One Child at a Time
Southporters Aid in Rebuilding Haiti
Primary school students do their homework at HEI’s after school tutoring program in downtown Jacmel.
Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Educate a child? The sky’s the limit.
For Susan Whitcomb, those words couldn’t be more fitting. As a former college professor, this long-time Southport resident has been restructuring the way some kids are educated in Haiti.
Tropical and mountainous, Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. There are very few public schools. Most are privatized and run by religious or non-governmental organizations. Only a third of Haitian children reach the sixth grade. Often without textbooks, notebooks, or paper, they must memorize what they’re given. Electricity is sparse. Potable water is scarce. Illiteracy hovers around 50 percent. In a country slightly smaller than Maryland ravaged by years of political corruption and natural disasters, Whitcomb sees only the beauty and potential.
“Poverty has no respect for brains or capability,” she says. “The longer I work in Haiti, the more I appreciate it.” Whitcomb volunteered after the devastating earthquake in 2010. What she saw there made her determined to make a difference. With a little hope and a big idea, she launched Haitian Educational Initiatives (HEI) eight years ago. A 501(c)3 non-profit organization, it provides scholarships to 51 area schools in and around the villages of Jacmel and nearby Cayes-Jacmel.
Initially, her goal was to pay the school fees for ten kids. Today, that number is over 200. This year marks their first graduating high school class. While the average promotion rate in Haiti is five percent, HEI has a rate of 89 percent. “We’re growing a new generation of Haitians,” says Whitcomb, founder and program director of the organization.
Anne Svensk, a former HEI board member and long-time friend, traveled to the Caribbean island with Whitcomb a few years ago. The trip made a huge impact. “I visited two schools there,” she says. “One was an actual building, but the other had no roof. Just corrugated tin on four pillars. Very primitive. But I was impressed with the dedication of HEI and their partners.”
Haiti is not a nation, says Whitcomb, but a cluster of families. Breezing in thinking you can fix everything and go home doesn’t work. To gain a foothold, you need a connection. That’s why it has been important to collaborate with boots on the ground. They work with two local community groups—Fondation Jean Bellande Joseph and Cercles Amis des Enfants en Situation Difficile—to help them problem-solve.
Unlike other aid organizations, this operation has no middleman. Your wallet has a direct connection with the kids who need it most. HEI president Jim Whitcomb praised his sister’s mission. “Money funneled through the government doesn’t go where it’s supposed to,” he explains. “Susy goes down and takes it directly.”
Abigail Franklin, HEI’s secretary, agreed the hands-on relationship with their local partners has been essential and is largely due to Whitcomb’s frequent trips every few months. “In the aftermath of the earthquake, there was a lot of publicity about money pouring in to Haiti and it wasn’t going to the charitable purpose intended,” she says. “There was just a lot of corruption and that affected people’s willingness to donate.”
On average, Whitcomb said 90 cents of every dollar goes into production. By providing funds for school fees, uniforms, learning materials, after-school tutoring, job training, and food programs, these kids can have a brighter future.
“What people don’t realize is that there are a lot of fees associated with going to school in Haiti—exams, uniforms, traveling costs,” explains board member Joanne Delone, co-founder of Haitian Building Unity. “A child may have to walk ten miles or take several taxis to get to school.”
But their focus doesn’t stop at the school room door. HEI has recently partnered with Jakmel Ekspresyon, a vocational school providing higher level training for graduates. They are planning for internships in fields like cooking, tailoring, and computer technology. “HEI is a small organization that has a big impact,” says Delone, Whitcomb saysthat small gestures make a difference. “It’s relatively easy to transform these kids’ prospects—food, books, a sewing machine, and an adult to look after them.”
With their help, HEI’s programs ensure Haiti becomes a richer country with every educated child.