Editor’s Note: The COO of Jibunu, Shannon Smith, participated in a group trip in January to The Joseph School in Haiti organized by the Market Research Education Foundation (MREF). The Joseph School was founded in 2010 by Jim Bryson, Chairman of 20/20 Research. To find out more about The Joseph School, future organized trips, and how you can support the school or sponsor a student, please click on the links below.

Upon returning from my recent trip to Haiti and The Joseph School, I was asked if it was fulfilling. My answer was no.  I was asked if I felt as if I made a difference. My answer was no. I was asked if I will go back. My answer was, “I don’t know”.  Let me explain.

To help you fully understand, I need to take a step back. I am about as white middle class as you can get.  I went to a school in the suburbs that had maybe one or two children of any color. I worked several jobs in high school to help my family make ends meet, but we always had clothes and a car and there was plenty of food on the table. Life was not that hard. Aside from a business trip to Toronto, I have never been outside of the country.   

I thought I had been exposed to poverty when I taught at an inner-city Head Start. In my classroom were the poorest children in the community, many were refugees from other countries and in total spoke close to a dozen different languages. This was poverty in America and as sad and awful as it was, it did not compare to what I saw in Haiti. I don’t want to dwell on this, but I do want to take a moment to describe what I saw to help you understand the incredible impact The Joseph School is making. 

We were asked not to take pictures of the streets, the towns, or the people we passed – and we passed thousands of people. We had security guards with us wherever we went, which made me feel better after receiving government security alerts that urged me to not go to Haiti due to civil unrest and protests. Where I am from, you drive through the slums of any big city for several blocks and then you drive out of it. You eventually come to nice buildings, clean streets, pretty trees. In Haiti, you never drive out of it.

Our drive from Port au Prince to our hotel took nearly two hours and we never drove out of it.  Everywhere there are piles of trash lining the streets, shacks for homes that sometimes had four walls and a roof, but more often had cloth or metal sheets on at least one side. There was open sewage, no running water or electricity in most places, no trash pickup. The markets had raw meat sitting out on tables for sale. I saw people bathing in the river that the sewage runs into. The colorful tap taps (cabs) would carry people packed inside and sometimes hanging off the back or on the roof. Mopeds were everywhere and often had 3, 4, 5 or even 6 people aboard! I asked if it had always been like this or if it was brought on by the 2010 earthquake that killed 300,000 people. The answer was that in this area of Haiti it had always been like this. This was unimaginable to me.

Even with all the poverty and the almost complete lack of infrastructure, such as we enjoy here in the U.S., there was a constant sense of dignity and respect among everyone which we don’t always experience here. The Haitians were not sad or downcast. They were dressed in clean clothes. They were smiling, talking, and enjoying each other's company. They were going about their day and making it work. I was impressed by the pride Haitians have in themselves and each other. Through all the government warnings of potential protests and violence towards tourists, and the need for us to have armed security guards, I never felt threatened or unsafe. The only time I ever felt uneasy was with the aggressive street vendors, so I kept my money hidden and my bags close. Overall, I felt in awe at how open and free the residents were with their smiles and their hearts. I must note that we had fabulous translators and several native Haitians with us who are well respected within the community, so I am sure that helped.

What was also unimaginable to me is what I learned about the school system in Haiti. The dropout rate for children up to 7thgrade is 80%. That means only 20% go on to high school and of those only 10% will graduate. 61% of adults in Haiti are illiterate. The public schools go up to 3rd grade. Private schools consist of teachers with a limited education teaching rote learning style to children in a single room sitting on benches. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to visit sites like USAID.

In contrast to all of that is The Joseph School. It is a small school with only grades one through four.  They aim to add a grade each year, always staying one year ahead of the highest grade. They have a 100% retention rate except for a few children who have been adopted. Bildad (Jean Bildad Michel), a Haitian citizen and Director of Operations at The Joseph School, starts the children’s day, every day, by telling them, “You are beautiful. You are smart.  You are capable.” I felt chills as I listened to the children’s morning program where they raised the flag, sang the national anthem, and gathered together for a moment to encourage and raise each other up. Their mission is clear. It is so much more than just a school. It is a grass roots movement to improve Haiti. They are raising the next generation of Haitian leaders.

