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Home Our Missions Mission of Charity A New School, A New Beginning

A New School, A New Beginning

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On July 29, 2015, a ceremony was held in Solino, Port-au-Prince, in which the Tzu Chi Foundation officially turned a newly rebuilt kindergarten facility, the Centre Educatif Carmen René Durocher, over to school administrators. "This is the most beautiful school we've ever seen!" schoolchildren exclaimed.

Dr. George Tseng (曾永福), 80, the architect who designed the school, flew in from Miami just for the occasion. He has designed many important engineering projects in the United States and Haiti. In the last several years, he unconditionally helped Tzu Chi build schools in Haiti. Often he would fly from Miami to Port-au-Prince in the morning, inspect the construction, then fly back to Miami for work in the afternoon. "I cared deeply about the projects, so I did many things myself," he said.

Tseng, who is originally from Taiwan, continued with a choke in his voice: "In Taiwan going to school is taken for granted, but in Haiti it's quite hard to come by." He said that he really hoped that students here will receive a good education, find a good job when they grow up, and pay back to their communities.

Solino is one of the worst neighborhoods in the capital when it comes to public safety. Thieves often snatch things from people and then disappear into the web of twisting narrow alleys. Not much can be done about that. As a result, few people venture into this neighborhood unless they live here. The Durocher school is the only one in this area.

The only school


The school actually has deep local roots. A factory used to operate in the district years ago. To make it easier for mothers to work at the factory, its owner built a nursery for them. He later transferred the ownership of the nursery and the land it occupied to the National Association of Guides in Haiti (ANGH). The association raised funds to keep the nursery going, a task that was not easy.

A few years later, when the babies at the nursery had grown older, parents proposed to turn it into a kindergarten. The ANGH took their suggestion and named the kindergarten after the founder of the association, Carmen René Durocher. The first and only school in this area was thus established.

Opening the school was one thing, but keeping it afloat was quite another.

"Families here are very poor. Even a tuition of 250 gourdes [about five U.S. dollars] is beyond the reach of most families," commented Marie-Ange Colinet, spokesperson for the ANGH. "Sometimes, parents who can't afford the tuition just drop their children at the school gate and then hurry away." She pointed out that although the ANGH has never refused a child, they have been greatly challenged by tight finances along the way.

As if the financial struggles were not enough, the kindergarten was reduced to rubble in the great earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12, 2010. The ANGH could not afford to rebuild it, so they simply used tarpaulins and wooden boards to cobble up temporary learning spaces for the students so classes could continue.

One day Father Columbano Arellano of Saint Alexandre parish asked Marie-Ange Colinet to assist the Tzu Chi Foundation in an aid distribution. She agreed.

"I saw Tzu Chi volunteers [at the distribution] respectfully hand over relief goods and sincerely wish the victims well," she said. She was moved. "It goes without saying that people should help each other, but, because of their long-lasting poverty, Haitians tend to think only of themselves."

Identifying with and drawn to the group, Colinet began actively participating in Tzu Chi. Her affinity with the foundation sowed the seeds for rebuilding the Durocher school.

During a visit to the school, Tzu Chi volunteers saw what was left of it after the earthquake. They witnessed that despite the difficult conditions, the teachers were holding down the fort and teaching the children at the only school in the community. Tzu Chi decided to help rebuild the school. Construction began on October 26, 2012.

Despite all the good intentions behind the project, things did not go smoothly at first. The original contractor lacked experience and could not handle the work, so construction ground to a halt. The Overseas Engineering and Construction Company (OECC) was then brought on board to take over the project.

David Chang (張士錡), then the deputy general manager of OECC, had first encountered Tzu Chi in 2008. In August and September that year, four hurricanes in a row hit Haiti. Foundation volunteers held aid distributions for the needy, and Chang and other OECC employees helped package the goods for distribution. He was impressed by the work ethic and dedication of the Tzu Chi volunteers, who never complained in spite of the tiring work.

After the 2010 earthquake, Tzu Chi reconnected with Chang. OECC eventually helped the foundation rebuild four schools in Haiti: Christ the King Secretarial School and the Collège Marie-Anne primary and secondary schools, which the foundation turned over to the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Anne on May 17, 2013. Last to be built was the Durocher school.

With its red roofs and yellow walls, the two-story building stands out in the midst of low gray houses. Most people cannot help taking a peek inside when they walk by. This bright new school has instilled hope and energy in the local community.

Meaningful construction

Chang, originally from Taiwan, worked in Haiti for 13 years. "I identified with Tzu Chi's aid approach, and I wanted to work with the foundation to make Haiti a better place," he said.

Not even getting mugged 12 times in 13 years could diminish his love for this land. "Anything can happen in Haiti," Chang observed. He was once kidnapped right in Solino, the district where the fourth school built by Tzu Chi was located. He lived there for so long that he grew used to even things like riots and coups d’état.

