By Melinda Miles, Director of Let Haiti Live
In February 2012, Haiti lost a true warrior for her cause. Elise Hansen was a woman who devoted years of her life to supporting young people, children, the environment and the arts. Elise was also one of my closest friends for more than a decade. We shared work and life as family.
I met Elise in Haiti in 1998 at a Haitian Studies Association conference and was inspired by her energy and radiance from that moment on. In 2001, we worked together for the first time when she partnered with me at the Quixote Center in DC for a six week contract. She helped pull off Haiti Reborn's Haiti Solidarity Week that year, and she taught me a few things about growing up and moving on while we were temporary roomies.
In 2004, when I decided to move to Haiti with my partner and co-found Konpay, Konbit Pou Ayiti (Working Together for Haiti), Elise brought together people in her hometown, Gloucester, MA, to learn about our aspirations and support us. She started volunteering part-time for Konpay, helping us with everything from legal status, to bookkeeping (bringing her mom, Sandy, into the mix), to moral support and money transfers. Elise was my headquarters in the US, my home in MA when I no longer had a home in the country at all.
As our work grew, Elise's role grew until she was working full-time, coordinating the administrative side of things while also contributing to our work with artists and a cooperative offering life-skills training to Jacmel's youth, and also pushing us to establish a carbon offset program to complement reforestation efforts.
Elise came to Haiti over the years as a student, a delegation co-coordinator, a colleague, a step-mom on vacation with her family, my best friend, and always a photographer. Her eye for beauty would find her leaning out the car window as I drove through the twisty mountain roads to Jacmel from Port-au-Prince, or hanging off the balcony over Rue Baranquilla snapping shots of the costumes at Kanaval.
When the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, Elise never hesitated. She drove to my home and scooped up my son and me, and she and her partner Scott made their home our home. Elise sat across her desk from me for six weeks while we coordinated emergency relief and tried to put into place a structure for longer-term response. I don't remember sleeping but I remember Elise driving me through the snowy streets of Gloucester, making coffee, coordinating with people in Australia, Europe, the Dominican Republic, the US and Haiti.
When we lost Elise in February, the youth of Cyvadier who have known Elise's love for the last seven years, wrote an homage to her which you can read below. If you would like to add photos or your own words about Elise, please don't hesitate to use the comments below or email your contribution to me at melinda [at] lethaitive.org and I will include it here.
Family and friends have created the Elise Hansen Foundation to be the legacy of her vision for change in the world. You can learn more about it here.
From the Youth in Cyvadier, Haiti
A valiant woman who held Haiti deep in her heart, who shared the culture of the people, who dreamt of change for the country. She has visited the country over many years. The sentiment of love that she always had for Haiti was a source of great determination that brought her to engage with Haitians in the struggle for real change. Elise always showed her preference to be with the children, the farmers’ kids. She wanted education for them, good health, and for them to learn to protect their environment. One big dream she had for Haiti was to see the land covered with trees and vegetables again, like neighboring countries. She was a true collaborator. In the spirit of collaboration she worked with three groups of youth in Jacmel, especially the Youth in Action for the Protection of the Environment (JADPE). She put all her confidence in the youth of JADPE and she always said this was the team that would realize her dream of reforesting Haiti.
Elise’s impact in Haiti is immeasurable.
In this moment, the kids in JADPE have spoken of the deep sadness they feel hearing the tragic news of Elise’s death, and the symbol of her passing is a great branch of the mapou tree that has fallen.
The youth say:
We are JADPE and it is with deep anguish and sadness that we learned one of the founders of our work had died, leaving much heaviness in our hearts. She was one of our mothers, she always shone a light upon us so that our group could exist. She will always live in our memories because of her dreams and her leadership that will always. It is as though a great branch in the mapou tree has broken. She fought so hard for our group to advance.
Each time we see a small tree we will remember you, and each time we see the water we will remember you, too. Each time we protect the trees more, we know it will make your heart happy, dear Elise.
Death is a step in the voyage. In the hearts of all the member of JADPE and the Let Haiti Live team, Elise Hansen will always occupy a huge space. We will never forget you, and your name will always be on our lips.
