First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

Impossible Dream Comes True at Haiti’s College Pierre Toussaint
By RON LAJOIE
Ron Lajoie
Fred Garcia, director of communications for the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund of the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry, places a commemorative medal around the neck of a graduating student. Looking on is Leah Dixon, coordinator of the Pierre Toussaint Program of the Office of Black Ministry.

At age 27, Willio Methelus is finally getting his high school diploma. He has never been held back and has maintained outstanding grades since he started school, he proudly declares. But like most children in rural Haiti, he didn’t have much chance to get an education.

His father is disabled and so for most of his childhood he worked the family’s subsistence farm with his sisters and brothers tending to the goats and dreaming of the day he could go to school.

That chance finally came when he was 15. Was he embarrassed to be sitting in a classroom with kids half his size and half his age?

“I never worried about it,” the willowy young man, who doesn’t look much older than his graduating classmates, told Catholic New York in Creole through an interpreter at St. Jean Baptiste parish rectory in the tiny mountain village of Sassier in rural southwest Haiti.

“I just focused on my academics,” he said. “It wasn’t really my fault.”

It has been said that in Haiti dreams seldom come true. But on June 23 dreams did come true for Willio and 10 other members of the first graduating Grade 13 class of College Pierre Toussaint, the first complete secondary school in the rural areas of Haiti’s Grand Anse Province.

On graduation day St. Jean Baptiste was packed to overflowing for the Mass and graduation ceremony. At the open end of the little cinderblock church, villagers stood four deep in 95-degree heat to witness history being made. The eleven 13th grade and fifty 12th grade students that comprised the Class of 2013 walked behind the cross as they entered the brightly decorated church.

“We are very proud,” said Father Edner Mars, pastor of St. Jean Baptiste parish, who had just seen his dream of many years come true. They now have a secondary school here so that the children of his community would not have to leave to get an education elsewhere. “I’m very happy that we have gotten to this point. There is so much potential in these kids. Usually when you think of the countryside, you don’t think of anything worthwhile in Haiti. Now there is dignity here. The school has changed the community in so many ways.”

It had been called impossible. How unlikely was it that a tiny impoverished village without electricity, where most people could not read or write and connected to the outside world by one torturous gravel road, could have a secondary school? This is a school of their own where their precious children would not have to be sent away to complete their education in overcrowded classrooms with strangers in an indifferent, possibly dangerous, far-off city?

“When Brother Tyrone first came here at the end of 2006, he went to visit one of the first classes of seventh-graders and he asked them, ‘who wants to be a doctor?’ Blank stares. ‘Who want to be lawyers?’ More blank stares. He repeated a couple of other things and he began to realize these kids don’t have any dreams. They didn’t have any basis upon which to have dreams,” said Deacon Gerry Keenan, president of Zanmi Sassier (Partners with Sassier), a nonprofit organization that works with groups in Sassier to bring hope, create opportunity and improve the lives of the 10,000 inhabitants of the region. He serves at Sacred Heart parish in Winnetka, Ill., which is twinned with St. Jean Baptiste parish.

“Because all they knew was the existence they had here, which is this really hardscrabble life where none of their parents, if their parents are alive, have any education. Many, probably as many as half can’t even write their name,” he continued.

“Fast forward from fall 2006 to June 2013 and what you see now is the transformational value of education. And it’s not just transformational for these students, it transformational for their families and the entire community. They can hope. Adults in Haiti have a hard time hoping, because they’ve seen too much, but for these kids, they don’t know Haiti’s a place where things are supposed to be impossible. So it allows them to have the kind of hope and the kind of enthusiasm that says things here can be different.”

In late 2006, Deacon Keenan and Father Mars were looking for partners to help sustain the little school which at that time went only as far as seventh grade. The idea was to add an additional grade every academic year to Grade 13, the grade in Haiti that permits a student to go on to university. They found one in Brother Tyrone Davis, C.F.C., executive director of the New York Archdiocese’s Office of Black Ministry.

Brother Tyrone had been searching for a way to get the archdiocese involved in Haiti. He had seen a film “Mission to Sassier” that told of a medical mission to the impoverished region and had been deeply moved by what he saw.

“It was such a powerful display of Church in action,” said Brother Tyrone of the documentary. “We thought this would be a great way for us to be supportive of Haiti and to collaborate with a congregation from the Archdiocese of Chicago that was already involved in that community. It then became a dilemma for us as to how we could be involved. It was really a about a yearlong conversation and I also recognized that my personal interest was more in education than in medicine. In the course of this conversation I became aware that this community had an elementary school and that the parents were interested in forming a secondary school. We thought this would be a great way for our ministry and the archdiocese to become involved, where we didn’t necessarily have to be crafting our involvement from the ground up. Rather we could come in and be supportive with others.”

