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Haiti girls empowered by Flagstaff knowledge

During this past December’s trip by the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps, Peter Brainard split from the main team to work on a side project inspired by his wife, Lindsey Brainard.

There is scant access in Haiti to feminine hygiene products and young women have little access to information about menstruation, the developmental changes in their bodies and the link between menstruation and the use of birth control.

Lindsey had come across an organization called Days For Girls, which through the work of volunteer seamstresses, creates feminine hygiene kits that are reusable. The kits include soap to wash a set of soft cotton panty liners, a holder for the liners, ziplock bags to store used and unused liners and a menstrual calendar so that menstruation can be both tracked and anticipated. Days For Girls has also developed a curriculum to be used when introducing the kits that explains menstruation, female development and pregnancy.

Brainard and his childhood friend Brett Morris arrived in Haiti with two duffle bags containing 80 of the kits. The first job was for Brainard and Morris to teach two Haitian women the Days For Girls curriculum and how to share it with Haitian young women.

The first teacher was Maude Louis, an operating room nurse who the team had met last December at the Bernard Mevs, hospital where the team works when in Haiti. The second teacher was Angel-Ben Gilot, an orphan from the Foyer Renmen orphanage, which the NAVMC organization supports. She is the first of 55 children at the orphanage to have graduated from post-secondary education with her nursing degree.

Once the two nurses had been trained in the Days For Girls curriculum the team taught two classes. The first was for Angel's fellow orphans at Foyer Renmen. The second was at the Haitian American Caucus, a school, run by an American charity on the outskirts of Port au Prince.

Without adequate access to feminine hygiene products a vast number of Haitian women spend their menstrual period each month confined to their homes. That means they miss 25 percent of their schooling if they are lucky enough to be enrolled in school. It means that 25 percent of the time they have to earn an income is also curtailed.

Watching as the girls looked through the kits and were taught how to use the menstrual calendars, it was clear that the girls understood that they were not being simply given a product and some information they but also power and control.

After leaving the class the students lives would be on a different course. The fact that the classes were being taught by professional Haitian women means that with a continued supply of the kits, the Days For Girls program will be sustainable in Haiti.

Brainard hopes to be able to expand the program in Haiti by training more local women to instruct girls on the use of the kits and by arranging to have more of the kits delivered to Haiti.

His passion for the project and the success it had in Haiti has encouraged a local group of seamstresses in Flagstaff led by Wendy Wetzel.

Photos: Days for Girls project takes root in Flagstaff, grows in Haiti

Haiti hires Clinton-linked PR firm to soften image in Washington

WASHINGTON — The government of Haiti, so cash-strapped that its teachers are going unpaid, has retained a high-powered, top-dollar international PR firm with ties to a former member of Hillary Clinton's staff to boost the country's image in Washington.

The hiring of Mercury Public Affairs has raised uncomfortable questions on the island about the use of limited resources amid a reported budget deficit and customs strike that has paralyzed the country in recent weeks.

During the popular political talk show Ranmase in Port-au-Prince, Haitian political analyst Auguste D'Meza ripped into the government for spending taxpayer dollars to "ameliorate its image in Washington" instead of creating jobs.

"PR for what?" Sabine Guerrier, who handled international relations for opposition presidential candidate Jean-Charles Moise, told McClatchy. "Instead, of spending money on public relations in the U.S., why not spend the money so teachers can get paid. Why are you not spending the money on roads, schools, infrastructure?

"There are so many problems with Haiti right now. This is your priority? It just doesn't make sense. It doesn't add up."

The government of Haiti wouldn't answer questions about the contract. Mercury Public Affairs would not provide contract details, or say whether the $10,000 figure for project fees listed in the contract is a monthly retainer.

Mercury also would not speak on the record. Granted anonymity, an official at the firm said President Jovenel Moise's government wants to demonstrate to Washington and potential international investors that Haiti's story is more than the poverty and disaster that dominate news coverage of the Caribbean nation.

Moise, whose government declared this month that all transactions must now be done in Haiti's national currency, the gourde, and not U.S. dollars, as has been customary, is also looking to boost tourism, the country's private sector and attract foreign investment.

Mercury has been making the rounds across Washington, talking with reporters and sending out public statements to highlight tourism improvements and investment opportunities in Haiti. It also helped President Moise land an opinion piece in The Washington Post in response to a scandal involving the British-based international charity Oxfam after reports of sexual misconduct by its regional director in Haiti.

The image of Haiti as a hopelessly impoverished country stuck in a cycle of political crisis, natural disasters and scandal, has long been an irritant to Haitian leaders, citizens and ex-patriots in the United States. Moise has also taken hits over a corruption inquiry into his political allies, including his chief of staff, who are accused of embezzling $2 billion Haiti received from its participation in Venezuela's discount oil program.

