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Lynn Hummel: Building bridges — and schools — in Haiti

About two weeks ago I wrote a column about getting into the wrong taxi in Port au Prince, Haiti, and the dangerous and scary situation that followed. When you got to the end of the article, you discovered it was all an April Fool’s joke. I have been scolded many times about that trick-ending with words like, “You got me,” “I was thinking how stupid you were,” “I was scared,” “Don’t ever do that to me again,” etc., etc.

Jeff Norby and I actually did go to Haiti in March on a work project, and, with apologies for the April Fool’s joke, what I report now is what we were doing there and what actually happened.

A young Haitian girl, Miquette Deni, finished high school and college in Detroit Lakes, Minn., Oak Grove High School in Fargo and Concordia College in Moorhead, graduating from college in 2006 with a degree in nursing. She worked for a year as a nurse in Detroit Lakes at St. Mary’s Hospital and at the Emmanuel Nursing Home, then, rather than staying here and living the good life in America, returned to her native Haiti to give back.

There is virtually no public education in Haiti, only private schools that charge tuition. So for the poor children in Haiti (about 90 percent are in poverty), unless there is somebody to pay tuition, they never have an opportunity to learn to read or write. As illiterates, they face a life of no job opportunities except as servant/slaves or street vendors selling miscellaneous food or merchandise in a flea market type atmosphere. It’s a near-starvation living at best. Education for these children is their bridge from poverty to better health, a better life and self-sufficiency.

So before Miquette returned to Haiti, she decided to try to raise enough money to generate scholarships for 10 poor Haitian children at about $350 each. She talked to workers at the hospital and nursing home, friends, gave talks at service clubs and area churches about her goal and her dreams for kids who were growing up just as she had. Well, being bright, energetic, and charismatic, she raised enough tuition for 41 kids. She attended a seminar about forming non-profit groups and a TeacHaiti advisory committee was established in Detroit Lakes. It is now a non-profit corporation, operating under the caring and watchful eyes of a savvy board of directors.

Miquette returned to Haiti in 2007 and placed the 41 children in private schools. Those children had never been to school before. Neither had many of their thankful parents.

 Along came the huge earthquake in Haiti in January, 2010, that collapsed countless buildings, killed over 316,000 people and left 1.6 million homeless. Some of the private schools where the TeacHaiti children had been placed were destroyed, though none of the children died.           

Where to place the children? TeacHaiti decided to open its own school for some of the displaced kids.

A little concrete block home was leased in the summer of 2010, then painted, fixed up and prepared for a fall school opening. Jeff and I and a team of four others were there in August of that year to paint and fix. During the construction phase, children from the neighborhood drifted in to discover the wonders of the flush toilet, something they’ve never seen before. One bit of advice: don’t ever go to Haiti in August ─ the temperature and humidity are near 100 ─ day and night. Once the little school, now named the “School of Hope” opened, 65 new kids, grades 1-4, from destroyed schools, came and TeacHaiti placed 126 other children in different private schools.

Since then, the program has grown to over 320 children. Some are in an additional school building across the street from the original School of Hope and many are still in other private schools. The children are getting a noon lunch, for many the only solid meal of the day, learning English, Creole (their native language) and French (the main language of business in Haiti), math, science, geography, health and the basics, raising the flag every morning, learning manners, studying the Bible and gradually absorbing the ways of a productive society. Parents of the children are required to do something for the school as “in kind” payment. 

The thousands of poor, uneducated children of Haiti are the strangers on the side of the road that can be passed by on the other side, or helped by passers-by. TeacHaiti has resolved to help improve the literacy and health of as many as possible, all through the humanitarian impulses, compassion and generosity of anyone moved to chip in.

The purpose of the trip Jeff and I took in March was to assemble information for a book to be written about TeacHaiti to be used as a tool in fundraising. I had conducted 17 interviews before we left and Jeff and I conducted 29 more in Haiti, talking to family members, teachers, students, parents, friends, supporters and a Haitian business man. We did not hear a single discouraging word in the entire process. In addition to the interviews, Jeff took many great pictures. Of course, we visited the school and saw the children ─ at work and at play. More interviews and more pictures will be needed, as the task has just begun and will take many months to finish.

When you hear about general conditions in Haiti, you will not find many words of optimism, and indeed, the picture is grim, with tin shacks and tent cities all around and poor people selling their wares on the streets. But there are new roads, streets and sidewalks (many pick, shovel and wheelbarrow projects) and a few signs of effort and progress. But the TeacHaiti educational project is an oasis of hope, good news, a bright light and a reason for great joy and optimism. These children will be the builders of a new and better Haiti.