(CNN) — In 2005, Haitian-born and Brooklyn-raised musician Wyclef Jean created the grassroots charity organization Yéle Haiti. The former member of the Grammy-winning group The Fugees coined the term Yéle in a song and imbued it with the meaning, “a cry for freedom.”
The purpose of the organization has been, from its inception, to restore pride and hope to the Haitian people through projects that will allow citizens to ultimately help themselves, such as the creation of scholarships, support for the arts, food distribution and emergency relief.
“I see old women with large bags of rice on their heads and men on street corners selling sugarcane and mangos, all just trying to survive with a strong sense of pride,” Jean said in a statement on the group’s Web site. “Walking past a church in my village, I hear the congregation singing an appeal to God to hear their cries and grant deliverance to Haiti. Through experiences like this, I sense where my mother and my father got their strength. Now the whole country needs to reach deep into the spirit and strength that is part of our heritage.
“The objective of Yéle Haiti is to restore pride and a reason to hope, and for the whole country to regain the deep spirit and force that is part of our heritage.”
Within two hours of Tuesday’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake, Jean and Yéle mobilized on social networking sites to raise funds for disaster relief. Jean is encouraging people to text “Yéle” to 501501, which will automatically donate $5 to the Yéle Haiti Earthquake Fund, or to visit http://www.yele.org/.
“I cannot stress enough what a human disaster this is, and idle hands will only make this tragedy worse. The over 2 million people in Port-au-Prince tonight face catastrophe alone. We must act now,” Jean said in a statement Tuesday night.
In its first year, the organization, which Jean created in collaboration with his cousin, music producer Jerry Duplessis, provided scholarships to more than 3,600 children.
In 2007 Jean testified before the House of Representatives urging the U.S. government to earmark more funds for education in Haiti and to encourage the U.S. private sector to enter the Haitian market in order to create jobs for the Haitian people. Jean also stressed the important of the arts in Haiti.
The group has used local musicians to deliver food into slum neighborhoods where no other organizations are able to go. They have held annual hip-hop competitions where underprivileged youth are invited to write raps on social issues. A project called Yéle Cinema shows free Creole-dubbed films in slum neighborhoods, interspersed with short messages about social and development themes.
Jean hasn’t been shy about using his celebrity status to advance the aims of Yéle Haiti. Following the devastation of several consecutive tropical storms in September 2008, Jean brought actor Matt Damon to the island. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have traveled with Jean several times, most notably in 2006 when Jolie was pregnant with their first child. Last March the musician brought United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Clinton to tour the region.
“I was honored to show my support when they asked me to join them on this important humanitarian trip which also gave them the opportunity to experience the beauty underneath the devastation my country and its people have had to face. It’s crucial for me to do all I can to raise awareness and help Haiti get through this tough time,” Jean said in a statement.
While in Haiti the group visited a Yéle sponsored feeding program and met with President René Preval and senior government officials.
In May 2008, Jean and Yéle Haiti partnered with the United Nations World Food Program and the Pan American Development Foundation to create “Together for Haiti,” a program that specifically provides resources for targeted food distribution, employment creation, micro-enterprise grants and farm training.
“The food crisis we’ve seen develop in Haiti over the last 60 days is more serious than any emergency I’ve seen over my years of work with the country,” Jean said in a statement. “Even where food is available, the citizens of Haiti do not have the resources to buy it — and we must take immediate action. I’m confident that through the commitment of these three powerful organizations, ‘Together for Haiti’ will rise to meet this urgent challenge and provide direct relief to the people.”