Team Member Stories

Vanessa Caruso

interviewed by Liz Martin

About Vanessa:
Vanessa has been involved with HTH for about two years. She lives in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia with her husband, Steven Annan. Her brother-in-law Kent Annan is the co-director of Haiti Partners, an organization with which Heads Together Haiti works closely. She and Steve are members of Circle of Hope, Frankford & Norris congregation. She recently finished her master’s degree in Spiritual Formation, and is interested in opening her own business where she (and others) sell their art whose profits go to benefit those in need.

How did you get involved in Heads Together Haiti?

I heard about it from Ben White when he was in a cell group with Julian. Steven’s brother is co-director of Haiti Partners (Kent Annan) and I always wanted to support that work, but it felt too abstract and far away to know how to begin. I liked that this was an opportunity to work within the community I was already part of where I would be able to go to meetings and have direct contact with others involved.

Has anything changed about you or your life from your involvement in Heads Together Haiti?

Yes. I didn’t understand solidarity with other people before I became involved. I feel like I do now. Visiting Haiti made a big difference in that understanding. Now that I have connections and share money with Haitians, I do not feel so different from Haitians. A human is a human. It feels real now. I always felt like I was not a compassionate type of person who could do mission work, like I was not “good” or was missing that gene. I thought I would leave that work for others to do. I would see someone doing work like we do and think that is not me and I cannot do that. That’s a myth that some people are good and some are not. It is important for people to know that.

Tell me about a specific story, memory or event from your experience that is significant for you:

The Book & Band for Haiti event stands out. The event brought Kent here to celebrate release of his second book, After Shock, and the Welcome Wagon. The book was about reconciling being a Christian with the way Haiti is struggling to recover from the earthquake, and how to respond. The turn-out was huge and the question and answer session really engaged with the question of the book.

I also love team meetings! Steven and others tell me I am too busy to be on the team, but I can’t NOT be on the team because I am so inspired by people on it. I do it because it inspires me. I can talk to non-Christian friends about Haiti and I am proud to talk about it. Nobody argues with what we do, with feeling responsible to Haitians.

What is a goal or goals you have to raise your own worth (financial or abstract)?

Doing this work has made me think about my own dignity in terms of being a money maker or business person, since that’s what we talk to Haitians about. I am proactive now about sustaining giving, thinking about how much I can give and making more money so I can give it away. Steven and I currently give $700/month to Circle of Hope and Haiti Partners. Our goal is to increase this to $1000/month. We recently bought a house. I recently completed my master’s degree. I think of those as being part of my overall worth.

What do you want to see for Heads Together Haiti?

I would love to see us grow in terms of team members. I know people want to be part of this, if they knew what it would do for them and others. I would love to see this be long term.

Ashley Walliser Hettler

interviewed by Liz Martin

About Ashley:
Ashley began working with Heads Together Haiti in 2009. She lives in South Jersey with her husband Tom. She has her M.S. in Nonprofit Management and works and volunteers with the homeless community in South Jersey. She also participates in the Circle of Hope community.

How did you get involved in Heads Together Haiti?
Well, I found out about it through Julian. We met initially during the Summer of 2009 at Circle of Hope and started hanging out. He talked about Haiti and I thought, “Ok, great that he’s doing that.” Our friend, Mary Somerville told me to think about getting involved because she was and that Julian might ask me as well. I thought “No, I don’t have time and I’m not interested.” Julian came up to me one night at Circle of Hope’s Public Meeting and said “Will you pray about being on the team?” I was all ready to say ‘no’ because I knew he would ask me, but then when he said “pray,” that stopped me. So, I said I would pray about it. He swears he did not say it to me like that though! For the next week I continually had dreams about Haiti and it was all I could think about. So finally, I gave in and joined the team.

We had begun working on a project to build the wall by Fayet to stop the river flooding the area, and this was before the earthquake occurred. It was me, Ben White, Julian, Mary, and Sarah Loomis. The first meeting was really disorganized with Ben and Julian running it and being very laid back. I remember it driving me crazy, and I jumped in to run the meeting. We implemented some structure into our meetings, assigned responsibilities, and things began falling into place.

Around that time, I remember hearing someone at Circle of Hope’s Public Meeting talking about helping the poor. I do work with the homeless locally, but I realized that I wasn’t doing any work internationally. That was when my heart started turning, I became more compassionate on a larger scale, and I committed to the team in September or October before the earthquake. That was when I began to feel emotionally connected to this work we were doing, and I stopped feeling like God was making me do this – I’m quite passionate about all of this now!

Has anything changed about you or your life from your involvement in Heads Together Haiti?

Initially, I thought things would move faster and was frustrated at the slow rate of progress. Julian’s approach helped me get freed from the need to go-go-go, do things faster, and my need for perfectionism and control. At first, it annoyed me that he was always calm, but it has really helped me learn to be calm in the midst of a storm.

Also, I had been around people previously in my world travels who do not have much, but my participation in Heads Together Haiti has made that a constant experience instead of concentrated travels throughout the years.  I had done some work in the Czech Republic with Bosnia refugees in the mid 1990’s, studied in Costa Rica and Mexico while living with poor families, and I currently work with the homeless population. With this team, our focus is on community, which is very different – it is not me saving the world, but building a strong foundation with others in community.

What do you want to see for Heads Together Haiti?

I wish we had a micro-loan program online with everyone’s stories so people here and in Haiti can see the effects of the program, and I want us to find other ways to work across those socio-economic boundaries as well.

What is a goal or goals you have to raise your own worth (financial or abstract)?

I am passionate about Tom & I living on one person’s salary, so that we can give away the other salary. Within 10 years, I want us to achieve that. I currently have student loans to pay off, but I give away 20% of my income and the other 80% goes to student loans.

Tell me about a specific story, memory or event from your experience that is significant for you:

I like the diversity of projects we have had: the pin the tail on the donkey event with old movies, the book & band event, etc. It seems like so many non-profits all do the same type of events, and I love that we things differently by being a little more ‘out-of-the-box’.

Anything else you would like to share?

I am so thankful that my husband Tom has been so supportive. He went to Haiti with me, which was not on his list of places he had planned to go! He also does not usually express negative reactions, challenges, and does not like upsetting others.  So, it was about three months after we returned to the States before he said something about our experience in Haiti, which was just “That was rough.” It had a powerful effect on him and our relationship as well. We had read Kent Annan’s book Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle, which helped him prepare for the trip and some of the things we would encounter – the experience certainly helped put things in perspective. He no longer talks about how things are hard here or how much he has to work – though occasionally making a slight joke about it all.  One of the great things about the trip was that he started seeing what motivates me in life and why I am so passionate about my life’s work – I believe that it was a bit more intangible previously.