Haiti is 1,800 miles away from Evanston, but local connections to the Caribbean nation can make it feel a lot closer. Two Evanston Township High School alumni are working to build a more resilient Haiti.
Randy Meyer and Jude Laude didn’t know each other in high school. Meyer graduated in 1983, and Laude graduated the year after.
The nonprofit Lakou (pronounced “La-coo”) brought the two of them together. It’s based in Evanston but teaches people in Haiti how to construct hurricane- and earthquake-resistant buildings.
Meyer and his wife LaNae Meyer founded Lakou in 2018. Randy has 35 years of commercial and residential construction experience under his belt.
The couple bounced between Haiti and the states for five years while Randy worked on construction projects in Haiti. Moved by the people and love for the country, they decided to start Lakou in 2018.
Laude is a first-generation Haitian American. His parents moved from Haiti to Evanston in the 1960s. He credits his advocacy for Haitians to his parents.
“All my life, I saw them being involved in the community and the Haitian-American community, so as an adult, that has stuck with me,” Laude said.
As a founding member of the Coalition of Haitian-American Organizations in the Chicago Area, he helped facilitate resettlement efforts for Haitians coming to the greater Chicago area. Now he’s Lakou’s first executive director.
“We need leadership that understands the heart of this opportunity in Haiti,” Randy Meyer said about the decision to hire Laude.
Laude has several years of public service experience. He was the program director of the Youth Job Center in Evanston and served on the District 202 School Board for four years.
In this new role as the executive director of Lakou, Laude plans to grow the organization’s board and staff and boost fundraising efforts.
“Lakou” is a Haitian Creole word meaning a tight-knit community where everyone supports each other. “It’s really the essence of the Haitian culture,” Laude said. “Everyone has a voice and everyone respects one another.”
Haiti has suffered in several natural disasters. It is located on two fault zones and as a result, frequently has earthquakes. In August last year, it had a 7.2-magnitude quake that killed an estimated 2,248 people and injured another 12,763 victims.
Tropical storm Grace struck Haiti days later – causing landslides and flooding. Haiti is in the Caribbean Hurricane Belt.
Many buildings in Haiti have collapsed as a result of earthquakes and the unreinforced construction of the structures. Its presidential residence, National Palace in Port-au-Prince, collapsed after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010.
Lakou uses American construction techniques to build more resilient commercial buildings. The nonprofit offers a mix between a school, an internship and a job. The school opened in 2020 to teach students in Haiti about construction and masonry in a typical classroom setting. But it also challenges students to implement these new skills in construction projects.
The International Guild, based in Les Cayes, Haiti, is Lakou’s construction business. Lakou students are paid to do on-the-job training for that business and have the opportunity to apply to work for the International Guild once they finish the accredited program.
“All we’re trying to do is open an opportunity in Haiti for these good folks who would take them and run,” Randy Meyer said.
Lakou has built six commercial buildings, including structures for nongovernmental organizations. It built two large schools using concrete post-and-beam structures, and the communities have used them as natural disaster shelters. Since the buildings were able to withstand the earthquakes, Meyer said he believes the constructions are earthquake resistant.
The nonprofit organization focuses on constructing commercial buildings rather than residential since the Haitians’ form of house construction, if done properly, works, Meyer said.
“The commercial construction, that bears on everyone,” he said.
Eventually, Lakou hopes to expand to other countries in need.
“This has the opportunity to provide a context and a place where even us in America can put our hands together, no matter what the background, affiliation, color, any of that, and decide that we can come together and do something like help Haiti,” Meyer said.