Written by Dana Jean
Tuesday, 19 November 2013 19:24
|Preparing for First Aid
The day before we were scheduled to leave Ouanaminthe this past August, we had lots of last minute activities going on. What I didn’t remember when I woke up was that I was not in control. No one is, especially in a developing country. I had briefly forgotten that and deluded myself into thinking I/we had some semblance of power over how our time would be spent on what was supposed to be our last full day in Haiti.
For background information, those of you who don’t personally know me, I’m an agenda-maker. I want the day to have a clear starting point and a clear ending point, with everything in between being neatly and nicely organized. I especially like each activity to take exactly an hour so that the schedule looks good on paper. My almost always patient husband knows the distress it causes me (and thus, him) when things don’t go according to plan. It’s not pretty.
So that last day was supposed to start with our first ever First Aid Workshop with 25 registrants coming to participate. The day before, we had found out that the person teaching the class couldn’t make it and it was too late to find a replacement who knew the curriculum. And could speak Creole. So I had already had my moment of panic about that the night before, but regrouped and decided that it was a good thing we weren’t going to have the class because then I would have more time in the morning to focus on the last bit of training I wanted to do with our staff. It also meant the afternoon could be a little more relaxed as we made a run over to Ferrier to do performance evaluations and set new goals with that team. I naively started the day thinking that our last full day would be enjoyable and less challenging than most of the trip had been. How cute of me, right?
Well, as you can predict, things didn’t pan out as I had hoped they would. Not even close, in fact. First, the staff was busier than I had planned for as they dealt with the 25 people who showed up for First Aid. (It’s a developing nation – not easy to notify people of such a change!) That took a while. Then, the maintenance supervisor came to notify us that there was rain water pooling near the batteries for the solar panels. (Again, developing nation. Electricity is spotty as it is without adding water to the mix.) Meanwhile, Jacques was working with the gentleman who was troubleshooting our Internet connection and was having no luck.
Things were not looking good, when in stepped Hans, an American friend we had made Man on Stiltsseveral months back. I remember thinking how fun it was to see him and that at least there was one bit of the morning that wasn’t a complete mess. So he and I stood in the library talking and laughing, swapping funny stories about our experiences in Haiti. Hans also told me the news that he was getting transferred to another city and would be leaving Ouanaminthe soon. He lamented the fact that he had just met a girl from the Dominican Republic and really liked her, but was afraid he’d have to break it off because of his transfer. He said, “As a matter of fact, I’m going to pick her up at the border right now so that she doesn’t get stuck in the DR for the weekend.” And went on to tell me what I can only guess were his plans for the weekend. But I can’t swear to that because in my mind all I could hear was the teacher from The Peanuts. “Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah.”
All of a sudden I had a flash of the festivities for the town’s patron saint, being set up as we spoke, and it occurred to me that maybe the border was going to close for the festivities. So I put my hand on Hans’ arm to stop him and said, “Wait. What? Why’s the border closing on a Thursday?” He went on to explain in a lighthearted manner, clearly not getting the fact that I was starting to feel lightheaded and panicky, that the DR had announced it was closing the border that afternoon and for the next few days, most likely in retaliation for the poultry ban Haiti had put in place against the DR after claims that the DR was selling them spoiled chicken. He kept talking, still not seeing my distress as it hit me that we were potentially going to be stuck in Haiti and miss our flight. A minute later, he realized I had stopped listening to him and asked what was wrong. I stammered out, “We’re supposed to leave tomorrow to go back to Santiago for our flight on Saturday.” “Tomorrow” being Friday, to get us there in time for a sunrise flight on Saturday morning.
By that point, I was seeing images of unpacked suitcases of clothing strewn about our hotel rooms and beginning to hyperventilate, realizing that my hopes for a nicely organized day had just taken a long dive off a short plank. “JAAAAAAAAAAAAAACQUES!”
