Haiti Education and Leadership Program (HELP) Update

  • Posted on: 29 January 2011
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Since 1988, the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP) has provided scholarships to high performing students throughout Haiti based solely on merit.  HELP is still going strong and recently upgraded its website with support from the Mastercard Foundation.  It may well be that the only activity that counts as "sustainable development" is education.  Knowledge and skills can’t be taken away.  In a country where over 40% of the population is under the age of fourteen, education empowers individuals to improve themselves, their communities, and their country.  More information about HELP follows.  


One of the most compelling indicators of HELP's success is that fact that one hundred percent of HELP graduates have gone on to find employment, eighty percent within Haiti.  Their average salary is $10,000 compared to the national average of $480 dollars.  On the new website, you can find information about current students as well as the alumni of the program, what they studied and what they have gone on to do.  Below are profiles of several current students:


Marie-Michelle Montout (Education/Class of 2011): Marie chose to study education because she wants to improve Haiti’s education system from the ground up. HELP’s only student in education aims to create a network of kindergartens, especially in Haiti’s rural areas, after she graduates from Quisqueya University. “Rural Haiti is most afflicted by illiteracy, because many kids never get to school,” explains the ambitious student, who believes a good education must start “at the base.” Marie-Michelle should know – she had her own challenges getting to school. After graduating from public high school, Marie-Michelle spent two years looking for scholarship opportunities before hearing of HELP. Then, after being accepted to the program, she came down with typhoid fever and anemia, losing a year of her studies. As the oldest of her family, Marie-Michelle has often felt “more like a parent than a child.” Making ends meet has always been difficult for Marie-Michelle and her family; her father is dead and her mother suffers from diabetes and is not well enough to work. Her HELP stipend allows her to buy necessities for everyone when she goes home. Marie-Michelle studies all the time. “I carry my books everywhere,” she says. She manages on about five or six hours of sleep a night. “Of course it’s a lot of work,” she says, but she believes what she’s doing is essential to Haiti’s future. “Most Haitian teachers haven’t learned how to teach,” she laments. “They may be smart, but they’re not teachers–they don’t know how to impart knowledge.” She envisions creating a meeting place for teachers and school directors, where “we share ideas and create new education standards for the country.”


Angélie Orelien (Medicine/Class of 2012):  When Angélie was in eighth grade, she experienced a tragedy that would influence her direction in life. A very good family friend was seriously injured in a traffic accident. Unable to find the orthopedic care she needed in her hometown of Gonaives in northern Haiti, she had to take a public bus over 100 kilometers to Cap Haitien. The friend died on the long, rough route. “After that, I decided I’d study medicine to become an orthopedic surgeon,” Angélie says. Now a medical student at the University of Notre Dame, Angélie is no longer sure about orthopedics, as she has developed an interest in endocrinology, another badly needed profession in Haiti. “I don’t think there are a lot of endocrinologists, especially in Gonaives,” she says. “And there are so many patients with glandular problems, like diabetes and overactive thyroid.” Angélie says there’s no way she would have been able to go to Notre Dame without a HELP scholarship. She used to be able to take advantage of HELP’s English classes and other offerings, but now her medical program is all-consuming. “I’m very, very tired,” she says. She’s looking forward to finishing her studies and then starting an internship in her hometown.


Wilkens Jean-Gilles (Accounting/Class of 2012): When Wilkens was young, he did math for fun. On vacation from school, he would entertain himself by doing the hardest exercises he could find in his math books. “There was always something challenging me, even if there was no class and no teacher,” says Wilkens. His parents never had to encourage him because they saw that he was already so dedicated to his books, which he says were his “best friends.” Wilkens also knew that by educating himself he could change his family’s dire financial situation. His father worked as a teacher, but, following the death of the school’s principal, he often went months without being paid. Meanwhile, after losing her job in a factory, Wilkens’s mother moved from their home in Jérémie, in western Haiti, to Miragoane, more than three hours away. There she sold used clothing, returning home once a week to share her meager earnings with the family. Wilkens was not accepted into HELP the first time he applied. Ironically, he thinks it was because they believed he was too well off. “I was a little timid in the interview about exposing my financial situation,” he says. “I presented it like my family was going through a tough time that would sort itself out, but it wasn’t just a crisis, it was an illness. The next year, I reapplied. That time, I didn’t hide anything and was admitted.”Wilkens describes his entry into HELP as “a miracle.” “It wasn’t just a relief for me,” he says. “It was a relief for my entire family, because we no longer had to worry about how to pay for things like meals and photocopies.”


Wilgens Noël (Agronomy/Class of 2013): The youngest of six children, Wilgens was at the top of his class all the way through high school. But when he graduated in 2005, he couldn’t afford to go to college. He spent the next two years trying to figure out how to pay for university until someone told him about HELP.Orphaned at a young age, Wilgens was living with his godfather in Gonaïves, a town north of Port-au-Prince, when he applied to the program. Three of his siblings worked menial jobs – as a shepherd, a subsistence farmer, and a washerwoman – but could barely make ends meet themselves. HELP gave Wilgens more security than he’d ever had growing up.Now pursuing an agronomy degree at Quisqueya University, Wilgens speaks compellingly about Haiti’s need for leadership in food production. “There’s a huge problem with malnutrition in this country,” he explains. “There isn’t enough meat or eggs to eat–and the lack of protein causes iron deficiency in children.” Wilgens cites the lack of refrigeration in Haiti as yet another challenge to a healthy population.Wilgens has already participated in a summer internship to start addressing his homeland’s agricultural deficiencies. “It’s impossible to get work here without a college degree,” he says.


