Club Hero Unik Ernest: Having a Ball Helping Haiti

Beautiful famous people model/author Kelly Bensimon and actor Boris Kodjoe will host club hero Unik Ernest’s Fifth Annual Edeyo Gives Hope Ball taking place at 7PM on Wednesday, June 27th at The DL (95 Delancey). This year, fabulous photog Nigel Barker will be honored and there will be complimentary hors d’oeuvres, cocktails by MEDEA vodka and VEEV and a live and silent auction and music by Etienne DeYans. This gatherings of the haves will benefit the have nots…Haitian children. The press release explains: "The evening will raise much-needed funds for the Edeyo Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the future for children in Haiti through education."

Since 2007 Unik Ernest made the inspiring decision to dedicate his birthday bash and give back. In lieu of gifts for the gifted and enlightened Mr. Ernest, guests will donate to the Edayo Foundation, who are "improving the future of children in Haiti by rebuilding dilapidated schools and providing students with a safe learning environment, as well as healthy food and water on a daily basis." Edayo means "Help Them" in Hatian Creole.

I asked Unik to tell us all about it:

You’ve been using your birthday to help people in Haiti for years. Please tell us about the event coming up. What will people be treated to and what will theycome away with?
This is the 5th anniversary of Edeyo. It’s very important for everyone to feel they have seen and witnessed the growth and the development of the foundation as it relates to its unique projects. We also want everyone to feel they have made a significant contribution to that growth and that they are part of the empowerment and self-reliance of the children!

In the last five years, what has changed in Haiti?
I think a few things have changed, I truly believe we have championed the education movement in the country. Sadly enough, it took a tragedy to change the perception of the world toward Haiti and a very significant part of that has been due the earthquake. Haiti has become a lot more attractive because of it, and now the world is jumping on-board to help. One of the biggest changes has also been the sheer number of people who are less well-off today than they were five years ago.

How are the celebrities and other participants brought together for this event?
They all have stake in the growth of the foundation and have the ability to empower the children of Edeyo. Everyone involved, either as celebrity or participant, has knowledge of Haiti in some capacity due to the fact that we are educating them on the country and Edeyo’s mission.

What are you up to?
My focus is the growth of the foundation and the much-anticipated launch of my international couture espresso and patisserie brand that I’m a
co-owner of: Coco Safar.  It will be as big as Starbucks. Also, my
event for Pepsi is this July in St. Tropez.  

Industry Insiders: Michael Capponi, Club Kid on a Goodwill Mission

Like the city he hails from, Michael Capponi’s life is a story of triumph over adversity. Credited as the man who helped land Miami’s South Beach on the jet-set party map by promotiing such influential nightclubs as Warsaw and B.E.D. Miami, Capponi battled addiction and health problems until a successful stint in rehab gave him a new lease on life. His career has taken off from there, with his development company, Capponi Group, and club ventures like The Wall at W South Beach, and pool parties at the Mondrian. But after spending months in Haiti assisting with the 2010 earthquake recovery effort, Capponi decided to build a hotel there, creating a world-class destination for vacationers, while giving locals opportunities to rebuild their lives as he himself has done. 

What has turned your attention to humanitarian work?
In the mid-nineties I dealt with a lot of personal and life-altering things, ranging from major drug addiction to brain surgery and ending up in the streets for a stint. Since my recovery in 1999, I have really tried to contribute to good causes and have lived with a motto of " duty first."
Has your career in nightlife helped you with your efforts in Haiti?
While nightlife remains a somewhat controversial topic, it has opened more doors for me than anything I have ever done. In over 20 years in nightlife, I have had the opportunity to meet thousands of people, presidents, dignitaries, celebrities, moguls, developers, publishers etc. When you start looking and connecting all the dots, you realize that all those relationships can really serve Haiti in a big way.
How are you putting those skills acquired during your club days to work? 
I think my main skill set is that I’m hands-on. Also, I understand development as a developer but, most importantly, I understand the art of rebranding, PR, and promotions. It’s all these key factors that are needed to help recreate a positive image for the new Haiti.
Are you worried that our attention on Haiti is waning?
No, I don’t see Haiti being forgotten. There was too much money donated and too much media and celebrity attention devoted to it. People like Donna Karan and Sean Penn continue being in the headlines, reminding people how important it is to stay focused on that island.
What is your plan of action there?
After 18 aid trips, I realized that Haiti needs to be fixed in a completely different manner. I’m developing a hotel on the southern coastline of Haiti, in Jacmel, where my focus will lay on creating tourism there, while preserving the local culture. Really, I thought about a hotel to create jobs there, and give tourists a nice place to stay when visiting. It maybe a small model, but with it I hope to lead the country into the world of self-sustainability.

