Caroline Poppell grew up ensconced in faith. The Darien native has always made a point to orient her path to God’s purpose. It was this focus that ultimately set her course to an unforeseen place — Leogane, Haiti.
Poppell first set foot on the island’s soil back in 2010, less than two months after an earthquake devastated the Caribbean country.
“Haiti was all over the news, and I just couldn’t get it off my mind ... Then an old friend called and randomly told me about this mission trip to Haiti,” she said. “I hadn’t talked to him in years, but he said that he thought I might want to know about it.”
Call it “providence” or “divine intervention,” but Poppell jumped at the chance to join the mission trip. Sponsored by Darien United Methodist Church, she teamed up with a group from Texas. It proved to be a trip that would change her life forever.
“I was on a bus on that first trip, and I saw this boy pulling a toy car that he had made from a milk carton on a string,” she said.
It was a crude design, with four bottle cap wheels. But the joy and pride on his face was something that lit a spark inside of Poppell.
“He had taken what was in his hands and made something with it,” she said. “This image stayed with me and affected me greatly.”
It came to represent the Haitian people as a whole for Poppell — their resilience, determination and mostly their ability to be fully grateful for what little they had. This inspiration led her to return to the country time and time again.
“I kept coming back to Haiti and fell more and more in love with the people,” she recalled.
Poppell started to think of ways that she could best help those who lived there. Slowly, through thought and prayer, the answer presented itself. She would aid the children of Haiti through one of her personal passions — dance.
A longtime performer and choreographer, Poppell moved to Washington, D.C., to study at the Kirov Ballet Academy when she was just 16 and stayed there for two years.
“I then moved to NYC where I freelanced for five years,” she said. “I then studied dance ministry at Hillsong College in Sydney, Australia, where I had the opportunity to dance and choreograph for their international conferences.”
She took this wealth of knowledge and experience with her when she decided to move to the Caribbean full-time in 2014. Poppell quickly picked up the language — Haitian Creole — and engaged with the communities there.
“I began teaching creative arts and dance classes at different schools in Leogane, Haiti, but soon realized that creativity and individualism had been squeezed out of them,” she said. “I believe that arts in general are evidence of a thriving society. The Haitian people are very musical, but there are no opportunities to explore the arts in Leogane.”
To be able to help in a broader sense, Poppell established a nonprofit — Milk Carton on a String, inspired by that first encounter with the young boy back in 2010. The program offers dance, creative arts and music classes in the Leogane and Gressier areas of Haiti.
“We also provide literacy programs, which include an adult literacy class for adults that never had the chance to attend or finish school. A book club for kids to get exposed to new literature and learn how to take care of books — most of our students have never owned a book,” she said.
To change that, Poppell and her team established Little Twit Publications, which has produced two books in English and Creole — “M’ap Danse” (“So I Dance”) and “Margaret.”
For students, having access to these books, especially ones in their own language, is critically important. Milk Carton on a String sells the books online on their site — www.milkcartononastring.com — and each purchase of a book also secures a copy for a child in Haiti.
Between the books, the creative arts program and managing the 501c3 nonprofit, Poppell has learned a great deal in a relatively short time. And she works tirelessly to create awareness of the organization and the challenges Haitians are facing.
“This journey has been the hardest thing that I have ever done. I think the most unexpected thing that I have found by working in Haiti is that ‘out of sight (is) out of mind.’ We find that a lot of people don’t realize what is happening in Haiti. We paint our view of Haiti from stories of natural disasters and political scandals. We outlaw orphanages in the states but support them abroad,” she said.
“The most rewarding thing that has come out of all of this, and that I am still learning more and more everyday, is how to listen. Learning to listen to God and his direction. Learning to listen to our students and peers. Learning to listen to my brothers and sisters, both (in Haiti) and in the states. Because only after we listen will we know what is really needed and how to move forward.”
One way that Poppell forges ahead is by reaching out to her hometown. Her family is key in spreading the word. Her mother, Lynn, often visits civic groups to discuss the charity. She is also one who helps organize a locally held fundraiser that goes a long way toward funding the program.
Each year, Poppell holds a dance intensive where professional instructors come from across the globe to teach participants at a Brunswick studio. After the program wraps, a production featuring those performers is held at the Ritz Theater with the funds going directly toward Milk Carton on a String in Haiti. This month, the show will be returning for its fourth year.
“This year’s fundraiser at the Ritz Theater, “Tewayaj (My Testimony)” is going to be a great night of dance, music and film. We bring together some of the most talented musicians, dancers and our students in Haiti (through film) to create a special night that you definitely do not want to miss,” Poppell said.
“Tewayaj” will be staged at 7 p.m. July 27 at the Ritz Theater in downtown Brunswick. Tickets are currently on sale and cost $25 each. Tickets may be purchased online or at the Ritz. Those simply wanting to donate to the cause may also do so online. Funds raised from the event go directly towards the performing arts and literacy programs.
“We are in the process of building a permanent facility for our programs in the community of Malgrè in Leogane, Haiti,” Poppell said. “So these funds will help us to create a safe place for our students to come explore, dream and create and ultimately point people to Jesus.”