Daphnée Charles (Agronomy/Class of 2012): “I always loved plants,” Daphnée recalls, and from an early age she helped her father tend the garden at their small home in Pétion-ville. Daphnée’s father worked as a chauffeur but cataracts and lack of medical care forced him out of work when Daphnée was 13. This meant that her mother’s fish stall was the only source of income, bringing in $5 a day for a family of seven. In secondary school, Daphnée often skipped lunch, preferring to spend what little money she had on books and photocopies. This kind of dedication put her at the top of her class, but eventually even these sacrifices were not enough to pay the bills. After her sophomore year of high school Daphnée had to transfer to a free public school, but when her principal got wind of this she insisted that Daphnée stay and offered her a full scholarship. She graduated as valedictorian in 2007. Daphnée’s longtime passion for plants remained strong, and she is now pursuing an agronomy degree where she is still at the top of her class. The January 2010 earthquake destroyed Daphnée’s university but through HELP she was awarded a scholarship to spend spring term at Dartmouth College. She did so well that Dartmouth invited her back for the summer term; her final paper for an “Economics of Sociology” class received a 90%! She recently returned to Haiti to finish her degree at Quisqueya.Daphnée credits her success to HELP’s support: “HELP is really important for Haiti, because we have many intelligent young people, but no one to help them or encourage them.” Now educated, trilingual, well-travelled, and still passionate about agriculture, Daphnée is confident that she and her peers can have a big impact in Haiti. “Our country is poor,” she says, “but now I know there are so many ways to change that.”


Jean-Jimmy Plantin (Medicine/Class of 2010): Jean-Jimmy’s motivation to study comes from hardship. “Since I was little, I remember my father being sick,” he says. “We would look for a doctor and not find one.” Sometimes, the family would take his father, suffering from asthma and hypertension, from their home outside the city all the way to the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince, only to find that the doctors were on strike. “So he continued to suffer,” says Jean-Jimmy. His father died of a heart attack in 2006. Because of his experiences growing up, Jean-Jimmy decided that he wanted to help meet Haiti’s great need for doctors. But he knew it wouldn’t be easy: his mother, who earned money selling millet in the market, became the sole bread-winner for the family of six children. Money was extremely tight. Fortunately, Jean-Jimmy earned good grades, and it was after scoring at the top of his class in secondary school that he learned about HELP. He is now in his final year of medical studies at Notre Dame University. Jean-Jimmy has already completed clinical rotations in France and Belgium, where he says it was an amazing experience to work in such well-equipped hospitals. “It helped me not to be discouraged about Haitian medicine,” he says. “Because I saw that we have the basic knowledge, it’s just the technical means we lack. And I think in the future we’ll have that, too.” It is in large part because of HELP’s support of higher education that Jean-Jimmy is hopeful about Haiti’s future. “I think in 10 or 20 years we’re going to have a better Haiti,” he says. “Because there will be more minds developing the country.”


Michel-Ange Dagrain (Computer Science/Class of 2013): Michel-Ange’s mother never learned how to read or write, but “she understands the benefit of knowledge,” says Michel-Ange. That’s why she successfully pushed her four daughters to do their best in school. It wasn’t easy. She was a single mother, selling water and candy outside an elementary school. An uncle paid for Michel-Ange to go to private secondary school for two years, but then he died, forcing Michel-Ange to transfer to public school. “Tuition was only $10, but we could spend the entire year without finding half of that sum,” she says. And the educational quality was very low: Michel-Ange had teachers who would fail to show up for weeks on end. “So I worked alone and with friends, and demanded help, and that’s how I became so good in math and physics.” Her straight A’s caught the attention of the school’s administrators and others, and Michel-Ange received a scholarship to return to private school, and then eventually learned about HELP. Michel-Ange now studies computer science and would like to work in telecommunications. The importance of this field hit home after the January 2010 earthquake, when her family was forced to scatter. She was unable to communicate with her mother for months. “HELP is a family for me,” says Michel-Ange. The organization has also helped her to grow personally, teaching her “to look outside myself… and to reflect.”


Lourdwige Felizor (Medicine/Class of 2013): The youngest HELP student in medical school at Haiti’s prestigious University of Notre Dame, Lourdwige returned to Port-au-Prince a month after the earthquake to start her orthopedics internship at a local hospital. The upperclassman student probably wouldn’t have returned otherwise, she says. “If I was in first or second year, I would have stayed away. I’m having a really hard time accepting the situation. But I’ve come this far, and I want to finish school.” Indeed, Lourdwige is so devoted to medicine that, while others took personal effects like jewelry before fleeing their houses when the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, she rescued her medical books from the rubble. “I love books,” she says. “Thanks to HELP, I have my own medical library. I always show off my new acquisitions when people come to visit.” A native of Cap Haïtien in northern Haiti, Lourdwige is a natural leader, participating in meetings about her university’s future and heading up her internship group. She has yet to decide on her area of specialization, because each course teaches her something new. Lourdwige is anxious to get some real-world experience to go along with her stethoscope. “How to handle the parents of a sick child isn’t something you can learn in a book,” she says.


The website also features profiles of alumni of the program who have gone on to become accountants, agronomists, and business people.  To continue to grow, HELP needs financial support from individuals, groups, and corporations. Donations can be made online.  Click here for information and ideas about holding a fundraiser to support HELP's students.  You can also sign up for newsletters and follow HELP on Facebook


HELP is testament that, with educational and vocational opportunities, Haiti’s youth can become one of it's greatest resources.  Supporting students through the HELP program is an excellent way to support the development of a new generation of leaders and managers Haiti needs to progress.



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