Arkansas ministry builds schools in rural Haiti

A group of Haitian students walk home from school in the mountains. (Submitted photo)
A group of Haitian students walk home from school in the mountains. (Submitted photo)

HOT SPRINGS -- While gangs have plunged Port-au-Prince into chaos in recent weeks, one ministry with Arkansas roots is helping to build up and keep stable more rural areas of Haiti through education.

"At this point, the gangs are not interested in these little mountain villages," Susan Turbeville, executive director of the Haiti Education Foundation, said. "I mean, there's no violence in the mountains."

But she warns of a "trickle-down effect" as the parents of students in these villages are now finding it harder to sell crops in the bigger city areas. Another dynamic that could change the situation is the population fleeing the capital city to get out from under the control of the gangs. This could lead them to these otherwise peaceful villages.

"They're well aware that the city is in turmoil," Turbeville said.

While the foundation's headquarters are in El Dorado, churches around the state sponsor individual schools, like First Presbyterian Church of Hot Springs, which supports St. Luc Elementary School in La Bresilienne, Haiti. The coastal school has 168 students who attend from pre-K through sixth grade and 16 teachers and staff -- a principal, three kindergarten teachers, six elementary teachers, three aides, two cooks and a cleaning person.

On April 14, First Presbyterian, located at 213 Whittington Ave., will host an event where Turbeville will share how the mission committee at the church and other churches across the state are making a difference in these Haitian communities.

The Haiti Education Foundation was started by Frances Landers of El Dorado in the late 1980s after she spent over a decade helping people in the country. Beginning as a medical mission to perform cataract surgeries in 1977, Landers accompanied her husband, Dr. Gardner Landers, and his medical team as they performed thousands of surgeries and supplied eyeglasses to people in need.

After that first fateful trip, they returned to do the same work twice a year for the next 12 years. But while on a mission trip in 1981, Frances Landers learned of the need for education among children in the remote mountainous region of the small island nation.

"I saw children with bulging eyes and bloated bellies wandering aimlessly about," Landers said when reflecting on her initial visit to a small village. "They had nothing to do ... nothing to look forward to."

Today, the foundation works in partnership with the Episcopal Church of Haiti, setting up schools to be overseen by Episcopal priests. Over 7,000 students are enrolled in 35 Haiti Education Foundation schools yearly with an all-Haitian staff of around 670.

While most of the campuses, scattered across the southern part of the island, are made up of just elementary schools, there are 15 that go through ninth grade and four that teach high school, according to Turbeville.

"At that time the literacy rate was very low," Turbeville, who joined as Landers' part-time assistant in 2001, said. "Very few people could read."

Initially agreeing to fund one school, Landers came back to Arkansas with photos of Haitian children and raised enough funds to build the school and pay the teachers. After building the Mercery School near St. Croix Hospital, she returned to Haiti when the hospital chaplain she had been working with, Pere Jean-Wilifred Albert, told her there was a lot more work to do. He left his post at the hospital and began planting churches and schools in the mountains.

The next school, still known as the "mother school" by the people in the region, was St. Matthias near Trol Palmiste -- the first to be built in the remote mountains.

The two went on to build 40 schools, about two-thirds of which are still being rebuilt following the 2010 earthquakes. Landers died shortly after. The rebuilt schools and all future developments are "being built to earthquake and hurricane-resistant standards" according to their website.

"I have just continued, along with the board, we have just continued in her footsteps," Turbeville said. "We continue to support the schools just like she did."

She says 100% of funds raised by the foundation go to the schools and teachers' salaries. They have also partnered with organizations that fill in the gaps in other areas such as feeding the students and running a clinic in a main village near the first Haiti Education Foundation school.

"It's really important to us to take care of the whole child," Turbeville said. "We have the ability through education, through our partner that feeds, through our partner that is a medical group, to take care of our kids the best way we can."

Due to the political unrest and covid-19, Turbeville says foundation volunteers have not been able to return to Haiti since 2020. However, the operations continue smoothly as the schools are "not dependent on our presence."

Through wire transfers, Zoom meetings, WhatsApp calls and other methods, the group continues its support from the United States.

"We like it best when we're able to go down," Turbeville said. "We have friends there. The inability to travel down there is a hardship."

While the future remains uncertain for the poorest country in North America and its capital city, there is still hope for the remote villages that still have enough food. Turbeville said the recent upheaval has also created some positive changes like the relocation of building supply companies and bank branches closer to the villages served by the foundation.

She says the persistence of the banks and companies to stay in operation while moving away from city centers has helped her organization to continue its support for the schools.

"The people of Haiti are overcomers," she said. "If you look back at their history there's always been something. And they are well acquainted with having to monitor and adjust."

A Haitian proverb goes "Lespwa Fe Viv" -- "Hope makes one live."

"One thing we know right now, the easy thing to do in times of trouble is to give up," Turbeville says. "That's not what we'll do. Our kids need us, and it's very important for us to continue on with what we'll do."

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