More than three years have passed since the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the tiny island nation of Haiti – and though significant progress has been made since then, “we still have a long way to go,” says Miquette Denie-McMahon.
“But we’re optimistic – little by little, it’s going to get better.”
The founder of the Detroit Lakes-based nonprofit foundation, TeacHaiti, is in Detroit Lakes this week for its annual fundraiser, which takes place Thursday at First Lutheran Church.
While there are still people living in tents, with nothing more than a thin sheet protecting them from the elements, Denie-McMahon did note that there are many encouraging signs — and that she was surprised by how much difference a change in leadership has made.
Since taking office in May 2011, President Michel Martelly has made several positive improvements, she said.
“I was very pessimistic,” Denie-McMahon added, “(but) things have improved significantly.
“He’s building up a lot of roads, fixing them — and we have street lights everywhere. That’s pretty foreign to us.”
Not only that, she added, but the new street lights are solar-powered — taking advantage of one of Haiti’s best natural resources.
“We have plenty of sun in Haiti,” she said. “It’s good that they’re using our natural resources for that … and he’s building up our back roads too. So I’m very happy.”
Denie-McMahon is also encouraged by the president’s efforts “to see how we can revolutionize education in Haiti,” and encouraging foreign businesses to invest in the country.
“He’s very open to working with other countries,” she said. “I just hope he continues to do good things.”
TeacHaiti is also making significant strides toward improvement, Denie-McMahon said. Their School of Hope, which opened its doors three years ago, now has a full, three-year preschool program to prepare kids for first grade.
In addition, she said, their sixth graders are preparing to take their first standardized test — which they must pass in order to continue to seventh grade.
“It’s a very hard test to pass,” said Denie-McMahon. “That’s the reason why we didn’t begin with grades 1-6 when we started the school. We wanted a chance to work with the kids to make sure they had a good base of education (for taking the test).
“We are very excited. We’ll find out the results in late July or early August. Then we’ll know exactly how much they have learned over the last two years.”
Each student will be informed which subjects they did well in, and which ones they did not.
“It’s a good time to evaluate our teachers, our curriculum, and see what needs to be changed in our approach,” Denie-McMahon said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the results and finding out where we can improve.”
Unfortunately, the School of Hope is not going to be able to begin offering a seventh grade program next year, as they had planned to do — but the students who pass the exam will continue to receive scholarship support from TeacHaiti.
“Running a school is expensive,” she said – especially a school that provides the type of comprehensive education offered to the 150 students at the TeacHaiti School of Hope.
“But we will continue to support the students going into seventh grade,” Denie-McMahon added. “We will help them transition to other schools … we have specific schools that we work with, and we do our homework before we send them there, to make sure that they’ll be getting a quality education.
“It will be sad to see those students leave our school, but they will continue to be a part of our program,” she said.
Besides the 150 students attending the School of Hope, TeacHaiti supports about 200 more students through scholarships to other schools and colleges throughout Haiti.
“We will have four high school graduates this year,” said Denie-McMahon, “and we also have one accounting student who will graduate from college — that will be our fifth college graduate.”
One of those past graduates ended up being the lab technician who performed Denie-McMahon’s own pregnancy test last fall.
“She took such good care of me while I was in the hospital,” Denie-McMahon said, adding with a broad smile, “I was like a proud parent! I’m so happy for her.”
Because the test was positive, come July, Miquette and her husband will become parents for real.
“We’re so excited,” she said.
But her pregnancy is also the reason why Denie-McMahon is in Detroit Lakes so much earlier than usual this year.
“I usually come in June, for an extended visit,” she said, “but because I’m going to have the baby in Haiti, I cannot travel after June 1.”
But even though Denie-McMahon’s visit to Detroit Lakes will be a short one this time, she is looking forward to seeing as many friends and acquaintances as possible at Thursday night’s fundraiser.
She will be presenting an update on TeacHaiti at 6:30 p.m. inside the First Lutheran Church sanctuary, followed by an ice cream social and an opportunity for guests to purchase jewelry and artwork created by TeacHaiti students and their teachers.
One of the things Denie-McMahon is most excited to talk about on Thursday is the School of Hope’s new library, which just opened this year.
“We have a brand new library where kids can read and check out books,” she said, noting that one of the reasons she is particularly passionate about this project is because she doesn’t want TeacHaiti’s students to follow her example.
“The first book I ever read was at age 16,” she said.
She loved the book – but because Haiti has no public libraries, and the school she was attending didn’t have one either, young Miquette wasn’t able to just pick up another novel when she was finished.
“I read that book over and over and over,” she said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about our library.
“Reading goes into every facet of education. If you know how to read, complex things become a lot more simple. You can pretty much do anything you want.”
To learn more about TeacHaiti, please visit the website at teachaiti.org.
Tickets for Thursday’s fundraiser are $15 per person, or $25 per couple, and may be purchased at the door or from a TeacHaiti board member.
Vicki Gerdes, Detroit Lakes Tribune