The Colour Purple

GROUP WITH A MISSION: Purple Cake Day trustees, from left, Roger Sanson, Emily Sanson-Rejouis and Sarah Sharp.
GROUP WITH A MISSION: Purple Cake Day trustees, from left, Roger Sanson, Emily Sanson-Rejouis and Sarah Sharp.

On Purple Cake Day this March 8, Emily Sanson-Rejouis' Kenbe La Foundation is aiming to raise $100,000 to help children in three countries receive life-changing education and support. Naomi Arnold reports on a local charity that the world is getting behind.

Nearly three years after losing her husband and two of her daughters in the Haiti earthquake, Emily Sanson-Rejouis returned to her former home on an aid trip - only to find herself landing in fresh devastation.

It was October 2012, the second time she had visited since the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than a quarter of a million people in the second most-deadly earthquake of all time.

On the day she and her two companions arrived, Hurricane Sandy was buffeting the island, and the pilot found a short break in the weather to land their plane.

The reprieve didn't last. The trio arrived to half a million people still struggling in tent camps, cowering under makeshift tarpaulins as the rains came down. Tropical storm Isaac had already swept through in August, taking with it more lives and much of the progress made since the earthquake.

"It was raining, dismal, there was rubbish floating in the streets; it was poverty at its absolute worst," Mrs Sanson-Rejouis, a former United Nations worker, says. "I know Haiti from a lot of different angles. From before the earthquake, the art, the music, the politics, a lot of the good sides of Haiti. But seeing the people in the markets struggle to hold on to whatever was around them from being washed away was shocking. There was absolutely nothing left."

Her father, foundation trustee and treasurer Roger Sanson, went with her on the trip and recalls the "absolute forlornness, forsakenness of the place".

"It was like the day after the end of the world," he says. "The devastation that's still there from the earthquake has to be seen to be comprehended. It is just everywhere. It's very difficult to explain it, to describe it. There are a few buildings that are still in one piece that are fine, particularly in the commercial areas, but there are just vast kilometres after kilometres of decimated homes."

Then it stopped raining, the sun came out, and the trio got down to the work that has become Emily Sanson-Rejouis' main job since the earthquake.

They arranged distribution of the contents of three 20-foot shipping containers holding donations made by New Zealanders during an appeal in July 2010, including bedding, toolboxes, towels, soap, medical supplies, sports equipment, pencils, paper, fabric, two treadle sewing machines, and three entire pre-fabricated school classrooms for Henri Christophe Community School, near the epicentre of the quake.

She and Mr Sanson recall the Monday morning after the storm, when they saw children in immaculate school uniforms emerging from the rubble on the streets, laughing as they picked their way through the rubbish to meet up and walk to school. While walking through the shack-lined streets of one of Haiti's ruined neighbourhoods, Port-au-Prince's Delmas 32, they met street kids who said they wanted to study medicine, so they could help their ill mums and dads.

"It was like hope emerging out of chaos," Mr Sanson says. "That was happening all over the place. It was very confirming for me of the value of education, both for the skills the children were gaining, but also for the hope that was giving to those children and their families."

"To see people making the best of that situation is incredible, is compelling. It moves you beyond belief," Mrs Sanson-Rejouis says.

"The hope they have and the positive outlook they manage to find in midst of that life I find inspiring."

She says their main hope is education, the No 1 priority for Haitian parents. "They will give almost anything to get their children an education."

But many Haitian children will never get the chance. Ninety per cent of Haiti's 15,200 primary schools are non-public, run on the goodwill of communities, religious organisations or non-government organisations, and the earthquake destroyed or badly damaged thousands, as well as its three main universities.

Lives have been destroyed too, and rebuilding those can be equally slow. Mrs Sanson-Rejouis passed the three-year anniversary of her husband's and daughters' deaths quietly this January. But she is now readying herself for 2013's big fundraising push - raising $100,000 for children's educational programmes in Haiti, Nepal, and Kenya. She will do it with remarkable backing from Nelson and people around the world, demonstrating what one person can achieve with the support of thousands.

Her story has touched them all. At the moment the 7.0 earthquake struck on January 12, she was travelling in a car while her husband Emmanuel Rejouis, also a UN worker, was home in the hotel they were living in, caring for their three Nelson-born daughters, Alyanah, 2, Zenzie, 3, and Kofie-Jade, 5.

Despite search and rescue teams saying it was too difficult and dangerous to attempt a rescue at the hotel, Mrs Sanson-Rejouis persuaded a group of young men to help her, and between them they shifted concrete and steel by hand to save three lives. Zenzie, Kofie-Jade, and Mr Rejouis were killed, but she rescued Alyahna, shielded from the rubble by Mr Rejouis' body.

Days after the quake, Mrs Sanson-Rejouis was already talking to family about setting up a charity to continue the work her husband cared about. She started the Kenbe La Foundation, Haitian Creole for "never give up", that New Zealand winter, its flagship fundraising day inspired by Kofie's thoughtfulness towards street kids and Zenzie who wanted two purple cakes for her fourth birthday.

The foundation, whose voluntary trustees include Nelson locals and two international advisers, chooses a new country every year that Purple Cake Day will donate towards.

As well as setting up a long-term children's emergency fund, it has supported the Children of Haiti Project (COHP) from the beginning, which teaches and supports 87 children who live in a nearby tent camp.

In 2012, it fundraised for the Henri Christophe School, in Haiti, and Nepalese charities First Steps Himalaya, the In Time Trust, and the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust.

