We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed at night with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways. -- Archbishop Oscar Romero, December 24, 1979
During this time of Advent we are called to wait – it is a time of exile and we await a light to come and dispel the darkness. Certainly we experience this at a profound and harsh level with our work in Port-au-Prince.
“Today as I approached the Sisters’ place a group of young men attacked us with rocks. They were screaming and yelling that we do nothing for them. They rolled big boulders in front of the car and they began sitting on the car. I threw it in reverse and went around the back way and approached the sisters from another route, but the men proceeded to do the same thing. It was very traumatic for me and the sisters. Tomorrow, the sisters will send their driver for me. We had a similar incident at the Boston clinic yesterday and Jim Dellavalle had to endure it. These are times when the thought of leaving seems very appealing.” – Fr. Tom Hagan note to Doug Campbell – 12/11/12
The email above from Fr. Tom really captures the struggle of working with the poor in Port-au-Prince. It is a constant pressure, especially from those who we simply cannot help. It is a problem that cannot be solved by “giving more”. During this time of Advent we are praying for God to help us with these challenges -- to help us avoid discouragement or giving up, to see the “light of world” even when it seems dark. So this Christmas we ask that you say a little prayer for us and know that we are always grateful for everyone who is part of our small work.
During October and November violence in Cite Soleil increased, with different groups fighting one another and creating serious safety and security problems for schools and clinics. The instability became so disruptive, that we had to close our schools down several times.
This prompted us to hold a large “anti-violence” rally at the St. Ann Chapel in late November. Nearly 3,000 people, students, parents, staff and community leaders filled the St. Ann Chapel to show their solidarity and the cry to stop the violence and allow the children to go to school without fear or danger. Representatives from the Becky DeWine School Parents committee (mother and a father) pleaded for an end to the fighting. Hands Together School leaders, Doug Campbell, and Fr. Tom Hagan all spoke to the large crowd. The event ended with an address from the Haitian Secretary of State and the chief of Police – pledging to properly dispatch police to school sites and insure safety for the Hands Together schools in Cite Soleil.
“We needed to place this problem of violence into the hands of the community. We needed to shed some light on how bad things have become and challenge every parent and every community leader to spread a message that violence cannot conquer violence. Fr. Tom did a wonderful job of communicating that God not only loves everyone, from the children to the gang member, but that God forgives everyone. We needed to establish a starting point for moving forward and scrub out any ideas of vengeance,” said Doug Campbell.
Becky DeWine School – Centers of Hope
Hands Together runs Becky DeWine School campuses in seven major Cite Soleil slum neighborhoods. From the beginning we’ve emphasized the “community nature” of the schools. They are much more than classrooms, and from them come a variety of activities that help students, parents, teachers, elderly and the community in general. Here are just a few of the ways our schools help bring some stability and a sense of hope to an otherwise dismal place:
- Daily School Meals – Thanks to Mary’s meals we provide a daily meal to all students, staff and elderly. Each day we serve close to 6,000 meals. “It’s a huge accomplishment – every day. Even as we struggle with the quality of teaching and the other problems, this one thing, by itself, is an incredible feat.”
- K- 12 Education – The biggest challenge is trying to run the high school. Our fundamental and middle school runs pretty well, but our high school gives us constant problems. The high school demands a huge number of special teachers, and tons of books, and computers, equipment. We try to provide a comprehensive education – intellectual, spiritual and physical.
“There is a huge need for better religious/spiritual teaching. Ethics and morals and a sense of service are just not instilled here the way we try to in the U.S. – so we try to do some of this and realize that the best way is to begin with our kindergarten and very young pupils. And then the challenge is to stay with it all the way until they leave our high school.” Fr. Tom Hagan
- Barefoot Schools – There are countless children of all different ages who never really went to school. We’ve enlisted the help of our recent H.S. graduates to work with this group from 1-3pm, each afternoon. We provide a simple meal and some basic literacy training to about 600 participants, but this could easily double overnight if we opened it up further.
- Parent Associations – Every school is designed to serve the community where it’s located. We’ve done a poor job of fostering responsibility and support from the parents and local leaders. This year, we created “parent associations” with 10 parents from each school, meeting every Sunday to discuss the needs, problems and programs of the school. If there is a problem of violence near the schools, then we turn to them to help us address it, if there is a maintenance problem, or a theft problem, then we must include the parents and the community in our response.
- Employment – We employ a lot of people to work. It’s probably one of the best by-products of the school system. Over 300 people receive a paycheck each month. “The best thing we can do for the very young people is create the community school and promote education, the best thing we can do for over 20 generations is to find ways to give them jobs or ways to generate income.” – Doug Campbell
- Project Dismas – There are thousands of young people in Cite Soleil (ages 19-28) who do not work and who naturally end up in gangs. Every neighborhood has this element. We began an outreach to these young people and in the past we’ve had some limited success in helping some of them change the direction of their life. The project is named Dismas - after the thief on the cross next to Jesus, who at the end of his life, experienced Redemption. The central message here is that all human life is precious and redeemable, and that with God’s grace, anyone can change. We are trying to change the hearts and minds of the young people who’ve been labeled vagabonds. We created “dismiss teams” of 10 participants – each group headed by a captain.
- Each team helps at a school location – our schools should be the anchor from which we outreach to the community.
- Assist with Elderly feeding and outreach,
- Beautify the grounds, clean up around each school every week,
- Build and care for a school garden – at every sight.
- Build and care for a school garden – at every sight.
- Annual Becky DeWine School Christmas Gifts – During the week of December 17-21, each school campus will run its modest Christmas party, where students receive a small Christmas present from the DeWine Family. “Fran and Mike DeWine, and lots of their friends work all year long to collect about 5,000 gifts for the kids. This year the young ones will get beanie babies, and jump ropes. Every high school student will receive a new calculator. Fran DeWine does a remarkable job collecting, sorting and packing all this stuff up and getting it down to us. It’s a real nice thing for the kids, just a far too infrequent gesture of love that lets these children know that they are important.” Doug Campbell
- Radio Bookman Interns – Each year we provide a grant to help Radio Boukman – a grassroots radio station that was founded by past HT employees – and provides Cite Soleil with excellent news, spiritual radio, music and educational programs. In November we started an intern program for our H.S. seniors, where they spend afternoons learning the basics of journalism and radio broadcasting.
- Mobile Clinic – HT trustee, Dr. Jim Dellavalle spent December 4 -14 helping Dr. Fanfan with our mobile clinic outreach program. Each day, about 125 people came to the clinic, which circulated around the different zones of Cite Soleil.