The web offers opportunities to help those in need like nothing before it. In fact, without the internet, most people would probably have already forgotten that more than a quarter million Haitians lost their lives just a little over fifteen months ago.
The internet can be used to save lives in time of natural disaster or civil uprising. It can also be used, especially in this era of the social media revolution, to bring awareness and raise money for different causes that people the world over are passionate about.
Coupling it with the magnetic power of celebrities, such as Eva Longoria or Shaquille O’Neal, it could do things that no one thought was ever possible. In fact, this is exactly what Shaun King, a pastor at Most Courageous church in Georgia, did last September when he started the Twitchange phenomenon on twitter.
The goal was clear and simple, to bring celebrities and fans together in a loud, fun way on Twitter to bring awareness and financial support to charitable causes that change the world. The idea started because of the earthquake in Haiti; hence, the first twitchange campaign was to benefit a school for children with special needs there: The Miriam Center in Northwest Haiti.
Before twitchange started, Pastor Shaun King founded Ahomeinhaiti, which was a movement that provided shelter, more specifically tents, to people who lost their homes after the earthquake in Haiti. Many people and organizations joined this movement to make it a success, although the idea of sending tents to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake was always controversial to many who know and understand Haiti.
Now, to why this article is even being written. On twitter, many Haitians and foreigners who supported Twitchange and pastor Shaun King, often sent me direct messages (DM) asking what have I heard about the Miriam Center since the end of the twitchange campaign? Many were curious because a lot of money was raised and wanted to know how it was being used, while others simply wanted to check on the progress of the project.
Back in January, I sent my first email to Pastor Shaun King after briefly asking him on twitter, if we could do a short interview so that I could get an update on the project. He replied, saying that I could send him the questions by email, but at that time I was traveling to Haiti, so I never had a chance to do a follow up. As I visited the Twitchange website on April 16th, I then sent Mr. King an email asking for some basic information: Could you please provide us with an update about your project in Haiti, and also for a main contact from the organization which you donated all the money raised? It would be good to get an update from all involved.
This question was sent to him after he wrote on twitter that he donated all the money raised, more than $540,000 according to some reports, such as this Forbes.com article and the Twitchange website (see picture below), to Northwest Haiti Christian Mission (NWHCM). Up to this point, I was just hoping to get a straight answer from either Mr.King or if he provided me with the contact info for NWHCM that the project is on-track and here’s where I can get more information if interested. But all to my surprise, we had a few email exchanges, which can be read below.
Mr.King: Sure! Are you in Haiti? It would be best to go and see the work for yourself. Amazing stuff!
So again, I asked the same question: Do you have someone I can reach in Haiti? I would like to go visit and talk to someone there next week.
Mr King’s: You live in Port Au Prince now? Will you drive from PAP to St. Louis or fly? I will check with the team there on Monday to see who could connect with you.
I answered: I will drive. Can you give me a name and phone number that I can contact this week-end?
Mr.King: I will get a Haitian # for you by Monday. If you drive to St. Louis Du Nord - everybody there knows all about Northwest Haiti Christian Mission.
I sent emails, both on Monday and Tuesday, reminding Mr.King to send me the info. I received no reply. On Wednesday April 20th, I sent another email to him, asking for a Haiti contact again, so that we could set up a visit and an interview with the staff there. When I received no reply to the emails, again, I contacted him through his twitter account. Shortly thereafter, Mr. King sent me this reply: I am out of the state in Los Angeles. Please contact Northwest Haiti Christian Mission directly for whatever info you need. Here's the thing - the organization you are researching has nothing to hide. I have already encouraged you to go there and given you the links to all of the staff members for you to reach them directly. I encourage you to do so.
In the above reply, Pastor King made it seemed as if I was researching NWHCM, which from our first conversation, I had no idea who they were. Pastor King was the one who raised all the money through twitchange, and from the beginning the money was to build the Miriam center which was going to look like this upon completion.
( architectural rendition of the Miriam Center)
Since Pastor King never gave a direct contact for NWHCM in Haiti, so I followed the link for NWHCM that he sent me and contacted Courtney Pierce, the Miriam Center director in Haiti. I got a replied from the director’s organization email stating that she was on sabbatical, and that I should send my email regarding the center to another email address (Miriam.center at nwhcm.org), which I did.
From that email address, I received a reply from Courtney Pierce, detailing the history and need for the Miriam center. I replied to her stating, I was simply looking for basic info about the twitchange funds, and if possible to get a receipt of the transaction between Ahomeinhaiti and NWHCM. She then forwarded my email to a few people within NWHCM, which Sam Guilliams, the executive Vice-President, replied to by asking me to provide more information about who I was.
