I remember the conversation with my colleagues about looking for someone to be PADF’s Ambassador for children’s rights, and I remember suggesting to them Jimmy Jean-Louis, a fellow Haitian who had gained popularity on a television show I had been following, named “Heroes”. My colleagues, intrigued by this, connected with Jimmy and the rest is history: Jimmy loved the idea, liked what we were trying to protect and came on- board as PADF’s Ambassador for Exploited Children, raising awareness of the issue and engaging people to respond and help end this situation. This was in early 2009. Then the earthquake hit Haiti a year later. And Jimmy answered our call once more, and continued in his role as PADF spokesperson, being the face of PADF, in its campaign to Help Heal Haiti. But as I got to know Jimmy in these difficult moments, I realized that his dedication to Haiti went beyond the call of duty—he was more than just a spokesperson. When his organization, Hollywood Unites for Haiti reached out to us about supporting the building a small school in an isolated village in the larger commune of Pétionville, we were able to provide a small grant to implement the detailed proposal that he had prepared, and our relationship with Jimmy evolved.
Last December, I was able to visit the remote school, which we had been supporting through this small grant, and to see firsthand how Jimmy and his organization were taking care of the children in the area. We accompanied Jimmy and a group of French doctors from organization that Jimmy also supports, which provides heart surgeries for young children. Learning about that organization and Jimmy’s involvement in it further reinforced what I had already discovered: that his dedication to Haiti knew no bounds and that he used his connections to bring needed support in a very quiet way, to those who needed. No fanfare, just heart.
About two hours from Pétionville, on some isolated and almost impracticable roads, behind a number of mountains, there stood the structure, in a small valley between several hills. A relatively green valley, the school grounds stood nestled in a shaded piece of land, not far from a small hamlet of homes, but with little else around it. And boy was I pleasantly surprised. Awed even.
The small grant we had provided, coupled with additional donations from the Hollywood Unites For Haiti group, funded the construction of two large structures, which housed the school rooms and small cafeteria; it brought much needed power through its solar panel system, and built two modern bathrooms close to the school rooms. But this is not what blew my mind. The more than 130 children and adolescents attending the school, the dedicated teachers travelling hours to get to these classrooms at times, and the sheer look of joy on these children’s faces is what touched me the most. Most of the children are under ten years old, with many of them younger than 5. But the school, with is small number of classrooms managed to give these children particular attention. Each child was attired in a blue and white checkered uniform. This was the last day of class before the Christmas holiday, but they were there, still in the class room. We arrived a little before noon, and caused a great deal of hoopla- the French doctors and health workers had come to spend some time with the children, and to bring them computers to be used in the next term. There was a lot of excitement in the air, and these young healthcare providers were a real treat for the students. But as I observed this excitement, I was still struck by the behavior of these little kids eagerly listening to these foreigners, taking in their excitement at having visitors. Some of the children were so shy that they stood apart from everything, and one little boy in particular touched my heart with his look of longing but his clear fright of all these tall people around. After a little coaxing he took my hand and with tentative steps, stopping for a while, then starting up again, he finally came into the courtyard where are all the kids were playing, never letting go of my hand, but so clearly happy to be included. Another little girl caught my attention, by her totally opposite reaction to the crowd of visitors: her curiosity awakened, she was asking a lot of questions and smiling and laughing… and being very affectionate with us all. And then it struck me: this kids were happy kids- with none of the desperation or sadness that one could read in the eyes of children in Port-au-Prince. They were healthy, and happy.
The lunch bell rang and all of a sudden, all the kids lined up, and got ready to walk to the cafeteria; when the teachers gave the signal, those in this lunch seating marched single file up to the building and entered the little hall where food had been set up for them: each of the children went to a table, with a plate, a fork, a glass full of water. They all prayed their thanks, and then sat down to eat, together, without incident. The older kids would eat later, in the second sitting.
I asked Jimmy and his school Headmaster if they provided food everyday—and they very proudly said yes: food for over 130 children on a daily basis. I toured the small cafeteria kitchen where three women from the neighborhood prepared the meals: clean, with a great gas stove system, and organized. A wonderful sight, given other canteens I had visited.
Jimmy had asked the headmaster to convene the parents for a meeting- he wanted to ensure they were more engaged in the education of their children. I attended the meeting, and saw the interaction between the Parents, the teachers and Jimmy. They promised to help out more; the parent’s designated leader even agreed to help clean out the playground of rocks so that children could play safely. I was humbled to see that with so little around them, the parents, some with 7 children at the school, were grateful to Jimmy for the school, and willing to support however they could.
I asked Jimmy on the way back from the visit, why he had selected this area, and why he was committed to this school. He looked at me with a smile and said: “Because they needed it”. We talked about next steps, and connecting the Au Cadet school with the larger network of school supported by the state; we talked about his vision for the school ( more classrooms, more teachers, better spaces, access to water and other basic needs); we talked about how to continue to engage the parents. While there are needs galore in Port-au-Prince, and across the country, I realized something important. That one person can make a difference in the life of many, however little their resources may be, and however small the region affected. And sometimes, it takes one person to get the ball rolling. And Jimmy has pushed that ball.