Dina Simon, Haitian-born and New York-bred, holds a master’s degree and a high-level position with New York City’s Department of Corrections.
Simon also is a home-based agent and the founder and manager of My Haiti Travels, a boutique firm based in Huntington Station, N.Y., that seeks to connect travelers with Haiti and Haitians through a blend of civic and social interactions and safe, meaningful and fun experiences.
It took a devastating event years after she had left Haiti to rekindle her connection — or reconnection — with the country she left at 9 years of age when she moved with her family to the U.S.
“It was my birthday,” she recalled. “I was on vacation in Mexico, sitting on the beach when the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. In those first days after the quake, I could not get the images out of my head of the utter destruction and havoc caused by the quake.”
She returned to New York, but the images stayed with her.
“I kept asking myself: How can I help with the rebuilding of Haiti? I couldn’t work for an NGO [nongovernmental organization] because I had no background in that,” she said.
In August 2010, eight months after the quake and with the country still in ruins, Simon visited Haiti for the first time since she had left as a child.
“I hadn’t kept a connection with Haiti through all those years,” she said. “But when I was there on that visit, I saw things. I posted photos, and my friends saw the photos and wanted to go to Haiti. They wanted me to show them Haiti through my eyes.”
And she, too, wanted to return.
Unable to find a reliable source of guidance for where to stay, where to eat and what to do in Haiti, Simon founded My Haiti Travels in 2012.
“The goal was to promote local businesses, support local shops and restaurants and build relationships with local professionals and experts across Haiti’s hospitality and tourism sectors,” she said. “We want to educate travelers by showing them the different sides of Haiti.
“We try to change the perception of Haiti by focusing on the positive but not ignoring the struggle. We have to tell Haiti’s story. We’re aware of the challenges facing Haiti, but the time has come to take a different path and do something new.”
In 2013, My Haiti Travels launched Impact Week, its signature annual expedition coinciding with the Martin Luther King federal holiday on the third Monday of each January.
A key feature of the five-day/four-night program that year, this year and continuing Jan. 15 through 19, 2015 is Project Day.
“We spend time in Port-au-Prince and on one of those days, we travel to Zoranje not far from the capital. It’s a new settlement born from the earthquake, with housing and public schools for families who lost homes,” Simon said.
On the first visit to the school in 2013, Simon’s tour group planted a tree and met and talked with the students.
This year, My Haiti Travels returned to the same elementary school.
“We included three breakout sessions this time where we painted with the kids, sang nursery rhymes with the younger ones and had a real talk session with the eighth-graders,” she said.
The discussion was simultaneously illuminating and heartwrenching.
“They asked us why we didn’t come back to Haiti more often,” Simon recalled. “‘How can we maintain hope?’ one of them asked us.”
One of the tour participants on the first trip, a teacher, was so moved by the experience that she now returns once a month and conducts teacher training sessions at the school.
“We’ve seen that what we do makes an impact, Simon said. “Kids meet us, and they see us return. The favorite moment of Impact Week for all of us is the day we volunteer.”
A repeat client who has booked the 2015 trip is bringing laptops for the students.
The group’s time in Port-au-Prince includes trips to the Iron Market to see (and buy) handicrafts from the vendors, plus visits to several museums and art galleries.
“I want them to see artifacts, like the anchor from Christopher Columbus’ ship in the National Pantheon Museum,” Simon said. “I want them to understand and appreciate the history of Haiti and our people.”
Although the basic itinerary for each Impact Week remains the same, Simon makes a point of patronizing different restaurants, hotels and hot spots on each trip.
“We eat at local restaurants,” she said. “We hear local bands and visit clubs and nightspots. We stay at a different hotel each year. This year was the Best Western, last year was the Royal Oasis. We are constantly meeting and talking with Haitian entrepreneurs. We have three local guides who travel with us who speak Creole and know the hidden places to go.”
A 45-minute drive from the capital is a beach area where an afternoon is spent swimming and sunning.
“We do a hike,” Simon said. “It’s optional, but 19 of the 30 people in the group this year opted to do it. We passed through a village and ended at a spring and natural pool ringed by watercress. It was magical.”
Tour participants span all walks of life, from nurses, executives and teachers to Haitian diaspora who want to share the country’s culture and history with their preteen and grown children.
Most are from the New York area, although Simon has had participants from Texas, Maryland and Florida.
“On these trips, I try to show the other side of Haiti,” she said. “It’s important to me that these visitors see Haiti in a new light, a positive light, and to make them repeat visitors. There is still poverty, a lot of it, but I see changes and progress.”
Because many in the tour group wanted to stay longer, Simon tweaked the 2015 itinerary and added the option of two more days that will include Haiti’s annual Jazz Fest in Port-au-Prince as well as tours of the Citadelle in the north.
My Haiti Travels also offers an annual Memorial Day five-day/four-night package that visits Jacmel, the thriving art community a three-hour drive south from Port-au-Prince, and Petion-Ville outside the capital.
Land-only rates for Impact Week are $1,299 per person, double; the Memorial Day package starts at $1,199 per person, double.
Both are all-inclusive packages, except for alcoholic beverages.
“I don’t book air,” Simon said. “I book the hotels, arrange the tours, hire the guides, scout out the restaurants and accompany my groups.”
JetBlue, American and Delta serve Haiti from several gateways, and tour participants meet up in Port-au-Prince.
“I believe travelers are looking for a different type of vacation,” she said. “The days when people are confined to a resort are gone. Haiti offers a mixture for people who want adventure and authenticity and who want to discover culture and history.”
The best way to support Haiti is to visit, support local businesses and give back directly to the people in need through volunteer efforts, according to Simon.