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Originally published January 19, 2010 at 8:42 PM | Page modified January 20, 2010 at 5:57 PM

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Danny Westneat

Stepping up to the bar to help

Waid Sainvil isn't your typical head of an international aid organization. He runs a Seattle bar. He's not shy about using the F-word.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Waid Sainvil isn't your typical head of an international aid organization.

He runs a Seattle bar. He's not shy about using the F-word. Before last week, he spent a lot of his time planning the next party night, or, on his Facebook page, debating the existence of God. (His verdict: There is no God.)

But after last Tuesday's Haiti earthquake, Sainvil, born and raised in Port-au-Prince, has found himself running a guerrilla, off-the-grid charity for the destroyed country.

"No red tape," he says, mustering a laugh.

Sainvil, who came to the U.S. 24 years ago, runs Waid's Haitian Cuisine & Lounge on Capitol Hill. It's said to be the only Haitian bar in the region, making Waid a de facto leader of the state's tiny Haitian population.

Even before the quake, the couple hundred Haitians here sent a lot of money home. Haitians all over the U.S. do it, to help relatives get by in the Western hemisphere's poorest country.

The payments, called family remittances, are Haiti's No. 1 source of income, far outpacing what the country gets in aid from foreign governments.

Best of all, it goes directly to the people.

So Sainvil, whose boyhood home was flattened in the quake, had the idea of marrying the goodwill of Seattleites with the word-of-mouth Haitian network.

It works like this: He gets three to five calls a day from Haitian expats, all desperate to send help to relatives back home. Sainvil is running a series of fundraisers at his bar, at which people donate money or supplies. Then he sends checks or boxes of stuff to specific Haitian families recommended by the network.

There are no guidelines. Neither is there any overhead or government pass-throughs.

"It's direct family support," Sainvil says. "It's a way to get the help right to the people."

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It's not necessarily the way the experts say we should help. The standard advice is to give money only — not supplies or volunteer labor — to one of the established relief organizations.

They also say you shouldn't earmark your donation for one place such as Haiti. That's because they can end up with too much aid in one region and not enough in another (The Red Cross still has a half-billion dollars left in its account from the 2004 tsunami.)

I'm not arguing against big-dollar relief agencies. They do a world of good. But especially when the immediate crisis is over, when it's time for Haiti to start over, small and direct seem a more powerful way to go.

I went to Sainvil's first fundraiser last week, which netted $7,000 (some was earmarked by patrons to specific agencies, such as Bill Clinton's fund.)

At the bar was Hans Bernard, a local Haitian whose mother died in the quake. He thought his father had died, too, only to find later he'd been dug out, bones broken but alive.

Bernard could barely speak, he was so anxious to get to Haiti. To help his dad. To rebuild. He seemed more suited for the job than any convoy of aid workers.

"Now we can send him," Waid Sainvil said Tuesday. "He is leaving as soon as he finds a flight."

I can't vouch for Waid's track record running a charity because he doesn't have one. But he's on to something here.

"I believe it's only human beings who can help one another, person to person. Like this," he said, gesturing at the crowds in his bar last week. "It can save Haiti, it can save the world."

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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