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Ice cream venture to help build community

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What can a scoop of ice cream provide past a sweet taste that lingers on the tongue?

Ice cream can create jobs. It can create a moment of celebration between neighbors. It can represent a positive meeting space within an underserved community.

Popular Brooklyn organic ice cream brand, Blue Marble, is using this frozen treat to once again empower a new deserving country: Haiti.

Following the success of their first international venture in Rwanda, Blue Marble Dreams – their non-profit organization – is working to bring a sweet community space in Haiti. Similar to their first venture that employed women in Rwanda to operate their town’s first ice cream shop, it was through a group of Haitian women reaching out to Alexis Miesen, chief swirls officer and executive director of Blue Marble Dreams, that Blue Marble Dreams decided to embark on this endeavor.

“There was a really beautiful documentary filmed that was made all about the process and the people behind the shop in Rwanda and at one of the screenings in New York there happened to be a group of women from Haiti in the audience and they approached me afterwards and said we got to do this in Port au Prince. Port au Prince needs a sweet dreams and here’s why. They kind’ve laid out all the reasoning and the parallels between Rwanda and Haiti in terms of the recovery process that’s underway,” Miesen explained.

Impressed by their passion and the similarities in recovery from very different situations – for Haiti being natural disaster and Rwanda ethnic conflict – Miesen enlisted the help of Haitian native Lionel Bernard and other organizations to begin building.

“A friend of mine who is a mutual friend of Alexis sent me an email about this young lady who is very passionate about social businesses and wants to help the world. I looked at the email and I was like I’m not interested. That was my first reaction and then I went to her site and fell in love with the site and thought that I should give her a call,” Bernard recalled.

“Lionel finally agreed to meet with me in October 2013 and we were in Haiti a month later. Since then we’ve been there 15 or 16 times. We’re at a point now where we go almost every month - each month anywhere between a week and 10 days,” Miesen added.

Aiming for a Summer 2015 grand opening, the shop – named Bel Rev – is located in the underserved but bustling neighborhood of Fontamara, situated in the northwest corner of Port-au-Prince.

An undervalued, nearly forgotten community, Miesen explains the economic geography of Port-au-Prince to concentrate wealth at the top of the hill and as you descends the affluence and wealth follows. “The economic geography of Port au Prince but you have this concentration of very wealthy people at the top of the hill and then it is less and less affluent as you roll down to the bottom. We are the very, very bottom – there is absolutely nothing of this kind where we are,” Miesen described.

Despite outsider’s warning Miesen about their choice of location, there is a personal and very profound decision as the new shop is being built in the same community and neighborhood that Bernard and his brother are from.

This personal connection and overall need to provide not just an ice cream shop but a meaning place that brings joy epitomizes the overall mission that Blue Marble Dreams is aiming to achieve. “People warn us on how there’s tons of gangs there, people are very poor there and blah blah blah, are you sure don’t you want to do it at the top of the hill and they kind’ve missed the point. This is a major piece of what we’re all about. Not just because Lionel and his brother have this beautiful, deep history in this place but also you have to drive positive development in these underserved areas,” Miesen said.

“Haiti is very challenging and this project has become very personal and very communal. The shop is being built in front of my house where I grew up in Haiti. The neighborhood knows me very well and Alexis has become apart of the neighborhood as well. Everybody we brought to help us or volunteering has become apart of the neighborhood and that was apart of the process. It’s almost like a little tree growing with so many different branches. That’s the love and the beauty that we’re getting out of it,” Bernard said.

Implementing a sustainable business model, one of the major goals of Bel Rev is to create jobs – majority to women. Working with an organization that serves women of sexual violence, Bel Rev is another notch to be added to their personal trajectory to help foster independence.

To keep costs low and help foster the local economy, Bel Rev will source many of its ingredients and work from the local farmers. Crafting flavors that are indigenous of the land utilizing the tropical fruits like passion fruit and mango as well as the abundance of cocoa and more.

“We want to keep things local for a number of reasons number one because we believe in that, it’s our general philosophy,” Miesen explained. “Number two, it creates extra value for the community around us and number three for the most part it keeps our cost down by not using expensive imported products. We get to keep our cost down and that way we can offer the product at an affordable price to the local population.”

For Bernard, the homecoming has allowed for him to dive deep into his own culture after leaving the country at age 14. Returning in his 30’s and now working on Bel Rev has made this project that much more special.

Educating the women in proper business practices to ensure Bel Rev is successful, the last step to opening the store in the community lies completely in paperwork. All that Miesen, Bernard and team could have done at this point has been done.

“We’ve done almost everything in terms of the construction itself to be able to receive the containers. Virtually everything that could be done on our end has been done we’re just waiting on some paperwork from the government to say ‘ok, yes you can bring the containers in.’ Meanwhile, these women are just desperate to get to work,” Miesen said.

“For me, it’s interesting because as I’m doing Bel Rev and dealing with the Haitians in the community on a daily basis I learn so much about the culture myself and about them. It’s a big learning process and it’s very interesting,” Bernard added.

Not letting the nonsense of bureaucracy get them down, Miesen, Bernard and their team remain excited for the shop to open. To continue to secure funds, Blue Marble Dream is hosting a “Taste of Haiti” event Aug. 13, for more information visit belrev.org.

Reach reporter Alley Olivier at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at aolivier@cnglocal.com. Follow Alley on Twitter @All3Y_B.

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