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UAlbany Students and Staff Spread Hope in Haiti

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UAlbany student Renee Kumaga with children at FILSECCAM Elementary School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

University at Albany students, alumni, and staff are bringing conditions in Haiti to the forefront as the devastated nation continues to struggle back from the January 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people. Sixteen UAlbany students and their chaperones traveled to Haiti for a week in May, where they saw lingering devastation from the quake, which registered 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The students helped out by teaching in schools and planting hundreds of trees.
Maritza Martinez, Patrick Romain, and Monette Fils in front of the damaged Presidential Palace in Haiti.

From left, Maritza Martinez and Patrick Romain with University at Albany alumna Monette Fils in front of the damaged Presidential Palace in Haiti. Romain, who grew up in Haiti, was seeing the damage to the palace for the first time since the earthquake struck in January 2010.

Now back in Albany, they plan to support Haiti's rebuilding efforts by collecting donations and hosting clothing and toy drives throughout the year. Donations may be made by contacting UAlbany senior Molly Silvanic at [email protected]

UAlbany students, faculty and staff have played a role in Haiti quake relief since the earthquake occurred.  

By government estimates, there are 680,000 people still living in tent cities a year and a half after the earthquake. Clean water is scarce, and the spring rainy season saw an increase in the number of cholera cases.

The UAlbany group was invited to Haiti by Monette Fils, a UAlbany alumna and educator who runs a half dozen K-16 schools in Port-au-Prince and outlying areas. Fils was in Haiti when the earthquake struck.

“I am alive. Thank God, I am alive,” was Fils’s first cell phone message to her worried sister in Amsterdam, N.Y., two days after the quake.

Fils was soon setting up classes outdoors in a settlement community. In a video dated less than a month after the quake, on the U.N.’s UNIfeed site, she emphasizes that while food and water are necessary, the need for education among children should not be ignored.

Fils earned a master’s in Educational Administration in 2001 and a Certificate of Advanced Study in 2006. Her Haitian schools are under the umbrella of FILSECCAM, which stands for Fils Establishment of Education, Commerce, Culture, Art, Agriculture, and Métier. French and Haitian Creole are spoken in Haiti.

The 16 UAlbany students, many of whom have overcome financial or educational challenges to get to college, taught in Fils’s schools and planted fruit trees as a long-term food source for peasants. Each student is in at least one of UAlbany's Academic Support Services programs: the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP), Project Excel, or C-STEP program, with most in EOP.

For Silvanic, a Binghamton native, the trip was a life-changing experience. “Children in Haiti are still forced to live in tents with not enough clothes, no safety, no clean water, no nothing,” said Silvanic, a social work major who taught English during her stay.

One day the UAlbany group hiked a mountain in Jacmel [pronounced Jacques-mail] to plant trees in the 85-degree heat. Silvanic thought the hike was “impossible. Then I realized that children and adults have to do this walk every day to get food and water, go to work, or go to school. Sometimes they have to endure the heat and the long walks with no shoes on dirt roads and up mountains. So I pushed myself to complete the hike."

Senior sociology major Melissa Labossiere's family is from Haiti. She said Haitian students are working very hard with what little resources they have. "I saw that having a lot of stuff isn't necessary." Labossiere said conditions for the families living in tent cities "are pretty bad. It was hot outside and hot in buildings, so I can just imagine how hot it is living in a closed plastic tarp tent surrounded by other tents on all sides." Without running water or electricity to run fans, there is no way to cool down.

Joandry Escalera, a senior from Washington Heights, said he was moved by the humility of the Haitian people. “They were happy and many were working together to overcome the struggle.” He was also impressed to find students solving calculus problems without a calculator. “The students in Haiti really take their education seriously,” he said. Escalera, a double major in human biology and Latin American studies, plans on becoming a pediatrician.

Silvanic added, “I also had the opportunity to witness the love and strength of the country. The Haitian people are able to rise up against this horrible event, unite the country, and bring the people together.”

Maritza Martinez, director of EOP and co-deputy director of the Office of Academic Support Services, said the group “truly did represent both the U.S.A. and UAlbany with dignity and genuine love for a grieving country and its people. Twenty-two persons from UAlbany have been changed forever, as have the many in Haiti that we met who found strength from having us come there.”

Accompanying the group, in addition to Martinez, were co-deputy director of the Office of Academic Support Services Chris Fernando; Director of Career Services J. Philippe Abraham; and EOP counselor Patrick Romain. Abraham and Romain were born in Haiti. Martinez’s daughter and Fernando’s granddaughter also made the trip.

One day while waiting for the bus, Martinez struck up a conversation with a family living in a nearby tent. They had three children, ages 11 and younger, and could not afford schooling for them.

The next day, Martinez brought Fils back to talk to the children’s mother. “The mother appeared from the tent with a look of shock on her face because a promise had been kept,” said Martinez. Fils took down the names of the children, and confirmed they would attend her school.

During their stay, the students were given all the comforts of a Haitian middle-class home. Escalera said the home cooking was so good, he gained a few pounds. Still, electricity and hot water were not taken for granted.

Helping children and families in Haiti rebuild their lives is one of the many ways UAlbany students, faculty and staff make a World of Difference. For its support of volunteerism, service-learning, and civic engagement, UAlbany was recently named to the 2010 (U.S.) President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.


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