Nonprofit TeacHaiti launches new 'Students 4 Students' program in Detroit Lakes
School-based program is intended to foster connections between U.S. students and their Haitian counterparts.
DETROIT LAKES — TeacHaiti founder Miquette Denie McMahon has made many trips to Detroit Lakes since establishing her nonprofit educational organization there 15 years ago.
Though she is a native of St. Michel, Haiti, McMahon feels a strong connection to the Detroit Lakes community, where she spent a year with the Rotary Exchange International program in 2000-2001 — and it was some of the friends and acquaintances she made during that time who helped her to establish TeacHaiti a few years later.
In fact, McMahon sometimes refers to the community as "the birthplace of TeacHaiti" — so she found it only logical that she should launch her organization's newest outreach initiative, "Students 4 Students," during her latest stop in Detroit Lakes on March 16. She met with students at Holy Rosary as well as both the public middle and high schools during her visit — and she is planning another trip to the community this summer, for a June 22 fundraiser.
"I am trying to build a deeper relationship with our supporters in Detroit Lakes," McMahon said in a Wednesday interview.
It's a little easier for her to make the trip to northwest Minnesota these days, she admitted, since she and husband Art McMahon (whom she married in October 2011) relocated their family from her native Haiti to a new home in Vermilion, Ohio, last June.
"We live right on Lake Erie," McMahon said, adding that she could see the lake from where she was sitting to do the interview.
They decided to make the move to Ohio — where Art is from — to facilitate Miquette's work as TeacHaiti's executive director. Much of her work involves fundraising and educational presentations about the organization, which has, in years past, necessitated multiple trips to and from Haiti each year.
"It's getting really hard to travel out of Haiti," she said. "We have such a great team taking care of the day-to-day (operations) there, it just makes more sense for me to be here."
Though McMahon had considered moving to Minnesota, "Ohio is cold, Minnesota is colder," she said jokingly, adding. "I chose cold over colder."
More seriously, she said, "Whenever we would come visit (the United States), that's where we usually stayed, so the kids, they already knew the neighborhood, they knew the people, so we thought it would be a little bit easier for them. It just made more sense to move here."
The McMahons have three children: Max, 9; Rex, 7; and Raquel, 6. Miquette says that the student orientation they had at their kids' school this past fall was a real eye-opener for her. "Even though I've been in school here, it still really surprises me, the resources that are available," she said.
For instance, students routinely receive a free laptop or tablet for their use while they are in school. "I don't even have to pay for it," she marveled. And then there are the free meal programs offered to students in need; even public school students' day-to-day tuition is paid for, by the government.
That's something McMahon could have used in her early years in Haiti, when she was sometimes sent home from school because her parents couldn't pay her tuition for that week. "I was sent home for the equivalent of one dollar," she said, adding that she cried over the humiliation of it.
With that in mind, she said, "it breaks my heart when I see the kids here who just don't get it, the amazing gift that's given to them. They take it for granted ... because you don't know what you have when you always have it."
That's part of the reasoning behind the creation of "Students 4 Students," she added — exposing students in this country to what it's like to be a student in Haiti, as well as to a culture and lifestyle that's very different from their own — and vice versa.
What is 'Students 4 Students'?
Students 4 Students is a program offered by the nonprofit organization TeacHaiti that connects students in the United States and Haiti. It is anchored on four pillars:
- Pen Pal connection: Through the TeacHaiti School, the Pen Pal Program connects students in the United States with pupils in Haiti. Students are encouraged to correspond weekly or quarterly with their pen pal, as agreed upon. Individuals enrolled in French classes have a wonderful opportunity to practice their language abilities through correspondence and both schools will supervise letters to maintain a healthy and appropriate connection. Letter writing, via postal service, is encouraged rather than email communication.
- U.S. student fundraisers: This initiative offers American students the opportunity to assist pupils in need in Haiti, through a variety of projects including lunch fundraisers, school supply drives, and Christmas care packages for Haitian families, to name a few.
- Haitian student sponsorships: Child sponsorship is an opportunity to have an enduring impact on a Haitian student in need. For $480 a year, or $40 per month, a sponsor can pay a child's tuition and offer a daily meal. Following registration, sponsors will be matched with a student and presented with their profile and photograph; the student will then provide yearly updates on their progress.