Models Get Wet for Haiti

Wednesday night at Milk Studios–the venue models lovethe most–dozens of tall girls got wet for a great cause: LakayPAM, a phenomenal nonprofit that helps orphaned kids in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. The rain-soaked event featured an emotional short documentary entitled Letters to Haiti, about a post-quake tour of Haiti by supermodel Coco Rocha, Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo, and LakayPAM founder Cedrick Roche.

Canada-born Rocha introduced the film and gave background on the organization and her ongoing role in Haiti relief efforts, then urged guests to reach into their pockets to purchase B&W photos on display, taken by Prinsloo during the Haiti trip.

Often times at these New York philanthropic events, you get a lot of people there for the scene, and not so much for the cause itself. Not so at Milk. Perhaps because Roche has such a direct way of speaking about his homeland (he closed his comments with the frank “Visit Haiti. We need the tourism dollars”) or because it’s nearly impossible for even the most blasé scenester to not have a visceral response to a situation as urgent as the Haitian earthquake. Or because Haiti itself is in such dire straits. It was already the poorest country in the Americas prior to the quake.

I wound up sitting between a fashion photographer and a Haitian New Yorker who’d heard about the organization and showed up to learn more and support the cause. Both had tears in their eyes by the time the film had ended.  You can learn how to help here


Helping to Heal Haiti

With the help of the Clinton Foundation and Digicel Group, a major Haitain telecommunications company, Marriott has reached an agreement to manage a $45 million, 173-room hotel  in Port-au-Prince. Currently, the city has about 500 hotel rooms, all of which lack adequate meeting space for the groups currently working to rebuild Haiti.

Marriott will provide hospitality job training for the 175 new jobs created by the hotel, which is scheduled to begin construction next year, and the project is seen as much needed both by foreign visitors and by a country still struggling to recover. “This new hotel project will stand as a symbol of Haiti’s recovery, providing much-needed jobs to the Haitian people and encouraging foreigners to visit, invest and work in Haiti,” Clinton said. 

Arcade Fire Played A Surprise Show In Haiti This Week

The most popular band that no one’s ever heard of performed a surprise show in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday night. The Grammy winners ran through twelve tracks, including “Wake,” “Haiti” and covers of the Rolling Stones and Credence Clearwater Revival during a 45-minute set. Rolling Stone, conveniently on hand to capture footage of the performance, revealed that the Canadian band was actually in town to produce a DVD with Haitian band RAM.

The group has been fairly outspoken about their charity efforts to support the earthquake-ravaged country. Last February, they teamed up with the NFL and Partners In Health to broadcast the Funeral single “Wake Up” during Super Bowl XLIV. Licensing proceeds were all donated to Haiti.

Check out their surprise performance below.

Wyclef Jean Shot In Haiti on Eve of Elections

Wyclef Jean was shot in the hand in Port-au-Prince Haiti last night, during a trip to support fellow musician and presidential candidate Michael Martelly. He was treated for the superficial wound, released from the hospital, and his reps confirmed via Twitter that he was doing fine. Officials have not been able to confirm that Wyclef was a specific target. According to spokesman Gerry Ande, “He heard a gunshot, then he saw his right-hand palm was bleeding.”

Last year, the 41-year-old musician entered an official bid as a presidential candidate in the Haitian election, but was deemed ineligible to run. Candidates are expected to have five consecutive years of residency in the country, a requirement that the New York-based artist could not skirt. Wyclef officially withdrew his bid in late August, and then protested his exclusion in a song titled “Prison for the CEP.” But since then the former Fugees member has continued his work in the earthquake ravaged country, through his Yele Haiti foundation.

Updated Wyclef later described the incident to The Associated Press in a telephone interview saying, “The way I can explain it is that the bullet grazed me in my right hand. I heard blow, blow, blow and I just looked at my hand.”

