Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 8:15 pm | Fair 75º

 
 
 
 

In Aftermath of Haiti Earthquake, Dania Foundation Sees and Seizes an Opportunity

Santa Barbara team's effort builds momentum — and housing — despite challenges, cynicism

On Sept. 21, the Dania Foundation asked Ryan Shuken to go to Haiti to help the organization build houses for earthquake victims. The next day, the Santa Barbara native was on a plane bound for Port-au-Prince.

The Dania Foundation was started by Santa Barbara’s Bak family after the deadly Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that devastated the Caribbean country. The magnitude-7 quake killed more than 320,000 people and left more than 1 million people without homes or any of the amenities that Shuken calls humanitarian needs: food, water and shelter.

“The Bak family had been close family friends since high school,” Shuken told Noozhawk. “They asked me so late so I could prove my commitment to Haiti. I packed my bag and changed my Facebook status so my friends would know where I went. It was an opportunity, and you have to take advantage of opportunities.”

Shuken found unexpected resilience when he arrived.

“I told myself before I went to Haiti to get rid of all of my assumptions gathered from what I read or heard,” he recalled. “Assumptions are just going to set you back. When I landed in Haiti, my first impression was total devastation and real misery. These people had miserable lives. They were too scared to live in houses, rubble was everywhere, and there was nothing to help them survive.

“Yet in this feeling of complete devastation, I saw people out in the streets talking, selling, trading,” he said. “I saw people laughing and smiling. These people are really strong and resilient.”

Shuken, a 26-year-old graduate of Colorado College, is no stranger to international humanitarian work. During 2004-2005, he started a charity in Shanghai, teaching music to children in orphanages.

“All it cost was a $6 cab ride,” he said. “We left a donation box out. Another $6 is another day playing music with orphans.”

Shuken then moved on to Uganda, working on freshwater projects with the Uganda Village Project.

“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, and I loved every minute of it,” Shuken said. “Without difficulty, there is no growth.”

Working in Haiti, Shuken encountered plenty of challenges, from developing a structure to Dania’s mission to find food and fresh water.

“You wake up and say, ‘How many hats can I wear today?’” he said. “Am I going to be the foreman, business planner, marketer, or contractor? One of the difficulties was reining control over that. As long as you move two steps forward, (one) step back, you’re still making progress.

“We were doing something completely new and doing something in a new way. In Haiti, you spend 60 to 70 percent of your effort just trying to survive.”

During the rest of Shuken’s time in Haiti, the seven-member Dania team constructed a building to conduct operations and a house in Carrefour for Changeux Méhu, president of the Association of Owners and Drivers of Haiti. JP Folsgaard Bak, chairman of the Dania Foundation, had employed a taxi driver who had requested that a house be built for his boss, Méhu, whose home was destroyed in the earthquake.

“We’ve established ourselves in Haiti in a very unique way because we are the first organization to build a real permanent house people can live in, a platform for life in Carrefour since the earthquake,” Shuken said. “This is a home that families can exist in and move forward with. There is so much cynicism doing anything in Haiti, and we were always told that we would never accomplish anything.”

The Dania Foundation’s accomplishments have been featured on the BBC and in Danish media.

Despite the devastation he encountered when he arrived in Port-au-Prince, Ryan Shuken of the Dania Foundation says he drew inspiration from the Haitians' resilient attitudes and optimism.
Despite the devastation he encountered when he arrived in Port-au-Prince, Ryan Shuken of the Dania Foundation says he drew inspiration from the Haitians’ resilient attitudes and optimism. (Dania Foundation photo)

“We did not have elaborate plans, extreme financial backing or a board full of wisdom behind us,” Shuken said. “We said we’re going to (build houses) and learn along the way. We’ve learned through building these two houses what works and what doesn’t in Haiti. We’ve learned how best to accomplish what we really want. We’ve learned culturally, Haitians would like an indoor/outdoor kitchen. We’ve adapted to what Haitians want. That’s given us alone an unbelievable advantage.”

The Dania Foundation is a private, family-funded foundation, but Shuken sees the organization’s greater aspirations as a need for greater support.

“The Dania Foundation’s philosophy is that we are a nonprofit organization that’s focused on sustainability,” he said. “You can get money externally from donations or you can make it yourself. We think it’s best if we can sustain ourselves in the work we’re doing in Haiti. Even though, right now, we are looking for further donations to help us, this is a short-term situation for us. We don’t believe we should exist on donations in the short term.

“The prime minister of Haiti reminded us that that even though charities help, once a greater problem arises, they’re forced to change their focus from one area to another area. We don’t want to change our focus; we want to be the world’s best for providing housing in Haiti.”

Shuken hopes to improve the lives of more Haitians during his next trip to Haiti and plans to return this month. His aspirations include changing the way people donate funds to Haiti. He believes access to finance is the most important thing for Haiti right now and is hopeful that loans buy into bonds that will eventually provide a mortgage for a Haitian.

“What donations would have been originally are instead going to give the ability for someone to control their future,” he said. “Just like everyone said it’s impossible to build a house in Carrefour, we’re going to accomplish this, too.”

How can Santa Barbarans support a local’s quest to improve the lives of Haitians? Click here to make a donation through the Dania Foundation’s Web site, or call 412.749.9858 for more information. Businesses or individuals also can contact the Dania Foundation if they’d like to create a partnership with the foundation.

“We’re in the business of creating something for Haiti,” Shuken said. “We will help social entrepreneurs come to Haiti. I think the greatest benefit a Santa Barbara business can bring is involving more businesses in some way in Haiti.

“People should stop looking through media lens and see it as what it can be: an opportunity.”

Noozhawk business writer Taylor Orr can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @NoozhawkBiz, @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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