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The Work Continues: An HGSE Alum Teaching in Haiti Shares Her Experiences

As a teacher in Haiti for the past year, Betsey Bowman, Ed.M.'02, has shared many of her personal thoughts on her blog, where she continues to write about the living in Haiti in the aftermath of last month's devastating earthquake. HGSE recently spoke to Bowman about her experiences in Haiti and the challenges that her school faces.

What led you to Haiti?
Since graduating from the Teacher Education Program at HGSE in 2002, I have taught high school social studies at Prospect Hill Academy Charter School in Cambridge. Last fall, after seven great years there, I knew that I needed to take time away -- not to go get a new job in some other school, but just to do some different work in a different context. Working in Cambridge and Somerville so long, I have, of course, worked closely with so many Haitian kids and families, and I have always wanted to learn more about their unique history and culture. Volunteer service has also always been an important part of my life, so when I learned that L'ouverture Cleary School in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti included a cohort of foreign volunteer teachers on its staff each year, the match seemed perfect.

Tell me about the school.
L'ouverture Cleary school is a private, Catholic boarding school serving 358 middle school and high school-aged children from in and around Port au Prince. This school exists specifically for kids whose families would otherwise not be able to afford a first class education, and might not even be able to afford to send them to school at all. All of this fit in so well with my own experiences as an educator and my personal beliefs about service that I petitioned PHA to allow me to take a year off. The school generously offered me a yearlong sabbatical to take the time away to pursue this other important work. In early August, I joined a group of eight other U.S. American volunteer teachers and a Haitian staff of about 30 to begin the school year teaching high school Spanish.

What happened on the afternoon of the earthquake?
Every afternoon after classes finish at 3:30 pm, the kids have an hour long cleanup period in which they take care of the cleaning and basic maintenance of the school and even some of the surrounding neighborhood. At 4:45 pm when the earthquake struck, I and all of the other students and staff had just finished cleanup hour, and were relaxing in the hour before dinner. I was reading and chatting with two other teachers on the second floor of the administration building where we live when I heard a sound like a freight train. The shaking that followed was so violent that I knew I wouldn't be able to run outside without falling down, so we just got on the floor and covered our heads. After about 20 seconds -- which felt like an eternity -- everything was still again, except for the sounds of screaming and running outside.

How was the school affected?
The school itself sustained significant damage to the walls surrounding the campus, but our buildings all survived. We had several injuries when a few walls next to our soccer field and playground fell on kids, but thankfully, none of those injuries turned out to be too serious. We spent the night sleeping outside on the soccer field, holding our breath with each aftershock and rejoicing with each tearful reunion when parents and families arrived at the school to check on their children.

Is the school operating now?
For the first week after the earthquake, instead of teaching Spanish, I was helping to prepare meals for 300 students and many of the families whose homes were destroyed in the surrounding neighborhood. The kids and many staff members slept outside and set up a little tent city during the day. Slowly many of the kids returned home to their families, but we have had at least 70 students sleeping on campus every night since the earthquake. The government has officially cancelled school until the middle of February, but since we have clean water, enough food, and strong buildings, we decided that it would be simply irresponsible to close. Instead, last week we started running a modified school schedule -- with many fewer teachers and without access to some of our damaged classrooms -- for whichever students chose to stay with us. At the end of January we had about 150 kids back on campus and we're hoping that more and more will return each day.

How has your work changed?
Our work has definitely become more complicated since the earthquake. We're dealing with the paralyzing fear that still prevents many people from sleeping inside, even in completely safe buildings. We're working constantly on cleanup and construction projects to secure and repair our own campus. Many of our suppliers who had previously donated much of our food are dead and their stores are destroyed. Even driving around the city to do normal business is enormously complicated right now with buildings in the streets and continuously gridlocked traffic from all the NGO and relief workers. Yet despite all of this, we know we are blessed to be alive and to have the capacity to provide a safe, structured school and residential environment for so many kids. We don't know when we'll be able to "officially" open school again, but we are committed to serving the kids who are here, and when the resources become available, to helping our neighbors rebuild their houses as well.

What's the best way people can help Haiti?
After a disaster of this magnitude, the desire to reach out and help has been so strong for so many people. I have received many e-mails from friends, family and former students all offering to come and help or to send supplies. The reality of this particular disaster however, is that Haiti needs professional relief workers -- doctors, construction workers, and military personnel. Similarly, it's not practical right now to send "stuff" to Haiti. The supplies are actually here already, and as you've no doubt seen on TV, the challenge is getting all of those supplies out to the people who need them. From my own experience, the best way to help is to give money to the aid organizations on the ground. We are getting much of our food right now from Catholic Relief Services and Food for the Poor. The International Red Cross is always a responsible choice for sending money after a disaster. However, if you're interested in supporting the longterm rebuilding of Haiti as opposed to the immediate relief efforts, then contribute to the organizations that were here before the earthquake and will stay here long after the Red Cross has gone home.

Obviously I believe deeply in schools like L'ouverture Cleary which are going to continue to provide education, food, and housing to kids for years to come. We are also working closely with our neighbors to help them rebuild their homes and lives. If you do want to make a contribution, visit the website of the Haitian Project, the US nonprofit that supports the school. Or you can send surface mail contributions to: The Haitian Project, PO Box 6891, Providence, RI 02940

Long after the banner headlines and graphic pictures are gone from our TVs, the work of rebuilding Haiti will continue. My hope is that the international community will have the attention span and perseverance that this critically important work will require for years to come.

Note: Learn about Harvard's response to the crisis in Haiti and other ways you can help.