Haitian-born Unik Ernest is living the American Dream. After coming to America in the early 1990s, he quickly became one of the most sought-after event producers in the country. Over twenty years later, Unik still produces the most exclusive events for celebrities, tastemakers and Fortune 500 companies all over the world. But after a devastating visit to his native Port-Au-Prince five years ago, Unik was inspired to pursue a new dream.
In 2007, Unik saw a Haiti he did not recognize. The Bel-Air neighborhood had become a slum, a tent-city, full of children aimlessly wandering with no education and no future. That year, he and his childhood friend Michael Pradieu co-founded the non-profit education organization for children, Edeyo, which simply means “help them” in Haitian Krèyol.
Today, over 300 children receive education, temporary shelter and one meal a day through Edeyo. And as the foundation celebrates its fifth anniversary in Manhattan this Wednesday, June 27, Unik is throwing another one of his famous parties, the Edeyo Gives Hope Ball — hosted by Boris Kudjoe and Kelly Bensimon– to raise much-needed funds for the foundation.
In an interview with EBONY.com, Unik spoke about his vision for Haiti and his hope that more African Americans will hear about the struggles of Haiti and get involved.
EBONY: Starting with raising $15,000 for Wyclef Jean’s Yele Foundation in 2006, you began to give back to Haiti in a much more substantial and tangible way. What triggered this desire to give more to your home country?
UNIK ERNEST: I have to be honest, when I moved [to the U.S.] from Haiti, I became very disconnected from Haiti. I was disconnected for 13 years. And though everybody who knew me or knew of me knew I was Haitian, and that Haitians are very proud of our culture and of our background and our ancestors, I never gave back to Haiti. But I give now for no other reason than for the love of my country.
I launched Edeyo with Michael Pradieu on my birthday five years ago, and as it grows, I grow — [both] as a person and in how I can help my country.
EBONY: Edeyo does much more than educate children, so when people donate to your foundation, where are the majority of the funds concentrated?
UK: Well, we are not like most other aid organizations because all of our New York-based staff members are volunteers, so ninety-five cents of every dollar goes directly to the children in our school. We have over 300 children in our school and we are also feed them one meal a day while they are at the school. Because of us, they have access to dentists and doctors as well. We have to pay the teachers and staff in Haiti to run the school and right now we are leasing the building the school is in, but we would like to stop paying rent and buy some land so that we can increase the number of students we can educate and feed instead of using money to pay someone else’s mortgage. That’s what we’re working on right now. So, most of the money goes to pay teachers, give them access to medical care and make sure they have a real meal every day.
Right now, our school educates children from kindergarten through sixth grade, so when the students graduate from sixth grade and have to go on to another school, we pay to send them to a different school so they can continue their education.
EBONY: At what point will you consider Edeyo a success?
UK: It’s a success in the short term if poor parents that don’t have means to send their children to a state-of-the-art school or feed them can send them to our school and those children can get what they need without cost. That’s our short-term goal, to continue to do that for even more children.
Our long term goal is to see these children we’ve been taking care of 5 years, 10 years, 15 years down the line becoming true leaders of Haiti and are invested in Haiti. We want to be role models for these children now so they can be role models for other children. Even though they are young, they are aware of what we are doing for them and what this school is all about and that we are doing what we can for them with love and it’s from the heart, so that they will have love and give from the heart too. I have a lot of hope that when they are 25 and 30 years old, they’re going to be the next leaders and people Haiti can count on.
EBONY: With so much political corruption in Haiti and so much economic and structural instability in the country, where does that hope that you have come from and how do you hold onto it when the tasks at hand seem daunting?
UK: My mom always taught me, in everything you do in life, if you do it with your heart, if you do it with honesty, you will be a success. She taught me as a kid, “if you are hungry, don’t ever go to your next-door neighbor and ask for food. Put a grain of salt under your tongue and you’ll be fine for the whole day.” Self-reliance. Don’t sell yourself short. To stand for something, you can’t let anybody buy you. She taught me character. She’s truly my hero, and for the most part, this foundation is because of her.
As a foundation, Edeyo is an apolitical organization. We are a group of young women and men with a lot of character and unequivocal hope in a new and better Haiti – an equitable and just country, especially for the voiceless and underprivileged children. We’re going to keep on fighting for these children so they can have a healthy life and education and a future. When you do right, everything else is going to work itself out; we don’t have to try to make it happen by compromising our integrity and core values.
EBONY: What do you think it will take for more people to get involved in the work that’s being done in Haiti?
UK: People have to see it. What you call home, it can be just a tent for them. Of the 300 children in my school, I don’t think more than 10 of them have a home like we call a home here. It could just be a cot to sleep on. You have to see it with your own two eyes.
Haiti is the first independent Black country in the world and that’s something all Black people can be proud of. But we need more help and support from the African American community. I’m making an appeal to all African Americans to get more involved with what’s happening to the people of Haiti. We respect Sean Penn and all of these other folks’ work in Haiti, but we want some leaders from the African American community and every day people to get involved and see how our stories connect.
We are planning on going back to Haiti before the school year starts in September and would encourage anybody who wants to learn more and experience first-hand what is happening in Haiti and what we are doing there and wants to help to contact us and come with us. It’s not too late.
For tickets to the Edeyo Gives Hope Ball on June 27, or to donate to the organization, visit Edeyo.org.