- Expanding worldview: The old adage that "knowledge is power" holds true. The development of a greater understanding and appreciation for diverse perspectives, including those relevant to culture and history, can be aided by collaborative efforts in the educational setting. TeacHaiti provides participating classes with information regarding education and health statistics, as well as any other pertinent data related to Haiti.
McMahon said that Detroit Lakes was just the first community where she has done presentations on the program — she is planning to connect TeacHaiti students with students in communities across the United States. She has also been in touch with teachers and administrators at various schools around the Fargo-Moorhead area, and plans to do more school visits as she did in Detroit Lakes this coming fall.
"I'm always available to come and speak," she said, adding that school administrators in both Hawley and Casselton have already expressed interest.
How did TeacHaiti get started?
Miquette Denie lived with John and Mary Lee while attending Detroit Lakes High School during the 2000-01 school year, on a Rotary Exchange scholarship. After her year in Detroit Lakes was finished, she went on to further her education at Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo, where she graduated, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Concordia College in Moorhead.
Though she knew she could use that degree to live quite comfortably, Denie chose instead to devote her efforts to helping as many children in Haiti as she could to obtain the education that had proved so valuable to her. So after graduating from Concordia, Denie spent the remaining year of her visa working as a nurse at St. Mary’s Regional Health Center and Emmanuel Nursing Home in Detroit Lakes, while at the same time, using her contacts in the area to help start up a new nonprofit organization known as TeacHaiti, which was established in 2007, under the umbrella of Detroit Lakes' First Lutheran Church.
About a year later, TeacHaiti received its own 501(c)3 nonprofit status, and continued helping Haitian students to receive a much-needed education, through tuition sponsorships and other fundraising efforts.
After the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January of 2010, TeacHaiti's first “School of Hope” opened its doors in Port-au-Prince, welcoming children in grades 1-4. The following year, a preschool class was added. A class has been added every year, with the School of Hope currently serving students through grade 13. In 2022, the school held commencement ceremonies for its first graduating class of 18 students.
"All of them are enrolled in trade school thanks to TeacHaiti," McMahon said. "This year we will have 28 students graduating. Most of these students would never have finished school if it were not for TeacHaiti. Over half would have dropped out by 6th grade due to financial hurdles. We are filled with joy for this major milestone.
"Our goal is to provide funding for trade school for all of our graduates so that they can earn a living and maybe save money to pay for their own college education since most of them want to attend college."
In 2016, TeacHaiti's second School of Hope opened in Miquette's hometown, the village of Saint Michel. TeacHaiti in Saint Michel followed the same model of starting with students in preschool through grade 4, adding a class each year until they reach grade 13.
TeacHaiti employs full-time English teachers and staff, art and music teachers and cooks at both schools, which also maintain a large group of parent volunteers. TeacHaiti places a high value on parental involvement, requiring each parent of a sponsored student to volunteer for two hours at the school, once a week. Parent volunteers help the school operate by cleaning, providing maintenance, preparing meals, or helping teachers in classrooms. In this way, parents are involved and participate in their child’s education, creating ownership and a comprehensive support system for their child.
TeacHaiti's curriculum follows that which has been established by Haiti's Ministry of Education, which comprises subjects such as mathematics and science. In addition, it offers extracurricular activities, such as a fine arts program including music and art, physical education, and access to a school garden and livestock, all of which are uncommon in Haitian schools. The school also offers a special education program.
Sponsored students receive daily meals through TeacHaiti's nutrition program, and regular medical care from the schools' doctor.
McMahon says that TeacHaiti currently has over 50 students waiting for a sponsor. "It cost $40 a month, or $480 a year to give the gift of education to a child in need," she added. "Consider being a hero for a child in Haiti."
For more information, visit TeacHaiti's website at www.teachaiti.org .
On June 22, she will be back in Detroit Lakes for a TeacHaiti fundraiser at Holy Rosary School, which will take place from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
"We will have Haitian games, and Haitian appetizers," McMahon said, "as well as some artwork, and hopefully a silent auction as well."