Haitian school hoping to reopen with a little help from Tribeca


By Tequila Minsky and Julie Shapiro

Volume 22, Number 39 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 5 – 11, 2010

Carroll Hector and her husband Jean-Claude outside classrooms in their school beside their home, top. Below right, Martine, 12, a student in the school and one of the five children the couple has adopted over the years. Left, Jacqueline and Jean-Paul Fils-Aime, Carroll’s sister and brother-in-law, in Tribeca.

Haitian school hoping to reopen

with a little help from Tribeca

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Twenty days after the devastating earthquake, The Children’s Harvest elementary school here was silent this week, a thick layer of dust coating the empty benches and tables.

The building itself was barely damaged, just some cracks running up the walls, but the quake toppled the surrounding homes, killing at least five young students, along with some of the teachers and parents.

Andree Carroll Celestin Hector, the Haitian-American woman who founded the school in 1998, gave a tour on Monday of the intact building and the crumbled neighborhood. A leader in the community, Hector was focusing on getting food, water and tents for the many newly homeless.

Two thousand miles away, Carroll Hector’s sister and brother-in-law, Jacqueline and Jean-Paul Fils-Aime, sat in their Tribeca apartment, mourning Haitian relatives who were killed and worrying over Hector and the future of her school.

“You’re living two lives,” Jacqueline Fils-Aime said. “The one life is here, you want to be strong, and the other one is that you want to go there. You just want to hold them.”

Jacqueline said she is drawing strength from brief phone conversations with her sister, who is determined to stay in Haiti.

Jacqueline and her husband have received an outpouring of support from their neighbors in Independence Plaza, the middle class housing complex where they have lived for 30 years, and from Washington Market School, Poly Prep Country Day School and other local institutions. They hope to start collecting money soon for Hector and The Children’s Harvest school.

Waiting for aid

As an American citizen and former nurse with many relatives in the United States, Carroll has more resources than many of her neighbors, and they are accustomed to coming to her for help, whether it’s for hospital bills or a funeral or the education of their children. The aftermath of the quake is no different.

“Everyone is coming to her like she has the answer,” Jacqueline Fils-Aime said.

With typical take-charge gumption, Hector welcomed the homeless to sleep in her courtyard, and three people are still staying there, she told a reporter who visited on Monday. International aid has been slow to reach the small neighborhood, which is accessible only by an unpaved road. On the Saturday after the quake, Hector bought five 50-pound bags of rice, along with oil, peas, sugar and milk and distributed the food to 125 people. She is still buying water for her family and others.

Carroll, 59, and her husband Jean-Claude were in their house in front of the school when the quake struck Port-au-Prince in the late afternoon of Jan. 12. As Carroll tried to get out, the tremors tossed her against a door, bruising her arm and leg, but she and her husband were not seriously injured.

The neighborhood, though, was devastated.

“There is the house of one of my students — he was 3 years old and he died,” Carroll Hector said as she pointed to a heap of rubble behind her courtyard this week. Across the street, Hector indicated another wrecked home. “A student from my school died here.”

School was not in session when the earthquake hit in the late afternoon, and some of the students live miles away, so Hector does not know how many of her parents and children died.

Who lived and who died was purely a matter of chance. One family’s house collapsed but everyone was spared because the parents were selling goods at the market and the seven children were at an after-school program Hector runs, she said.

Fils-Aime could not reach her sister for several days after the earthquake, but now they are talking whenever they can. Fils-Aime said it sometimes takes all day just to make a connection.

“My sister said it’s 10 times worse than what you see on TV,” Fils-Aime said. “You’re sleeping on the street and something collapses next to you. It’s still happening.”

Two destroyed homes where Children’s Harvest students were killed in the earthquake, right. At left, some of the school’s first students. “I didn’t have a school in mind,” said Carroll Hector. The children “were the ones who made me open a school.”

‘Hungry for knowledge’

Hector and her husband moved to Haiti in 1996, after their children entered college and Hector retired as a nurse. Carroll and Jean-Claude knew they wanted to help their native country, but they weren’t sure how.

“I didn’t have a school in mind,” Carroll Hector said. The children “were the ones who made me open a school,” she said.

“The children started coming around asking for money — they were hungry,” Hector continued. “I told them, ‘Come back tomorrow, I’ll cook for you.’  When they came, I told them to wash their hands.  They used the water in the street. I showed them how to use clean water.”

Hector asked the children to read to her and learned that they didn’t know how to read. She asked if they could write and saw that they didn’t know how to grip a pencil.

Hector told the children to come back early the next morning to learn to read and write. The first day, 23 children showed up. The second day there were 56 and the third day there were over 100 — the school opened itself.

Hector and her husband started building the school in 1998, and as of last month it had just over 300 students ages 3 to 14. The kindergarten swelled to 60 students this school year, and Hector moved the class to the courtyard in front of her house.

The school looked frozen in time Monday afternoon. The blackboards in the first and second-grade classrooms had the alphabet and numbers scrawled in chalk. The date on one of the boards read: Mardi 12 Janvier 2010. The dust in the air settled over the empty rooms and corridors, coating everything in a fine gray layer.