It was 11:45 am and the border was set to close at 2pm. That gave us about two hours (we needed about 30 minutes to wrap things up as best we could at the library) to pack, say goodbye to my in-laws, and get cash from the one and only ATM in town (I told you already: developing nation. Hardly anyone accepts credit cards) to pay the remainder of our hotel bill and leave cash for expenses related to the water pooling around the batteries and the Internet issues. Three tired and hungry kids watched as I began to have a nervous breakdown.
We head to Jacques’ mother’s house first to get that out of the way. Quick, emotional good-byes are said, necks are hugged. Off to the bank which is on the way to the hotel. It’s oddly quiet in the SUV. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was mentally on my 16th or 17th version of a “To Do” list.
Enter patron saint festivities.
Remember the one and only ATM? Located behind glass doors on the inside of the bank?
Closed.for.patron.saint.festivities. Preparing for Patron Saint Fun
It hits me at that exact moment that I might actually lose my cool in the very near future.
It’s not often that Jacques swears, and usually when he does, we all find it hysterical and collapse in fits of laughter because of how funny it sounds in his accent. This time no one giggled.
We needed $400 to cover the remaining expenses, and aside from realizing how stupid it was to put that off till the last moment (in our defense, it was a hell of a trip this time, way more challenging than normal), I was also starting to think there was something weird going on: like Haiti was closing in on us. Have you read Messsenger by Lois Lowry? (I have three kids… youth literature is big in our house. I highly recommend the series. Go read it if you haven’t already.) In Messenger, the main character, Matty, an adolescent boy, is running through a very scary forest that is quickly closing in on him, putting up poisonous snarls of thorn bushes and quicksand in his path, trying to stop him from reaching the other side to save a community from peril. This is what I was feeling. Our beloved Haiti was closing in on us in a way that I was finding totally disconcerting and alarming. Like it didn’t want to let us go for some reason. (It wasn’t until much later that I decided it wasn’t out of malice that Haiti didn’t want us to go home, but more on that later.)
Hotel in OuanamintheThank God for Jacques’ audacity. No one else would think to ask the hotel owner to trust us to wire him the money from the US when we got back. No one but Jacques, that is. So that’s the plan as we head back to the hotel.
It’s now 1:15. We still have to pack, so I take the kids up and everyone starts tossing stuff into suitcases. Jacques arrives soon after that to throw his stuff in the last duffel, and we do a double check under the beds and in the bathroom, and then carry the luggage down to the SUV. It’s all still very quiet as if we’re all trying to move as gently and silently as possible so as not to wake the sleeping beast that is trying to prevent us from leaving.
It’s now 1:45.
As we get in the SUV, Jacques calls out to the hotel owner’s son, who hops in the SUV with us. Wait. What? Yes. His son. The owner himself was not on site and so Jacques couldn’t get his permission to wire him the funds. I’m at the point where I consider putting my head between my knees since there isn’t a brown paper bag anywhere to breathe into. The son’s proposed solution is to come with us across the border to get cash at an ATM in the DR. Sounds like a plan, right?
But the mother in me is screaming, “How will he get back across and home to his parents if the border is closing?” Granted, he isn’t exactly a child. He’s probably in his early 20s. But it’s Haiti and he is someone’s son after all. Turns out he’s done this many times and when he can’t cross at the border patrol, which happens to be located halfway across a bridge, he pays someone to cross him in their makeshift boat in the nearly dry river. Duh. Problem solved.
Until we get through border patrol. We pay an additional $25 to cross with the SUV so Rubens, our operations manager, can drop our bags off closer to the restaurant we’re stopping at rather than making us carry them. Turns out that after taking our cash, the border patrol agent informed Rubens that he wouldn’t be able to come back across with the vehicle. And obviously that can’t be brought back to Haiti in a makeshift boat.
Northern border between Haiti & the DR
So we jump out in the middle of the bridge, grab our bags and say a quick good-bye to Rubens as he convinces the border patrol agent to let him back up onto the Haitian side. And we walk silently, each of us carrying our luggage and a heavy heart, and walk two blocks to the restaurant to wait for the driver from Santiago, which is a two hour drive from the border.