Cardinal Egan, then Archbishop of New York and now Archbishop Emeritus, was supportive of the idea. It also didn’t hurt that the school was to be named College Pierre Toussaint, in honor of the prospective Haitian saint who performed myriad works of charity in 18th- and 19th-century New York City. He is interred in the crypt under the altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The archdiocese has since been involved in a number of ways. Brother Tyrone estimates the archdiocese has contributed $127,000 in direct financial aid to the school. It has also provided indirect financial aid, such as school supplies and gym uniforms. It also had t-shirts made up with the College Pierre Toussaint logo on the front to fashion a sense of school community. A team from the Office of Black Ministry was in Sassier for the graduation ceremony and placed a commemorative medal around each graduate’s neck.

One problem, Brother Tyrone said, has been keeping up with the spectacular growth of the college, which has since become a magnet school for nearby communities. Enrollment last academic year was 880 from pre-school to 13th grade and next fall 900 students are expected. College Pierre Toussaint now has 53 teachers, some part time, and nine administrators.

“As the school grew, unfortunately our ability to contribute at the level we would have wanted began to diminish,” Brother Tyrone said. “When you start out and the budget for 56 seventh-graders, teachers and all, was somewhere in the range of $30,000 it is easy to contribute a significant part of that picture. But when you start moving up to 70 students and more teachers, and then 80 students and more ‘whatevers,’ we lost our ability to keep up with that. But we’ve certainly maintained our ability to contribute something every year, never as much as we wanted to. But then our support has been in other kinds of ways.”

Keeping the school solvent is a continuing challenge.

But at the graduation ceremony Deacon Keenan told the graduates and their parents they were witnessing a miracle. Something everyone said was impossible had come to pass. Sassier had its own secondary school. This miracle didn’t happen without faith and perseverance. Brother Tyrone made sure the people responsible for the human element of the miracle were given due credit.

“Many doubted this day could happen here in Sassier,” said Brother Tyrone looking to the proud parents. “But when I looked into your eyes seven years ago I knew it could happen right here.

Turning to the students, he said, “We celebrate your academic achievement today. But I’m going to tell you there are no smarter people in this church today than your parents. Never forget who brought you to this point...I want you to remember that probably in your whole life you will not meet any people smarter than your parents.”

College Pierre Toussaint is not an imposing building. It is a simple turquoise-painted, low-slung, two-floor cinderblock structure hand-built around an open-ended courtyard among palm and mango trees. There is no ivy, no million-dollar synthetic athletic field and certainly no student parking. Almost all students here walk to school, some for miles. The small classrooms are spartan by U.S. standards.

But it is here where Sassier’s children are permitted to build their dreams. Yameson and Bonel Nazaire, two brothers graduating from 13th grade, are teaching their parents how to read and write and thinking about college. Willio Methelus would like to become a civil engineer.

“It is a really good school and it has afforded me the opportunity to get an education,” said Methelus, who has attended College Pierre Toussaint since 2007.

“I saw the catastrophe in housing after the earthquake (in January 2010),” he said of his career choice. “A lot of houses didn’t have strong foundations and sometimes people add on three and four stories but the foundation is not made for that. As a result a lot of people lost their homes. I want to be a civil engineer to build.”

Lizana Sanon would like to become a nurse and to help her widowed mom who has sacrificed so much for her education. She has taught her mom the alphabet.

“I’m the first one to graduate high school from my family,” she told CNY.

“I’m grateful to God my daughter is where she is,” said her proud mother after the ceremony. “Since she was young I’ve been working very hard, sacrificing to send her to school. I’m happy I’ve given her something, something that she can live.”

While Lizana plans to go to nursing school, it is not at all certain given the financial sacrifice it would require for her family and indeed for all the families of new graduates. (Students were busily filling out applications for scholarships or sponsorships when CNY visited.) She intends to return to Sassier. “I would like to come back here and provide medical attention to those in the community, so we don’t have to go to Jeremie (the nearby city) in the middle of the night for medical attention,” Liziana said.

Returning to Sassier was a common sentiment among all the grads. Many hoped to go to agricultural college and then return to their community to pass along what they’d learned about proper land management to their families and neighbors. Their pride in their school and community was evident.

“There is really no way to describe what this school has meant to me,” said Edline Maxi, who would also like to pursue nursing. “If there was no school here I would have had to go to the city. But because it is here I was able to go to school and stay at home. I feel very blessed. Everyone is different, but for me, I’m choosing to go to university and then to come back to Sassier, to work, sweat and build a community. I want people to know I’m working in the community so they can point to me and say, this is a product of College Pierre Toussaint!”

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