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Letters from Haiti: Day Three

November 20, 2011

#1 Thing to Learn from This Post:
The community school is the foundation for educating children, parents, and community members, giving the people of Haiti the bridge to a better life.

A More Detailed Exploration:
Waking up at 6:00am, our team hit the road shortly after 7:00am to make the drive to Leogane, the epicenter of the 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake and where the Haiti Partners team first began its work here twenty years ago. On a typical weekday, this twenty-five mile journey from Bellevue can take anywhere from 2-1/2 to 4 hours depending on flooding, traffic, and other factors.

Thankfully, traveling on a Saturday meant considerable less traffic and we made it there in 1-1/2 hours. It also helped that most of the highway is a paved, divided four-lane road. Last year, it was still under construction and considerably more arduous. Having a functional system of roads and highways is vital.

Before I go further, let me give you some perspective and scale of the geography and population here. Haiti is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland and has twice its population, coming in with slightly more people than New Jersey. Of the roughly 10.2 million people living here, most of them are concentrated in urban centers, coastal plains, and valleys. Port au Prince is the capital and largest city with over 2.5 million people living in the greater metropolitan area.

Garden and Guest House at Henri Christophe Community School

Situated west of Port au Prince, Leogane is a port town also along the Gulf of Genove and is considered the 5th or 6th largest city having roughly about 50,000 people living in its metropolitan area. Situated in fertile soils, it’s an agricultural-centered community with the sugar cane processing plant a main focal point of commerce. Driving thru it reminded me of towns in the heartland of America that have grain elevators clustered together.

As you can deduce from the opening paragraph, Leogane and its people straddle a major fault line and was also destroyed in a 1770 earthquake. The 2010 earthquake was catastrophic, damaging 80-90% of buildings and leaving no government infrastructure. Like other urban centers hit by disaster — think New Orelans, LA and Joplin, MO — every person in Leogane has been directly affected.

John Engle, co-founder of Haiti Partners, began his work in Haiti here twenty years ago, learning to speak Haitian creole and forging relationships that endure today. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti Partners supported two community schools in Leogane. Now, they support four community schools here, all of which have had to build new structures in the past two years.

Community Gathering Shelter

Turning this disaster into an opportunity to rebuild with longer-term thinking and leveraging new partnership opportunity, Haiti Partners has helped these four community schools become the central platform for creating the change and advancement Haiti needs for its future.

Think back to your childhood years and consider the central role school played in your community. Much more than children learning in the classroom, schools are a major hub of social interaction, civic engagement and cultural activity.  Parents, children, and other community members coming together for everything from community discussions, civic planning, and celebrating shared holidays.

What was true for you and your children is true for the parents and children of Haiti.

We arrived at the Henri Christophe Community School at about 9:40am and were greeted by the school’s principal, director, and students. Thanks to the generosity of a local family, the school relocated a few hundred years from its former location to a plot of land with room for the main school building, a community  center structure, and a guest house for Haiti Partners to house visiting groups and other partner organizations.

Having visited the school last year when just the main school structure was about 70% complete, I was excited to see it completely finished, the community gathering shelter completely finished, a new latrine system installed, a community garden thriving, and the guest house in the final stages.

The property is lined with a tall, sturdy chain link fence. All three structures built with the inevitability of future earthquakes. The main school building has a solid foundation with a cistern underneath storing rainwater captured from the tin roof. Steel beams serve as the main vertical load-bearing support and lightweight divider materials separate the footprint into functional spaces. Ample windows allow for air circulation and natural lighting. In the back of the main school building, three rooms with doors house a storage closet, administrative office, and a computer lab.

The computer lab is the gateway to the world, previously unthinkable of providing. Thanks to a partnership with Inveneo, Henri Christophe Community School has six HP computer terminals running off one server to conserve energy, powered by solar energy, and connected to the Internet. What a catalyst this computer lab will be for the children, their parents, and community members.

How do I know this? Just consider how powerful the simple community gathering structure has been. You and I might mistake it for a picnic shelter and wonder what the big deal is about it. Remember the devastation from the 2010 earthquake, consider the deterrent heat/rain can be, and  you’ll quickly realize this shelter empowers community members to gather in one spot to discuss shared community issues and come up with solutions. Simple, yet profound.

Next consider the difference an ecologically sound latrine system makes. Last year, GiveLove representatives met with us and introduced us to the system they had developed and could deploy here. Now, the school has a latrine system that catches human excrement in buckets with organic biological material to kill heat-resistant organisms that cause cholera, disentary, and other scourge diseases (thus eliminating the smell). These buckets are carried and dumped into a compost bin and mixed in. Like your compost pile home, it provides rich, organic material that can be sold or used in the community garden.

Once our team finished touring the facility, we began filming a video we’re producing to share the Haiti Partners story with business leaders and entrepreneurs.  More to come later on that. Finished, we piled into the truck and made the trek back to Port au Prince.

Phillipe Armand

We headed to the offices of Phillipe Armand, owner of Groupe Dynamic. Phillipe had just returned that morning from a trip to Europe as part of a delegation of Haitian private sector, government, media, and NGO leaders to learn from the Catholic-Protestant reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland.

Phillipe’s father and uncle started their family business in 1946 bringing Canadian herring to the Haitian market. Now, Groupe Dynamic is a conglomerate of businesses with interests in Hertz rental cars, insurance, medical clinics, courier services, and Steelcase Furniture.

Of the many insights he shared with us, what stuck out most is the fundamental role education and literacy plays in defining the future of Haiti. To paraphrase him, every conceivable problem exists here, but the one to focus on first is education. Education and literacy will make their democracy better. Education and literacy will help Haitians create new economic opportunities for themselves and their families.

Coming back home that evening, we were greeted by the Haiti Partners Children’s Choir. They travelled earlier this fall to Michigan for a special concert tour. They performed five songs before closing with their signature song – one they wrote and arranged. Its main message: many people are talking about change in Haiti and it will be the children who lead the way.

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