Sowing Hope: Cultivating the Future Gardeners of Haiti

By Michelle Koch / Photography By Michelle Koch & Pat Tortora | May 01, 2015
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Pat and Vivian Tortora
Pat and Vivian Tortora of Bethany Seasons.

Thirty-four years of hands-on outreach to Haiti has led Vivian and Pat Tortora of Brewster to one of their most enduring missions yet: lessening the malnutrition that orphaned children and young adults face by empowering them with the knowledge to grow their own produce.

Involved in some way with the people of Haiti since 1981, the Tortoras were introduced to the country after speaking with a friend, Tom McDavitt, about developing nations and social justice. A social studies teacher at the Bourne Middle School, McDavitt himself became involved after attending college with a Haitian student. Although McDavitt passed away in 2008, the Cape Cod Canalwalk for Haiti that he instituted in 1977 has been held every Good Friday since, with the walk now in its 39th year.

McDavitt told Pat Tortora, then a high school guidance counselor, “You can sure help me fundraise, but first, you really need to visit. You need to see Haiti for yourself.”

“So my wife and I, and another couple who were friends of ours, Frank and Joan Fayne, jumped on board,” says Pat. “We all joined him on his next visit to Haiti.” Vivian adds, “As soon as we saw, we just knew.”

From the beginning, their focus was on families with physically- or cognitively-challenged children, and they concentrated on two orphanages. While both working full-time in the States, the couple tried to send financial assistance as often as they could, and to volunteer each year for a few weeks.

Their fundraising blossomed by uniquely connecting the pair’s love of gardening, vegetables and herbs to their efforts. Beginning in 1991, the Tortoras launched a part-time business, Bethany Seasons, raising potted herbs and growing vegetables. These were sold at the Cape Cod Organic Gardeners founder Jean Iversons’ produce stand, the Kelly Barn, on Route 6A in Cummaquid for the next 14 years.

Vivian and Pat are passionate about organic growing methods and the safety of our seed supply, and they track down heirloom seeds every year, many from the Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org).

Stephanie Gould of Brewster, a student at Nauset Middle School, worked with the Tortoras to track down Plat de Haiti tomato seeds here in the States. She then grew those tomatoes, saving the seeds from the fruits. The Tortoras returned with those seeds to Haiti to reintroduce and grow the variety where it had originated. Seed historians conjecture that after the Haitian revolution of 1804, a group of young women that fled Haiti by boat and landed in the Philadelphia area may have brought the original seeds to the States.

In 1995, the Tortoras added a wholesale soap-making division, selling their soaps at Cape Cod Lavender Farm. As much as possible, the earnings from these divisions were all channeled towards their work in Haiti. “From the start,” says Vivian, “friends would give us small amounts of money, saying ‘Take this, you will know the best place to use it.’”

In 2006, the couple learned of a job opening that they decided to apply for as a team. They were accepted to share the task of helping to run a guesthouse located a few miles outside of downtown Port-au- Prince, Haiti’s capital. Most of the visitors who stayed there were involved in some capacity in aiding people in the rural areas of the country. The position’s small stipend covered only modest food costs, and provided airfare to and from Haiti. “We ended up staying nearly four years,” says Pat.

Expecting to return to the U.S. permanently at the end of 2009, the two were talked into returning for a few weeks until replacement personnel were in place.

Back in Haiti in early 2010 for their final weeks’ work, on January 10th the earthquake hit. “We were ten miles to the west of the epicenter of the quake,” says Vivian. The two pause in silence. “Our guest house was next to a soccer field, and so in moments, survivors began to arrive to stand in the wide space,” says Pat. “The building was still standing, but we were afraid of structural damage and the aftershocks, so everyone slept outside.”

“We soon became a field hospital, and slept with over 3000 other people out in the open,” says Vivian. “People in the First World were angered when they learned that some of Haiti’s medical staff abandoned the efforts, but that is because the health system is set up so very differently from ours. Everything is a small private enterprise. Before they can be treated at any facility, patients must purchase medicine and anything else required from small vendors. Most of those little houses, some just outdoor tables or carts, were destroyed in the quake. There were very little available meds and supplies with which to treat anyone.”

“Amazingly our generator and our satellite dish stayed standing and working,” says Pat. Vivian continued, “and so we tried to barter when we could to get help—once relief workers and reporters began to arrive, they would use our communications to try and help us get the most critically hurt some assistance.”

The loss of life and severity of injuries were gut wrenching to experience as was the pair’s feelings of helplessness. One of their most poignant recollections was helping a woman survive nearly a week with a crushed leg by dulling her pain with drugs available from a local animal care facility. Finally, enough gasoline was located to drive her to the mobbed downtown hospital for the amputation, but it was too late.

Pat says, “When we heard and then saw that first relief plane, we were so grateful. Finally food, antibiotics, and supplies would start to arrive. We all slept together every night under the sky. Fortunately, it was not the rainy season. Slowly, as relief aid workers would leave, they left us their tents, so we began to have some cover,” says Vivian. “We were not aware of anything else going on—were just so isolated and so intensely busy with what was right there in front of us. We stayed eight more weeks, until the end of March.”

