Volunteer’s goal is to: ‘Shoot first, aim later’

tporter@lsjournal.comJune 26, 2013 

Benjamin Aaron isn’t afraid to admit he’s a feminist.

No, the co-owner of Prairie Soap Company at Summit Fair in Lee’s Summit, isn’t trying to break the norm or make a political statement, just simply trying to help others in need.

Aaron set off June 26 for a one-week trip to Haiti as a part of a three-person group of volunteers who will teach women there not only the art of making soap, but how to sustain a living from the trade.

“I’m pretty excited,” Aaron said June 19 from a desk inside a room the business uses to teach soap-making classes to the general public. “We’re teaching these women. They still live in government-funded tents from the earthquake (in 2010). Not that they were doing too great before then, but they themselves started a women’s co-op (through Haitian Artisans for Peace International). They are trying to find ways to empower themselves.”

Aaron said in late December he came across a friend and fellow soap maker from Boston who was asking for donations to help support her trip to Haiti with a small team of individuals to teach a woman’s co-op how to make soap. At first Aaron, who owns the business with his mother Sheila, and brother, Christopher Walker, obliged by giving a donation, but later crossed paths with one of the team members at a soap-making workshop, where they both were giving presentations.

The rest is history, Aaron said, after the soap maker asked him flat out if he wanted to go with her the next time she visited Haiti.

“The tricky part is we don’t know – Haiti’s import and export laws are real funky; it’s not like ours,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re going to be able to use there. Some of the stuff we know is available, but some of the stuff we are used to using – we may be using their version (of a similar product). It’s sort of a shoot first, aim later.”

According to a fundraising website created to help fund the trip, the Global Poverty Info Bank states women are 50 percent of the world’s population, yet make up a full 70 percent of the world’s poor.

Millions of women in less-developed countries like Haiti live under poverty and discrimination that makes access to basic needs such as healthcare, safe childbirth, education, employment, and participation in their own communities, nearly impossible.

According to trip organizer Amanda Griffin of Grand Prairie, Tex., the teaching trip is to Mizak and Jacmel, where family income ranges from less than $1.00 to about $1.50 per day, and the main source of survival is bartering of local produce.

“The in-kind donation model is doing more harm than good,” Griffin states on the website. “Development aid, which includes food donations, clothing donations and other types of in-kind donations, distort local markets, devastate local farmers and entrepreneurs, and further undercut the economy of the communities they are intended to serve.

“The inability to clothe, house, or feed a family is only a symptom of the real problem – extreme poverty. Development aid and in-kind donations from well-meaning companies don’t solve the issue, instead acting as a Band-Aid for a system in need of long-term solutions for economic development.

“Handouts of shoes or other goods will eventually wear out leaving the recipient in the same desperate situation. By teaching a skill and having a strategy for business handoff, women can feed their families, achieve a sense of dignity, and create a legacy to pass on to future generations including knowledge of the trade, and most of all, prosperity.”

The desire to help spur economic development within the Haitian female community is what got Aaron on the trip.

“I’ve always wanted to travel,” he said. “This really pulled me more than anything else, and I mean this sincerely; we have it so good here. I also live with and have been around strong women. This whole thing is about empowering women. We also came up with this idea as a business to take a local, regional and global approach to giving back. This is kind of a regional and global approach to giving back as a business.

“It’s not just about teaching them how to make soap. Eventually, this is going to be a handoff where you’re going to start your own business. This is a micro-business for them to go on. From the inception of our little business here, that has been the goal; to branch out and give back. I’m more than flattered to do it. You don’t have to be a female to be a feminist.”

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