"Haiti Was Where I Was Supposed To Be"

"Haiti Was Where I Was Supposed To Be"

01 Sep 2013

As she launches a new drive to help the people of Haiti, Melissa Gilchrist-Higgins reflects on what has made her give up everything to help people 12,500km away

It’s the smell that Melissa Gilchrist-Higgins will never forget. “Although you’ve never smelled it before, you know it’s thousands of decaying bodies. There’s no way of getting away from it,” she says. It has been almost four years since Melissa first went to Haiti a few months after the devastating earthquake on 12 January 2010. Since then she has given up her job to devote her life to the Caribbean country. She set up the initiative Frontline Fashion with the aim of creating a long-term means of supporting the country’s people from her home in the UAE. But rather than launching a normal charity appeal, Melissa created a range of trendy T-shirts, dubbed ‘humani-tees’, to appeal to the country’s fashionistas.

She has so far raised more than Dhs250,000, which has paid for an orphanage for six kids who lost their families in the earthquake including three siblings, Lovindia, 9, Miguelson, 7 and Davidson, 6, who she met on her first visit. She has also built a school for 40 kids, and has been in Ahlan!’s Hot 100 for three years running.

But now she has recruited a team of UAE-based personalities to help spread the word to raise cash for a new goal. Melissa, 38, plans to build not one but three schools, as well as a new community including homes, another orphanage and medical facilities on a plot of land she has bought. But it will cost more than Dhs700,000.

Melissa, who is Scottish but lives at Dubai Marina, said: “The idea behind the first campaign was to use models so it was very stylish and high fashion. With this one we wanted to show how people from different age groups and different backgrounds could come together to make a difference. They are all well-known people within the region. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or what you do, everybody can get involved. And a little bit goes a really long way.”

Head of marketing and PR for Dubai club Mahiki, Selina Dixon, 32, from the UK, Australian Splash TV presenter Clare Geeves, 28, British blogger Heidi Raeside, 32, (from www.tuesdayschild.me), and Spaniard Lola Lopez, 38, Founder of Volunteer in UAE, have all signed up to help and gathered together for the photoshoot campaign.
Melissa’s still passionate about the cause that saw her ditch her job and travel to a place she admits she’d never even heard of. She spent seven weeks in Haiti after handing in her notice at her job in beauty and fashion PR following the quake.

She said: “It just consumed me. I watched it unravel and I watched every day how the death toll went up. More than 250,000 people died in less than a minute. It’s a staggering amount. I raised and donated a lot of money, about Dhs45,000, but for me it just wasn’t enough. I needed to do more.” Melissa applied to a few organisations that were sending people over, but she was turned down due to a lack of experience. Eventually she found the Global Volunteer Network, who agreed she could go.

She didn’t tell her husband Iain, 36, a lawyer, or her family until the last minute what she was planning on doing. And while there she saw some horrific sights. “I did a lot of vaccinating children while I was there, and teaching English, but the main thing was clearing rubble up. A lot of the time the rubble was bones,” she said.

“It was still very much a disaster zone at that point. The first thing I remember when the plane was landing was just this blue of the tarpaulin. It was everywhere – these makeshift homes and camps. But I always felt safe. There was one day I got lost. I got on a tap tap – a local bus – to go to the UN, and I got off at the wrong place. I thought I knew where I was going. A group of tall Haitian men were behind me and I thought ‘what’s going to happen now?’ A lot of things go through your head. They started shouting ‘blanco, blanco’, but they recognised me and knew where my camp was, and they escorted me back. So I always felt safe.”

When it was time to leave, Melissa cried all the way back to Dubai. She decided she needed to continue to help, and Frontline Fashion was born. She now works on the concept full-time and has since returned to Haiti.

“I felt I needed to be there,” she said. “That was where I was supposed to be. I eventually stopped crying and realised I wanted to continue to help. I thought ‘what’s relevant to Dubai?’ People are very interested in style and fashion, so I came up with the concept for Frontline Fashion. When you say ‘charity’, people think you have dreadlocks, and they run in the opposite direction. But what I am saying to people is that you do not have to change who you are or your lifestyle.” 

HOW TO HELP
Frontline Fashion will build a new community, including three schools, but needs your help to raise Dhs735,000
1 Buy a Frontline Fashion T Shirt from www.frontlinef.com with the slogan ‘Humanity is Always in Style’ for Dhs144 and pay for 70 meals.
2 Donate Dhs40 online at www.frontlinef.com and pay for school supplies for a child.
3 Run the Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon or 10k on 24 January 2014 for the charity. Every Dhs130 you raise will send a child to school for two months. To take part for Frontline Fashion email Melissa at editor@frontlinef.com, www.dubaimarathon.org.