“When I lost my small business after the earthquake, I believed that life was over.”
Jolina Auguste remembers her darkest hours from a distance of more than six years. The January 2010 earthquake that decimated Haiti and killed as many as 300,000 of her fellow countrymen drove her family of four from a rental into a tent and destroyed the little boutique from which she eked out an existence selling cosmetics and soap.
Losing her livelihood caused particular concern for Auguste, who had placed great value on her self-reliance. “I will always have to ask for everything for the rest of my life,” she thought to herself at the time, as the country collectively turned to foreign relief agencies for food, water and other basics in the aftermath of the catastrophe. “It was a huge step backward.”
Auguste, a born leader, nonetheless did not give up hope, nor did she for a moment forget those around her: She organized a women’s group, and their first project was to create an orphanage for children left parentless by the quake. It was there, eight months after the disaster, that she first met a dynamic young American who arrived on the scene and offered financial assistance.
“I would rather you teach me something so that I can learn how to get a job,” Auguste told the woman plainly. “And then I can train others in my community to do the same.”
Julie Colombino, FIU class of 2003, agreed. Herself a volunteer in the days after the earthquake, she had come away from the experience keenly aware of the limited benefits of handouts. With the goal in mind of creating something sustainable, she had returned to Orlando to quit her job and sell her home before coming back to Haiti with $7,000 in cash and the determination to help in a meaningful way.
That good intention first manifested itself on August 14, 2010, when Colombino, Auguste and three other women sat on the ground beneath a tarp and, razor blades in hand, began fashioning crude flip flops out of old tires—something Colombino had seen while doing volunteer service in Africa. Not always pretty, the fruits of their labor were distributed for free to shoeless Haitians. Colombino paid the women a wage, and their little enterprise slowly took off.
Today employing 22 workers at compensation three times the Haitian national average and selling fashionable sandals internationally through the retailer Kenneth Cole, Deux Mains, or “two hands” in French, has come a long way—and so has Auguste.
Having been sent early on by Colombino to a business training program offered in Haiti, Auguste now has part stake in the company and serves as the workshop supervisor. She is the proud owner of a modest hillside home, an accomplishment made all the sweeter in that few Haitians can afford the expense of purchasing land and, in her case, the materials to build a new dwelling by hand, work that relatives pitched in to complete.
A respected member of the community who, along with her husband and their two daughters, has taken in additional youngsters, Auguste has the all-important financial stability to pay for the children’s schooling. (Haiti offers no free public education.) “To live in that kind of security makes me hopeful for an even more beautiful future,” she says.
And Auguste dreams of sharing that same experience with others, of her company one day providing 100 or more jobs that will give her neighbors the opportunity to know the transformative power of work to change both individual lives and the outlook for Haiti.
“Imagine if you spent your whole life without a job. What kind of a future could you imagine for yourself?” she asks from inside the country with the highest poverty rate in the world. Undefeated despite the unfathomable challenges around her, Auguste chooses only to look forward, to see the possibilities.
“I believe that God sends people into our paths for a reason,” she says. “I believe that God sent Julie into my path so that I could find work. The key to the success of this country is through job creation. My hope for my country is that more people would come here like Julie and do what she did.” ♦
Read more about alumna Julie Colombino, the visionary behind Deux Mains.