"After I'd had a gun pointed at my head a few times, I kind of got used to it," he said with a smile. Though he made the remark with a touch of lightheartedness, he was all business when it came to building schools in Haiti. He knew how important education was to this land. "Haiti is really very poor, to the point that people are driven to rob, swindle, and deceive," Chang said. "If we could provide them with an environment where they could more easily get an education, they would at least have a chance to learn right from wrong." That's why he readily accepted the request from Tzu Chi to build schools there.

Public infrastructure was sorely inadequate. Water and power outages were routine. OECC had to rely on diesel power generators to supply electricity, and it bought well water and trucked it to the company. "When a truck went out to get water, we could never be sure if it would come back safely," Chang remarked. Rioters might block the truck, interrogate the driver, and let the truck pass only when they felt so inclined.

Despite the hardships, OECC and its employees built many quality buildings in Haiti that earned the respect of local people.

Most of the building materials used in Haiti, even nuts and bolts, were imported. When cargo containers arrived in Port-au-Prince, however, all sorts of problems might arise. For example, the local freight company trucks hired to deliver the containers might be late, or the police might pull a truck over, or the cargos might simply vanish.

Chang recalled one unpleasant situation during the construction of the Durocher school. "We took the trouble to import child-sized toilets from Taiwan," he remembered. "After the goods cleared customs, we shipped them to the construction site. I felt uneasy about leaving them there, so I told our workers to be extra watchful. Still, we lost several of them."

Chang felt there was no such thing as sitting in the office, reading reports, and giving orders if one was in the construction business in Haiti. "I jumped in to fight fires with workers every day," he said, referring to the frequent bumps and hiccups that the company encountered.

In 2013, after a particularly busy spell, he suddenly began to get tired very easily and his weight dropped dramatically. He returned to Taiwan for a checkup and was diagnosed with liver cancer. By that time he had handled 56 construction projects in Haiti. He had wanted to leave Haiti after reaching a hundred projects, but now he could not wait. He went back to Taiwan for treatment.

He was thus able to spend more time with his family. For the first time ever, he was able to attend his daughter's graduation—from college—in June 2015.

Chang reflected that before going to Haiti, he had never thought that mere construction could ever bring hope to people, but when he left the nation, he felt otherwise. He felt that his life had been worthwhile. "I was able to earn a living for my family and do something meaningful for others. I'm quite proud of it."

He recalled that his family, like many others in Taiwan, had received aid from the United States when he was little. He knew well what a mere bag of wheat flour or powdered milk meant to people who didn't have much. In Haiti, he saw something similar. Once, his company built a bridge. At the inauguration ceremony, people ran from either end of the bridge toward each other and embraced. They were residents of the villages the bridge connected. The sight touched Chang very much.

"In Haiti, you can see how much basic infrastructure impacts people's lives. That's what has kept me there for 13 years," Chang continued.

Though no longer working in Haiti, he still keeps an eye on the projects there. This time, he also attended the opening ceremony of the Durocher school. "Haiti is making progress," Chang asserted. "Even though it's not as fast as we'd like to see, you do see things changing." He firmly believes that education is the key to transforming people's minds. A school in a destitute area like Solino is a step in that direction. Young minds, like seeds, may sprout and flourish there, leading them to a better future when they can bring about the change that the country needs.

Hope


While the school was being rebuilt, classes were held in a small community church in an alley across the street. In that small space, children shared long benches and teachers shared podiums and blackboards. Because the church was used for worship on weekends, the teachers and students would pack up everything and remove it from the premises before they left on Fridays. On Mondays, they would bring it all back.

That was indeed a makeshift school, but it was now a thing of the past. On the day the new school opened, the kindergarten students, looking very sharp in their uniforms, waved goodbye to the church and marched to their new school, which had nine classrooms on two floors. The students would each have their own desk and chair, and the teachers would all have their own podiums. The building was engineered to withstand winds up to hurricane force and earthquakes up to magnitude 8.5, a huge improvement over the old school. The school would also serve as a disaster shelter for the community in the future.

Principal Melissia Daverne has worked at the kindergarten for 27 years. "I never dreamed of having such a nice school," she said cheerfully. "Many children around here can't afford school, so I hope to somehow accommodate them in the future." The school had also started taking in elementary school students, and vocational training classes were being planned.

Marie-Ange Colinet, the ANGH spokesperson, planned to introduce the Tzu Chi culture of love and respect into the school. She also intended to encourage the parents of the schoolchildren to save their spare change in coin banks and, when they became full, donate the money to support the school.

This community was infamous for being unsafe," she said. "But I believe the school will bring about changes. To ensure the safety of the children here, community residents will need to protect this place.

Tzu Chi volunteer James Chen (陳健), who was also heavily involved in the construction of the school, said, "When children in Haiti have an opportunity to receive an education, they cherish it." He opined that a hundred years from now almost no one will remember the aid supplies distributed by Tzu Chi after the quake, but a school is different. If the roots of education reach deep enough, change will come to the land.

Amid joyous music and cheers from residents in the neighborhood, representatives of the ANGH and Tzu Chi unveiled the new building. A new era for the Durocher school and the local community has just dawned.

Article By Qiu Ru-lian
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Article from Tzu Chi Quarterly 2015 Winter


 

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