Sept. 17, 2003
Providing Hope for the FUTURE
FOND DES BLANCS, Haiti
would be easy to expect very little in a place that even nature ignores.
A relief effort begun by a handful of people at a Quincy church is giving some of them that opportunity.
The St. Boniface Haiti Foundation began by providing medical care and humanitarian aid in this rural region in southwest Haiti. After two decades, it is also sending children to school and trying to put families on the path to economic self-sufficiency.
The foundation recently started offering small business loans to people who come up with plans to make money but who don’t have the cash to jump start their initiatives. A woman with sewing skills, for example, might recognize a market for school uniforms but need help making the initial purchase of material, said Nannette Canniff of Randolph, who is the foundation’s executive director.
“One thing keeps leading to another,” Canniff said. “If you’re going to give them good health care, you have to educate them. Now some people who have been living longer want to try some commerce and better their lives.”
For children like Fenol Jacquet, education offers the best chance.
Fenol knocks on the door to the residence where Canniff and other Americans stay during visits to Fond des Blancs. He pulls a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and hands it to Canniff. She scans the Creole words, then congratulates the boy: His report card is filled with promising grades.
Jobs simply don’t exist in any great number in Haiti. If children hope to become an exception in a country where most people are unemployed, they have to go to school.
But in a place where nothing comes easy, even that is a struggle. There are few free schools in Haiti, and most families can’t afford tuition, let alone pay for required uniforms and books. For high school students, the annual cost of education is about $120. The per capita income in Haiti is $250 a year.
“Fond des Blancs is a very dry area in Haiti, so when they put the seeds in the ground, nothing comes out of it most of the time, so many parents cannot afford to send their kids to school,” said Durand Dubreus, a Fond des Blancs resident who administers scholarship and self-sufficiency programs for the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation.
Children who go to school one year might miss the next two if the weather is uncooperative and plants refuse to grow.
This year, the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation will help send about 275 children to schools throughout Fond des Blancs. Based on a family’s need, the foundation pays for all or part of the cost of tuition, uniforms and supplies. Altogether, the program will cost slightly less than $6,000.
In addition, hundreds of children attend St. Francis Xavier School, built by the South Shore group and run by the local Catholic parish in Fond des Blancs. In most rural regions, run-down chapels double as schoolhouses. St. Francis Xavier is one of the few schools with desks and chalkboards. Outside, another rarity awaits the children: colorful playground equipment.
Some especially bright teenagers are sent to high school or technical school in Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. The foundation rents the house where they live and pays for their tuition, food and supplies. The foundation is also paying for a young woman to attend medical school in Haiti.
For other Fond des Blancs families, hope is delivered via slightly odd packages: goats.
Jilner Gelmy and his wife, Veronique Poulard, are among 500 families who each have been given two female goats and one male as part of the foundation’s self-sufficiency program. The goats reproduce quickly; within six months four kids can be born.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Gelmy, Poulard and several of their 11 children sit in the dirt under a makeshift shelter pieced together with tree branches. A small fire burns in the center. This is the family’s kitchen.
The children wear tattered clothes. One who is completely naked clutches what looks to be a rusted soup can missing its label. He reaches in with a spoon, pulls out a few hard, yellow corn kernels, and gulps them down.
Gelmy and Poulard were given three goats and soon had eight. Like the other families, they will repay the cost of the goats - $62 for all three - over several years. In the meantime, they either kill them for food or sell them at market.
Gelmy and Poulard used profits from selling some of the goats to send nine of their children to school.
Like others among the volunteers, Canniff has spent two decades of her life and energy trying to improve the lives of the people of Fond des Blancs and giving them the means to do that themselves.
She looks to the future now, and sees the great need for others to take up the task.
“I hope the work we’ve begun will continue,’’ she said, “and we can find some very dedicated people who will have as much compassion and concern as St. Boniface has shown over the years and it will grow and the people of Fond des Blancs will prosper.”
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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