Oh. That reminds me. This is the driver who never answered his phone to confirm that he could indeed switch from a Friday pick up to Thursday with incredibly short notice. The driver whose voicemail we had filled with frantic messages and whose text inbox was surely going to reach its limit. That’s the guy we were waiting for, in a town that has no hotels to my knowledge.
I slowly let that register as Jacques left me and the kids and all our luggage to go get cash.
It’s now 2:15.
Wifi & Junk Food!Sitting in a completely modern restaurant unlike anything they’d seen for the last two weeks, the kids are in hog heaven with WiFi, bacon cheeseburgers, French fries and soft drinks whose brands they recognize, after what was their first trip to a developing nation. It was now silent in a much more pleasant, less ominous way as they got a long overdue technology fix and some junk food. As enjoyable as that was to me, knowing that they were happily occupied and fed, I couldn’t help being a bit nervous that Jacques seemed to be taking too long at the ATM. It was a really long wait, after he had told me the ATM was only 2 or 3 blocks away. He did finally show up, at 3:15, a full hour after leaving us. Three ATMs later, he had finally found one that worked and got out the cash we needed. We all said good-bye to the hotel owner’s son, whose name I never did catch, and Jacques came in to sit down.
And then something finally went right for the first time that day: Jacques’ food arrived just as he sat down (I had ordered for him).
And then something else happened: the driver called to say he was almost there to pick us up.
So back to my feeling that Haiti was closing in on us as we unexpectedly fled Ouanaminthe a day early. I couldn’t shake that feeling until I was safely back on US soil. It kept coming back to me. In my head, Haiti was flipping us the bird and saying, “You don’t leave till I say you do.” It was an awful feeling. Very stressful, particularly after an already challenging trip filled with schedule changes (you know how I hate that) and rotten weather, bug bites, bats and unexpected camping, not to mention the issues we had at the library in Ouanaminthe with electricity, Internet connectivity and other challenges that seemed to keep springing up. By the time we had to flee like fugitives, I was already regretting the longer than normal stay. The border issues were just the last straw that, once broken, led to me feeling like Haiti – a country for crying out loud, not a person! – was trying to strong arm me, to show me who was boss. (I know how ridiculous that sounds, no need to call a shrink.)
Obviously, I know that while I can personify Haiti for the purpose of a blog, of course it isn’t actually possible for Haiti to take on a character in real life. But if it could… If Haiti could take on a persona, maybe it wasn’t so much that it wanted to cause us trouble or to make our lives difficult by forcing us to stay there. Maybe it was trying to hold onto us because, for selfish reasons, it didn’t want us to leave. Maybe Haiti sees the good we’re doing, the effort we’re making to help its people, and it tried to hold onto us for dear life.
Now doesn’t that feel better?
|Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 November 2013 12:11
While we were in Haiti last month, we visited our site in Pilate, which is a very remote town at what feels like the top of the world. We reached Pilate after a fairly treacherous trip up the mountain on a road that is not paved, doesn’t have guardrails and is often wide enough for just one vehicle, meaning that “Chicken” is a game frequently played. I come back with more gray hair each time we go.
The Road to Pilate
Worth the drive though, Pilate is nestled on the top of a lush mountain, less seemingly unaffected by deforestation, and is simply breathtaking. Hunger is less prevalent in the area because of the abundance of mangos, avocados, almonds, pineapples, bananas and sugar cane. The fruit falls from the trees in such numbers that humans are not the only consumers who can have their fill: livestock eat plentifully as well.
Perhaps unimaginable to Americans, livestock is allowed to roam mostly free, or at least without fences. For example, a man on his way to a job in the morning will walk his bull with him and “park” it on site, so it is not uncommon to wake up in the morning to see a bull on your land from where it wandered a bit from where its human left it. Or to find a horse tethered to a tree nibbling on the grass and weeds. Or a goat in the yard, often times with a branch tied around its neck to prevent it from wandering through any natural barriers like a hedge of pineapples or a field of banana trees.
