. Its renown helped too: Its alumni fill Haiti’s national soccer league and do well in youth tournaments around the world.

But its future is uncertain. Walls that once kept out bandits are gone. A volunteer died in the quake; at least 11 more in a bus crash on cracked highways a few months later. Its students, many of whom have lost parents or friends, are deeply traumatized, their families struggling more than ever just to eat.

And Duval says post-quake land speculators are trying to force the program off the property to make way for reconstruction projects.

As is often the case in Haiti, there are competing claims for the property on which L’Athletique has operated for nearly two decades. Duval, once a human rights activist imprisoned by the ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, has refused to move. In July, he was detained under a court order from the competing landowner by a judge and police firing shotguns in the air. But he was released within an hour, as families of his students protested outside the justice of the peace, and no charges have been leveled since.

For Esther and her friends, L’Athletique is a lifeline. Each day she walks the short distance from the family tent to running practice, winding around pools of standing water in flip flops, shorts and her training shirt. She carries a change of clothes in a little black purse, and practices starting, pacing and racing techniques all in bare feet.

Students are required to be in school to participate in the program, so for those who cannot afford Haiti’s expensive and mostly private institutions, it provides classes for free. She also gets what is often her only meal of the day.

Esther and her friends were on the field when the police came. She said the incident made her parents eager to find a permanent home, but she’ll keep coming back to train. "We like it here," she said.

Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this story.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Photo Caption: In this Sept. 16 picture, people attend soccer practice at the sports complex L’Athletique D’Haiti in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. On the edge of a ruined city of concrete and tin, fallen walls reveal what for years was a hidden refuge: a field of well-trimmed grass. It is a physical embodiment of the grassroots aid experts say is needed in Haiti _ yet despite the billions donated to Haiti after the earthquake, the athletic club that runs the field and many other small groups are scrambling to stay afloat. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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