Sweet Charity

At Haitian ice cream shop and community hub Bèl Rèv, donations, pro bono design and ice cream combine to lift spirits and incite smiles—one scoop at a time.

By Jenny S. Rebholz


Can ice cream and design combine to help make the world a better place? Blue Marble Ice Cream, Haiti 155, the New York chapter of the Retail Design Institute (RDI) and numerous supporters and volunteers joined forces over the last several years to prove that yes, in fact, it can.

And the smiling faces of those who work at and visit Bèl Rèv in Port au Prince, Haiti, show that every little bit of kindness, ice cream and design can help make a difference.

This is a story of connectivity, timing, persistence, patience and having a little faith. Blue Marble Ice Cream’s non-profit arm, Blue Marble Dreams, had already demonstrated the power of ice cream in its first community project, when it partnered with a group of women in Butare, Rwanda, to build Inzozi Nziza (an ice cream shop translated to mean “Sweet Dreams”). The success of this project was chronicled in the documentary film, “Sweet Dreams.”

After a screening of the film in 2013, a group of women from Haiti approached Alexis Gallivan, co-founder of Blue Marble Ice Cream and executive director of Blue Marble Dreams, catching her at the right time and place with their compelling story of why to bring Blue Marble to their home.

“Haiti’s recovery from the devastating 2010 earthquake has been a long and twisted process,” Gallivan says. “With inspiration from these women, we started to think about how ice cream could play a modest yet powerful role in nurturing it along. So we put the idea out into our universe of industry friends and contacts. Soon, we ended up joining forces with fellow nonprofit, Haiti 155, and securing support from RDI for the Port au Prince project.”

Haiti 155 was founded in 2010 shortly after the earthquake, which founders Lionel and Constant Bernard experienced and narrowly survived. They started this Brooklyn, N.Y.-based 501(c)3 to support long-lasting social and economic change in their childhood community. The organization is named after the location of their grandmother’s home in Haiti, and this location also became the site for the Port au Prince ice cream shop, Bèl Rèv.

“I am Haitian, and the store is located in front of my house,” says Lionel Bernard, co-founder of Haiti 155. “I came to the United States at the age of 13. I go back to learn and to help, which is challenging in so many ways. The neighborhood does not have much, and the people are uneducated. It is hard to live every day in Haiti. There is a need for the basic necessities of life there. I wanted to do something real for the people, and this project was the opportunity to make something special for them.”

As Gallivan reflected on the Sweet Dreams project and thought about the needs of the Haitian people in Port au Prince, she knew the aesthetics of the project needed to be a priority. “The difference in this project is that we needed to do something visually pleasing to transform the local landscape and show that beautiful things can once again thrive there,” she says. “We needed something arresting and captivating, just like the ice cream, to help community members feel transported and give them a respite, a place to contemplate and dream. To achieve this, I turned to my contacts in the retail world and rallied the troops. I thought people would likely want to help, but the level of enthusiastic participation and the generosity of donations surpassed my wildest hopes.”

The New York chapter of RDI used this opportunity to engage members at all levels of the organization and create a unique event—Iron Design—that could spark creativity and provide Blue Marble Dreams and Haiti 155 with useable design concepts that would give inspired direction to this special project.

“This type of activity is crucial to what we do as a networking organization, while allowing us to use our resources to do good things in the community,” says Lisa Maurer, vice president of Siegel & Stockman and membership chair of the RDI New York chapter, who spearheaded the Iron Design challenge. “Opportunities like this that get students involved and connected with leaders in the retail design industry support the betterment of the organization.”

Four student-led teams tackled the Iron Design challenge. Industry professionals served as team captains and mentored students through a one-hour design charrette. The teams were provided a “pantry” of items to work with to create a rough floorplan and concept board to sell to the judges.

“We gave them a design kit and project challenge,” Gallivan describes. “They were given a color scheme, basic functionality details and some core graphics. It was a fun process that helped us dream and think bigger about the possibilities. The explosive creativity reminded us of the fun and beauty of a project like this.”

Gallivan applauded ideas such as a walk-up window, which ultimately became a centerpiece of the actual structure and approach. “It evolved as a critical component of the character and spirit of the business,” she says. “Haiti is strangely exclusive in some ways, and people are [quite] status conscious. Structurally and from a service perspective, featuring a walk-up window was a way of literally and figuratively opening our doors—and arms—to our community. We are doing something special for them—the window is our face to the public. There is nothing like it in the community, so some of our customers initially questioned if they were allowed there. It feels good to say, “Yes, this is for you.’”

Armed with inspiring, relevant and useful concepts from the RDI Iron Design challenge, the next step was to have Metalab Studio, a design and engineering firm in Texas, translate the ideas into plans. Early in this process, it was decided that the shop’s structure would be constructed out of repurposed shipping containers—equipped with solar panels and a microgrid to enable the shop’s energy independence. The design portion of the project took almost two years to complete, and then Blue Marble Dreams and Haiti 155 had to deal with the logistics of moving four containers to Haiti. “It took much longer than we anticipated, almost three years in total,” Gallivan says. “The logistics involved were very complicated to say the least, not to mention the bureaucracy in Haiti.”

But despite the longer-than-expected wait to start the project build, Maurer says the two-year time lapse provided the opportunity for more to happen. “Even with that extended time, the spirit of the design was maintained,” she says. “Haiti has a struggling infrastructure and this became an aesthetic oasis in the dusty landscape of the people’s neighborhood. This is an uplifting element in the community, a place of employment for the women, an impactful project.”

Gallivan admires the resourcefulness of the Haitians and describes them as creative and prideful people. “They are skilled at reviving hand-me-downs and cobbling things together in clever ways, but we wanted to give them something new,” she says. “They deserved something beautiful and special that was just for them, not another threadbare castoff. In the end, Bèl Rèv was as magical and as wonderful as we hoped it would be, in great part because of RDI’s contributions.” Gallivan is also thankful for support from the Clinton Foundation, JetBlue and NRG Energy.

“Bèl Rèv is a beautiful spot we put our heart into,” Bernard says. “It is deeper than ice cream. The social connection is so huge and heavy. I feel a great responsibility to protect the spirit and success of Bèl Rèv when I am there and when I am back in the United States. It is a tremendous responsibility. The easy part is serving the ice cream. Behind the scenes in the rest of the space is a heavy burden to bear, to try to help change the ideology, help the people learn that they do have options and give them organizational and communication skills. Bèl Rèv is an oasis of love, we have a team there to promote that love. It is more complicated than anyone can imagine, but with Bèl Rèv we are there creating an energy and giving us all something to believe in.”

So, can ice cream and design combine to help make the world a better place? Bèl Rèv is now open for business, and while there is still a lot of work ahead, it has become a bright spot in the Haitian landscape of Port au Prince, a little bit of fun, a place that can make people feel better…some might say, just like rainbow sprinkles.

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