PORT AU PRINCE, HAITI -- Driving into Cité Soleil, Port au Prince's most impoverished slum, population somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000, you pass a canal bed of putrid water, garbage and human waste; scavengers comb the rocky banks for whatever might be useful or worth selling.

On one side of the dusty, treeless, cratered road, survivors of the 2010 earthquake still live under tarps and in tents. You turn into an unmarked alley just bigger than the width of a car, where vendors stand at rickety tables in front of tin-roofed shacks, hoping to sell a banana, a single battery or a stick of gum.

After squeezing through several similar roadways, if you've correctly navigated the twists and turns, you end up at the SAKALA gate. A young soccer player slides open the metal barrier.

You enter, leaving the hardscrabble scenes outside.

Here on a stretch of concrete, part of an abandoned factory, a group of SAKALA soccer players -- "foutbòl' to them -- team with teens visiting from St. Mary's College High School in Berkeley. They're challenging a second SAKALA-St. Mary's team.

"SAKALA is a haven that has been created by people living in the poorest environment in the Western Hemisphere," St. Mary's senior Megan McKiernan said later in an interview at the modest guesthouse where the 15 students stayed during their weeklong trip to Haiti.

"Still they're able to find hope and joy," said McKiernan, who's on her second trip to Haiti with St. Mary's. The school has sponsored four trips to Haiti since 2013.


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SAKALA, a Creole acronym meaning Community Center for Peaceful Alternatives, was the dream of Daniel Tillias, a forty-something university graduate born and raised in Cité Soleil.

Tillias' vision was to create a center where young people from various neighborhoods that are locked in violent turf wars could create friendships and find peace, according to staffer Benoit Jeff, who grew up near SAKALA.

Founded in 2006 with funding from Pax Christi USA and other organizations, SAKALA engages some 500 young people in sports, dance and education. The program pays school fees for 300 children.

Jeff, a university student who began participating at SAKALA at age 13, said that in 10 years, he wants to be able to tell people proudly that he's from Cité Soleil. "And they'll say, 'I remember Cité Soleil. It was a place you didn't want to go to, but now it's better,'" he said.

On the soccer field, neither team has been able to get the ball past the goalies when group leader Craig Sutphin calls the sweat-drenched St. Mary's players to a garden located beyond a wall, just past the composting toilets.

Entering the half-acre garden, the students find refuge from the burning sun under the shade of dozens of moringa trees; their leaves, cherished for their high vitamin and mineral content, are often prepared like spinach. Banana trees and beet, eggplant, carrot, basil and pepper plants rise from tires painted red, blue or yellow and packed with soil and compost that SAKALA produces from the composting toilets and other organic matter. Seedlings sprout from reused plastic bags.

"We use what we have," Jeff explained, adding that neighbors come in the evening to tend the garden. SAKALA sells excess vegetables and compost to pay them for their work and to provide a model enterprise for others to copy.

McKiernan was struck by SAKALA's dedication to reuse. "They decided to build a garden on top of what was basically a landfill, a pile of trash," she said. "The plants are potted in tires and soda cans. It's just an enormous reuse of things that could be causing litter. They use every last resource."

"There's a lot of gems here in Haiti underneath the poverty," added Catalina Jackson-Uruena, a senior on her second visit to Haiti.

Jackson-Uruena said her visits to Haiti "are a reminder of what's really important in life."

After exploring the garden, the visitors get a Haitian dance lesson from the SAKALA youths.

"There really was no room for embarrassment," said St. Mary's senior Sarah Stenger. "We were thrown into the dance and forced into it in a good way to experience their culture in a way we all understood.

"Despite the language barrier, not being able to say certain things you really want to say, we were able to dance. It united us all together."