Philippe Dodard is one of Haiti’s treasures, one of its most beloved artists. His paintings hang in some of the most prestigious galleries throughout the world. But fine art is only one of his callings; he has long been committed to public art as well. “The Haitian people are a deeply religious and aesthetic people," he says. "Art is an important expression of their character.”
On January 12, Philippe was at the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince meeting with the First Lady, Elisabeth Preval. Philippe served as her cultural advisor. They were making plans for the annual Carnival in Haiti, a joyous celebration of culture, music and art in the streets. They spent hours with musicians and artists, planning a celebration where millions could participate.
Later that afternoon, Philippe left the palace and got in his car with his 18-year-old son, who was with him that day. The car started to shake violently. Philippe glanced over his shoulder and he saw the great dome of the Presidential Palace shake and then crumble before his eyes, just minutes after he had left. The whole city tilted and shook and crashed. There was one long wail as millions of Haitians joined together in fear as their world violently fell apart.
“The shock was beyond belief. I was quiet for two weeks; I didn’t shed a tear," Philippe remembers. "I just focused on finding members of my family, friends and neighbors. I couldn’t think beyond that as we dug ourselves out. I didn’t touch a paintbrush for two weeks. One night I sat down at my easel and started to paint. That is when the tears started to flow and didn’t seem to stop.”
Philippe painted and painted, expressing the experience of an earthquake. Those “earthquake” paintings have been shown in exhibits in the U.S. and elsewhere.
It was at that point that Philippe decided to dedicate himself to the recovery of his people. He would use his art as a vehicle. This is also when I first met Philippe. I arrived in Port-au-Prince a few weeks after the earthquake. I and other members of Mercy Corps staff met with the First Lady and Philippe Dodard to discuss bringing our Comfort for Kids program to the vast tent camps.
Comfort for Kids is a counseling program developed by Bright Horizons Family Solutions and Mercy Corps after 9/11 where we counseled and trained teachers, caregivers and parents how to help their children cope with the World Trade Center tragedy. We developed a counseling and training program, and Bright Horizons had also written a book, “What Happened to My World”, to help parents and caregivers understand — by age group — how children were processing the crisis and what they could do to help. Together, these two agencies also mounted a Comfort for Kids program in the Gulf States after Hurricane Katrina. Mercy Corps has since used this program following earthquakes in China, Peru, Chile and now Haiti.
Philippe Dodard and First Lady Preval were extremely enthusiastic about the program and we immediately decided to combine it with a space for children where they could play and make art and music. As Philippe says, “The smiles came back to the children’s faces. They were able to become children again.” The Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. now has an exhibit of the children’s art that has come out of this program.
Philippe Dodard continues to dedicate himself to the recovery of his people. Under the leadership of Mercy Corps youth director, Kyle Dietrich, and with the help of Philippe Dodard, the Comfort for Kids program has reached some 53,000 children in Port-au-Prince, many who are living in tent camps across the city.