Haiti & Voluntourism with Frommers Author Andrew Mersmann

Among the innumerable tragedies that befell Haiti after the earthquake last January was the destruction of the country’s hospitality industry. More than half the hotel rooms on the island were destroyed, eliminating one possible source of external revenue. But Haiti is slowly bouncing back, the most recent indication being the Hotel Villa St. Louis in Port-au-Prince, which is the first hotel to begin construction after the quake. It’s opening date is set for 2012. Volunteers continue to visit in throngs, dedicating their vacation time to recovery efforts, but it’s a long road, and volunteers are still needed. The same is true in scores of other destinations around the globe. What some people don’t realize is that they can still lend a hand while on vacation. We caught up with Andrew Mersmann, author of Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, to get insight on Haiti and the rise of “voluntourism.”

Can you give us your overall impression of Haiti after the earthquake? I was there seven months after the quake, and people who live there tell me there has been a lot of progress, but to my eyes, if you told me the disaster happened a week ago, I would believe you. Endless numbers of people live outside, and even the very few who have rebuilt their homes tend not to sleep inside out of fear of another quake. Tent villages with no infrastructure are housing the vast majority of folks, and there are huge buildings still tipped forward on broken foundations that lean impossibly over the sidewalks. There are lots of bodies that haven’t yet been retrieved from the buildings, and enormous avenues and boulevards are blocked by mounds of rubble. Everything is broken. I was there for two weeks and never saw a straight line or curve—everything is jagged and cracked. At the same time there is amazing expressive art and music and dance being created, and such strong community spirit.

What was volunteering like? How did it make you (and the locals) feel? The actual work (a construction job building a computer lab and library onto an existing orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti) was exhausting, moving truckloads full of cinderblock and cement and sand to a second-story construction site. We were building walls, sifting sand, erecting and taking down scaffolding. Two weeks was enough time to become a fixture for the 28 boys at the orphanage, as well as with the work crew. They weren’t quite sure what we were all about at first. While there are thousands of volunteers in Port-au-Prince, this smaller town in the south doesn’t see much international reach or aid, so the fact that we showed up each day, instead of dropping in for a photo op then speeding away in air-conditioned SUVs, meant a lot. On our last day, three of us walked away from the worksite in tears and socks. Tears because we were saying goodbye to these construction dudes that had become family, and socks because we donated our boots. Some of these guys were doing hard labor in flip-flops and too-small sneakers with the toes cut out.

Do you see promise in the immediate future? I know from my experiences that there is amazing human hope and energy for change. The infrastructure and support is a crippled system, and many would say that the earthquake only pointed out that already existing problem to the wider world, but the resiliency of the communities is tremendous. Life has moved on, and while it is not back to “normal” there is a new, compromised normal that has the potential to evolve into something better than was known before. It is, however, a long road and dollars count a lot. Only about 1-5% of the money pledged by the international community has actually gone to Haiti. Only four countries have paid what they said they would toward disaster relief, and billions of dollars promised have not gotten to the island—many wonder if they ever will. The United States has not paid what we promised—that’s embarrassing. The immediate response after the quake from countries around the world made it seem like Haiti was swimming in more money than they had ever had, but of course, nobody has cut those damn checks, and Haiti remains incredibly poor and financially in dire straits.

Tell us about your book on volunteer vacations. It’s a Frommer’s guidebook to global volunteer vacations and service travel. It’s divided into 15 chapters by volunteer interest as opposed to geographical location. There are chapters on working with children, animals, politics, sports, habitat and conservation, education, spirituality, or disaster relief. I hope it acts as a bridge for people who are in their normal routines and recognize that this kind of travel is available but are mistakenly under the impression that it is only for the very rich, or celebrities, or people with a lot of free time.

Where else have you volunteered? I’ve been so lucky to be able to do great projects in far-flung places. This construction project in Haiti, saving stranded pilot whales in Key West, working/living with the homeless on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, visiting a cheetah conservation program in South Africa, education and camp programs with kids who have been severely burned by fires, camp programs for kids with cancer, AIDS education on an information hotline, conservation of endangered manatees in Florida, a horseback medical/humanitarian excursion in Rajasthan, India, and more. I’m trying to line up a few more now, including a women’s empowerment program in Nepal and a community building project in Mexico.

