Impoverished Haiti is blessed with breathtaking topography where mountains perch against a blue Caribbean sea.
A short stretch of ocean is all that physically separates privileged Florida from the beautiful if broken island-nation of Haiti. One of the most striking contrasts existed long before the January 2010 earthquake vanquished buildings and lives, and contributed measurably to the sense of vulnerability. An earthquake 500 times stronger in Chile the following month had a fraction of the death toll (795 versus 200,000 in Haiti) despite having roughly double the population (16 million versus 9 million).
Haiti is susceptible due to economic and political issues, for sure. But it also lacks the type of education taken for granted across the developed world. Only about half of Haitians have been formally schooled to any degree and then primarily by a shame-based teaching system focused on rote memorization, effectively discouraging the creative thinking and collaborative problem-solving that are prerequisites to things like disaster-resistant building codes and coordinated emergency response plans. The high school graduation rate is a dismal 1 percent. Many Haitian teachers have never graduated from high school and, even then, may not have had any teacher training.
This, in an oversized nutshell, is what the Vero Beach-based non-profit Haiti Partners is endeavoring to change – though not with the typical America-knows-best approach. As co-founders John Engle and Kent Annan are well aware, meaningful reform comes from within one’s own geographic boundaries. It’s a democratic process involving people in decisions affecting their lives, not “top-down and imposing,” says part-time Vero Beach resident Engle, who together with his Haitian wife Merline and two children lives most of the year with an assortment of family members in the mountainous countryside three miles outside the capital of Port-au-Prince. Engle is Haiti Partner’s “man on the ground,” working with a few ex-patriots and about 100 Haitian colleagues at seven partnering elementary schools to expand access to quality education and keep benefactors back home apprised of progress. “Trust is the glue that holds the work together,” he says.
Read the entire article in the February 2012 issue