Creating an oasis of hope in one of Haiti's most dangerous neighborhoods


This year has been particularly brutal: violent and deadly protests against rising fuel costs, alleged government corruption and depressing economic conditions have destroyed the country's already fragile infrastructure.

In neighborhoods like Cité Soleil, near the capital of Port-au-Prince, conditions for children are even more difficult. Gang war, sewage overflow and protests are taking to the streets. Children are often unable to attend school or receive adequate food, water or medical care.

However, it is in Cité Soleil where Daniel Tillias sees hope. In the chaos, the Cité Soleil native offers a safe oasis for children struggling to survive. In him, change begins with them.

"Many people in Haiti refer to Cité Soleil as a place of rubbish where all the earth's reserves are," Tillias said. "But … I see these kids with opportunities, with wings … waiting to fly. Waiting to be the next citizen to change things in Haiti."

Tilia is organizing a youth empowerment program called SAKALA – which translates into the Community Center for Peaceful Alternatives – in the heart of Cité Soleil. The organization offers free sports and academic institutions, gardening, community development and conflict resolution programs for children.

"The initiative was to find a safe place in the neighborhood for children to be young children – not to see a dead body on the street, not to live in constant shooting, not to see things that little children should not see, "said Tilia.

Growing up in Cité Soleil, Tillias felt the negative stigma attached to being a "slum" and vowed to change the city for the better. The team started 12 years ago as a sports program to keep boys out of gangs. Today, the Gender Equality Program promotes peace through sport, gardening and education.

Tilia and his team support about 200 children each year financially through scholarships and support services and offer a meal plan to SAKALA when they can afford it.

"We like to select the most vulnerable children, we take care of children who are prone to get involved in violent groups or drugs, children who have no parents or are already on the streets," he said. "We're trying to build and work on a team of kids, a model team, that will give back to the community and inspire others."

The group also opens its doors to neighboring children who come because the center is a haven of violence outside. Close to the playground where children play soccer and basketball, there are classrooms, a library and a communal garden where herbs bloom from the old tires that once burned down the streets.

"We call this a place of peace and happiness. It can help with the cleansing we want to see because we know that the Cité Soleil kids really deserve it," Tillias said. "They have the opportunity to hear the birds sing in the garden. They have the opportunity to see a tree planted to get as tall as them."

Tillias also launched a green initiative to reproduce the community garden in Haiti so that Haitians can make their own food. And she hopes that the children of SAKALA, who grow up and promote peace, will be the ones pulling their families and the whole country out of poverty.

"We could really have a new country that will become a role model for the world and we know it can start from here," he said.

CNN spoke with Tilia about his work. Below is a version of their conversation.

CNN: How do you think people perceive Cité Soleil?

Daniel Tillias: Cité Soleil is the place people refer to as the largest community not served throughout the country. It's like a very small location, but it's densely populated, and people refer to it as the largest ghetto or the largest slum. It is by the water, surrounded and crossed by several sewers that are unfortunately blocked due to poor waste management. This creates a situation where it is constantly flooded or invaded by all the waste and garbage. Because of this, people see it as a landfill, like the Port-au-Prince landfill. This really affects people's mentality.

CNN hero Daniel Tillias

And when these things happen, it really does wash away hope. That is precisely why we are trying to balance it with the alternatives we create in SAKALA. Because we cannot let Haitian children lose the only thing they have left, which is their hope.

CNN: How does your program and center handle this?

Tilia: At SAKALA, we create this environment where the green you see competes with the red you see outside with all the rubbish burning in the streets. You look at life inside the Jackal and you feel there is hope behind. You see an alternative path that many children seem to miss because they see nothing for the future. We like to say that SAKALA is the ultimate alternative to all the suffering that this community faces. We like to say that Sakala is the last hope that this neighborhood has and embraces.

CNN: SAKALA offers sports, but it's not just games.

Tilia: The kids at Cité Soleil have been through so much of what they see on the street (or) what they hear all the time. Sometimes it is a natural disaster, there will be a flood. They miss nights without sleep. Our sports are about creating a sense of cooperation. They are sports to create yourself, to understand that you have the potential to achieve a goal. They are sports to really develop self-esteem.

We have football, volleyball, baseball, basketball. We use American flag football, street hockey, table tennis. We have done a lot of yoga, meditation, (we have) introduced tai chi so that they can be cleansed of everything they have experienced in the past and be more than just a sports team but a team that is ready, aware and can even teach other groups.

Do you want to get involved? Checkout the SAKALA website and see how to help.
To donate to SAKALA via CrowdRise, Click here