Can people volunteer on regular vacations? Absolutely. You’d be closing the door to incredible opportunities to assume you had to volunteer 24/7. We don’t get much vacation time in our culture, and we all need time to recharge. You can be of service to a community where you are visiting with an hour, a day, or more. You shouldn’t feel guilty if you also want to prioritize some time by the pool or in museums or eating amazing food. Just an afternoon of a two-week trip can make a difference. Organizations don’t request volunteers if they don’t have important work for them to do, and whatever time you are inspired to give is worth it. Lots of hotel brands and individual properties are getting in on the act and creating giveback packages for guests, and there are some discounted airfares for international volunteers.

Any advice to those looking into voluntourism? Jump in. Do your homework before you sign up with an organization, know where the money you are spending will go, know that the project was generated or is desired by the local community and has their support, ask for references and talk to past clients, and then go. It can be the most authentic, community-involved travel you ever do. You will never regret the memories you bring home from a trip where you made a discernable positive change for others.

Now That Wyclef Jean Is No Longer Running for President, Is Haiti Better Off?

No Haitian presidential campaign has garnered as much international attention as Wyclef Jean’s short-lived bid for office. Jean announced he would run for president on August 5, and was disqualified shortly after, on the 16th, by The Haiti Election Commission (CEP) for not having lived in Haiti for five consecutive years—a constitutional requirement for all presidential candidates. Just yesterday, over a month later, he finally withdrew his bid officially. “This was not an easy conclusion to reach,” Jean said in a statement. “Some battles are best fought off the field, and that is where we take this now. Our ultimate goal in continuing the appeal was to further the people’s opportunity to freely participate in a free and fair democratic process.” What do Haitians, at home and in the US, have to say about the whole debacle?

While Jean initially accepted the CEP’s ruling last August, the 40-year-old musician quickly changed his tune, vowing to appeal the decision and accusing the electoral board of using “trickery” to “block” him out of the electoral race. Jean claimed that under his role as roving ambassador since 2007, he was free to travel and live outside of Haiti. Then, following an unsuccessful appeal—and despite the Haitian court’s ruling being final—the Grammy winner and former Fugee took his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an independent body devoted to the promotion of basic rights and freedoms in the Americas. Finally, after a month-long battle for eligibility—including distracting feuds with Sean Penn and former bandmate Pras (“I got a message for Sean Penn: Maybe he ain’t see me in Haiti ’cause he was too busy sniffing cocaine,” Pras sang)—Wyclef announced yesterday that he’s abandoning his campaign.

His announcement might come as a relief to many Haitians. Among the Haitian community abroad and on the island, Jean’s run for president and subsequent appeals were seen as a distraction from more immediate issues, such as rampant rape, crime, and lack of basic food and clean water for the 1.5 million camp dwellers that were left homeless by the January 12th earthquake. But he was also perceived by some as Haiti’s ticket out of obscurity, and as a way to keep the spotlight on the country as earthquake recovery faded from the news cycle.

Before Jean’s abrupt resignation, one of his supporters, Haitian author and child slavery advocate J-R Cadet, who lives in Cincinnati but is currently in Haiti promoting the welfare of children, questioned his decision to fight for eligibility. “Clef is still young. He should not appeal the CEP’s decision,” Cadet said. “He should begin the process of meeting the requirements for residency. If he does that, he’ll be elected in 2016, then he can change the rules. Of course, I was very disappointed by the decision. At the Clinton Global initiative in 2009, he outlined his dream for Haiti and I was moved to tears. I’ve never seen that kind of passion for the country before from any Haitian politician.”

After a dramatic announcement of his plans to take the highest political seat in Haiti, the presidential hopeful offered little publicly in the way of an agenda for Haitian voters to hold on to besides sweeping, crowd-rousing proclamations about better schools, infrastructure, and foreign investments. Jean admitted in a CBS interview to having no skills as a politician, but stated he had the makings of a good leader—a worrisome comment, when placed in the context of a country that has known many eager leaders but few champions of the poor. “He was never qualified. I only know that he is the ambassador of public image for Haiti. I know nothing of him as a politician,” said Stephanie Mesidor, a woman living in a refugee camp in Delmas.