Pitching tents on the roof
On this particular trip, the US team decided to camp on the roof of the unfinished guesthouse. There is a lack of room and board in Pilate being that it’s so remote, so we generally pitch mosquito nets and air mattresses in the guesthouse to sleep. This time, however, it was rainy season and the house smelled damp, having been closed for nearly a year. (Construction is on pause, by the way, while we raise funds to finish it.) So, rather than pitching our mosquito nets inside, we pitched our tents on the roof and slept al fresco.
Did I mention it was rainy season?
Rainbow! While we were pitching the tents, Mother Nature decided to treat us to a brief shower, followed by a lovely rainbow. Maybe she was rewarding us for sticking it out.
From the roof, we had a pretty darn amazing view. Sugar cane fields, rolling hills, fruit trees. And livestock. Most notably on this particular day, goats. As I was admiring the view, walking the perimeter of the roof, I noticed a small goat laying in some high grass and weeds. A ways from him were two other goats munching happily. All three had long rope tethering them to nearby trees. As I stood watching and wondering about the goat laying down, which of course seemed odd behavior for a goat and made me suspect it was dead, a young boy, maybe ten years of age, walked up to the goat and urged it gently to stand up. Apparently not dead, the goat hobbled to its feet and stood up at the boy’s bidding. The boy was soon joined by two friends and they stood there discussing the goat’s condition with concerned, though composed expressions on their faces.
Jacques (my husband and the founder of ULC) came up to me at that point and asked what I was looking at. I described what was going on and he called out to the boys in Creole to find out what was wrong with the goat. “Diarrhea,” the owner replied. Jacques asked a few more questions and found out that the goat had had diarrhea for about two weeks, that the boy had tried moving it to greener areas hoping that different plants might help it, but that the goat had gotten steadily worse. He also explained to Jacques that this goat was his first and it was meant to bring income to his family.
Throughout the day, I glanced over to check on the goat. He lost his ability to stand, and by the end of the day was at the point of simply twitching periodically. When I woke the next morning, his body was gone. I never did see that boy again as we left Pilate that afternoon.
As I journaled about observing the boy and his goat, I thought later I’d write a blog entry about it and that I’d probably note how stoic and accepting the boys were as they watched the goat die; that they were not emotional as we Americans often get about our beloved animals; that the loss of income related to the goat might devastate the family. There are many interesting “angles” I could write.
When I got back to the States and began writing, I googled “diarrhea in goats” just out of curiosity, and found out that the condition is most common when goats have worms. The surprisingly numerous websites devoted to the topic all recommend giving electrolytes and keeping a goat with diarrhea hydrated, and of course, for goats whose diarrhea doesn’t go away after a day or two, the sites offer suggested medications to de-worm and thus rid a goat of diarrhea.
As I read, I was struck by how likely it was that the little goat would have survived, had it lived in the US. Then it occurred to me that, had the boy had access to the Internet, he may have been able to hydrate and nourish the goat early in the onset of symptoms, and that doing so may have bought him time to gather enough money to purchase de-worming meds.
NOT the sick goat!
Really, the death of the little goat and its young owner’s helplessness are a perfect example of the value that ULC adds to the communities we serve. The story brings into focus why we are fundraising to finish the guesthouse, because without it, it is nearly impossible for us to bring our team to the remote village of Pilate for any real length of time in order to set up the computer lab, which will provide the community access to the Internet, a service which is essentially unheard of in the area.
ULC is a resource that even we, who have devoted much of our lives to fulfilling its mission, don’t fully fathom. In a remote village where electricity is scarce, there are no available utilities, and people’s only real means of contact with the outside world is cell phone service (which is largely dependent on finding a place to charge the battery and on pooling funds to load prepaid minutes), ULC, with our books and technology, stands to change the status quo.
And in the process, maybe save some goats.
|Last Updated on Saturday, 31 August 2013 21:58
Written by Dana Jean
Thursday, 10 January 2013 17:16
In August, 2011, the Parliament Foundation of Quebec announced its decision to award Universal Learning Centre a second grant of books in French. This second grant is slated for sites in Ouanaminthe and Ferrier, Haiti. The grant resulted in a gift of 18,000 books in French. ULC-Ouanaminthe will hold approximately 15,000 of those books and ULC-Ferrier will hold the remaining 5,000.
