HAITI: “Little Schools” Make a Big Difference in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI (March 29, 20011) – There is an old Haitian saying, "An empty stomach has no ears."

More than 2,000 elementary students and 937 vocational students are living examples of this adage in Port-au-Prince at the Little Schools of Father Bohnen, "Oeuvre des Petites Ecoles de Père Bohnen" or OPEPB in French.

These students are eagerly returning to the schools, which not only provide an education, but also a nutritious meal to poor youth in Cité Soleil and La Saline. The Little Schools fight hunger and feed eager minds and spirits.

"Children cannot learn if they are hungry. We are first meeting a basic need by providing what for many of the children is their only meal of the day. At the same time, we are providing long-term inspiration through education," says Father Zucchi Ange Olibrice, executive director of the Little Schools.

The work is critical, as according to UNICEF, more than half of Haiti's children do not attend school. The pace of all school construction throughout the affected parts of Haiti has been slowed by rubble clearing and enduring issues of land tenure. However, the Salesians returned children to classrooms as soon as it was safe to do so. At first the classrooms were under trees or makeshift tents, with progress shown by the steadily growing number of eager students in attendance.

Currently at the Little Schools, children study in temporary classrooms built by Salesian Missions' own vocational students. Before the quake, there were 132 schools in operation. Today, 60 of them have resumed activities—an amazing feat considering the devastation suffered at the schools and the trauma endured by the children and teachers. The resiliency of the Haitians and the Salesians is evident throughout the schools where inventive teachers and students are finding ways to adapt to the new circumstances, which, as one can imagine, are far from ideal.

"Our classrooms may be cramped and we may be lacking materials, but our students feel pride and accomplishment as they participate in the rebuilding of the school. They are learning by doing—and by sharing the resources that are available," explains Fr. Zucchi.

The Little Schools are located on the National Academy of Arts (ENAM) campus, where nearly every building collapsed during the quake. At the time of the quake, classes were still in session and just minutes away from dismissal, when 35 seconds of shaking began. Hundreds of students were killed—many studying to become teachers.

Rebuilding ENAM is a priority, according to Salesian leaders in Rome. Plans have already been developed for a new campus with an estimated cost of $32 million.

Since 1954, the Little Schools have provided an education and a nutritious meal to children in poverty. Father Bohnen, a Dutch native, was assigned as Head of the St. John Bosco elementary school in La Saline, where he encouraged local school teachers to form "little schools" for the children. His goal was to teach the children how to read, a first step in educating them. He also invited the children attending these "little schools" to come to the St. John Bosco cafeteria where they would receive a hot lunch. He further supported these "little schools" by providing training and salary incentives for the teachers and a curriculum for all the schools.

This initiative was so successful that it was extended to Cité Soleil, another slum of Port-Au-Prince during the late 1960s and continues today reaching thousands of children and families.

Salesian Missions is fully committed to rebuilding its educational infrastructure in Haiti. Since 1935, Salesians have worked to educate Haiti's most vulnerable youth and trained the best and brightest to become teachers, leaders and Haiti's future.

To make a donation to recovery efforts in Haiti, go to SalesianMissions.org, click on "Donate Now" and select "Haiti Recovery Fund" from the available options.