Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Mary Sue Carlson, Raising Haiti Foundation

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Dr. Mary Sue Carlson is the Executive Director of the Raising Haiti Foundation, an organization that funds various development programs in rural Haiti. Additionally, Raising Haiti Foundation has worked to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Medor, Haiti and 129 other Haiti communities. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Dr. Carlson about her experience with the certificate program and the accomplishments of her organization.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion, what inspired you to pursue a career in international development?

Carlson: I didn’t initially choose a career in international development. I went to Georgetown Medical School, did my internship and ophthalmology residency at Georgetown, and then worked for 28 years as a general ophthalmologist for Kaiser Permanente in Falls Church, VA. A little over 20 years ago I joined Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church’s Haiti Committee. The church has had a twinning relationship with St. Joseph parish in Medor, Haiti since 1997. Shortly after joining the committee I went to Haiti for the first time, and then I became the chair of the church’s Haiti Committee, a position I still hold. Our church helps sponsor 3,000 children to attend school in Medor. Each student receives a school lunch, for some students this is their main source of nourishment. Our Lady Queen of Peace also supports agroforestry, clean water, and sanitation programs in our twin parish.

Medor’s location is so remote that it cannot be reached by 4-wheel drive vehicle. Everyone must  hike or ride a mule to get there. Having been to Medor over 30 times, I have formed close relationships with some of the people there.

In 2017, I retired from my job as a general ophthalmologist at Kaiser so I could have more time to work with the people of Haiti. It was then that I accepted the volunteer position as Executive Director of Raising Haiti Foundation, in addition to my Haiti work though our church. I hoped that Raising Haiti Foundation would be able to sponsor similar programs as those in Medor for many other Haitian communities. Over the years I have become more and more inspired by the people of Haiti. Approximately 65% of Haitians live below the poverty line. They have been dealt a tough hand in so many ways , and I am in awe by how they adapt.

CPNL: Since leaving the certificate program, what work have you done that you are most proud of?

Carlson: I am really excited about what Raising Haiti Foundation has been able to do recently to try to combat the pandemic in Haiti. We received several grants, allowing us to sponsor COVID-19 prevention training in 130 rural Haitian communities, many of which have limited access to the internet, TVs, radios, and newspapers. It is difficult or impossible for many in these communities to receive accurate information; rumors abound. COVID prevention training was crucial. This is how it worked: A community leader assembled nine other community members in one location, where they remained socially distant and wore masks. The community leader had a cell phone that he put on speaker mode when he called a physician in Port au Prince. The doctor discussed the recommendations for COVID-19 prevention, and then answered questions. The people who received direct training from the physician then went door to door in their own communities to spread the word. Through this system 57,500 people learned how to protect themselves and their families from the virus.

The communities that were trained have no running water, making handwashing difficult. The grants allowed Raising Haiti Foundation to provide handwashing stations, bleach to purify the water, soap, masks, and food to feed the sick. While we do not have a way to access the success of the COVID-19 prevention program and do not know if it saved lives, we have been informed that as of September 24, 2020 the 74 square mile community of Medor has not had anyone contract the virus. Is that because the area is really remote? Maybe. But perhaps the training  and handwashing stations played a role in these excellent results.

Raising Haiti Foundation’s current thrust supports a “tree currency program”, empowering small-holder farmers to tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals of ending poverty, food insecurity, gender inequality and climate change. Over one-third of Haiti’s population are small-holder farmers, living and working on family plots that are less than 5 acres. The tree currency program helps the community build a tree nursery. People work in the nursery tending the trees and transplanting them on the degraded hillsides. In exchange, participants earn ‘tree credits’ which can be redeemed for crop seeds, training on improved agricultural techniques, as well as farming tools. Most Haitian smallholder farmers are impoverished. It is not unusual for families to have to sell their only goat to buy a hoe to work in their gardens. So earning seeds, tools, and training helps them increase their crop harvests by 40%. And because there are fewer expenses, family incomes increase by 50-100%. Raising Haiti Foundation is supporting tree currency programs in several communities, and is hoping to expand that program. Since women participate equally in the program, it helps support gender equity.

Raising Haiti Foundation has also sponsored university scholarships for 19 students. For a small organization, it is exciting to see the impact we have been able to make. But there is so much more to accomplish!

CPNL: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on health systems and health services. In what ways has your organization adapted to these changes, and are there any specific initiatives or programs that Raising Haiti has started?

Carlson: We just received another grant, in support of a new program to help address the pandemic exacerbated food crisis in Haiti. The funds will enhance seed banks in 21 communities, providing high quality seeds to farmers, allowing them to grow more food. We will also provide food vouchers for locally produced food for people in such a dire position that they don’t have enough food to wait until the next harvest. We will fund the purchase of water pumps for two communities with limited access to water for crop growing. We are also helping support the analysis of data collected by a recently conducted national food survey, looking at type, quantity, and location of crops, with the hope that the resulting data will attract large donors to empower Haiti’s smallholder farmers to significantly increase crop production throughout the country.

CPNL: Raising Haiti’s work focuses on grassroots organization, developing human resources, and creating economic opportunity, or the 3 Leg model. How did you go about creating this framework, and what lessons have you learned from the model?

Carlson: The components of the 3LEGS model for community development include:
Grassroots organization, empowering communities to take wealth generation into their own hands (leg 1),
Higher education and local training to develop human resources (leg 2),
Economic opportunity improving lives of community members (leg 3).

Raising Haiti Foundation does not take credit for the model because these three components of community development have been addressed by other organizations in other countries. We came up with the name 3LEGS because three-legged stools are common in rural Haiti, as is the Haitian metaphor that a stool cannot stand without three legs. 3LEGS is the perfect name for our work, as we strive to empower rural Haitian communities with the three essential legs of community sustainability. 

CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?

Carlson: As a physician, I had very little training in business management, marketing, finance or accounting. I had never served on a board. I knew little about the nonprofit world. I started as the volunteer Executive Director of Raising Haiti Foundation in 2017 because no one else would accept the position. Georgetown’s Nonprofit Certificate Program helped me learn about the role of an executive director and about nonprofit governance. It helped me grow into my position at Raising Haiti Foundation.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?

Carlson: The Certificate Program is a great way to learn, to open your mind to new things, to meet new people. I really loved the capstone project at the end of the program. For my project I interviewed each of the 19 students that Raising Haiti Foundation was sponsoring at the Haitian university, University of Fondwa, as well as with some of the professors. It was wonderful to spend time with each of them, learning about their families, and their goals and aspirations. The project led to personal connections with the students and professors, allowing the formation of friendships that are still being nurtured through regular communication. The capstone project helped me increase my awareness and empathy. I was always dedicated to the work in Haiti; I have been for the past 20 years, but the relationships that began through the capstone project heightened my awareness on a more personal level.