Ouanaminthe is a northern border town with over 250,000 residents. With the help of the Mayor Rony Pierre and a handful of wonderful local business leaders, we located a fantastic site near the town center, on a major thoroughfare. The leased facility is nearly 2,500 sq ft with a nice sized yard in the back (perfect for a playground!). Ouanaminthe has received recent international attention as the government of Canada committed $4.2 million to renovate and improve the police headquarters, the largest stronghold along the northern border.
Ferrier is just a 30-minute drive from Ouanaminthe but is significantly smaller and very different. The dusty little agricultural town has an estimated 20,000 residents. The proximity of Ferrier to Ouanaminthe will allow patrons to travel periodically to ULC-Ouanaminthe to access the larger collection. There is just one road into Ferrier, and it is unpaved. We were pleased to find a site near the main street, with great foot traffic, offering easy access to the community.
At both sites, the landlords made renovations to suit our needs, and our locally hired carpenters have built shelving and other furniture using local products. The site in Ouanaminthe is pre-wired for electricity, and so ULC-Ouanaminthe will have electricity to a certain degree, but will require a generator for those times when the utility is unavailable, which is a fairly regular occurrence. The town of Ferrier offers no electricity so ULC-Ferrier will require a generator and wiring. Evergreen Electrical Contracting of Mansfield, Texas will provide electrical engineering and project management at both sites after we secure funding for the electrical projects.
While in Haiti this summer, the team interviewed candidates for employment at the new sites. We were impressed with the level of enthusiasm from the candidates, and in fact, from each of the community members with whom we spoke. From the pool of candidates at each site, we selected two individuals to manage each library. One month prior to opening, the new staff will begin setting up the libraries to receive the books, and will begin public awareness campaigns to establish relationships within the communities and begin to attract visitors to the new sites.
The new staff will be trained during the upcoming trip prior to hosting grand openings at the new sites. Training will include such basic information as how to navigate and maintain the Dewey Decimal System, as ULC sites are the first libraries the community, and therefore our staff, have experienced. However, volunteers traveling with ULC offer expertise in areas such as management, education (k-12 and higher), academic research, event planning, marketing and finance, and will share their expertise with the new staff at new staff training to ensure a well-rounded training program. Staff from ULC-Pilate as well as the ULC-Haiti Logistics Manager and ULC-Haiti Regional Manager will attend the training to supplement their knowledge.
In addition to training the staff, among trip goals are to install the 18,000 books and to conduct needs studies to ascertain from the community what their perceived areas of need are. The trip is planned for February 2013. Expected guests at the grand openings include:
- Haitian Minister of the Diaspora, Daniel Supplice
- Mayors from both Ferrier and Ouanaminthe
- Internationally acclaimed musician and candidate for the Haitian Senate Jacques Sauveur Jean
- Delegate of the North East Department and representative of President Martell
- Superintendent of Ouanaminthe
- Leadership from international NGOs based in Ouanaminthe
- School principals, clergy and local business leaders
If you are interested in traveling with us, please email
. We would be thrilled for you to travel with us and can always use the help!
|Last Updated on Thursday, 10 January 2013 17:26
Written by Dana Jean
Thursday, 20 December 2012 10:03
As our name, Universal Learning Centre, implies, "learning" is important to us, to say the least. Obviously, at our foundation, our mission guides us: "To provide educational resources and learning opportunities to communities in developing countries."
But more than that, when planning our organization, we ensured that education is an intrinsic value of every person involved with ULC by writing formal values into our foundational documents. Our board of directors, upon accepting a nomination to the board, agree to "foster and support among its volunteers and staff a commitment to education" and to "foster a work environment in which staff and volunteers will constantly improve their own education and knowledge base." (To read more about what we value at ULC, click here: Values
Placing a high personal value on education is demonstrated by our board of directors, each of whom has an incredibly high level of education and expertise in their area, (to read more about our board, click here: Board of Directors
) and by our staff in Haiti who have each either completed or are in the process of completing college degrees.
