Haiti is living through an unimaginable catastrophe following the earthquake of January 12, 2010. One of the victims is Society of Providence United for the Development of Pétion-Ville (SOPUDEP), a unique school and community project located in Pétion-Ville, on the outskirts of Port au Prince. Its building is damaged beyond repair. Its staff and students are now engaged in a harrowing struggle for survival and for eventual renewal of the school.

A unique school project in a land where education is a luxury

Two years ago, I knew very little about Haiti other than it was a Caribbean island. But a summer spent exploring human rights led me to Haiti and the epidemic of extreme poverty and human rights abuses the majority of their population was facing every day. Haiti has become an integral part of my life ever since.

A random conversation with a photojournalist from Montreal, Darren Ell, led me to book a plane ticket to Haiti in the fall of 2007. I wanted to check out an education project he told me about, SOPUDEP. This was unusual for a guy who never finished high school! But once I saw Haiti with my own eyes — her people, the school for poor children and their families — I knew I had to get involved.

SOPUDEP prides itself on providing free education to the poorest children in the community, children who would otherwise have little or no opportunity for any kind of education. Haiti’s public education system reaches only 10 per cent of the country’s children. So foreign charities or other private institutions operate the great majority of schools.

Both public and private schools charge mandatory fees that are out of reach for most Haitian families because the average Haitian only takes home between .75¢ and $2 (U.S.) a day. SOPUDEP is different: families are only charged fees they can afford, and no one is turned away.

Education in Haiti is in a state of ongoing crisis. Because of the country’s chronic poverty and the national government’s lack of resources, SOPUDEP depends on international support for its survival.

SOPUDEP’s co-founder and School Director, Réa Dol, is an unbelievable woman who tirelessly serves her community. She is a community leader, working with grassroots women’s rights organizations, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs, and economic empowerment projects. She also helps set up other community-based schools around the city, often providing them with financial support using portions of the funding she receives for the school.

Creating a Support Foundation for the School

On returning to my home in Orillia, Ontario after my first visit to Haiti, I set about creating a family foundation with the specific goal of providing financial aid, sustainability, and growth for SOPUDEP School.

For the remainder of the 2008/2009 school-year (five months), we resurrected the school’s hot lunch program, five days a week. Réa explained to me that if we had shown up just a month later on our first visit, the school might possibly have already been closed due to lack of funds.

The average teacher salary is only $500 (U.S.) per year. The total salary budget for 47 staff in the 2008/09 school year was $26,957 (U.S.). There were few textbooks, poor protection inside the school from wind and rain, and most classrooms had dilapidated chalkboards and rough desks made from planks of wood. Despite these obstacles, the school offered education from pre-school through to grade 12. Students learned reading, writing, arithmetic and other subjects.

A World Turned Upside Down

The daily struggle to keep the school routine going changed dramatically and forever on January 12, 2010 when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti.

The school building, a former private mansion, was one of the only three in a neighborhood of three hundred buildings to survive the quake. It was immediately put to use as a makeshift hospital and shelter. The majority of people who once lived in the surrounding area- called Monn Laza- moved into camps. Réa and her staff only managed to secure food eight days after the quake. Starvation was beginning to set in and international aid agencies had yet to reach the area.

Beginning of February 5, Réa recently explained to me, people began to move into the school building and grounds. Approximately 20 people are in the building, another 40 in the grounds.

“We purchased food with the contributions we receive from our friends and supporters. We buy corn (meal), rice, beans, cooking oil, spaghetti, and bullion flavoring. The food was bought on credit, more than 240 bags of rice, 279 measures of beans, 35 cases of cooking oil, 10 boxes of bullion flavoring, etc. As financial contributions come in, we reimburse our suppliers.

“All of the classrooms are occupied. They are filled with materials, mattresses and beds, everything. We offer water as well.”

