cnnheroes tillias portrait at tree
CNN Hero Daniel Tillias
03:48 - Source: CNN
Cité Soleil, Haiti CNN  — 

Staggering poverty, political instability and natural disasters have long plagued Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

This year has been especially brutal: Violent and deadly protests against rising fuel costs, alleged government corruption and despicable economic conditions have ravaged the country’s already fragile infrastructure.

In neighborhoods like Cité Soleil, near the capital of Port-au-Prince, conditions for children are even more dire. Gang warfare, overflowing sewage and protests mar the streets. Children are often unable to attend school or receive adequate food, water or medical care.

Yet it is in Cité Soleil where Daniel Tillias sees hope. Amid the chaos, the native of Cité Soleil offers a safe oasis for children struggling to survive. To him, change begins with them.

“Many people in Haiti refer to Cité Soleil as the trash place where all the dumps are,” Tillias said. “But … I see these kids with potential, with wings … waiting to fly. Waiting to be the next citizen that will change things in Haiti.”

Tillias runs a youth empowerment program called SAKALA—which translates to the Community Center for Peaceful Alternatives—in the heart of Cité Soleil. The organization offers free afterschool sports and academics, gardening, community development and conflict resolution programs for children.

“The initiative was to get a safe space in the neighborhood for young kids to be just children – not to see a dead body in the street, not to have to live with the constant shooting, not to have to see things that a little child should not be seeing,” Tillias said.

Growing up in Cité Soleil, Tillias felt the negative stigma attached to being from the “slum” and vowed to change the city for the better. The group first started 12 years ago as a sports program to keep boys out of gangs. Today, the gender-inclusive program promotes peace through sports, gardening and education.

Tillias and his group support about 200 children a year financially through scholarships and support services, and they offer a meal program at SAKALA when they can afford it.

“We like to select the most vulnerable kids. We keep an eye out for kids who are prone to getting involved with violent groups, or drugs, kids who may not have parents or are on the streets already,” he said. “We try to build and work on a group of kids, a model group, that will go back into the community and inspire the rest.”

The group also opens its doors to neighborhood kids who come because the center is a haven from the violence outside. Near the sports field where children play soccer and basketball, there are classrooms, a library and a community garden where herbs bloom from old tires that once burned in the streets.

“We call this a peace and happiness place. It can help with the cleansing that we want to see because we know that’s what the children of Cité Soleil really deserve,” Tillias said. “They have a chance to hear birds singing in the garden. They have a chance to see a tree that they planted getting as tall as them.”

Tillias also launched a green initiative to replicate the community garden across Haiti, so Haitians can grow their own food. And he hopes the children of SAKALA, who are growing food and promoting peace, will be the ones to pull their families and the entire country from poverty.

“We could really have a new country that becomes the model for the world. And we know that it can start here,” he said.

CNN spoke with Tillias about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: How do you think people perceive Cité Soleil?

Daniel Tillias: Cité Soleil is this place that people refer to as the largest underserved community of all the country. It’s like a very small location but is densely populated, and people refer to it as the largest ghetto or the largest slum. It’s next to the water, surrounded and crossed by several sewers that are unfortunately clogged because of the poor management of waste. This creates a situation where it’s constantly flooded or invaded by all the waste and trash. Because of this, people see it as the landfill, as the dump of Port-au-Prince. This really impacts people’s mentality.

CNN Hero Daniel Tillias

And when these things happen, it really washes away hope. That’s exactly why we’re trying to balance this with the alternatives that we create in SAKALA. Because we can’t let the children of Haiti lose the only thing that they have left, which is their hope.

CNN: How is your program and center combatting that?

Tillias: In SAKALA, we create this environment where the green that you see competes with the red that you see outside with all the trash being burned in the streets. You see life inside of SAKALA and you feel there is hope back. You see an alternative path that many children seem to be losing because they don’t see anything for the future. We like to say that SAKALA is the ultimate alternative to all the suffering that this community is experiencing. We like to say that SAKALA is the last hope that this neighborhood has and is embracing.

CNN: SAKALA offers sports, but it’s more than just games.

Tillias: Kids in Cité Soleil have gone through so much in terms of what they see in the street (or) what they hear all the time. Sometimes it’s natural disaster, there will be a flood. They lose nights without sleeping. Our sports are for creating a sense of collaboration. It’s sports to build yourself, to understand that you have the potential to reach a goal. It’s sports to really develop self-esteem.

We have soccer, volleyball, baseball, basketball. We are using American flag football, street hockey, ping pong. We’ve done a lot of yoga, meditation, (we’ve) introduced tai chi so they can kind of clean themselves from all that they’ve experienced in the past and be more than just a sports team but a team that is ready, that is aware and that can even teach other groups.

Want to get involved? Check out the SAKALA website and see how to help.

To donate to SAKALA via CrowdRise, click here