March 3, 2010

Program finds Maine sponsors for Haitian children

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Hannah Koski of Newcastle down a street in Terrier Rouge, Haiti with translator Christian Alexandre, center and Guerda Valmyr, on Wednesday, January 20, 2010. Valmyr was walking with them to get interviewed and photographed in hopes she will find a sponsor in the United States.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Flavie Severe is interviewed by Terry Johnston in Terrier Rouge, Haiti on Wednesday, January 20, 2010. Some of the questions Johnston asks are if the children have parents, how many meals do they eat each day, if they attend school, and, if they were able to attend university, what would job they would like to have after graduating.

Staff Writer

TERRIER ROUGE, Haiti — Terry Johnston works through her list, using an interpreter to question the 20-year-old woman who is in her last year of classes.

''Is your mother alive? Your father?'' she asks the student, Guerda Valmyr. ''Mama, papa?''

''Non.''

''Do you have problems with your eyes?''

''Oui.''

''Dizziness?''

''Oui.''

''Have you had typhoid, malaria?''

''Non.''

''Do you hope to go to university?''

''Oui.''

''To study ?''

''Nursing.''

''We need that now,'' Johnston murmurs as she makes a note with her purple Crayola marker.

Johnston, of Jefferson, Maine, has been coming to this rural village about 18 miles from the city of Cap Haitien each year since 2002. Through her church, South Somersworth Baptist, she has set up a program that finds Maine sponsors to help children go to a Baptist school in Terrier Rouge.

There are 170 kids sponsored through the program. For $70 a year, a student can attend school, where, in addition to education, they get vaccinations and a meal every day.

This year, Johnston has brought with her three friends to help with her work of cataloging, photographing and documenting the children and families in the program. Their nine-day visit began on Jan. 17.

Hannah Koski of Newcastle, Helen Barnes of Palermo and Elizabeth Libby of Montville had never been to Haiti. They are staying in Baptist minister Appolon Noel's home and have found a village whose people are joyful and open, even in poverty.

''I've seen more happiness here than I've seen in my entire life,'' said Koski, who is a farmhand on Johnston's organic farm, Broken Acres.

The village of about 21,000 people is right on Highway 121, by a shallow river where kids cool off on sunny days. Porches line the road, and villagers sit and watch the traffic go by -- cars, buses, trucks. Men play dominos or checkers and kids run everywhere.

In the middle of the day on Wednesday, a funeral procession made its way down the hot road. About a dozen girls in school uniforms sang at the front as villagers carried the casket. Men and women in their best clothes walked along, while one woman in the center wailed and cried.

Off the paved highway, the women from Maine visit homes nestled among a labyrinth of narrow dirt paths, tin shacks and tiny backyards. As they proceed, kids follow -- a train of girls in pink and tangerine outfits holding Koski's hand as they walk along.

The day before, the women documented 67 schoolchildren in Johnston's program. They have also been putting together medical kits and food for families, and planned to take a donkey train 3½ hours into the nearby mountains to bring big bags of rice and beans to the village of Oge.

The connections between Maine and Haiti are many, with churches, nonprofits and individuals throughout the state working to help improve the lives of people in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. Johnston's work is just one example of how a single person can make a difference.

''When Terry comes, it's better,'' said Luxmance Seyere, principal of the elementary school. ''Everybody's happy, because every family finds something to eat.''

Marie Noel, the minister's wife, proudly shows the cooking oil and bags of rice and beans that Johnston has bought. ''It's Terry that gave us this so people can eat,'' she said.

Noel cooks meals for the children in the village on Saturdays -- they get the meal at school on weekdays and a meal at church on Sundays.

She looked at Johnston and thanked her, and the Mainer looked away, abashed.

''Don't thank me,'' she said.

''Merci, mon Dieu,'' Noel replied, looking into the sky -- ''Thank you, my God.''

Johnston pointed out the new Baptist church that was built with money from churches in Maine and New Jersey. It's next to the school that her efforts support.

Villagers there were making concrete blocks to build an addition to the school, which isn't big enough to hold its 600 to 700 primary and elementary students.

The earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 didn't damage the village, but it has caused serious problems. Food and gas prices have jumped. The banks, health clinics and schools are all closed. With the schools closed, parents have to feed their children, if they can afford the more-expensive food.

And there has been a psychological toll from the initial quake and a serious aftershock the week after. In church, said Johnston, ''the people are just wailing.''

''They think they've done something wrong,'' she said. ''That because of the earthquake, God is mad at them.

''It's just heart-wrenching.''

Even so, the women who are newcomers to Haiti said they see real happiness in the village.

''I see hope. I see people playing in the streets, children communicating with each other,'' said Libby.

Koski, who has worked in countries such as Cameroon, said she immediately felt acceptance in Terrier Rouge, something that's not always the case.

''You smile, and get a big smile right back,'' she said. ''Everyone wants to kiss your cheek.''

Barnes, who has been sponsoring two children through Johnston's work, hoped to meet them Thursday. She said the trip has been eye-opening, and she sees that she takes many things for granted in her life.

''Here they either go without or they have just enough,'' she said. ''A lot of what I have in my life is luxuries.''

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

 

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