Haiti relief organizations gather in Pittsburgh to cooperate

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Today, for the first time, representatives of more than 30 Pittsburgh groups working toward Haiti relief and rebuilding will be meeting in one room.

They are gathering at a symposium at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Oakland to talk about ways they can more effectively partner together.

"When we decided collectively that we wanted to do this, we were warned by some that it might be a difficult sell, since there's so much competition for dollars and attention," said Cindy Tilson, a spokeswoman for the symposium, which evolved after several service trips by Ms. Tilson, Marian Allen and Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom.

Ms. Tilson, a retired nurse anesthetist and community activist, did a Web search of all the Pittsburgh groups that work in Haiti and then contacted them.

"I was surprised that there was not only interest, but great interest," she said. "Most people said they wished someone had thought of this a lot sooner."

Some of those attending are well-established organizations that have spent decades in Haiti: Hopital Albert Schweitzer, Friends of Hopital Albert Schweitzer and Brother's Brother Foundation have been active on the island since post-World War II. Others are somewhat newer: the GSPIA Center for Disaster Management, Friends of Haiti, Hearts for the Hungry, Medwish, Pittsburgh Kids Foundation, Pittsburgh Regional Haiti Thomas Merton Center's Solidarity Committee and Surtab (One Tablet Per Haitian).

Also participating is Haitian Families First, founded by Jamie and Ali McMutrie, two sisters from Ben Avon who persuaded Gov. Ed Rendell to lead a rescue 54 children living in an orphanage after the 2010 earthquake. Haitian Families First, which tries to keep biological families together, will be represented by Vivian Lee Croft, operations director at the nonprofit's Pittsburgh office. The McMutrie sisters are currently working in Haiti, she said.

Another group, Building Goodness Foundation, a Charlottesville, Va.-based group that uses volunteers from the construction industry to build homes, medical clinics and community centers on the island, is not only going to send a representative to the conference but is strongly considering establishing a branch in Pittsburgh, Ms. Allen added.

One motivating factor behind the symposium, added Ms. Tilson, was what she and colleagues saw on their service visits to Haiti: individual and collective acts of assistance aimed at making the island, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, self -sustaining.

Ms. Tilson of Shadyside is working to establish a sewing center and ongoing curriculum in a girl's orphanage. She noted that one participant, Ian Rosenberger, "represents a new wave of non-governmental organizations who wrap their minds around sustainable projects rather than throwing money at them."

Mr. Rosenberger, 32, helped raise money after the Port-Au-Prince earthquake to bring Tassy Fils-aime to Pittsburgh for lifesaving surgery. He is not only the founder of Team Tassy, a service organization, but also has started Thread, based in East Liberty. With 26 recycling centers in Haiti, Thread takes trash from the streets and converts it into fabric, then sells it to apparel companies trying to become more socially responsible.

Ms. Allen of Point Breeze has led groups of volunteers in medical and development missions to Haiti. She said she was encouraged in her Haiti work by Rodef Shalom's Rabbi Aaron Bisno, who has repeatedly urged her and other members of the community to have "courageous conversations ... where we seek to cooperate rather than compete."

Mackenzie Carpenter; mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.

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