That image is proving politically costly in Washington, where President Donald Trump, according to The New York Times, remarked that 15,000 arriving Haitian immigrants "all have AIDS." Haiti was among the countries being discussed when, according to multiple reports, Trump disparaged groups of immigrants from "s***hole" countries.

The Haitian government's willingness to reject the U.S. administration's overtures to the region to turn up pressure on Venezuela's leaders also has hurt its reputation in Washington.

Some in Haiti want to know why hire a public relations firm now when it didn't use one last year when the Trump administration was threatening to end Temporary Protected Status. His administration announced in November that nearly 60,000 Haitians living and working in Miami and across the U.S. would lose their protected status.

And many are raising questions about why Haiti would hire a firm with any connection to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton, as secretary of State, and former President Bill Clinton, as U.N. special envoy to Haiti, who headed the country's post-quake reconstruction, have not always been well received by Haitians and its U.S. diaspora.


Cooper French of Team FAST skis down a course.

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Hopi land settlement
Reboot: Swap involving Flagstaff-area lands takes heat, suspended

More than 9,000 acres of national forest around Flagstaff that were being considered for a trade to the Arizona State Land Department are more than likely off the table for such an exchange.

State and legislative officials delivered that message to a standing-room-only crowd in the Flagstaff City Council chambers Monday evening.

It was welcome news to attendees who were largely opposed to the possibility of those federal lands being moved into state hands.

The Monday meeting was called by Flagstaff City Council and the Coconino County Board of Supervisors to discuss the state-federal land swap, proposed to fulfill a 22-year-old promise to the Hopi Tribe. The agreement gives the tribe nearly 150,000 acres of state trust land south of Interstate 40 east of Flagstaff in order to settle a Navajo-Hopi land dispute that dates back more than a century.

Staffers in the office of Sen. John McCain had been exploring the idea of a federal land trade in recent years as a way to compensate the Arizona State Land Department for the acreage it would need to shift to Hopi hands, said Nick Matiella, a legislative assistant in McCain’s office. Under an initial draft proposal, McCain’s staff and the State Land Department identified 83,000 acres for a potential trade, 9,400 of which are parcels on the Coconino National Forest around Flagstaff.

That initial proposal had been sent to the city and the county and was obtained by the Arizona Daily Sun through a public records request to those governments.

During Monday’s meeting, Matiella stressed that the parcels were the result of informally “throwing spaghetti at the wall” to see what federal land possibilities existed.

“We learned rather quickly that the lands in question are not suitable” Matiella said to applause from the audience.

Matiella said discussions about the land trade stopped a couple of months ago and McCain’s office is looking for guidance from city and county leaders about how to reboot the process and how they would like to be involved moving forward. He and State Land Department Commissioner Lisa Atkins both said local participation, transparency and government consultation have always been their intent -- they just hadn’t had the chance to do all of those things before their initial map proposals were published.

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting came out strongly against the transfer of federal lands around Flagstaff to the state. They brought up concerns that recreation access could be restricted, that forest management would suffer and that the lands could eventually be developed.

“I support the Hopi people getting the land that is owed to them as soon as possible but I really don’t want to see Flagstaff’s public lands traded away as part of the deal,” Jeff Goulden said.

The parcels in question, he said, “are some of Flagstaff’s best recreational and open space assets.”

Nearly every speaker expressed a similar sentiment, supporting the transfer of state lands to the Hopi but objecting to the use of the Flagstaff-area federal acreage to make that happen.

During his time at the podium, Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma emphasized that the tribe simply wanted the federal government to stand by its word and isn’t trying some sort of “land grab” for Forest Service lands. With the closure of the Navajo Generating Station in 2019 and the loss of the nearby coal plant that supplies it, the Hopi Tribe stands to lose about 85 percent of its operating budget, Nuvangyaoma said.

The tribe sees the state land along I-40 as an opportunity to diversify its economy and mitigate the impacts of the power plant’s closure, he said.

“The single most effective thing the government can do to help the Hopi Tribe weather this storm is to live up to the promises made in 1996 and allow us to obtain our settlement lands,” Nuvangyaoma said.

Both elected officials and members of the public expressed frustration, however, that the responsibility of fulfilling those promises seemed to be falling at the doorstep of local communities. They also asked why it wouldn’t be possible for the federal government to pay for the state land sought by the Hopis, instead of needing to provide compensation via a land swap.