Let me be clear: we make sure the importance we, as an organization and as individuals, place on education is woven into the very fabric of our organization by engaging only people who also value education. So now, rather than continuing to toot our own horn, let me tell you about this gentleman:
This is Goliath (pronounced Goh-lee-aht in Creole) Valcin. He is our lead for all carpentry projects, after having built gorgeous furniture for us at ULC-Pilate (check out the furniture in the pictures here: ULC-Pilate
), and someone we are enormously fortunate to know. Goliath is more than just a carpenter: he is a teacher. Not satisfied with simply having a successful carpentry business, Goliath has made it his personal mission to impart his expert level knowledge on others by teaching at the JB Damien vocational school where he, himself, trained. Goliath came from extremely meager beginnings, living in poverty without much hope for improvement, until he was taken in by a benefactor who provided a home as well as an education for Goliath. This benefactor paid for Goliath to go to the JB Damien school to become a carpenter and changed the course of Goliath's life forever. Now, Goliath passes that gift on by sharing his expertise with others, changing their lives forever as they leave the JB Damien school with skills that allow them to make a living and care for their families. He is a true inspiration, going out of his way to provide exceptional, hands-on learning opportunities to other Haitians.
We at ULC consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to count on Goliath to help us with our mission. Aside from the fact that his own values mirror ours, his work is beautiful, he uses local products and he hires local people. What more could we ask for??
Now, please take a moment to enjoy some photos of Goliath in action with his students. They are working on furniture for ULC-Ouanaminthe and ULC-Ferrier! Next time you see these pieces, they will be complete with varnish and finishing touches, and placed lovingly in their new homes!IMG 0548IMG 0549IMG 0553IMG 0557IMG 0581
|Last Updated on Thursday, 20 December 2012 11:38
Written by Dana Jean
Wednesday, 31 October 2012 08:51
So, the books have left Canada and are en route to Haiti and we're breathing a sigh of relief knowing that we're on the next leg of our journey. The shipping will take a month, so they'll be arriving sometime the end of November, and then will go through the customs process. We hope customs is more expeditious than it was in the months following the earthquake, which took about a month. Grand openings are therefore delayed slightly (not atypical for projects in Haiti, as everyone knows!) but we are thrilled that we're finally in the home stretch and we know you share our excitement.
(Yes, I'm recycling old pics but this shows how we're feeling about the imminent arrival of 18,000 books!)
(Yes, I recycled this image from our shipment in 2010 but it shows how we feel about the
imminent arrival of 18,000 books from Canada so I thought it was perfect for this post!)
In addition to the slight change in the timeline of getting the books to Haiti, we also had to make a strategic decision about the number of books we will receive. Originally, we were to receive 25,000 books from the Parliament Foundation, but due to circumstances and logistical issues faced by the Foundation, compiling 25,000 books was taking significantly longer than anticipated. You may remember that we received word of their grant to us in August, 2011, so it has taken over a year to compile the books for us, and would take longer if we waited for the entire 25,000. It also means that the Foundation would be comsumed with filling our order and therefore unable to serve other organizations in the meantime. So, we decided to accept a smaller shipment in order to expedite the process for our own organization, and to help ensure that other worthy organizations will receive their orders as soon as possible. In the big picture, 18,000 books is a wonderful gift to us and we appreciate every single book we receive. And, the Foundation has extended their encouragement to us to apply for more books at any time, so we know when we need more, they are happy to assist.
Now that the books are on their way, we're busy scheduling our next trip and are in need of volunteers to go with us. The trip will include unpacking the books, shelving them according to the Dewey Decimal System and otherwise setting up the center. We will also hold training sessions for staff, conduct a needs study of local schools, and host grand opening celebrations. It's going to be a busy time and we expect the trip to be at least a week, possibly 10 days depending on volunteer availability.
If you are interested in traveling with us to install the books and set up our two new sites, please email me,
. I will send you information about what you'll need to bring with you, how much the trip will cost, and get your availability in order to best meet everyone's scheduling needs. Thanks for considering a trip with us!
|Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 09:16