Grad Student Chronicles Haitian Food-Relief Project
Bread has been called the staff of life. It is also the foundation of a transcendent story told in images and words by a JMC graduate student – a work of journalism that is advancing the mission of a locally based food-relief project in Haiti.
Yolanda Li, a native of Chengdu, China, has spent the last three months creating “Bread 4 Haiti: Where God Wanted Us to Be,” a documentary that will serve as her graduate project. The film is more than an academic project, however; it is a calling that has transformed her aspirations as a journalist. “Bread 4 Haiti” uses stark and poignant photos and video to chronicle the work of Rick and Debbi Sands, owners of Great Harvest Bakery in Stow, Ohio, who have built a bakery in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, a town of 120,000 with a 90 percent unemployment rate and widespread poverty and hunger. Each day, the Sands’ bakery feeds 2,400 children who attend pre-kindergarten through high school at the Institution Univers. The bakery is a training ground for local Haitians to learn how to bake and how to operate a retail facility.
Li learned of the project from JMC photojournalism coordinator David LaBelle, who is co-directing her graduate project. “I met Rick through another student and was moved by the good work he was doing in Haiti, but he was struggling to get the kind of exposure that would help with funding,” LaBelle explains. “I knew that Yolanda wanted to do something meaningful for her project, so I introduced the two of them.”
From that introduction, a powerful and beautifully rendered story of hope and humanity has emerged. To tell the story, Li traveled to Haiti in October 2013 and again in early March, largely financing both trips herself.
The time in Haiti has left a deep impression on Li.
“Before I went to Haiti, I knew it was bad. And it is bad. There are so many bugs, the water isn’t clean, and the people are so poor and hungry. But the people enjoy their lives. There have so little, but their happiness is great,” Li said. “I used to be focused on my needs and my future. My time in Haiti has taught me to use my talents to help others.”
The film has helped Sands reach new supporters by graphically demonstrating the needs of the Haitian people and the progress of Bread 4 Haiti. Since the project’s inception, Sands has hired five Haitians to help to run the bakery in Ouanaminthe. Sands, his wife, Debbi, and Randy Verdi, who owns the Great Harvest Bread Company in Cleveland, return to Ouanaminthe every other month to check on the project.
For Li, who earned an undergraduate degree in journalism from Jincheng College of Sichuan University in China, the project has fueled an ambition to be a videographer and documentary photographer. Her project is an example of compassionate storytelling, the kind of journalism that LaBelle hopes to inspire in students. “Yolanda is doing what I want every student to do. She is engaged. She allows others to shape her life,” he said. “I tell my students to be the bridge that unites those in need with those who can help. Yolanda is that bridge.”
LaBelle emphasizes that meaningful photojournalism requires more than technical skill. “I’m not here to teach F-stops and shutter speeds. I’m here to connect eyes and hearts. We focus on the story, not the technology.”
In Li, LaBelle found a remarkable student and storyteller. “Yolanda is one of the deepest, most introspective and most caring students I’ve known since coming to JMC. She truly listens and absorbs,” LaBelle said. “What teacher doesn’t want to teach a student who is hungry to know, to improve, to make the world a better place.”
Li is that student. “I am not satisfied by what I created. I also want to do more and do better.”
JMC adjunct professor David Foster assisted Li in editing “Bread 4 Haiti: Where God Wanted Us to Be.” The project was featured in December 2013 in the Daily Kent Stater, kentwired.com, and The Burr.