This year's fundraisers will again benefit COHP and First Steps Himalaya. But its new charity is Kenya's Hilde Back Education Fund.

It was set up by Chris Mburu, a Kenyan man whose life was changed as a child by a $15 a month donation from Swedish woman Hilde Back. Mr Mburu was able to attend a Nairobi secondary school, Harvard Law School, and is now a UN human rights adviser. The fund supports children from poor families with educational opportunities.

"They'll become the doctors, lawyers and community leaders [who] will then help change the lives of all their families and communities," Mrs Sanson-Rejouis says.

Despite the Kenbe La Foundation exceeding its $60,000 goal by $20,000 in 2012, this year's $100,000 Purple Cake Day target is clearly going to be a challenge. Mrs Sanson-Rejouis is still a volunteer, though declines to say how she supports herself financially.

"We're hoping we get a lot more schools, community groups and businesses on board to help us reach those targets. It's always exciting to set yourself an ambitious goal," she says.

"We have an extremely dedicated team of volunteers. It's going to depend on getting as many people excited and enthused about running their celebrations as we can. But I'm very positive that we're providing a really fun and unique way for people to get involved and make a difference. I hope we can turn the whole of Nelson purple again on March 8, and much wider than that."

When choosing who receives their funds, "it's very difficult to know where to start", Mrs Sanson-Rejouis says. They have to make sure the programme will last, and will use its resources well in helping those children who are most disadvantaged. However, it's not just about money.

"They really appreciate the kind of support we offer because it brings a personal touch to what we do," Mrs Sanson-Rejouis says, citing the hand-made paintings, flags, and other creative goods the children receive.

"They know they have come from kids in New Zealand and around the world. They've got a globe; they know where these kids are."

Seeing young New Zealanders supporting children in Haiti and elsewhere has been "extremely gratifying", Mr Sanson says.

"It really vindicates Emily's vision from the start of inspiring children who are in quite privileged situations, such as ours, to actually get involved with children in deprived situations."

From Christchurch, children have sent pencil cases stuffed with stationery to children at the COHP school. From Brigantine School in New Jersey, they have donated educational toys and materials to Irku school in rural Nepal. At San Luis Obispo in California, elementary schools celebrated Purple Cake Day with games, art projects, a wear-purple contest, and a purple cupcake bake sales. At Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, children who held a purple bake sale selling cupcakes, cookies, and brownies frosted with purple icing raised more than US$600.

In Perth, a kindergarten group made cupcakes, and at a preschool in Hong Kong, children dressed in purple, painted purple bunting and got their faces painted. In Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, celebrations were held for 95 children at an orphanage.

Mrs Sanson-Rejouis says she could never have imagined this global reach just three years ago. She particularly likes that Purple Cake Day is about children helping children, and says such support in the beginning couldn't have come from anywhere but Nelson.

"I love seeing the initiative and creativity that children have taken here. It's a fun day to be involved in. . . . it's got a really important message to children, which they take quite seriously.

"You've got 4-year-olds from Montessori out there selling cupcakes and they know why. Their answer is quite simple: ‘Because these children in Haiti don't have pens and pencils at school and we want to help them'.

"Older children have become ambassadors and they are developing leadership skills and getting their whole school on board, motivating all their peers."

Those who wanted to help after her horrific loss have found an outlet in the foundation, and their response has been humbling.

"[It's] a great event, a day of celebration, and it has become something that is a day of solidarity, when people dress in purple on our global day of action. You know that this is happening in countries all around the world.

"It's really quite a moving experience to know that what you're doing here in New Zealand is also being done in Hong Kong, the United States, in France, in Congo. That children around the world are taking part in an event that is connecting kids and celebrating kids [and] then taking action for those in need.

"[It] will just increase year after year."

She credits the global reach of the charity to the power of social media, her long list of international friends and contacts from 12 years working with the UN, and the personal, celebratory touch of the day itself, which they showcase on their Facebook page.

She is grateful for the support of Nelson businesses, from printing to advertising to web services, but would still like to find some way to offset the charity's ongoing administrative costs.

Her dream, she says, is that every child in the world has access to a quality education.

As for their personal recovery, Mr Sanson says the feelings of loss and grief at losing his son-in-law and granddaughters will never go away.

"From time to time they will come up and you have to deal with those. On the other hand, we also have to get on with trying to recover a day-to-day life. That for me has been the process - recognising the two sides of that. Gradually, day-to-day life is recovering."

Helping, he says, "gives us lots of energy".

Mrs Sanson-Rejouis finds a "great sense of purpose" in what she does.

"As hard as it was for me to go back to Haiti in 2011 and 2012, I came back more convinced that I'm doing something that has got value."

Helping has healed. Life is busy. The charity has channelled her energy into something positive, and she draws strength from Alyahna, now almost 5 and thriving.

"She understands what Purple Cake Day means," Mrs Sanson-Rejouis says. "For her it has a particular significance related to her sisters and experience in Haiti, and I think it's been a really positive thing for her to be involved in, as part of our personal journey after the tragedy.

"She knows she's doing something for other children around the world. One day I hope to visit Haiti with her when she's older and will be able to really understand that significance.

"It's been a hard journey. But I think I'm doing as well as I could hope to do three years down the track.

"It's a lot of hard times that I face still. But I've got a lot of support from family and community in doing what I do."

PURPLE CAKE DAY Visit to download a Purple Cake Day resource kit for schools, community groups or families. Find celebration ideas, learn more about the charities it supports, or find out what Purple Cake Day competitions you can enter this year. -