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Profiles in Giving

Nick Preneta, MG11

The Cause

In the jet age, his hometown of Farmington, Conn., and the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince are not very far apart, observes Nick Preneta, MG11. “You can get there in a day,” he says. “But it seems like a completely different world.”

Preneta, who had worked in Ghana under a travel grant from the School of Medicine’s Global Health Initiative Fund, was in his final semester in the Master of Public Health Program when the earthquake hit Haiti last year. He left school to go to Port-au-Prince, where he helped with the distribution of water, food, and medical supplies.

Preneta was returning to Haiti, where he had spent three years before Tufts working with street children in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. “I went because of my close ties to the people of Haiti and my belief that my knowledge of the country and language would be an asset to relief work,” he says.

The first place he lived after the earthquake was next to a camp holding 1,600 people. Built on a soccer field, the camp had no sanitary facilities. Preneta joined members of a local soccer team to build latrines.

Now he is involved in a more wide-scale effort to improve sanitation in Haiti. As deputy director of a group called SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), he works with communities to build composting toilets, converting waste for use in agriculture and reforesting. An experimental garden SOIL has planted shows how compost may be used to grow corn, plantains, and beans. Some of the soccer players from the camp in Port-au-Prince have signed on as staff.

The Gift

His previous Global Health Initiative experience in Africa has been useful to him, Preneta says. The Global Health Initiative at the School of Medicine has benefited during the Beyond Boundaries campaign from the philanthropic support of donors, including the Harris Berman and Ruth Nemzoff Family Foundation; retired professor James N. Hyde; the late professor Dr. Norman Stearns; and Irma Mann.

The Difference

“During my time in Ghana I quickly learned that the effectiveness of any [public health] project is dependent on the ability to learn and adapt to the local context, and on a willingness to modify your project so as to better meet the needs of the population,” Preneta says. “Too often, as I have seen in Haiti, projects are conceived in agency offices or in foreign countries without the input of local stakeholders. Not surprisingly, these projects are often rife with problems and perform poorly on their original objectives.”

He said SOIL is trying to build a household sanitation program in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien. The organization’s compost site in Port-au-Prince is the country’s largest waste-treatment facility, currently serving 13,000 to 14,000 people out of a population of nine million.

Sanitation remains a huge challenge in Haiti. “Before the earthquake, only 17 percent of the households in Haiti had access to improved sanitation,” Preneta says. “It was a disaster before the earthquake. The earthquake exacerbated the problem.” Cholera, transmitted through the consumption of sewage-tainted water and food that has not been washed properly, has claimed the lives of 6,000 people in Haiti since last October, he says.

SOIL hopes to develop a business model for decentralized waste-treatment facilities funded both by small fees paid by households and by the sale of resulting nutrient-rich compost. The hope is that the model then would be taken up by the private sector or the government and put in effect around the country. “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job,” he says.

"While most of us come here with a pretty clear idea of what we want to study and do post-Fletcher, the courses offered are all so diverse and fascinating that you find yourself questioning your original study objectives. The surprising thing for me has been that Fletcher fully expected that. They want us to try out different things. It is great to know that we will get all the support needed to make the right choices and, by the time we graduate, will be well on our way to 'saving the world' in some way."