December 10, 2016
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Haitian And U.S. Schools Form Partnerships

 

 

 
A slight tap and the trail of dominoes -- about 27,500 of them -- toppled one by one, sparking cheers from students, staff and faculty recently in the gymnasium at St. George Episcopal School in San Antonio in the Diocese of West Texas.

"For every dollar we raised we put a domino on the floor of our gym," explained Jennifer Wickham, director of religious education about the April 26 event. The ripple effect of the cascading dominoes was intended "to show that little efforts and little bits of money add up to make a big difference," she said.

Dubbed the "Chain of Love," the trail of dominoes leads to hope for another school, St. Benoit in Mombin-Crochu, a village of about 25,000 located in Haiti's mountainous central plateau region. St. Benoit, a partner school of St. George, is among 250 schools that were operated through the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti prior to the Jan. 12 earthquake.

It took only about seven minutes to collapse the dominoes, but Wickham and others are counting on longer-lasting benefits. The $27,500 raised in the St. George annual fundraising drive will help build a school adjacent to St. Benoit Episcopal Church, where classes are currently held.

Wickham and other representatives of St. George traveled to St. Benoit in March during Holy Week to meet face-to-face with St. Benoit teachers and to witness progress on construction of the new school, which has already begun.

They exchanged photos and letters, prayers and messages between students and staff of both schools, in an effort to "give our students the opportunity to develop relationships with children whose lives are very different from their own," according to a St. George summary of the developing partnership.

Since the magnitude-7 earthquake leveled wide swaths of Haiti nearly 100 days ago, the need for partnerships among U.S. and Haiti Episcopal-affiliated schools has become especially urgent, say officials of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES).

The NAES website carries a long list of fundraising and prayer-offering activities that spontaneously arose in the days after Jan. 12.
 
"This is our neighbor," said Ann Mellow, NAES assistant director, adding that Episcopal Church-related schools know that their colleagues in the Diocese of Haiti are "brothers and sisters in the same church."
 
The desire for connection and partnerships continues.
 
About a third of the diocesan schools were in partnerships with U.S. schools before the earthquake and about 40 other U.S. schools have since said they are interested in forming such relationships, the Rev. Kesner Ajax, Diocese of Haiti partnership coordinator, told ENS April 29.
 
Many if not most of the diocese's schools, ranging from elementary to university and trade schools, have been damaged. Once damage assessments have been finalized, the diocese will be able to complete a master plan for rebuilding and reconstruction, Ajax said.

Those decisions are complicated by the enormity of the task of planning the rebuilding, he said, and include taking into account the migration of people out of the capital of Port-au-Prince into the countryside and the need to construct stronger buildings.

"We cannot just build to build, but we have to build and to be ready for any kind of disaster," said Ajax, who is also the executive director of the Bishop Tharp Institute of Business and Technology (BTI) in Les Cayes in southwest Haiti. "We are to fix things for the people who are coming after us."
 
Along with the assessments and master-plan decisions, Ajax and other diocesan officials will identify the schools' needs and the best candidates for partnerships.
 
The Rev. Roger Bowen, retired chaplain and headmaster of St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, and a volunteer liaison to the Episcopal Schools Partnership Program in Haiti, hopes the number of partnerships will grow.
 
"There are a lot of people who want to come. It (the earthquake damage) may be fading from television news, but parishes and schools are still thinking about ways to help," said Bowen, who added that such relationships "must be seen as a long-term commitment."
 
Immediately after the earthquake, Haitian Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin had asked groups to wait to visit the devastated country. Now, he said he hopes groups will contact the diocese and consider visiting and begin to establish relationships with potential partner schools and churches.
 
"Right after the earthquake, it was so hard to manage. It was very difficult and we asked people to wait," Duracin recalled during an interview on Holy Monday in his Port-au-Prince office. "But now I think we have become accustomed to the situation, so if people want to come, they can contact us."
 
Ajax said potential partners, both Haitian and American, need to get to know each other. "First of all, we try to build the relationship, to know each other," he said. "The first thing is to visit. If I tell you only, it's not enough; you have to come and see. Then, according to your capacity, you can see where you can help."
 
