Now that we've been living in Haiti for 4+ years it's safe to say that we're total experts, right?
Still, there are a few "cultural nuggets" we've gleaned through time spent with this beloved country and her people. One of my earliest lessons came after 6 months of living in Haiti--September, 2010.
Then I was the nurse at an infant care center.
How's this for a throwback?
By that 6-month mark I had started to build relationships with many of the nannies. These were all women about my age and older who had been hired to take care of the children at the center. There were anywhere from 15 -25 women on staff each day. They worked 24-hour shifts and since I lived at the center and was on-call 24/7...well...we got to know each other pretty well. By this time I knew all of their names and was starting to learn more about their lives, like whether or not they were married and how many children they had.
September hit and suddenly the nannies had all kinds of ailments. I was used to the occassional complaints, PMS and the like but this was different. High blood pressure, headaches, colds, body aches, fatigue. It was uncanny. Why the sudden onslaught of symptoms in this group of generally healthy women?
I was at a loss until one woman was nice enough to spell it out for me.
M panse twop, she said. Which means, I've been thinking too much.
What's bothering you? I ask. > Oh, it's just that time of year.
And what time of year is that, exactly? > Sezon lekol.
School season???? That was her answer!? That was her explanation for this staff-wide immune system breakdown?!
That's when I got the whole scoop and it made sense. I learned that school would be reopening the first week in October. Registration fees were due along with the first of three tuition installments. Books had to be purchased and we're not talking just a few workbooks and readers. These lists had 10, 12, even 15 different titles per grade. And each child needed a backpack. In some cases backpacks could be shared between students, such as if a family had more than one child in the same grade. It happens more often than you would expect since one-on-one classroom instruction is limited or so I learned. I later learned that moms and dads who have not had any formal education themselves, cannot afford tutors for their children when they fall behind. I learned that there are few things more defeating for a parent living in poverty than having to pay the school fees for a single grade more than one year in a row.
There were also uniforms to be made. And you had to hurry if you wanted to get a good deal on fabric and tailoring. Prices would skyrocket as the summer days dwindled.
In 2010 the official start date of the new school year would be announced by the president via national radio. It was a complicated year to say the least. Still, a parent concerned about making ends meet knew the general date, give or take a month, and as the countdown towards the first day of school drew nearer financial anxieties increased five-fold. It was palpable. The nannies were mothers. They had to factor in these extra costs that, although somewhat expected (since school season happens every year), aren't a part of meeting their families day-to-day needs for food and shelter. The monthly salaries they earn had long been spent on food and family emergencies. Now their thoughts were consumed with how to make hundreds of dollars appear out of nowhere-- and it was keeping them up at night. School season was stressful, and it was making these women sick.
It was a rude awakening for me. The whole school thing. Getting to see what women went through in order to get their children in to school and what they continued to go through day after day to keep them there gave me my first guttural glimpse into motherhood in Haiti. There's something other than just the "joy" of motherhood. What is it? Ah yes, hardship.
Jenn had a similar experience. She learned about the school system that same year when she took on a roll to help run a school sponsorship program. In following up with the children currently enrolled in sponsorship, Jenn learned about the myriad ways a child could fail a grade thus having to repeat the class again the following year.
The child could be hungry. Without food the child's mental alertness would be lacking, leading to poor scores.
He or she could arrive at school with a dirty uniform one too many times. Cleanliness and overall presentation if highly valued in Haiti and children who do not meet the dress code requirements are sent home. For families living in extreme poverty the cost of soap for a daily wash might be too much.
The child could be sick. The child could miss too many days of school or worse, he or she could be sick on one critical day. Exam day. To not be present on exam day disqualifies you from passing the grade in many schools. End of story.
Jenn remembers making multiple visits to the home of a struggling family who had multiple children sick with malaria in the final weeks of school. That one illness almost cost 3 children an entire year of school.
You probably get the point. If the parents with jobs can't afford tuition and the parents whose children are going to school for free can't afford the right nutrition and medical care needed to keep them there--than how in the world can children complete 15 years pre-collegiate education in Haiti. It certainly isn't simple. Public schools are few and far between. Free-school lunch is not a mandate.
Still, putting one's children through school is one of the most dignified acts of parenthood and something every parent in Haiti wants for there child.
(Alright, now it's Jenn's turn to write).
Ok It's me, Jenn now.
