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Teaching Haiti

Denie's School of Hope gives Haiti's children a brighter future1 / 4
THE STUDENTS AT TEACHAITI'S SCHOOL OF HOPE couldn't keep the smiles off their faces on the first day of school, Oct. 11, 2010. A total of 65 students in grades 1-4 are taking classes at the new school this year.2 / 4
a FRESHLY PREPARED lunch is provided to the students at the School of Hope every day, courtesy of TeacHaiti's generous donors. Denie, a trained nurse who graduated from Concordia College, makes sure that the students get good, nutritious food.3 / 4
THE STUDENTS AT THE SCHOOL OF HOPE work hard, but are rewarded with an education that will help build a brighter future for the people of Haiti -- a country still feeling the effects of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince a year ago.4 / 4

It's been a little over a year now since the tiny island country of Haiti was ravaged by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake -- a natural disaster that took over 300,000 lives in 35 seconds.

Yet 12 months removed from the events of Jan. 11, 2010, there are still over a million people living in "tent cities" -- without a solid roof above their heads to protect them from the elements.

"It has been a year, and the pain feels almost as raw as it did a year ago," says Miquette Denie, founder of TeacHaiti.

"On January 12th, a year since the quake, the government called a national holiday. All schools and businesses were closed.

"Port-au-Prince was a beautiful sight, actually: Tens of thousands of Haitians gathered by the national palace praying," she continued. "Also, all of the churches were packed with people, worshiping the living God and asking for his mercy. It was a day of fasting and prayers for many, including me."

It was also a rare day of quiet for Denie, whose three-year-old non-profit educational organization has become a beacon of hope for a devastated nation.

In fact, the School of Hope is the name of the new school established by TeacHaiti in Port-au-Prince this past fall. The school opened its doors to 65 eager and excited students on Oct. 11, 2010.

After the earthquake, many of the students sponsored by TeacHaiti lost their schools, Denie noted -- as about 70 percent of the country's educational facilities were destroyed.

"As I reflect on what the opening of the long-dreamed-of TeacHaiti School of Hope really means to me, I recall a painful experience suffered by many Haitian students," Denie said. "As a child, I remember, at the beginning of each month a teacher would call all the students together and read a list of those who must stand up and go home.

"Their families had not paid for that month because there was no money to be found for tuition. When your name was called, your face would burn with shame as the other kids taunted and you had to walk home by yourself. You would miss a month, maybe several, then try to catch up.

"I remember suffering through this humiliation, but I know that sponsorship in TeacHaiti means over 200 kids will not have to endure it this year," Denie added. "They can attend every month, every day, of school, and pursue their learning as far as their dreams will take them."

In addition to the new school, TeacHaiti also continues to sponsor over 200 children, providing for their educational needs in various private schools around the Port-au-Prince and St. Michele areas.

A tough year

In the months since the earthquake, the people of Haiti have not only had to deal with widespread homelessness and lack of medical facilities, but also a more recent cholera outbreak.

"In the fall, Haiti was struck with cholera, which has claimed over 4,000 lives so far and still ravaging Haiti as we speak," Denie said. "Then we got hit by Hurricane Tomas, which killed over 30 people.

"We were still thankful, because it could have been worse. In addition, there are still disputes over the recent presidential elections. We are still praying that God will elect a leader to lead Haiti -- someone with the interest of the country as a priority once and for all.

"The year of 2010 has been indeed a year of pain and melancholy," Denie said.

A School of Hope

Though the School of Hope has a small staff, it does employ the services of a full-time English teacher -- a rarity in Haiti -- and three art teachers.

"In their bright green uniforms, the students are ready to work," Denie said. "One part of the curriculum I am is most proud of is the art curriculum. Through a partnership with another organization, three art teachers are providing instruction that will not just help the kids express themselves, but will also provide a skill that could one day bring an income.

"In addition, having a full-time English teacher is a unique feature of this school and will benefit the kids. I am also proud of the school lunch menu. Many schools provide 'hot lunch' each day, but it might consist of simply rice and beans. The TeacHaiti School of Hope students will have greater variety and more nutritious foods, a priority to me in part because of my background as a nurse.

"Finally, a donation of a new guitar from Rubicon International will provide the kids with time to sing and worship."

Regular doctor's visits are a part of the school's benefits as well.

"Medical Teams International has committed to visiting often to address not only disease, but also more general family medicine such as vision and hearing screenings," Denie said.

Another unique aspect of the school is its parental involvement. Each parent of a TeacHaiti School of Hope student is required to volunteer at the school at least once a week, helping to prepare meals, as part of their sponsorship agreement.

"In this way, parents will be involved and participate in their child's education, creating ownership and responsibility," Denie said.

TeacHaiti's DL connection

Denie has strong ties to Detroit Lakes, as a former Rotary exchange student in the community who obtained her nursing degree from Concordia College, and also worked at St. Mary's for a couple of years before returning to her island home.

When she formed TeacHaiti in 2008, Denie looked to the Detroit Lakes community for help -- the majority of the non-profit organization's board of directors still hails from this area.

"Members of the TeacHaiti board of directors and friends from Hoffman, Minn., visited the building in late summer, renovating and painting to prepare the classrooms," Denie wrote in the TeacHaiti newsletter. "Brand new wooden benches with attached desks arrived.

"Many donated school supplies, and backpacks were made ready for the students. A new generator and inverter battery system were installed, so the school will have reliable power. What would seem like little things to many Americans, such as clocks and fans in each classroom, were cherished by the new teachers."

The TeacHaiti board, and all those who have contributed to the organization and helped to make the new school a reality, continues to have a special place in Denie's heart.

"Words are not adequate to describe what is happening in Haiti, but I thank every single one of you reading this column," Denie said. "You are reading it because you care about Haiti. Thank you for your support over the past three years of TeacHaiti. For some, it has been over 10 years since you have been supporting me personally, when I came to Detroit Lakes in 2000.

"Thanks to all of our friends and supporters. Please continue to keep us in your thoughts."

For more information on Miquette Denie and TeacHaiti's mission, please visit the website, Donations may also be directed to: TeacHaiti, P.O. Box 1173, Detroit Lakes MN 56502-1173.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454