With no electricity, the building’s windows were positioned to optimize sunlight and keep the classrooms bright. Solar-powered fans help keep the classrooms cool. Desks are arranged in a circle, as you might see in a classroom in any American suburb. The parent volunteers cook breakfast and lunch for the children from a small shipping container that is their kitchen. The parents can volunteer five hours a month for free tuition. The school has 100% participation in the volunteer program. It warmed my heart to see the reprieve this school offers the children. It is a place where they do not have to worry about food or shelter. It is a place to play and learn in an open, clean environment, where they are encouraged and can challenge themselves and each other. It is a garden of hope.

And the school takes it so much further than just teaching the children. They are helping to train the teachers, introducing new methods and approaches to education. The teachers live far away from the school. During the week, they live in what was the old school building. It now serves as a guest house and the teachers are picked up and bused to school with the children each day.  The school is also taking care to not displace people that were living on the land previously. The land was originally owned by a former dictator and had been abandoned for some time before the government granted it to the school. Eleven families came to live on the land before the school was established. Rather than labeling them as squatters and kicking them out, The Joseph School embraced them. As resources permit, the school is building new homes for them on adjacent land. Grateful to be provided with stable homes, these neighbors fully support and help protect the school.

Our group of 28, organized by the Market Research Education Foundation (MREF), had an opportunity to play with the children, read to them, and help clean up the grounds. The children are learning Haitian Creole, French, and English. Some can carry on simple conversations in English. I wanted to stop time as the children played with us. They enjoyed taking our phones, hats, and sunglasses, trying them all out.  They asked “Photo?” wanting to use our phones to take photographs of anything and everything. The teacher in me was fascinated by the photographic eye of one young man, Bb Mirtho Thilus, who took photos of another child reading a book and then went on to have several children display their hands on rocks so he could photograph their nails, newly painted by some of the volunteers. The children play hard and work hard.  On Thursdays, they help clean up the trash that regularly blows onto the grounds. They take much pride in keeping their school clean and are quick to point out if a volunteer left a piece of trash anywhere. My heart melted with the bright smiles of the children which shine so often and the love they give so freely. 

This was something I found to be true of so many people I met in Haiti, including the men we worked with paving the road to the school. We were literally laying cement using a couple of buckets, shovels, and a cement mixer with flat tires. They needed help carrying buckets of rock and sand to mix with the cement. As I walked up to fill a 5-gallon bucket with rock, the translator told me the men said “Oh, this is heavy, it is a man’s job.” I showed them my muscles and proceeded to have them fill the bucket for me to carry it to the cement mixer – over and over again for hours until that first section of cement was in place. By the end they were laughing and smiling. That day I even had the opportunity to sit and talk (via the translator) with some teenage Haitian girls who came over to watch us work. One has aspirations of becoming a teacher and I was struck by her poise and determination. She promised me to stay in school and fulfill her dream.

As part of this trip, we also had the opportunity to visit an orphanage and walk through a local village.   It can take years for an adoption to go through in Haiti and they do the best they can to take care of the children. While I was not there long, walking away from the orphanage was one of the hardest moments of my trip. I can tell you that there were not many dry eyes among the volunteers when we left. What came next was equally emotional. We walked off the orphanage grounds into a local village. It was literally a maze of homes, one- or two-room shelters, packed tightly together. The streets were just wide enough for a moped to ride through. As we began that walk, the local children ran up to us to hold our hands and walk alongside us. Most of them did not speak English, but they didn’t need to. The children, widely ranging in age, were gentle and calm. Their parents and older siblings looked on as they relaxed outside their homes. They all smiled and returned our greetings of bonswa (good evening). Goats roamed the area freely, joined occasionally by a chicken, dog or cat. What struck me most with all of this was the sense of community I felt in this area of such extreme poverty. I learned that the Haitian people value time and friendship very strongly and that perhaps our rushed American lifestyle could learn something from the Haitians in this regard.

This trip opened my eyes up to my own ignorance and assumptions. I hope to never look at all that I have the same again. I hope to always value the little things in life for the luxuries they are (especially toilet paper!).  I hope to always have the courage to do whatever little bit I can do to help others. I am starting to help by sponsoring a student at The Joseph School.

Was my trip fulfilling? No, it left me feeling like there is so much to do. Did I make a difference?  Perhaps, but I hope to do more. Was the trip worth it? Absolutely, 100%!