By Morgan Kroll
In late 2022, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina J. Mohammed, addressed the U.N. Security Council about the “deepening crisis of unprecedented scale and complexity” in Haiti. Residents of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, have experienced generations of inadequate access to food, healthcare, education, and more. Most recently, crime in areas like Port-au-Prince has exploded, as violent gangs have roiled the city.
“Now is certainly not the time for the world to turn away from Haiti,” said Mohammed. “It is time to step up and turn the current crisis into an opportunity for Haiti to bounce back stronger.”
A group of people across Nashville and beyond, many part of the Vanderbilt community, have stepped up. For 2 decades, the Cathedral of the Incarnation’s Haiti Mission, just blocks from campus on West End, has partnered with St. Jean Baptiste Parish in the agricultural community of La Vallée-de-Jacmel in southeastern Haiti. The 2 parishes have collaborated to support La Vallée through education, business developments, dental and medical care, and more.
Haiti Mission’s business investment arm, St. Jean Capital, is directed by Vanderbilt alumnus Mike Murphy (BE’97); and Owen Alumni Board member Caroline Frisbee (MBA’06) and her husband Selden Frisbee (MBA’06) serve as advisors. St. Jean Capital’s goal is to educate the future business leaders of Haiti so that they in turn will work to improve the lives of their fellow Haitians. Murphy and the Frisbees taught a boot camp in La Vallée in 2019 to young entrepreneurs to help them learn the fundamentals of developing a small business. From this boot camp, St. Jean Capital selected 2 businesses to fund—a bakery and a poultry business—with the goal of generating profits, creating local jobs, and providing needed goods. Investments in Haiti, like St. Jean Capital’s, are scarce. According to the World Bank foreign investment, there was only about $51 million in 2021, whereas more than $3.1 billion was invested in the neighboring Dominican Republic during the same period.
The Frisbees became involved with St. Jean Capital after hearing its founder—Tom Cigarran—ask the Cathedral of the Incarnation’s congregation to consider partnering with the people of Haiti.
“Tom said, ‘You either have time, talent, or treasure—surely one of those can connect you with this program,’” recalls Caroline. “And we said, ‘We’re in.’”
Cigarran is co-owner of the Nashville Predators, co-founder and former CEO of healthcare companies Healthways and AmSurg, and he previously served on Owen’s Board of Visitors and Health Care Advisory Board. For decades he has spearheaded Haiti Mission’s efforts, including through its secondary school in the village of Musac—the Institut Paroissial D’Education et de Promotion Humaines (IPEPH). Ninety percent of IPEPH graduates are the first in their families to have a high school degree.
“Tom sees that we have these wonderful students who are graduating and need business opportunities—and he’s starting that cycle by creating jobs,” says Selden Frisbee.
Today IPEPH is among the best schools in Haiti, with students scoring in the top 10 percent of national exams, and many go on to attend top universities.
“What we need,” says Cigarran, “are people who want to get involved and help our graduates learn how to run a business. They are committed to improving their country.”
Haiti Mission’s educational focus also includes a leadership development program launched in 2019 by Vanderbilt alumnae Susan Douglas (MS’93) (PhD’99) Associate Professor of the Practice of Human Development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development; and Leanne Gossels (MEd’19) who was her student at the time.
“Our driving principles were to create a local and sustainable growth model. We don’t want to swoop in and provide one-time services,” says Douglas.
The eventual goal is to have all IPEPH students attend the leadership program.
Douglas’s friend Kathy Hall, DDS, introduced her to the Haiti Mission project. Hall, along with Wes Ely, the Grant W. Liddle Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and founding co-director of the Critical Illness, Brain Dysfunction and Survivorship Center, have provided dental and medical care, respectively, in Haiti for years.
“When the earthquake hit in 2010, we asked, ‘How can we be of service?’” says Ely. “The Ministry of Health provided us with vaccines for thousands of Haitians for years. Then Covid hit and everything came to a halt.”
When safety conditions improve, Ely hopes to resume his work there with a focus on not only preventative care but also critical care.
Haiti Mission’s myriad programs are a source of hope and promise for many facing challenging times. As Father Simon Francois of St. Jean Baptiste Parish in La Vallée explains, Haiti’s situation is more complex than what you see in media reports: “There are many places where people, as human beings, are fighting day after day for a better life.”