Once the conversation caught the attention of some more people on twitter, Janeil Oneil, the executive director of NWHCM joined the chat on twitter to bring some clarifications. He noted that his organization only received exactly $200,000 from Ahomeinhaiti.
The conversation continued on twitter with some people who were curious and knew about the twitchange campaign from the beginning. The following day, I received a phone call from Cameron Mayhill, as he returned my calls from the previous days. We chatted about NWHCM work in Haiti, and he was also very forthcoming by answering some of my questions about the Miriam center and the money raised through twitchange.
Mr. Mayhill clarified that NWHCM received $200,000 from Shaun King’s Ahomeinhaiti back in December 2010, and that the money was wired via Paypal, but he could not confirm if that was all the money raised through twitchange. He also mentioned that the Miriam Center’s construction is currently on hold due to drainage issue on the land, but that they plan to move forward with it in the near future. He could not comment on an exact date at this moment, but he is confident that the center will be built.
Mr. Mayhill also added that Pastor King was hired for a paid position by NWHCM after the twitchange campaign, and up to now he is still employed with them. Mr. Mayhill further added that there is a change in the architectural plan, and a new firm is being contacted for adjustment in the design of the new center to make it more in line with Haiti’s reality.
In a newsletter report from NWHCM, dated Fall 2010, they mentioned that twitchange was able to raise more than $540,000 for a new and extended Miriam Center in Bonneau, Haiti. In a later newsletter issue, a correction was made about funds collected from the twitchange which put it at $200,000, although it still stated that more $540,000 was raised. The key here is that there is a distinction to be made between money raised and funds collected.
One explanation that I got about this discrepancy is the fact that some celebrities did not want to support certain businesses that bid for them during the Twitchange campaign, so those businesses did not pay on their pledge. I perused the entire Twitchange website, the Twitchange twitter account, Ahomeforhaiti.org, Shaun King’s twitter account and NWHCM website and nowhere did I ever see a mention of celebrities not wanting to support a business that participated in the Twitchange campaign or anything referring to $200,000 as the final count. The amount raised was never corrected on any of those websites, and there was no formal press release about the money transfer between Ahomeinhaiti and NWHCM.
It might be true that only $200,000 were collected from the twitchange auction to build a new and expanded Miriam center, but since both Ahomeforhaiti, which used Courageous Church as a fiscal agent and NWHCM are 501(c) 3, and in the case of the latter a registered Non-Governmental Organization in Haiti, shouldn’t we the public have access to their financial records, so that everyone knows exactly how much money was raised and how it is being spent.
(A screenshot of Twitchange.com, showing more than $500,000 was received)
There is no financial statement on NWHCM’s website, which has been operating in Haiti for more than 30 years. Pastor King, who is currently employed by them, got this job after the twitchange campaign, how much he is being compensated has not been made public. By publishing their latest tax form, it would put all the donors of Twitchange at ease because they would know how their donated money is being used, and it would help eliminate any doubt that anyone might have about how much money was really raised by Pastor Shaun King through Twitchange.
(This screenshot, actually showed how much was raised to the penny)
Pastor King likes to mention on his twitter account that the land for the Miriam Center is already purchased, and the foundation work has started, but it is worth to note that the land was purchased before the Twitchange campaign. According to Mr.Mayhill, the $200,000 received from Pastor King is still in the Mission's bank account.
As Haiti gets ready to build back better, many of us appreciate all the great initiatives that friends of Haiti and people like Pastor Shaun King have taken to contribute and make a difference. However, due to lessons from the past, it is known that the best way to finally get Haiti moving in the right direction is for Haitian people to keep their eyes open and a little honesty from all involved about their work in Haiti. People who have nothing to hide will be forthcoming and able to show how every dime is being spent. The Haitian people have been taking advantage of far too long, there comes a time when enough is enough.
It is one thing to raise money through innovative ways by using the web, celebrities, churches, and regular individual, but it is as important to follow through with a promise, and use all the money for the intended purposes. If things change or a challenge arises, be as creative as possible to communicate with all involved, especially the donors. This is not only the right thing to do; it is also showing respect to the donors, and the people who should benefit from such projects.
It is our hope that the money raised through Twitchange will be used to help build this new center in Haiti and that sooner rather than later, financial reports and constant updates will be provided to all of us on the websites of all those in charge of this project.