Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation

Sep 02nd
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Home Disaster Relief Help Haiti with Love An Empty Sack Can’t Stand

An Empty Sack Can’t Stand

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At the temporary school, Jean Denis inspires students to give. Photo: Mary KehIn March 2010, as the initial shock of the devastating earthquake began to fade and the surviving residents of Port-au-Prince started to face the new reality left for them, Jean Denis Petit Pha discovered that the children of his neighborhood, like those in so many neighborhoods across the city, were in dire need of a service that was not being provided: education.

As a teacher, Jean Denis was already a firm believer in the power of education. But, at this moment, in the aftermath of unprecedented devastation and the deaths of 300,000 people, he knew that the children needed more than just education. They needed protection.

If the children of his neighborhood were to have any chance, they would need to be protected from the new dangers of their postearthquake home: the physical dangers of collapsed concrete, exposed wires, and severed structural skeletons, and the mental danger of picturing their friends and loved ones lying still, rotting, under the wreckage of what were once their homes. They needed a distraction to stay sane. Education would be a bonus.

Back to School

A teacher at the temporary school leads a dictation lesson in May 2010. Photo: Shirley TsengJean Denis reached out to another educator, Marie Ange “Mireille” Colinet, to help put together a temporary school. The two had met shortly after the earthquake when Father Columbano Arellano, priest of the local St. Alexandre Church, gathered together trusted community leaders to care for survivors. They had worked side-byside in numerous charitable efforts, including Tzu Chi’s Food for Work street-cleaning project.

Together, Jean Denis, Mireille, and a team of local volunteers began to set up the temporary school. They secured an unfinished home to use for classrooms, covered the open roofs with Tzu Chi tarp, borrowed benches from a local school that was too damaged to operate, purchased a blackboard, and secured sponsorship for food and other costs from Tzu Chi. The school quickly became a reality—classes began on March 22, barely two months after the earthquake.

For Jean Denis, the temporary school was a continuation of his life work. As a young child, one of six in his poor family of charcoal vendors, Jean Denis decided early on that he would become a teacher. By the time he was a young teenager in secondary school, he was tutoring younger children to offset tuition costs. By his senior year, he was drafted into service as a fullfledged teacher at his underprivileged school: he taught fifth graders in the morning, took English classes in the afternoon, and attended school as a student every evening.

When he graduated, Jean Denis found himself in the extreme minority in his poor neighborhood. Looking back years later, he estimated that only five percent of his classmates graduated and went on to become “good men.” The remaining ninety-five percent he described as gangsters, drug addicts, alcoholics, and deadbeats.

Students file into St. Alexandre for afterschool tutoring. Photo: Phanny YangExperiencing personally the positive power of education, Jean Denis continued down its path. Before the earthquake, he was teaching at three local schools. After the earthquake, they were too damaged to operate. When Jean Denis realized the dire need for education and a safe, nurturing environment for displaced students, he had both the knowledge and the time to provide it to them.

Mireille had also been a teacher, teaching kindergarten in Port-au-Prince through much of the 1970s before turning to school administration and later social work. Like Jean Denis, she was an active and respected member of the community, a leader in the St. Alexandre Church and the Girl Scouts.

With their leadership and the hard work of a dedicated team of teachers, cooks, and other volunteers, the temporary school filled the gap before schools reopened in fall 2010. From March to September, the school served more than 120 students between the ages of four and fifteen. Every day, the children attended class and were provided two hot meals. For most, these were the only meals of the day.

Photo: Lesly PierreEach day, teachers taught the children to count, read, and write; addressed practical necessities of daily life in Haiti; and strove to develop the children’s characters as much as their minds. Children were taught about personal hygiene and how to recycle; they were told the origins of Tzu Chi and the bamboo bank spirit; they were shown how to help and respect each other, their elders, and the environment; they played games to build teamwork; and they participated in field trips and activities to learn more about their country’s culture and heritage. Teachers and volunteers visited the students’ families after school to engage the parents in their education, check up on their health during the cholera outbreak, discuss the importance of education, and address the individual needs of each child.

