By Jennifer McManamay
Sally Haas ’72 gave up a successful estate planning business to serve the people of Haiti. She used to help clients, many of them elderly, manage their wealth. Now her first priority is making sure children in remote villages live past toddlerhood.
According to UNICEF, even before the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, nearly a third of children younger than 5 were chronically malnourished. More than half the deaths in children of that age were due to malnutrition.
If a child makes it to 3 healthy and well nourished, Haas’ next objective is getting him or her into school. For years, she has funded tuition for 65 children at St. Alban in the mountain village of Crochu. More than 90 percent of the country’s primary schools are privately run by charitable organizations, churches, nongovernmental organizations or for-profit centers, with little government funding or oversight. Those who do attend public schools typically live in urban areas.
Haas also has distributed ceramic water purification filter systems to 200 homes and started a goat farm in Titanyen, near the capital Port-au-Prince. Adding a chicken coop to provide meat and eggs is next. Lack of protein in the Haitian diet is a significant health issue, especially for children.
Haas works through the Haiti Mission, which she initially established in 2002 through Peachtree Christian Church in Atlanta, where she is a member. Since 2004 she has directed it under the umbrella nonprofit Mission for Biblical Literacy.
Partnering with the MBL allows her to continue receiving tax-deductible donations to fund these programs. Each one is targeted at defeating the kind of poverty she couldn’t even imagine before her first visit to the Caribbean nation.
After 11 years and 18 trips, the Haitians call her “Mamá Sallé.” Haas, who is single, often says she never had children — in the United States. In Haiti, she has hundreds.
Climbing the ladder
The moment Haas went “all Haiti” probably happened on the plane home that first time, but her story was years in the making.
She recalls studying at lot during her time at Sweet Briar. Even before she arrived, Dean Catherine Sims insisted she pass a test to be allowed into the French course Haas wanted to take. Sims was steering her toward Spanish, but Haas, who had studied French at her Atlanta high school, persisted, blissfully unaware she was signing up for a literature class.
She endured the first C she’d ever received on a test in that class, as well as frequent summonses to the dean’s office, where she depleted the Kleenex supply. Ultimately, she earned an A — along with Sims’ grudging admiration.
Haas graduated with an A.B. in math and corresponded with the dean for years. She regrets the one letter she didn’t send, though.
“I never let her know that after 35 years I finally realized why I just had to take French: It is the formal language in Haiti.”
Haas sold real estate after graduating, although she chose not to work for her family’s well-established firm, Haas & Dodd Realty. Next, she managed a new hotel restaurant before becoming the hotel’s sales manager. Although proud of what she’d accomplished, restlessness pushed her to try something new at Hewlett-Packard.
She thrived at the computer company, claiming the No.1 technical sales spot in the southern states in her second year. Her rapid ascension to district and regional sales management landed her in Woman and Glamour magazines in 1983 and 1984, and Sweet Briar featured her in 1989.
In 1993, after 15 years, she left Hewlett-Packard to start her firm, Haas & Associates. Business was good in 2001 when a little girl came bounding into her life and completely changed its course.
‘A huge reversal’
Haas was volunteering at an Atlanta children’s hospital when she met 18-month-old Linose through Childspring International. The Haitian girl was there to have a tumor removed from her lower eyelid. Linose took one look at Haas and leapt into her lap.
“I was a goner,” says Haas, who brought the girl home with her to recover after the surgery.
But when Childspring International tried to recruit her for a trip to Haiti six months later, she hesitated. The last leg of the trip required landing a single-prop plane on an island beach strip, she recalls. “I thought, ‘I don’t think so. Let me just write you a check.’ ”
She decided to go anyway and saw the one-room mud hut where Linose, her twin sister, parents and grandmother live with no electricity and no running water. Access to clean water and sanitation is limited throughout the country.
According to the United Nations, 26 percent of rural households have running water. Haas discovered many Haitians walk for miles to collect a single bucket of water.
“I cried all the way home,” she says, her voice breaking again with the memory. “I never felt such a huge reversal in my life as I felt after coming back from Haiti.”
On that trip, Haas met Father Fritz Valdema, an Episcopal priest, and his wife, Carmel, a nurse. They look after six villages, each one with a church, a school and a nutrition clinic. They told her Haiti needed doctors, medicine, milk and vitamins for the women and children who were dying every day.
“And bring friends so they can see our needs,” Carmel Valdema told her.
For two years, Haas returned every three months with a medical team, including OB-GYNs, to conduct women’s clinics, which continue today.
Then she began to focus on nutrition, clean water and schooling.
Haas first heard of Plumpy’Nut on “60 Minutes.” She says the shelf-stable, ready-to-use peanut paste does in six weeks what used to take months with a powdered milk formula: return a severely malnourished baby with protruding ribs back to health.
Mothers walk to the clinics weekly for a fresh supply, bringing back the empty package to prove they didn’t sell it. Haas supplies the Plumpy’Nut to the clinics overseen by the Valdemas, knowing where the mission’s money is going and how it’s being used.
Families in the nutrition program at Crochu also receive FilterPure water purifiers and training on how to use them. The ceramic filter and bucket systems cost $47 each.
The mission is working to expand that critical program, but Haas’ next project is drilling a well. Already completed is a school cafeteria in Croix-des-Bouquets that serves hot rice and beans to 200 children daily. Members of her church funded the construction.
Over the years, Haas has hosted many Haitian children in Atlanta, including Linose and her twin, Lena, in 2009. She never tires of seeing them flush a toilet for the first time, squeal when she puts them in the shower or switch the lights off and on over and over again.
“It’s not that Haiti has less than we have or that their children have less than our children,” she says. “Haiti has nothing.”
Making the leap
Her experience has changed the way Haas thinks about everything. She even stopped eating out for two years.
“Spending twenty, thirty dollars or, heaven forbid, more on food just for me made me ill, knowing I could save a child’s life with that money,” she says.
“Friends had to tell me often that I was ‘all Haiti’ and needed to get back to a somewhat more normal life. I do dine out now, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about how incredibly fortunate we are.”
Haas, who was recognized last year with a humanitarian award for her work, thinks often about boarding that first plane to Haiti. It takes a leap of faith to stop saying “no,” but the payoff is great, she says.
“I climbed the corporate ladder but something was still missing. It feels really good to do something that fulfills you, and this has been it for me. It is more rewarding than any job I’ve ever gotten paid to do.”