To Elise, February 2012
Speech by Melinda Miles at Service for Elise Hansen, Cape Ann, Massachusettes
I thought about starting this by telling you how hard it is to stand here in this room of Elise’s friends and family without her, and how much I still can’t even believe she is gone, but I know that we are all feeling the same way right now. A shock so great that it almost obscures the depth of the anguish. The sense that you’ve only begun to understand what has happened.
I’ve been thinking so much, my mind replaying a collage of images, of fur lined hoods and fantastic dresses from Bananas, of beaches from Gloucester to Jacmel to Portugal, of new year’s eves and birthdays and car trips and flights to the Caribbean.
I have a feeling we’ve all done this, that over the last few days we have sorted through our own memories of this beautiful woman, so full of life and love, with her playlist of excellent music from every continent and her appreciation for a nice glass of wine.
Elise and I became friends in Haiti. She was already wise and worldly, and also wild and brave. I learned very quickly that Elise lived by her own rules, and I couldn’t help being attracted to her way of seeing and being.
It didn’t take me long to understand that Elise was an honestly good person. She strove to do good, to make the lives of people around her and even those whose lives were very different and distant from her own better each and every day.
She loved people and accepted them for who they were.
Elise brought color into my life whenever I was lost in black and white. She was an artist and a humanist. She loved beauty but also people, probably because she was so talented at finding the beauty in all people.
Elise had a special gift: she gave the kind of support that was based in her belief in you. That was one of the gifts Elise shared with many people in her life. You knew you could rely on her to be there for you and help you through but not to pander to you. She could offer strength and back up while still letting you learn your own lessons and be better for them. She helped in Haiti in this same way, always believing in the inherent capacity of our partners there, knowing they could get through and succeed. This is why they trusted her and loved her, they could feel that she honestly believed in them.
Elise and I became friends in Haiti and it was there that our friendship grew up. It’s where together through our work we were growing up ourselves. After the earthquake in 2010 Elise amazed us all with her untiring commitment. In the last few days people have told me about how Elise changed their lives then, from the young student who learned to believe in himself after she gave him a chance to really make a difference on the ground, to the calm organization she provided that enabled others to step up and get through the crisis.
The earthquake was a time when she showed us her many talents, her ability to seamlessly transition from guiding forty foot containers of emergency supplies across the border to giving compassionate advice and keeping us practical so we could accomplish as much as possible.
Elise was family to me, and that is why I can look around this room and see the faces of so many of the people who have been such an important part of my own life over the years. Elise touched the lives of many but she was never greedy with her love and with those she loved - she shared us with one another. She gave us the gift of her love and unique friendship and then she brought us into each other’s lives so we could all be richer from knowing the fantastic people she had chosen to be her world.
For the last few days I’ve been lost in shock and waves of grief and the worst part is that what I’ve wanted most was to talk to Elise about it. She was one of my best friends in this life and will never be replaced.
Elise gave me a book a few years ago into which she had inscribed: “To my friend and my inspiration”. I was so honored to inspire Elise, because she inspired me back. More than that, she helped build me up and achieve all the things in my life that were worthy of inspiring her. When Scott and I talked a couple of days ago he said something that resonated deeply with me. He said the way to honor Elise is to live the things she has taught us, the ways she has shared with us.
To sit in Elise’s office is to see a little of what mattered most to her – the photographs of her travels to Central America and Europe, family and childhood memories in Portugal, the garden through the window, the closet filled with music from around the world, her work on her desk, her family just through the doorway, and a cat curled up in a drawer near her feet.
I feel so honored to have called Elise friend and I am so sad that we will not sit across from one another a thousand times more to talk about everything and anything.
Elise and I became friends in Haiti and that friendship will never end. Dearest Elise, this is the book I meant to write for you when we were old.
As we move forward from today, I ask you to join me in seeing the world through the eyes of the photographer, as Elise did. To see the beauty in the light through the coconut tree and the fishers dragging the net across the Caribbean Sea. Let’s give every person we meet the chance to amaze us, whether they spend their life making Grammy-award winning music or plowing the fields in rural Haiti. Let’s greet the morning with strong coffee while we water the gardens we tend with love. Let’s try to love one another with acceptance and support each other with faith that we can do better, because as Elise showed us through her life’s work, we must do better.
Thank you, my dear friend.