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Detroit Lakes High School Interact and Key Club members presented TeacHaiti founder Miquette Denie (center) with a check for $1,500 on Tuesday. The students raised the funds during "Be a Hero for Haiti" Week in February. (Brian Basham / Record)

TeacHaiti's Denie visits DL

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It was less than four months ago that Port-au-Prince native Miquette Denie was working as a school nurse and part-time biology/anatomy teacher at a small school in Haiti's capital city.

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In her free time, she was helping 170 Haitian students in grades 1-12 to stay in school and get an education, through the TeacHaiti non-profit organization that she had founded a couple of years earlier.

Then, on Jan. 12 of this year, the tiny island nation was devastated by the greatest natural disaster it had ever experienced -- a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more injured, homeless and traumatized.

Overnight, Denie's whole life changed.

"I was no longer a school nurse or a teacher," she said during a brief visit to Detroit Lakes last week. "I was a medical coordinator."

The school where she had worked -- which was one of the few buildings left untouched by the quake -- had been converted to a new purpose.

"We used part of the school to receive medical teams that came to help us," Denie said.

That help came from all four corners of the world -- including one surgical support team from St. Mary's Innovis Health in Detroit Lakes, where Denie herself had worked for a couple of years after obtaining her nursing degree from Concordia College.

Instead of teaching and tending to the medical needs of the students at her school, Denie was now coordinating the various medical teams coming through the relief center, sending them out to where they were most needed each day.

Before the medical teams even arrive in Haiti, Denie said, they are asked to register on a Web site created just for this purpose. She then arranges for someone to pick up the teams at the airport and bring them to the school campus.

As soon as they have arrived, Denie puts the doctors, nurses and medical support technicians to work.

"I work with the hospitals, the tent cities, the clinics... they give me their wish lists, and I try to supply what they need," she said.

"They call every day," Denie added.

And while they have their "wish lists" of priority needs for the patients they tend to, Denie said, "they take whatever we have available."

Before the medical teams even arrive, Denie said, she has already lined up places for them to work.

"We receive hundreds of doctors and nurses each week," she said. "And all of them speak different languages."

Denie herself speaks French, English and Kreyole (i.e., Creole). Most of them do speak English, so Denie sends out English-speaking interpreters with each medical team to help them communicate with the patients.

"We send each of the teams to work with three or four translators, depending on how large the team is," Denie said.

Though help keeps pouring in, Denie is unsure when, if ever, the need will stop.

"Haiti's health care system was broken before the earthquake," she said bluntly. "Needless to say, after the quake it got much worse."

In addition to her fears for her own family's future, Denie was frightened for the 170 students whose tuition and educational needs had been supported through TeacHaiti.

"Thank God, every single one of them was OK," Denie said. "We're very fortunate that they're all alive.

"They're living in tent cities, but they're OK."

Denie helps all of them as much as she can, supplying them with gifts of food and supplies to help them get through the days and weeks ahead.

Unfortunately, the devastation has caused an abrupt shift in TeacHaiti's focus.

"The majority of Haiti's schools were pretty much destroyed," Denie said. "The kids can't go to school (because there aren't any schools for them to attend)."

So Denie hopes to eventually build them one. Until that happens, however, she has plans to open a temporary school for the younger students, in grades 1-4.

"I have a building that was not destroyed -- I'm going to start a TeacHaiti school," she said. "It is a five room building -- we'll have four classrooms and an office."

Once qualified teachers have been found, she'll set up shop. The staff will also include some counselors, Denie said.

"I want to get them as much psychological help as I can," she added.

Unfortunately, the small building won't be able to house all the students that have been supported by TeacHaiti in the past. There is only room for about 50 students.

"Eventually, I want to build a school where all of the kids can be in the same place," she said. "But in the meantime, we will help the ones we can."

For the older students, Denie hopes to work with friends to find ways to give them an education.

TeacHaiti donors who have supported students in the past will still be able to do so at the same rate of $350 a year, Denie added.

"Those one-on-one relationships (between students and sponsors) will continue," she said.

In fact, with so many of the students now being housed under one roof, communication between them and their sponsors will be much easier than in the past, Denie noted.

As for the school itself, "it may be small, but the kids will get the best education in Haiti."

She intends to start teaching them English in the first grade; in the past, Haitian students have not begun learning English until eighth grade.

"I want them to speak good English by the time they're done with school," Denie said.

She plans to mix the traditional curriculum taught in Haitian schools with the best of the education she herself received in the United States, as a Rotary Exchange student at Detroit Lakes High School and later, at Oak Grove High School in Fargo.

The ultimate aim, Denie said, is "to make a very strong school," where the students will receive an education that allows them to "be prepared for both worlds," whether they choose to stay in Haiti or seek further educational opportunities in the U.S.

She intends to have the new school up and running by next fall -- both to maintain some continuity with the students' education, and to boost their morale.

"Their parents have lost everything," she explained. "They see rubble wherever they go -- it's not healthy for them. They need to get back to school."

How you can help

Three local community service clubs -- the Breakfast and Noon Rotary clubs as well as Kiwanis -- have joined forces to sponsor a TeacHaiti fund-raiser on Thursday, April 15.

The "Taste of the Lakes" fund-raiser will be held at the Fireside from 5 to 9 p.m., and will feature samples from a number of local restaurants and caterers including not only the Fireside, but also Chinese Dragon, Emmanuel Community and St. Mary's Innovis Health.

There will also be a limited number of donated items that will be auctioned off during the evening, with TeacHaiti board president Tom Klyve serving as the auctioneer.

Items up for auction include a wine tasting for 10, courtesy of the Richwood Winery; a Haitian meal for eight prepared at the winner's home; Haitian art; jewelry from Price's Jewelry; and a special weekend getaway in Fargo.

Tickets for the benefit are $25, and can be purchased at the Washington Square Mall Office, at Bremer Bank and at Minnesota State Community & Technical College in Detroit Lakes.

Though Denie herself won't be able to attend the April 15 event, she will return to Detroit Lakes in June for the TeacHaiti annual meeting and benefit, set to take place on June 24.

For more information about TeacHaiti, visit www.teachaiti.org.

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 14 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 844-1454
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