Matiella expressed doubt that federal money would get approved for that purpose, especially because the Hopi were already awarded a cash settlement as part of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute agreement. When asked about that money, Nuvangyaoma referred this reporter to tribal lawyers.

Matiella said that given current circumstances, a land swap is the best way to resolve this final element of the 1996 settlement agreement.

The city and county boards ended the night by drafting a letter to McCain and Rep. Tom O’Halleran. They outlined their disappointment with the federal government’s inability to follow through on its land agreement with the Hopi and urged the legislators to explore the possibility of paying for the state land in cash, rather than through an in-lieu land exchange. The two governments agreed they want a revival of discussions about resolving the decades-old land settlement agreement and they both want to be stakeholders in those talks.

“That ability to reboot would be extremely helpful,” Matiella said.

Trump's strong words on guns give way to political reality

WASHINGTON — Not two weeks ago, President Donald Trump wagged his finger at a Republican senator and scolded him for being "afraid of the NRA," declaring that he would stand up to the powerful gun lobby and finally get results on quelling gun violence following last month's Florida school shooting.

On Monday, Trump struck a very different tone as he backpedaled from his earlier demands for sweeping reforms and bowed to Washington reality. The president, who recently advocated increasing the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon to 21, tweeted that he's "watching court cases and rulings" on the issue, adding that there is "not much political support (to put it mildly)."

Over the weekend, the White House released a limited plan to combat school shootings that leaves the question of arming teachers to states and local communities and sends the age issue to a commission for review. Just two days earlier, Trump had mocked commissions as something of a dead end while talking about the opioid epidemic. "We can't just keep setting up blue-ribbon committees," he said, adding that all they do is "talk, talk, talk."

Seventeen people were killed in last month's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, prompting a national conversation about gun laws, fierce advocacy for stronger gun control from surviving students and, initially, a move from Trump to buck his allies at the National Rifle Association.

In a televised meeting with lawmakers on Feb. 28, Trump praised members of the gun lobby as "great patriots" but declared "that doesn't mean we have to agree on everything. It doesn't make sense that I have to wait until I'm 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18."

He then turned toward Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, and questioned why previous gun control legislation did not include that provision.

"You know why?" said Trump, answering his own question. "Because you're afraid of the NRA, right? Ha ha."

His words rattled some Republicans in Congress and sparked hope among some gun control advocates that, unlike after so many previous mass shootings, meaningful regulations would be enacted. But Trump appeared to foreshadow his change of heart with a tweet the very next night.

"Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!" the president wrote.

White House aides said Monday the president was focusing on achievable options, after facing significant opposition from lawmakers on a more comprehensive approach. Trump will back two modest pieces of legislation, and the administration pledged to help states pay for firearms training for teachers.

Seemingly on the defensive after his about-face, Trump tweeted Monday of the age limit that "States are making this decision. Things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support (to put it mildly)."

The White House insisted that Trump remained committed to more significant changes even if they are delayed.

"We can't just write things down and make them law. We actually have to follow a process," said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. "Right now the president's primary focus is pushing through things we know that have broad bipartisan support."

She placed blame for the inaction on Capitol Hill. But Trump has made little effort to marshal the support of congressional Republicans or use his popularity with NRA voters to provide cover for his party during a contentious vote.

Democrats and gun control advocates were quick to pounce on the president's retreat from previous demands, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., tweeting that Trump "couldn't even summon the political courage to propose raising the age limit on firearm purchases — despite repeated promises to support such a step at a meeting with lawmakers."

Television personality Geraldo Rivera — who had urged the president to consider tougher age limits during a dinner at Trump's Florida club — tweeted that Trump had "blinked in face of ferocious opposition from #NRA."

Still, Trump argued that this was progress.

"Very strong improvement and strengthening of background checks will be fully backed by White House," he tweeted. He added that an effort to bar bump stock devices was coming and that "Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to State Law. Armed guards OK, deterrent!"

Without strong advocacy from the White House, an ambitious gun package was unlikely to even get off the ground, given most Republicans' opposition to any new restrictions. The two measures backed by Trump — an effort to strengthen the federal background check system and an anti-school violence grant program — both enjoy bipartisan support, though some Republicans object and many Democrats say they are insufficient.

Trump drew some Republican backing, with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who wrote the school safety bill, tweeting he was "grateful" for the White House backing and calling the measure "the best first step we can take" to make students safer.

Separately, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday directed the FBI to identify localities that are not fully reporting information about arrests and mental health records to federal authorities. Such information could prevent someone from purchasing a gun if discovered during a background check.

Sessions told the FBI that people who can't legally own guns shouldn't be able to pass background checks "simply because information was not available to you."

No deadline was set for recommendations from Trump's planned commission, but officials expected them within a year.