Investing In Our Staff

As I’m writing I’m listening to the guys over in the work yard howl with laughter. They like to have fun on the job, and most of them know each other or are even related some way, so there’s a nice sense of camaraderie that makes me laugh most days. Chris and I have recently been talking a lot about how we’ve gotten to this really sweet place with our workers in the last year. It hasn’t always been this way. Most of the time it’s been a big challenge. For Chris it’s been over 12 years of hard work in establishing boundaries and principles. But, it’s all worth it.

When we do training classes, like we did last week, Chris and I teach the theory sections in the early morning. Around 10:30 am the students head over to the work yard to spend the rest of the day with Thony in the practical portion of the class. They learn everything from how to prepare the materials to how to repair filters.

Thony is one of those employees that I look at and think, “This is working. This is what it’s all about!”.

When I first arrived in October 2005 (almost 8 years ago!) we had three full time employees, and Thony was one of them. Thony is the only one of those three that is still here.

By nature, Thony is very charismatic. He has an infectious smile and can be very charming. He’s got an air of confidence about him, and likes to have fun. So much so that for many years we thought he was just a big goof ball. There were a few times many years ago where he made some poor on the job choices that would typically get a worker fired. One time was sort of a “last straw” situation and we deliberated and deliberated over whether to fire him. In the end, we just couldn’t do it and instead gave him a month off work with no pay (called a “sanction” in Creole and very normal practice for employers). This came after a two week sanction about a month before.

Giving him that extra moment of grace was one of the best decisions we’ve made on a work level. When we made it we met with him and explained that typically an employee that had done what he did would be fired, but that we knew there was more to him and hoped that while he had time off he would think about his future and the fact that he could work with the mission for a long time, if he chose to make some changes.

When he came back to work we could tell he was taking things more seriously. A month off with no pay here is hard. But more than that we just saw that a light bulb had gone on. Over time we saw him showing more responsibility – while still having fun and being himself.

An opportunity came up to send him to a training class done by CAWST ( for people who help facilitate health programs. We chose him on a hunch, along with another employee who has a lot of responsibility in our filter program. When the class was over the rep from CAWST told us Thony was one of the best students in the class and did a great job, and that he was a great teacher.

Right around that time one of our employees quit. Part of his job had been to teach the practical sessions during the training classes. Because Thony had been here the longest, and because of the review he’d gotten from CAWST, as well as our own observations with training new employees, we asked him to take on teaching the practical sessions.

Typically the students were done their sessions around the same time the workers got off, but on the second day of class the students were still out in the yard until almost 5 pm. A little before that I went down to check that everything was going okay. I found students totally engrossed in learning how to install filters. I pulled Thony aside to ask if everything was going okay.

Keeping a very straight face he told me that he and Fritzner had done something to each filter to “break” it before the students started their very first installation so the filters wouldn’t work properly when they were done installing them. Were the students frustrated? Yep. Did they learn a very valuable lesson about checking every aspect of the filter before they start. Absolutely.

It was that day that we realized that Thony had the ability to be a great teacher. He had taken initiative and challenged the students in a way that Chris and I loved, without us being part of the planning process.

Last weeks students with Chris, Olivia and Thony (far right) after receiving their diplomas. The students made sure Thony was in the picture :)
Since that time his classes have gotten better and better and the students love him. He’s shown responsibility and skill in other areas too. We often go to him with certain projects because we know that he’ll do a good job on them. He’s teachable. He knows when to be serious and when he can goof around.

I wanted to share this with you because you don’t get to see the long term effects of the work we do first hand. Working with our staff is part of that picture. Most of our staff have never had a full time, long term job before. It’s a process for us to teach them what that looks like while accounting for cultural issues. It sometimes means we have conflicts, but we’re also learning how to work through those. Communication is a very big part of what we do with our staff. If the communication isn’t good, we see the effects of that.

Typically, because of Haiti’s slave history, employees don’t speak up about many things, especially when the employer is a foreigner. Over the past couple years though we’ve seen our staff sharing concerns and ideas with us to improve what we do and how we work together as a team. For Chris and I, we’ve seen them move from it just being a job, to something they are truly wanting to invest themselves in in order for the work of the mission to be more effective, and to have a good work environment.

We’re proud of our staff. They’re all wonderful men and women and none of what we do here would be possible without them. As we look back over the journey we’ve all been on over the years Chris and I are so grateful for the place we’re in now. We’ve seen all of our staff grow, develop skills and become leaders within the work they do here.

Please pray for us as we lead, and for each of our staff as we all work together to provide access to clean water for Haitian families.




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