Réa has taken on even more during this disaster. She is now director of sanitation for a camp of 16,000 people that is situated by the ruins of the National Palace. She is also organizing daily food and medical distributions to be sent to other camps and because she was able to buy a pickup truck with donations received from a group in California, SOPUDEP’s scope of distribution also includes Carrefour and other outlying areas. She reflects upon the prospects for Haiti’s poor, “We would be very happy if the school could open,” she says. “The children are in a bad situation, but the means are not yet available to start over.”

“Most schools in the capital have been destroyed or are structurally unsound. The government is asking for schools to re-open under tents, but that represents a danger. In our case, there is not enough space in the courtyard. The children would be victimized once again if a second disaster struck. Our minds can only be at rest if there are open spaces, but we cannot find enough of them.”

“This has been traumatic for our community. The school is still alive, but the area of Monn Laza is not livable at this moment. Everyone has deserted. How will we create a zone and climate of peace for children in this area? Other places in the city haven’t been affected as badly as Monn Laza. Every home has been destroyed here and the government has still not even removed everyone from under the rubble.”

Réa remarks on the incredible bravery of the young people in the district. “It is the youth who put masks on their faces and removed the rubble. Bodies have to be burned, but funerals cannot be conducted. It is the youth of the neighborhood who have taken on the heavy burden, and they don’t even have the equipment like tractors or front-end loaders to do it.”

“A reporter from the New York Times visited the area with me. He asked why our area has been overlooked by the rescue effort. It’s because it has been fully destroyed. The authorities have given priority to other areas. So it is the youth who must make an effort, alone, to remove the dead from under the rubble.”

“We have already contacted more than 135 families, all of them with up to 4-5 children, sometimes 6 children. We are trying to support all of these families in terms of food, tarps, crutches, and travel in order to connect with their families in the provinces. We have helped organize mobile clinics in different shelters in many areas of the city. We are supporting the victims in any way possible, both the family members of SOPUDEP, as well as the other residents of Monn Laza.”

Réa comments on other efforts she is making and the critical needs still on the ground, “I don’t know of any other school that is doing what we are doing: personally going and looking for our children and getting our students involved in this search. We want to know who survived, who has left for the countryside, how many have died. And those that are here, we give them a stipend. I focus on the children, and I see their future, because it is they who will replace me tomorrow. We got the students involved right after the earthquake. But we have many, many traumatized people, young and old. We need psychologists, people that understand the mentality and customs of the country, who understand what just happened. We would be very happy to receive these people.”

Beyond the Devastation

Conditions in Haiti are devastating. It will take a long time to recover. But our hopes lie in local organizations such as SOPUDEP because of their deep understanding of what the people of their community need. These are the organizations that deserve the bulk of our international aid money. Local initiatives that allow Haitians to be in charge of their own affairs will create a groundswell and a strong counter balance to the powers that have kept Haiti in a state of repression for over 300 years.

Last year, SOPUDEP began paying for a new plot of land on which to build a new school for the 2012 year. The first phase of architectural plans have been drawn up by the school and our foundation in Canada, together with a group of students and staff of the Interior Architecture Department at Ryerson University in Toronto. The immediate plans include temporary structures that can be used as classrooms and shelters. These structures utilize free materials that can be readily found in any neighborhood. The second phase in this project is the permanent school building that would be made from shipping containers. This material is both hurricane and earthquake proof. It would also include a solar roof that could provide electricity to many surrounding homes. Current donations to SOPUDEP are devoted to food and other supplies for basic survival. Soon, classes will resume and teacher salaries and student supplies will have to be paid.

SOPUDEP’s ability to help their community will not be limited by money, but its effectiveness will! It is up to us to help them in their fight to build a country that exists for all Haitians and not just for a select few.

The Sawatzky Family Foundation is a registered charity in Canada (BN: 80143 8417 RR0001). One hundred per cent of all donations go to SOPUDEP. No costs are assessed to donations, not even the costs of money transfers or administrative fees. For information on how you can support this amazing program that seeks every day to empower Haiti’s most vulnerable, please click here.

Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for rabble.ca. Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...