When Port-au-Prince schools reopened in fall 2010, returning to their local schools became the children’s best opportunity for education. But for many families, tuition was simply too expensive to afford. So Happy Campus—initiated and run by Haitian volunteers, sponsored and mentored by Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation in the United States—shifted its focus from providing education to funding it. Jean Denis negotiated reduced tuition rates at two local primary schools—his alma mater, Ecole Mixte Des Collegiens (EUDEC), and Collège Roussan Camille (ROCA)—and Tzu Chi agreed to pay tuition for ninety-six qualifying former students of the temporary school. Though the temporary school was finished, the Happy Campus Program was just beginning: for while one problem was now solved, more remained to be discovered.

After School Tutoring

Photo: Bornain ChiuInitially, Tzu Chi sponsored ninety-six temporary school students in their return to local schools. Before long, a second phase was implemented to include more needy students in the area, bringing the total number on Tzu Chi scholarships to 222. To ensure that the generous donations sponsoring these scholarships were not being squandered, local volunteers kept a close eye on all students’ academic progress.

When grades were released at the end of the first trimester, the volunteers discovered a serious problem: most of the students were failing. Volunteers spoke with the principals of the two schools, and then held a meeting with parents and teachers to discuss the problem and find a solution.

Through these discussions, the volunteers learned that even though the children were attending school each morning, they lacked a support system in the evenings to reinforce the lessons they were taught. Among many reasons for this, the most fundamental was language.

Fueled by a health meal, students can focus on their studies. Photo: Bornain ChiuAs Haiti has long suffered from poor education, most of the children’s parents were illiterate even in their native language of Haitian Creole. Since schools used French as the language of instruction, the children were at a double disadvantage. As they struggled to understand lessons in a language mostly foreign to them, their family members were powerless to help and support them.

Most children faced other serious obstacles as well. Father Columbano recalled walking out of his church as late as one or two in the morning and seeing young students reading under the floodlights of the basketball court directly across from St. Alexandre. Many of them still lived in tents or temporary shelters that lacked ventilation, electricity, and sufficient space to study. Even those in houses struggled to find an environment where they could focus.

Learning of these difficulties, it became clear to the volunteers that they needed to provide a tutoring program in order for the children to absorb their lessons. So, Happy Campus adapted yet again, this time to offer an afterschool tutoring program for scholarship students falling behind in their studies. In spring 2011, this daily tutoring program was launched at St. Alexandre.

Volunteer teachers were recruited and students were led to the church every day after school to supplement their morning lessons. These tutoring sessions were not without their difficulties. As the two schools used different textbooks, students had to be divided into two shifts: ROCA first, then EUDEC. The students were further divided into three separate groups by grade-level, but all had to share the same small facility: two groups sat back-to-back in the sanctuary, the third upstairs.

Immacula and her team of volunteers prepare a hearty vegetarian lunch. Photo: Bornain ChiuThough challenges remained, the tutoring program also brought distinct advantages. As in the temporary school, the tutoring program again gave teachers and volunteers the opportunity to help children grow in wisdom and character, and to teach lessons of everyday value: such as how to properly brush teeth and how to wash hands to prevent cholera.

Marc Arthur, math and grammar tutor for third and fourth graders, saw the greatest advantage of the tutoring program in the ability to teach the children in their native language. With the afterschool tutoring program, he had a rare opportunity to explain lessons in Creole to ensure that the children absorbed them.

After months of dedicated hard work, the teachers and students were rewarded with steadily improving results. After the first trimester in spring 2011, eighty-five percent of the tutoring students passed their classes. The following trimester, ninety percent passed. But the need for tutoring was just another layer of concern, still not the core of the issue. In 2012, the volunteers again had to dig deeper.

An Empty Sack Can’t Stand

In Haiti, two important measures are taken to ensure that donation money spent on scholarships is not squandered. First, tuition funds are paid directly to schools, not individuals. Second, local volunteers visit sponsored schools each morning to take attendance. Students and parents know that if a student misses five school days in a month without a valid excuse, he or she will lose the scholarship.

Though Tzu Chi’s strict rules keep attendance generally high, the volunteers noticed in spring 2012 that certain students were still missing school and tutoring too frequently. They also learned from teachers that many students were distracted and lethargic in class, their lack of focus contributing to poor grades.

