By Wadner Pierre
Jean-Juste died two years ago from Leukemia because he was jailed for his political views and was not allowed by the 2004-2006 U.S deposed Gerard Latortue to travel to US to receive early treatment. Jean-Juste's legacy endures amongst the young and old in Haiti. He was [is] like an adoptive father for some people and a mentor to others.
Over eleven years ago, Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste and Margaret Trost, founder of the What If? Foundation, partnered in an effort to bring food and education to children in the Petite Place Cazeau neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Through funds provided by the What If? Foundation, thousands of young people have been supported over the years through the community-based food and education programs that Fr. Jean-Juste created.
Today, over two hundred children receive school scholarships, with some going to vocational school, and one thousand meals are served every Monday through Friday. Children are the priority. In the past three years the What If? Foundation has also funded an after school program to help students with their homework and provide an opportunity to learn income-producing skills. It has also sponsored a Summer Camp for the past nine years in the area. Five hundred students have attended. “All this is only possible because of our wonderful Haitian partners who run the programs with such dedication, courage, and faith,” says Trost.
Many people sent donations to What If? to support these programs after the January 2010 earthquake. 91 percent of these contributions went directly to Haiti, 5 percent were used for administration and 4 percent for Donor Relations. The organization’s budget for 2011 is $600,000. Although donors are contributing less than they did in 2010, What If? is hoping to raise enough money to not only fund the programs, but to build a school and cafeteria in Petite Place Cazeau, on land they purchased after the earthquake.
Every year I make a summer reporting trip back home. Last summer I spent a couple of days following the work of the young people at the What If? office in Haiti.
During my summer trip this year, I met with eleven students of the What If? Foundation Education Program. They told their stories in a more wonderful and perfect way than anyone else could have done. Keep in mind that a new page in the history of Haiti is being written after the earthquake of January 12, 2010.
It was 6:05 p.m. when I started with my first interviewee, Thierry Sterphenson St. Louis, a 12 year-old high school student. St. Louis is a strong and determined student and he speaks with confidence. He has two brothers. His mother is a merchant in the Petite Place Cazeau area, and his father works at the National Archive in downtown Port-au-Prince. St. Louis joined the education program in 2009 and wants to become an accountant. St Louis said, “The program helps me a lot. If I can take time to explain to you, I could take the entire day because he helps me a lot and my parents to pay my school.”
I asked Thierry about the effect of the education program in his life after the earthquake. "After January 12, my mom did not have money to pay for school. It is with the aid of this program that I go to school. If it was not for this program I would not go to school,” he told me. St. Louis added that many students wish to see a school built at the propriety of What If Foundation. “I would like they build a school in the land, I can come to school here.”
Nathalie Jeonnat, 23 who goes to medical school at the prestigious university Quisqueya told me, "I always dreamed to study medicine. I think it is a good profession, I can help people.” She explained that “Education is the best way to help Haiti. My parents cannot afford to pay for medical school, and my country did not offer me this opportunity… but thanks to What If I can go. After the earthquake it would be almost impossible… I would say it would be impossible.” She thanks those who contribute to her studies through What If Foundation, “I thank all who help me and What If from the bottom of my heart. I ask them to continue helping, they will not regret. They can count on me." Jeonnat is going into her third year.
Kenson Charles is a third year high school student who survived the January 12 earthquake said he would not be in school if the program did not exist. Charles is the older child of his single mother's two sons. He said, “Without this program, I would not able to go school.” Charles suffers from headaches because stones fell on his head during the earthquake. As many young Haitians of his generation, Charles has a dream. He wants to become a civil or computer engineer.
Wilnide Etienne is a 9 year-old middle school student. She joined the education program in 2007. She is going into fourth grade this year. Although, Etienne believes she could go to school if the program was not there, she acknowledges that the program means a lot for her. She remembers Father Jean-Juste. One can see in Etienne’s eyes that she really misses her pastor.
Jean Michelda is a timid but brilliant 16 year-old student who would like to become a doctor when she finishes high school. Michelda is the unique child of her family. Her mother ran a little business before the earthquake and her father works as a carpenter. Jean said, "it would be very difficult for me to go to school it was not for the program. After the earthquake, my mother is not working and my papa could barely find a job.”
Two weeks ago the Haitian both chambers voted Dr. Garry Conille as the new Prime Minister of the country. On Friday 14, 16 Senators voted Conille political declaration, four voted against it and five abstained. On Saturday 15, 81 Deputies voted for Conille’s political declaration, 7 abstained. Dr. Conille was a former UN employee and senior aid of former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the UN Special Envoy office in Haiti.
One of the obligations that Dr. Conille will have is to follow through on the main campaign promise of President Michel J. Martelly - to educate all Haitian children for free. Education is supposed to be a right according to the Haitian Constitution.
Wadner Pierre is a Haitian photojournalist who currently resides in New Orleans, Louisiana. Wadner is also a 2010 Justice Revius Ortique, Jr. Louisiana Justice Institute Internship Award recipient. Originally from the city of Gonaives in Haiti, he regularly writes for the Inter Press Service (IPS) and Haiti Liberte. Wadner is a co-founder and frequent contributor to HaitiAnalysis.com, a media collective of young journalists. In 2007, he was a Project Censored Award recipient for his investigative journalism work on the impact of media and corruption in military policies.
Photo: Left: Dorgilles Wichmie, Melissa Jeonnat. Right: Nathalie Jonnat and Jean Michelda.