The best way to picture Haiti is as a boxer.
The country sustains body shot after body shot, hitting the canvas round after round. Sometimes, Haiti comes off the ropes and tries to rally, swinging its fists defiantly. Inevitably, the world sends it reeling with another jaw-rocking uppercut, usually in the form of an earthquake, though tropical storms and cholera outbreaks have also done damage.
Haiti is one of the more hopeless places on Earth. But even in this desolate country, good things are happening.
Take a one-hour 35-kilometre drive from Port Au Prince to Birebalais, and you’ll find a Chilliwack church making a difference.
Partnered with Hungry for Life International, Southside Church (45460 Stevenson Road) is building a free school.
In this town of 70,000 people, and throughout Haiti, only those with money go to school. There is no publicly funded education system like we have in Canada, and the vast majority of the population can’t afford to learn.
Haiti’s poverty-stricken youth spend their days looking for things to do.
When armed conflict breaks out — a frequent occurrence — they are the first to pick up arms. The illegal drug trade forever needs soldiers, and too many idle hands wait for work. Haiti’s only hope lies in its youth, but too many slip through the cracks.
Southside Church, Hungry for Life and local leadership started the Birebalais school in 2007 from a church basement.
The plan was teach and feed.
“A lot of these kids will go two or three days without eating, which is hard to make sense of for you and me,” said Hungry for Life’s Steve Johnson, a key facilitator for the project. “I had a Haitian buddy who went four days without eating in high school. He’d be lying on the floor, so exhausted, wanting to sleep but unable to because he was so hungry. That was one of the first thoughts with the school. Find a way to feed these kids, and if they get an education as well, that’s kind of a bonus.”
The school started with 50 kids, and has since expanded by 25 per year.
Two years ago they purchased land. With help from Chilliwack architects and engineers, they drew up plans for a permanent building. Chilliwack’s Zion Building Society kick-started the process with an initial capital investment, and after breaking ground in January of this year, phase one was quickly completed. The children of Birebalais got a school, built to code, with a cookhouse, eight classrooms, two bathrooms, and office and a depot.
Inside the school, a strong emphasis is placed on learning French.
“Only the educated people can speak French, and the rest speak Creole, which is a phonetical language derived from French,” Johnson explained.
“That’s one of the ways they’ve established a class system,” Johnson said. “The elitists speak French and anything to do with prosperity requires French. Applying for a bank account? French. Going to a lawyer? French. It you only speak Creole, you’re stuck.”
One-hundred and eighty-five students in Grades 1-6 now practice their oui’s, non’s and excusez-mois.
The long-term plan is to accommodate more. Much more.
“There are plans to build a second story and create space for kids in Grades 1-13 (they go to Grade 13 in Haiti),” Johnson said.
Southside has raised tons of money, with the annual Hope for Haiti Golf Tournament as their marquee event. Held at Kinkora in the past, it moves to Chilliwack Golf and Country Club this year (September 14) with a cost of $120 per ticket. Organized by Ed Van Tongren (Ambstep Homes), with help from Dan Matheson, the stated goal is $20,000-$25,000.
Hungry for Life doesn’t take any administration fees for coordinating the Haiti project (or any others), so every dime raised will go towards the school in Birebalais.
“It’s about $40-50 a square foot to build in Haiti, or about half what it costs in British Columbia,” Johnson said. “The Birebalais project will probably be about $130,000 or $13,000 per classroom.”
Eventually, the hope is to provide meals and education for 300 kids, which is ambitious but definitely doable.
Southside Church sends teams to Haiti once or twice a year to help where needed and Johnson usually goes with them. If he ever has any doubts that the whole thing’s worthwhile, they are quickly swept away.
“It gets real,” he said. “Some of these kids walk two-and-a-half hours to school and sleep in a broom-closet sized room with brothers and sisters and parents. People come back from these trips passionate about Haiti and more compassionate in general. It’s life changing.”
The next trip is planned for March.
For more info, email Haiti@southsidelife.com or call 604-824-8724.