It was Jean’s outsider persona and his messiah-like image transferred over from his humanitarian work (albeit an image now sullied by allegations of mismanaging funds at his former non-profit, Yele) that first won him his early supporters, especially among the large youth population, who are fed up with the army of chronically corrupt Haitian politicians.

“Haitian masses don’t want to elect anyone that is perceived to be part of the political class. They are angry at the elites,” said Yvon Lamour, a guidance counselor at Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Rindge & Latin School, who also hosts a Haitian radio show. He credits Jean’s candidacy with revitalizing the political process and galvanizing the youth culture in Haiti. “Politicians in Haiti have a reputation of being bad losers and resorting to the same practices used by the very system he wants to change,” he said. “I’m not sure how much this will help his cause,” he added, “but it’s clear that any politician should learn to lose with dignity.”

Cultural activist and psychologist Margaret Armand, a resident of Plantation, Florida, had high hopes for a potential Jean presidency, which she hoped would inspire Haitians to return home and challenge the current electoral process. “It’s not just about Wyclef anymore,” she said. “The system is flawed and corrupt. There are a number of unqualified and ineligible candidates who have made a career of running for president. We have had so many intellectuals and elites that ruled for the last 200 years and look at the state of the country.”

Haiti’s desire for a new administration, a fresh voice, and Jean’s good intentions should never have overshadowed his obvious short comings, says Native Language Literacy Coordinator Lunine Pierre-Jerome of Boston, Massachusetts. She argues that, “He doesn’t know what it means to be a Haitian in Haiti. Does he know the history? And not just that Haiti was the first Black republic. He has to go back and understand the political history. That’s the only way to avoid making the same mistakes of the past.”

For some, Jean’s bid was a loud slap across the face of Haiti. Pierre Florestal, a former New York Haitian talk radio host, believes Jean was exploiting his star power and the dire conditions on the island for his own benefit. “When you are hungry and poor, anyone who gives you even a little seems like a savior. That doesn’t make him a president. There are more ingredients that go into running a country. It was a relief to hear he was rejected.”

Now that his well-publicized run is over, perhaps Jean will take this opportunity to live in the country, learn the language, and return his focus to the on-going relief efforts on the ground, where his influence would be better utilized. There has been no word from Jean and his camp as to whether he will return to live in Haiti full-time in hopes of running for office in the future. As of now, he’s going back to what made him a public figure in the first place. Jean’s next album, If I Were President, the Haitian Experience, drops in February.

Our Man in Miami: From Haiti to Betty Page with Kimberly Green

That snap you’re looking at is of me and Kimberly Green, top gun at the Green Family Foundation (GFF). A couple weeks back we had the pleasure – and the privilege – of being shot by Francesco Lo Castro as part of an upcoming mural and portrait project the ace visualist is doing at Butter Gallery in concert with this year’s Basel. Kimberly’s a busy gal. In addition to a wide range of work in Miami, GFF is extensively involved in all kinds of great good efforts throughout Haiti – and they have been for well over a decade. That means Kimberly’s either there – or elsewhere – more than she is in her own hometown. So when she does manage to swing through we make a point of doing or seeing something spectacular. The last go ‘round it was the Lo Castro shoot, which was double-plus fun and then some.

This trip happened to coincide with the opening of an exhibit at Miami International Airport entitled “Hands of Haiti.” Set in the recently built South Terminal Gallery and put on by the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance (HCAA), the show features sixty incredibly striking works, all of which were rendered under a barrage of post-quake hardships. The soundtrack consisted of various cuts culled from The Haiti Box; that set of early Alan Lomax recordings that Kimberly executive produced in conjunction with the Association for Cultural Equity. Hearing those circa ‘30s field recordings alone is a bewitching experience; to hear them in the grandeur of MIA’s newest wing amid an exquisite collection of woven vodou flags, Jacmel Carnival masks and other indigenous wonders was sublime.

