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Paducah natives find joy in Jacmel

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

Tourists visit Jacmel, a town perched on Haiti's southern shoreline, for its beauty, while the city's poverty and the damage it suffered in the 2010 earthquake make it a prime destination for missionaries and humanitarian organizations.

But there's something else about Jacmel - something that has drawn a number of Paducah residents to visit the town.

For Lower Town resident Craig Felker, it's the people.

Felker, frontman for local band Hearts of Saints, will make his third trip to Jacmel on Saturday. The first visit allowed the Christian rock band to shoot a video against the town's unique backdrop.

"In the midst of the poverty, (there) was a collision of joy. It was such a beautiful thing," he said.

This time around, he and 11 other Paducah residents will spend a week in Jacmel through Conduit Mission, a Nashville, Tennessee-based 501(c)3 that tries to address local needs through school and construction projects, orphan care, medical and dental teams and feeding programs.

"It is definitely a mission, but we're not going down there to somehow transplant (our) culture onto Haiti," he said. "Really, I feel like I'm introducing my friends and family here to my friends and family in that community."

Felker added that he and the group aren't going with the mentality that they can "save Haiti" in a week. Instead, he wants to strengthen friendships and advocate for the town and people he's grown to love. This trip, for example, will give Felker the chance to meet the Jeromes, a family that lost its home in a fire. He ran a marathon in April to help raise $3,500 for the family.

"We're really trying to dig our feet in and just develop long-term relationships," said Felker, who communicates often with his Haitian friends through social media. "They are some of the hardest-working, most gracious people."

Felker's desire to build connections in Jacmel isn't unusual, according to Alonzo Davis, an artist who owns AIR Studio in Lower Town. Davis visited Haiti in the 1970s and '80s, and has returned three times over the last three years.

Like his neighbor, Davis found something special in the people - namely, their ability to remain unbroken through tremendous hardship - as well as an artistic streak that appealed to him.

The city boasts a strong, diverse artistic community and wealth of French colonial architecture.

He'd even hoped to set up a cultural exchange similar to the artist-in-residence program launched in Paducah.

"You just don't know where these little pockets of art are," he said. "Who would have thought Paducah would have a really interesting artist relocation program? That's how I feel about Jacmel." So far the timing hasn't been right to set up a residency program, but Davis said he'd still like to make it happen.

"If a door opens, I'll be there," Davis said.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641.

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