As volunteers conducted home visits and spoke with the students’ parents, they discovered the source of the problem was hunger. Even though Tzu Chi was covering tuition costs, many families remained too poor even to feed their children. Some were eating just one meal a day; others even less.

There is a local saying in Haitian Creole—“an empty sack can’t stand”— which illustrates that a person without food lacks the strength to work. Similarly, malnourished and hungry children do not have energy to study and learn. Having uncovered this new obstacle, the local volunteers again took action. With Father Columbano’s blessing, one half of St. Alexandre’s front courtyard was converted into a small kitchen and a daily hot meal program was launched.

In tutoring, students also learn proper hygiene and other life lessons. Photo: Lesly PierreWith many years’ experience as a caterer, local volunteer Immacula Cadet stepped forward to spearhead the project, and a group of students’ mothers volunteered their time to cook and serve. On May 8, 2012, the afterschool hot meal program kicked off, spurring an immediate change in the students. With the promise of a hot meal, attendance improved greatly, and the students became more attentive and engaged.

Just a week later, the program expanded even further. On Father Columbano’s recommendation, a daily milk distribution was established to ensure that local infants could also receive their necessary nutrition. Spearheading the project was Celeste Romelus. A trained nurse, she brought her own special talents to Happy Campus just like several volunteers before her.

Even with rigorous precautions in place to ensure that only those truly in need will benefit, the milk program has grown quickly. Five babies were fed on May 15, 2012, the first day of the program. Just two weeks later, the number grew to nineteen. Ultimately, the goal is to feed fifty babies every day. As Happy Campus grows in response to each layer of need that is uncovered, more and more young people are receiving the education and the nutrition they desperately need.

Hope for the Future

Every day now, St. Alexandre is a hub of activity: from the moment water is set to boil at seven o’clock until chalkboards and brooms are put away ten hours later, the sanctuary is filled with community services that multiply as each new need is identified.

By the summer of 2012, 161 of 220 primary school students at ROCA were supported by Tzu Chi scholarships. Between ROCA and EUDEC, nearly 150 students attended afterschool tutoring each afternoon. Over time, Happy Campus also began to spread outside the St. Alexandre area, as young students at a third school and an orphanage were added to the scholarship program.

A young student demonstrates proper tooth brushing techniques to her classmates. Photo: Lesly PierreCollège Des Humanistes, the third school in the program, sits at the edge of Cité Soleil, one of the world’s largest slums. Here, the impact of the scholarships is particularly powerful. Jean Denis is touched whenever he sees eleven- and twelve-year-old children attending school for the first time. Because of these older children, he is always careful to point out that each grade level does not necessarily equate to a particular age, as it does in the United States. Most students in the fifth grade are ten or eleven years old, but some may be as old as fifteen or twenty.

For the principal of Humanistes, the impact on his school and his community is even more deeply felt. He thinks not only of the books that are in the children’s hands now, but also of the guns that are not. Several years earlier, before the United Nations stepped in to clean up Cité Soleil and before Tzu Chi came to offer tuition assistance, many of these children would have been roped into work as mercenaries by the merciless warlords and drug kingpins that violently ruled the district. Now, the children have an opportunity for education and a refuge from violence. Cité Soleil, like much of Haiti, still has a difficult path ahead but huge strides are already being made. For the first time, these children have hope.

The path of Happy Campus has not always been smooth. Along the way, volunteers have encountered resistance, even from many parents. Some were upset that their children were left out of the program. Others expected to receive tuition fees themselves and were upset to see these go directly to the schools. Some showed no interest in their children’s progress and were unavailable even when volunteers went to visit them at their homes. But, over time, most have come to see the positive impact of the schooling, tutoring, and hot meals. Those who once complained now express their gratitude. Some have even joined the effort as volunteers on the cooking team.

With daily hot meals, volunteers strive to ensure that the idiom—“an empty sack can’t stand”—will not apply to these young students. But the meaning of the saying, like the work to be done, does not simply end with food. Empty of knowledge, wisdom, and morals, a person cannot stand. And without men and women of character and compassion, neither can a country.

With perseverance and courage, the roughest roads can become smooth.
Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen

Story taken from USA Journal No. 34, Winter 2012