Although the damage to the school appears relatively minor, an inspector from the Ministry of Education will return in March to do a full evaluation, and the school cannot reopen until then, Hector said. In 2008, nearly 100 people, mostly children, were killed when a poorly constructed school collapsed in Petionville, a town near Port-au-Prince, so the government is likely to be cautious, but Hector is optimistic that she will be able to reopen.

The Children’s Harvest school sits on an unpaved street not far from the Seardote market, usually crammed with women who sell grapefruit, oranges, garlic and spices, turkey legs, fish, beans and grains, along with clothing and other general supplies. The women at the market this week complained about the lack of aid, which has had trouble reaching smaller enclaves of Port-au-Prince. A makeshift shelter filled half the street, for those whose homes collapsed.

As The Children’s Harvest School grew over the past 12 years, Hector hired about a dozen teachers, all of whom graduated from college, and she herself taught the sixth grade, including French, math, grammar, history, biology and hygiene. The classes are in French with a little Creole, based on a mixture of American and Haitian education and what Hector learned when she got a French certificate studying at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris. Hector also attended Washington Irving High School in Downtown Manhattan, before going to nursing school.

The motto at The Children’s Harvest is “An orchard in every apple, A nation in every child.”

“It’s beautiful,” said Jean-Claude, Hector’s husband. “We love what we’re doing. We’re learning with them. They’re hungry for knowledge.”

The students at The Children’s Harvest wear crisp uniforms: dark blue vests and pants for the boys and pinafores for the girls. Their light-blue shirts were hand-tailored by a man who was killed in the quake, Hector said. Jacqueline said many of the children walk to school barefoot, carrying their shoes to keep them clean.

The tuition is about $100 a year, but most of the students can’t afford it, so Hector waives the fees. She funds the school with her husband’s pension, donations from her son and daughter, who live in Atlanta, and help from the Fils-Aimes in Tribeca. Hector used to provide a hot meal for her students every day, but last year the food got too expensive.

Hector has adopted five of her young students, left by parents who couldn’t manage when the children were between the ages of 5 and 8. Now Florence is 11, Martine is 12, Esther is 18, Manuska is 20, and Fridler (who she confesses is her favorite) is 22 and about to finish high school. Many of the school’s students have gone on to college.

Tribeca tears

“This is Haiti,” Jacqueline Fils-Aime said as she opened the door to her Independence Plaza apartment Monday afternoon. “This is the closest you can get to Haiti.”

Fils-Aime has filled the apartment she shares with her husband and son with bright Haitian paintings, depicting festive scenes in a lush landscape — a Haiti that is now almost unrecognizable. Fils-Aime used to run a Haitian art gallery on Franklin St. and said many longtime Tribecans own a piece of Haitian artwork because of her.

Eyes filling with tears, Fils-Aime described hearing of the quake and waiting to learn the fate of dozens of relatives. She and her husband know of six family members who were killed and there are more they haven’t heard from yet.

“There are no words to describe what we’re going through,” Fils-Aime said.

Although New York has a strong Haitian community, Jean-Paul Fils-Aime said everyone is focused on searching for their own family members right now.

“After a while it will subside,” he said in the soft French accent he shares with his wife. “But right now everyone is preoccupied, in their own world.”

Fils-Aime and her husband each came to the United States with their families over 40 years ago. They moved to Tribeca before P.S. 234 was built and sent their two daughters to P.S. 41 in the Village. Their youngest child, Nicholas, is 13 and in eighth grade at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn. He was planning on traveling to Haiti this summer with some friends to help out at The Children’s Harvest.

Now Nicholas and his parents are turning their attention toward helping the school from a distance. Jacqueline is tapping connections she has in the art, fashion and film industry, hoping someone can get supplies to her sister. She also wants to hold a fundraiser soon, once the school’s needs become clearer.

Soccer in the rubble

The nights on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince have been dark over the past few weeks, with no electricity or candles. The moon looks closer and lighter than anyone can remember, perhaps in contrast to the darkness. Every night, people march through the neighborhoods dancing to the beat of drums, to comfort their neighbors and themselves.

“You’d think they don’t care, but it’s not true,” Jacqueline said. “People in Haiti don’t believe in sleeping pills, or medicine for depression. Instead, people sing and dance with drums.”

Haitians see death as a continuation of life, added Jean-Paul, Jacqueline’s husband.

Hector told her sister that the best thing for the surviving children is a return to normalcy as soon as possible. She said some of the children recently played a pickup game of soccer using a chunk of concrete from a collapsed house.

Once the school reopens, Hector wants to plant a Garden of Hope, with a tree for each family.

In the meantime, Jacqueline rises each morning and looks out her window at the sun, imagining the same sun shining on Haiti and sending energy to all those who are suffering there.

“You do get some strength,” she said, smiling for a moment. “You are connecting to them.”

Tequila Minsky reported from Haiti for this article and Julie Shapiro reported from Lower Manhattan.