Michael Taylor, a dermatologist with a masters in public health, had volunteered internationally before, providing care to people in the developing world, but felt unsatisfied. He questioned the value of having foreign doctors come into a community for a short time, provide care, then leave without ensuring a health system is in place for patients in need tomorrow, the next day, and into the future. "There must be a better way to use the resources and talent of the Greater Portland community to make a difference," he remembers thinking. Dr. Taylor and his wife, Wendy Taylor, found others with similar experiences and beliefs and they began planning.In 2000, a group of like-minded people in the Portland, Maine area came together to discuss their shared desire to volunteer in a long-term and ongoing way somewhere in the developing world in order to contribute to the sustainable amelioration of health care. Co-Founder
Several different communities in countries around the world were considered, but in late fall of 2001 after a site visit, the community of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti was chosen. Why? First, the needs in Haiti are tremendous. Haiti's health statistics are dismal, a reflection of the fact that the majority of the population lives in extreme poverty. Second, Haiti is not too far away from Maine, making frequent travel back and forth manageable. Third and perhaps most important, the site visit team was introduced to the Justinian University Hospital and found that the administration and staff there were open to and interested in developing the type of on-going supportive relationship that the team was looking to create. This was key because at the foundation of this organization is the belief that in order to help create lasting change in Haiti, it is necessary for outsiders such as ourselves to work in partnership to build the capacity of the existing Haitian heath system instead of creating a parallel system. Our mission therefore was chosen to be: to support the development of a sustainable health care system to meet the needs of the Cap-Haïtien community with maximum local direction and support.
The selection of our name followed. Konbit Sante Cap-Haïtien Health Partnership, was specially chosen to reflect our choice of Cap-Haïtien and to demonstrate our respect for and friendship with the people of Cap-Haïtien and the dedicated local professionals who serve them. Konbit is a Creole word describing a traditional Haitian method of working together to till your friends' fields as well as your own. Sante, in Creole, means health.
Dr. Michel Pierre was hired for this position and we also hired a part-time administrator to handle payroll, bookkeeping, and other logistics. Another milestone was reached in 2003 when Portland, Maine and Cap-Haitien, Haiti became official Sister Cities. We initiated this process based on the belief that broadening community support and involvement will have synergistic benefits for the people of both communities.From those humble beginnings, the partnership grew and deepened. We worked with our partners to assess the needs and identify needed supplies. In November 2002 we sent our first sea container of donated materials and supplies. Very quickly it became clear that we needed an on-site leader, coordinator, and educator to provide continuity to our efforts and advance our goals in between volunteer visits. With this in mind we raised funds and recruited for our our first employee, a Haitian internist. In April 2003,
Over the years as our ties and understandings grew stronger, the model for how we work and the scope of what we do has continued to evolve. From strictly clinical initiatives, we branched out into infrastructure projects, after recognizing, for example, the limitations on increasing infection control without supplying the hospital with water. Similarly, while our initial partnership began at Justinian Hospital, we realized the need to expand our involvement beyond the tertiary care level to the community health level in order to promote disease prevention and foster appropriate connections between these elements of the public health system. Thus in 2003 we formed a partnership with Fort St. Michel Health Center.
With each passing year our Haiti staff has continued to grow. At present we have over thirty in-country employees - ranging from community health workers, to nurses, to doctors, to stock managers, to electrical technicians - all embedded within the structure the public institutions with whom we partner. On the U.S. side, the first staff were hired in 2005, when it became apparent that the seriousness of our objectives and the depth and breadth of our involvement was too much for an all-volunteer group to coordinate. Over the years the U.S. contribution has remained staff lean and volunteer heavy, with U.S. staff only recently increasing to four people.
After nearly a decade of working in Cap-Haitien, we at Konbit Sante are proud say that the Haitian Ministry of Health sees us as a primary partner for the northern department. This was made clear when, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck in January 2010, we were appointed to be the NGO partner on the Health Commission for the north. This humbling honor served as an affirmation of our choices to focus on one specific geographic area, stay true to our values, and develop deep relationships over time. In a climate where international NGO groups often come into communities for a short period of time and then leave, our effort to be something different - a true konbit - has been noted and appreciated. We vow to keep working on our mission to help develop a sustainable health care system until Haitians are able to get the care they need and deserve.