After hitting the exhibit we decided to grab a bite at Van Dyke so Kimberly could fill me in on the latest in Haiti. Turns out she’d also just met with Miami Beach Cinematheque op Ed Christen, who reps the fabled Bunny Yeager. And he’d dropped off a stack of vintage Betty Page photographs for Kimberly to consider purchasing for the art-soaked home she calls Disgraceland. So while giddily browsing through some very vintage images over the chilled glasses of Prosecco sent by manager Matt Bracher, we got down to what’s up.

Okay, you just got back from Haiti, again, where you held another weekend of Sinema Amba Zetwal (Cinema Under the Stars). Care to fill in the folks? I’d love to. Last weekend was the final two screenings in the tour we’ve been on since February. I work with an organization called Fast Forward, which puts together outdoor screenings of Haitian-made documentaries, and we followed the fault line of the earthquake. The tour was called Food for Souls, because everyone was bringing rice and water and what have you, but no one was really taking care of the cultural core of the people. We had between three and ten thousand people at every screening, all of whom got to hear some of Haiti’s best musicians in addition to seeing a wide variety of film shorts covering everything from gender equity to environmentalism to the “remembrance” pieces Alan Lomax shot back in the ‘30s. The previous screenings were held out in the country, but this last event was held in Petionville, which is where most of Haiti’s private sector is based. So it was nice to be able to show the shorts to those who are in country and spearheading the efforts to rebuild.

Sinema is actually in cahoots with a few of those concerns, isn’t it? Yes, we’re sponsored by Brana, makers of Prestige beer, which is the Haitian beer. Brana also does a fortified milk for children, and we’ve been distributing that at all the events. We also work with Voila, which is one of two Haitian cell phone companies, and Partners in Health, which was founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, who is now the U.N.’s Deputy Envoy to Haiti. At all of our screenings they provide HIV and TB testing, as well as clinic referrals. Then there’s Earthspark International, an American organization that’s bringing renewable energy stores to the country.

Since we just came from catching that airport exhibit which GFF soundtracked, let’s tell everyone what’s what with Alan Lomax’s field recordings. My friend Warren Russell Smith came to me with the project a couple years ago and I immediately jumped at the chance to get involved. It’s a collection of field recordings Lomax made in Haiti back in the ‘30s, and because the sound quality wasn’t as good as some of his later work, they’d been sitting dormant in the Library of Congress ever since. We remastered them and released the set as The Haiti Box back in November of last year; then the earthquake happened, and we decided to use the set as both a fundraising tool and a sort of cultural repatriation. Now we’re working in conjunction with Haiti’s Ministry of Culture and Communications and the Ministry of Education, and we’re creating a full-length documentary along with a series of 12 shorts that will be used as a supplementary educational program throughout the entire school system.

That’s terrific! Aren’t you also involved with former President Clinton and all he’s doing down there? Yes, I’ve been working with the Clinton Global Initiative for many years, but two years ago he founded the Haiti Action Network, which brings together private and public partnership. And recently I was appointed co-chair of HAN’s Cultural Committee. We’re working now to restore monuments and historic buildings. And we’ve also been asked to curate an exhibit in November at the Clinton Library in Little Rock that will feature archival footage from Lomax as well as current documentaries made by Tatiana Magloire of Fast Forward. I’m really excited about this!

I bet! That’s beyond cool. Okay, we’re sitting here on Lincoln Road at Van Dyke Café, and it turns out your father [Steven J. Green] owns the building. What’s that all about? (Laughs) Well, my dad, who’s former Ambassador to Singapore under Clinton, runs Greenstreet Partners, which is an international real estate development company, and he bought the building a few years ago. He says he may have overpaid a little, but he’s a Miami Breach native, and he feels like this is owning a part of our town’s history. He also bought that fabulous Morris Lapidus building where our Foundation is located.

We can’t end this chat without mentioning this incredible Bunny Yeager photos that are sitting in front of us. Man, these are some killer images! Aren’t they? Ed Christen brought them to me; he’s apparently repping Bunny Yeager, and these are outtakes from a few of the series she did with Betty Page. I really dig the shots from the old Lion Country Safari. And I’m thinkin’ they’ll look great in Disgraceland! The demure shots though remind me of the photos I have of my mom [Dorothea Green] back when she was Miss New York and in Miami Beach for the Miss Universe Pageant. That’s where she met my dad, by the way, who was then an aide to Mayor Chuck Hall. They’ve been happily ever after ever since.