Daniel Tillias, a Haitian with a big heart and a long-time ally of the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, was recently named one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year, honoring “everyday people doing extraordinary things to change the world.”
In Cite Soleil, one of the poorest and most chaotic sections of Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, Tillias runs a community center and oversees the largest urban garden in Haiti, offering an oasis to hundreds of neighborhood children who might otherwise be living on the brink of despair.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to hope. I’m very privileged,” said Tillias, who recently visited Middle Tennessee and his friends at St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro. “I know a lot of people who haven’t.”
Haiti’s near-constant battle against poverty, natural disaster and corruption has left the nation’s children in a precarious position. “Hope is the last thing they cannot afford to lose,” he said.
And so Tillias works every day to spread hope to the children of Haiti, through sports, education, and gardening. “I can feel the hope of people raising in the garden,” he said.
Behind the walls of SAKALA, his community center in Cite Soleil, Tillias helps children plant tomatoes and beans in burned-out tires that have been transformed into thriving container gardens. He encourages children to listen to birds as they cool off under the shade of maturing trees.
“My ministry in Cite Soliel is quite inspired by St. Rose,” Tillias said. When he was first establishing SAKALA in 2006, on the site of a former landfill, St. Rose and members of the Murfreesboro community supported him with seed money and donations of sports equipment. With help from them, “we got the right resources to make a difference,” he said.
Years later, when St. Rose Parish wanted to start a garden with their sister parish, Notre Dame de la Merci Parish in Robillard, Haiti, in the rural north of the country, they knew they wanted Tillias involved. He had worked as a translator and companion to St. Rose’s mission trips for many years and had become close with parishioners. His knowledge of local plants and the community of Robillard made him a natural fit for the project.
“We’re trying to switch our focus to sustainability and have St. Rose step back,” said Barbara Willour, who has been involved with St. Rose’s Haiti ministry for many years.
They recently helped the people of Notre Dame de la Merci establish a pig farming enterprise, starting with a few families raising a few pigs, with the idea that the effort will expand as the pigs reproduce and are passed on to new families in need.
“I hope I could see more of this, creating economic opportunity for people in the villages,” Tillias said. “To me that is where the future is.”
The way Tillias see it, if more Haitians in the countryside could envision a viable future through farming and growing their own food, it could truly transform the country. “It could bring back life and hope in remote areas that are ignored by the government,” he said. “If Haiti is feeding its people, that’s a gigantic step.”
Haitians in the countryside raising crops and livestock, and using them as currency, are embracing the concept of “kombit,” a Creole word that describes a collaborative effort of members of the community exchanging goods and services without cash. “The pigs are like a banking system,” Tillias explained.
“It’s very important that we have the next generation who understand there is a lot of potential of gardening,” Tillias said. Even though the school garden in Robillard has only been established for a year, Tillias already sees it making an impact. School staff can incorporate fresh produce into mid-day meals, essential nutrition for children who walk up to four miles a day to and from school.
Tillias hears more about children who are working alongside their parents in family gardening plots, when they had no interest in that before the school garden started. “So we are seeing kids engaged in farming again,” he said.
One eager student “found his niche” in the garden and “now he thinks he’s an agronomist,” Tillias said. “Somehow he got my cell phone number and he wants to call and tell me everything,” he said with a laugh.
Haiti’s problems can seem overwhelming, especially with the recent unrest, marked by sometimes violent street demonstrations. Tillias, a strong believer in non-violence who formerly worked for Pax Christi, the Catholic peace movement, said he understands why people are rising up. “Children need access to the basics in Haiti,” and right now they face so many challenges to that, said Tillias, a father of two.
When the dust settles from the latest flare-up in Haiti, programs with long-term investments in the country, like the Parish Twinning Program, and the work of local “Heroes” like Tillias will continue to make a difference.
The twinning program, he said, “is a great foundation for sustainability.” He gives the example of parishes who originally brought large medical mission teams into the country but have since shifted to putting more resources into permanent clinics and paying salaries of Haitian health workers.
Tillias also notes that “the parishes doing the best in education are the ones twinned with parishes in the U.S. Without the program, kids might not be going to school.”
Back in Cite Soleil, Tillias remains hard at work to reach the children who might not have a safe place to go without SAKALA. They might never be exposed to the idea of growing their own food. They might not have the seeds of hope they now do. In the CNN Heroes profile video on Tillias, he described the children he serves with great hope: “I see these kids with potential … with their wings hiding in the back, waiting to fly.”