You may have seen some of the statuses I posted on Facebook this week. We've been talking about school sponsorship and sharing some photos of our employees kids; the children are dressed in their school uniforms and sitting next to their proud parents. All these photos were taken last year at a “back to school breakfast” we held right after our employees got their bonuses and promptly enrolled all their children in school. The photos were taken by the lovely and talented Elektra Carras.
Last year, I was suddenly an employer and as an organization we had a chance to make this time a little bit easier on our staff. 17 of our 20 employees have school aged children- and combined these 17 people have 51 children! Last year, in order to increase the likelihood that our beloved employees would be able to manage all of the costs associated with putting anywhere from 3 - 8 children into school, we gave them their annual bonus (equivalent to a month’s salary) in September instead of December. Everyone agreed to this plan, wholeheartedly, but our Director wanted to see if the funds were in fact used for school so he asked to see receipts. And as was expected everyone returned with receipts from various schools. Kids had been enrolled. Tuition and uniforms fees paid etc.
Over this past year I was able to assess how the first year of giving away school bonuses played out. Not only did the employees remain healthy and in good spirits during “school season,” but throughout the year hardly anyone was sick or asked for a day off work. I have actually have to force these employees to take vacation! Very rarely did anyone ask to take a pay advance and never did anyone need to borrow money for anything school-related. That makes my job a lot easier!
Last year, not a single one of these students dropped out of school mid-way through the year. And, big news people, there wasn't a single child that didn't graduate and move on to the next grade level!!!! These children have moms and dads who because of their employment can focus on putting food on the table every night and can make sure to purchase meds when needed or take the children to the hospital and pay for medical bills. No child missed school because of a "payment that has not been made to the school” or the lack of funds to purchase books or uniforms.
These kids have moms and/or dads that have all the means to make sure these kids don't miss school and that they are succeeding—learning to read and write even if they themselves never had that chance. This is why we are passionate. We can't wait for the day when all 51 kids of these kids have completed university. We can't until the day when there are doctors, nurses, vets, investors, engineers, and store owners coming from this AREA!
Look at this potential!!
These kids are the future of Haiti and they are being raised up by some amazing parents.
As you may be aware it’s much easier to raise funds at the end of the year rather than right now. Shelling out double the payroll plus some isn’t easy to do at this particular month. But God Bless You people! We are so thankful that you value this push for education as much as we do. This year, because of your GENEROUS donations, it looks like we are on target to be able to give a secondary school stipend to many of our employees, especially those that have children in high school, and the employees that large families.
Second Mile is located 15 miles outside the city. We are in the “country” surrounded by 5 different villages. In the nearest village there are 3 schools. Two of the schools are primary and the other is a secondary school that goes all the way up to 9th grade. If you want to attend "high school" you have to travel outside of the village and make your way to the city. This is costly for people who live in this area. There isn’t direct access to public transportation which means motos must be hired to take the kids to and from town each day. That expense can be huge-at least $2/day! Not many are able to afford to pay tuition and be able to account for daily transportation to attend school.
It's a rare thing for children who live in the village to stay in school through high school. We are hoping that it becomes less rare as the tide in Haiti is certainly changing for the better. We currently have 16 employee's children who are attending school outside the village-- hence the reason why it's important that parents don't have to go into debt before school even starts.
In case this post hasn't been encouraging enough. Here is one more bit of encouragement.
I always like to talk to Ama about school. His nickname in Creole is “the professor.” He is our oldest employee. And did you know he was actually mayor of all the surrounding villages at one time? We enjoy what he brings to the table as a member of our staff.
Yesterday Ama told me with pride that this year will be one of his daughter's last year of school. He said that next year she will be heading to University (the first of his 11 children) and that she wants to be a doctor. I said, “wow, so out of all the employee's kids you have very first one that will attend University!” And he just smiled REALLY big. During this talk Ama and I also made a deal that he would be in charge of making sure that none of the staff kids fall behind. If any of the staff children need tutoring this year Ama has volunteered his services because he knows how important it is that a child stay in school.
So that's what we have to say about school.
If you'd like to contribute. Wonderful! We are still fundraising for this need. We're budgeting $150 per employee child to make sure that all back-to-school needs are met. We have 29 sponsorships of $150 accounted for already. Only 22 more to go! We will be gathering with all the parents and kids again this year. This time for a back-to-school dinner. If last year was any indication of what's to come, we are expecting great things for this generation of Haitian students!
You can Donate here.
Thank you on behalf of all of us!