After the earthquake, the amounts of friends’ donations increased, and they received more contributions from people they had never even met who had learned about the couple. “It made us realize that we had to become more formally accountable to all of these people and their faith in our efforts,” says Vivian. “As always, we wanted our assistance to go to Haitians who were trying to make life better in their own country.”

Therefore, in 2011, the Tortoras and their friends, the Faynes, joined with four others in forming the KareDrew Haitian Children’s Foundation, Inc. (KareDrewhaitifoundation.org) It was named to honor the memory of their daughter Karen, and Andrew, the son of the Faynes, each of whom passed away at a young age.

It is comforting to the Tortoras to be able to bring any medical assistance they can to Haiti, especially when they consider the quality of the medical care young people receive on Cape Cod, and their access to the nearby medical professionals in the Boston vicinity. “In contrast,” says Vivian, “because care and facilities are not readily available, a Haitian child can still lose their life because of simple diarrhea or a fever. “

Vivian Tortora
Vivian Tortora leads a line of children to place their seeded pots on the wicking mats.

Mattresses, truck maintenance, mosquito netting, formula for HIVpositive mothers, septic repairs and water purification systems are all ongoing projects, but perhaps the most dire need is the basic food required for the two orphanages KareDrew supports. With funds already able to support one orphanage in downtown Port au Prince, the Tortoras pinpoint their efforts toward the other more rural orphanage. Located ten miles out of the city and headed by two men who were once orphans themselves, there is tremendous need.

Nearly $4000 is sent every month to feed three basic meals a day to the directors, one hundred orphans, their teacher, and farm workers. Prices of basic necessities have skyrocketed, resulting in food riots and violent protests in past years. The scenario is complex because the food that is purchased is often shared with the teacher, the staff and the farm workers because little funding remains to pay them adequate salaries. Rice is one of the main staples.

The Tortoras became alarmed when the children’s physicians determined that many of the orphans were malnourished. “This was something I knew I could help with, I could empower them and teach even the kids to grow some vegetables,” says Vivian. Plus, if the children and young adults could erase some of their hunger by enjoying tasty food they had raised themselves, they might grow to see the value of farming as a vocation. Presently, says Vivian, it’s the doctors and professionals that are the coveted jobs. They’re not usually attainable careers for orphans who may already be developmentally years behind their peers, and without access to higher education. Happily, there is fertile flat land near the orphanage that they can lease for farming, and the tropical climate, never below 70 degrees, supports growing year round. Beans, peas, bananas, and even mangoes are now grown on the property, and enjoyed by all.

KareDrew is working with their benefactors to raise more funds for salaries so that teachers and other workers are paid fairly, as well as for implementing more stringent guidelines for their teaching staff. They will receive more effective initial training, and periodic professional development on best teaching practices.

Vivian personally wanted to give the kids some control for their destiny and their own health by hands-on raising and eating their own vegetables. She began small, by bringing organic seeds to Haiti and overseeing as each child planted them in pressed cardboard pots. She brought large squares of felt with her on each trip to use as watering pads beneath the plants. When the pads were saturated with water, each plant placed on them would pull the moisture it needed. This “wicking” method was traditionally used in many Haitian rooftop gardens, many of which were destroyed in the earthquake. As a pied piper leads her followers, so Vivian guided the children in planting small gardens near their orphanage that they could care for themselves.

Pat has also successfully set up an arts and crafts cooperative based in the Haitian guesthouse where the pair worked. Local artists are featured, with each being paid a commission on their works sold. Pat also brings luxurious wooden bowls, hand-carved of Obechee, a native Haitian wood, to the states to sell at craft fairs, returning the profits to the artists.

Word of mouth has grown KareDrew so that each year they accomplish more. The Tortoras continue to speak about their efforts to many organizations, and have presented on public radio numerous times.

To cover the costs of their own annual travel to Haiti, the Tortoras raise over 1500 tomato plants in their Brewster hoop house. They select 30-50 different varieties of non-GMO organic seeds every year, and sell the plants in spring at their booth at the Orleans Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, as well as at their neighbor’s Turtle Bog Farm stand in Brewster. Among their offerings for 2015 are 50 varieties of heirloom tomato plants in six sizes and shapes, five colors from 12 different countries. “I’ve ended up using a variation of the Haitian wicking method on our own tomato plants,” says Vivian, “and can water all of them in less than twenty minutes.”

Several years ago the pair considered not going to Haiti that year, and instead sending the travel money on for the orphanage, thinking it would do more good. But the adults they worked with in Haiti urged them to visit. So many had been feeling abandoned after the earthquake with promises made but not kept. “The money will help,” they told the pair, “but it is also important that we see you and look you in the eyes. To know that you haven’t forgotten us; to know that we are in your hearts.”

Bethany Seasons
50 Boulder Road, Brewster
mailto:vtortora@capecod.net

Tomato plants are available for sale at:
Saturday Orleans Farmers’ Market
Turtle Bog Farm stand, 298 Great Fields Road, Brewster

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