Putting his hand to his chest, Ajax called the forging of such a partnership "a situation of heart."
 
Duracin also said that such partnerships require flexibility.
 
"Sometimes, there are so many needs in a school, that one or more partners may work together -- one takes one part and the others take another," he said.
 
Serena Beeks, executive director of the Commission on Schools in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, agreed. "Some individual people sponsor students by paying their high school or college tuition," she said. "In some places partners will take responsibility for teacher salaries, to make sure they get paid, or for putting in a well, or a latrine."
 
Several Los Angeles-affiliated schools have partnerships and at least five others have requested new ones.
 
The schools association plans to include a workshop for schools who want to partner with colleagues in Haiti during the group's biennial meeting Nov. 18-20 at the Marriott San Antonio Rivercenter Hotel. Mellow said one aim of that workshop is to start establishing best practices for creating and sustaining partnerships.

Bowen said he hopes that partnering Haitian schools with multiple U.S. schools, churches and institutions, will help build longevity and relationships among partners.
 
"We're talking about friendships, about getting to know each other's names, about visits back and forth," he said.
 
"We've noticed over the years that when leadership in American schools change, when heads of schools change, or the chaplains change, often times the enthusiasm for the partnership changes too and what happens is the Haitian school is left holding the bag," he said.
 
"There are many kinds of partnerships," Ajax said, and "the perfect one" is a long-term relationship that aims to "help change the situation."
 
"If you help me to step up, to be self-sufficient, this is the best one," he explained, adding that when sufficient support from partners ends too soon, students are set back into a position of dependency, and not potential autonomy. "But if [you support my education] I will get a job. One day I will thank you and I will support another person," Ajax added.
 
With 220 kindergarteners through sixth graders, St. Matthias Episcopal School in Thomonde, Haiti is an example of what happens when partners don't take time to build relationship, according to Bowen. Construction halted on a new school, after leadership changed and the Thomonde school partnership wasn't considered a priority, he said.
 
Long-term help and follow-up over time are essential, Beeks said. "You make a commitment, you don't just give some money and forget about it," she said. "You find out what the needs are, you have a relationship. You're with them in good times and bad times, that's real community service and outreach."
 
"It's really important, too, for school kids to learn about this kind of community service," she added. "So often, there's an emergency response which, of course, is very much needed, but very rarely is there any kind of follow-up."
 
Mellow agreed, explaining that Episcopal-related schools believe that it is important for students to learn about being "agents of change," about the difference between charity and justice, how to help others in ways that don't perpetuate stereotypes and how they can work for "permanent systemic change."
 
The schools, she said, are "trying very hard to live out in meaningful ways transformational calls to justice and equity."
 
Bowen says he knows of students in the U.S. schools who have changed the course of their studies based on their experiences with their Haitian partners.
 
St. Patrick's Episcopal School and Church in Washington, D.C. is an example of a good, long-term relationship between partners. The school and parish have partnered with St. Etienne's Church and School in Buteau for more than 28 years. The sponsorships have helped to pay teacher salaries, student tuition, and help supply books and supplies and hot meals to students.

The relationship also had sparked development of a second elementary school, Christ Redempteur, some 13 years later. In 2002 the school expanded to include a middle school, providing the graduates of the elementary schools the opportunity to continue their education. Christ Redempteur was the only middle school in the entire region. St. Patrick's assistance has also helped to build a water cistern and retaining walls around the school and to build classrooms.

Bowen said that it is still unclear if Christ Redempteur survived the earthquake. "About 85 percent of the buildings in that area were destroyed in the earthquake," he said.

Which makes development of new partnerships even more crucial, Bowen added. He cited an eight-year partnership between St. Stephen's School in Austin and Ecole Ste. Etienne in Hinche which has been very fruitful.

"Many students have come to visit, the baton has passed to other faculty members and it's expanded over the years," he said. The Hinche school was not damaged in the earthquake.

And Ajax suggested that Haiti's U.S.-based partners can learn from the diocese's educators about teaching techniques, how villages come together to educate their children and how diocesan schools are sharing their facilities with other education organizations, all with the aim of educating the next generation.

 

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan and the Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg are national correspondents for the Episcopal News Service.



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