By Katrina Genereux / Associate Editor, OND
In Haiti, 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Rachel Thelen of St. Mary, Two Inlets, is there working to empower students as part of The Haitian Project (THP). The organization is building a network of schools throughout the country, so its students can build a better Haiti.
After graduating from University of St. Scholastica, Duluth, with degrees in math and art, Thelen sought a way to serve others. Part of what led her to Haiti was the experience of her parish supporting a school in Haiti. St. Mary and Our Lady of the Pines, Nevis, have a relationship with Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Baudin, Haiti. She was also drawn to THP’s mission.
“I just have a desire to serve and help, and in researching organizations this one matched up with that the best,” she said. “I believe in education being a strong aid or a strong way to help lift people up and empower them.”
Thelen originally volunteered for a two-year commitment beginning August 2013. In October 2014 she returned home because of a family medical issue.
“I’ve felt in the past year that God is calling me back to be part of The Haitian Project again,” Thelen said. “In Haiti at Louverture Cleary School, I’ve felt the most purpose.”
She was contacted by Deacon Patrick Moynihan, President of THP, and asked if she would be interested in managing the women’s volunteer house.
“It’s really amazing because some of my students that I had when I was there are now junior staff members, which mean they are in college or at university and working and living at the school,” Thelen said.
Since returning to Haiti, in addition to managing the women’s volunteer house, Thelen teaches classes, assists with extra-curricular clubs and provides support for female volunteers.
“My direct job is providing for the spiritual health and positive wellbeing for our volunteers,” Thelen said. She lives in the women’s house with another volunteer and two Haitian staff members and plans morning and evening prayer as well as spiritual formation for the group through studying theological books and church documents.
Some of the challenges faced by volunteers include being away from family and adjusting to a different lifestyle. They eat three meals a day, but there is no snacking. Showers are cold, bathroom facilities are different, and the drinking water is treated with bleach.
“Once you get over these things, and are helping in your community, you feel your needs getting met,” she said.
Louverture Cleary School (LCS) is a tuition free Catholic secondary boarding school near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It serves 350 students who stay on the campus during the week and return home on weekends. In September, THP announced plans to build a network of 10 schools spread across the country. When the project is complete, the network of schools will have a capacity of 3,600 students.
“Our students are selected on a need and academic basis,” Thelen said. “If they were able to pay for school elsewhere, they would not be admitted.”
Students have a rigorous academic schedule. They study French, Creole, Spanish and English. They also attend classes in sports, technology, physics, advanced math, and French literature.
Thelen said the neighborhood surrounding LCS is low on the poverty scale.
“Poverty in a developing country is vast and drastically different than our version of poverty in the U.S.,” she said. Thelen described it as a very physical poverty. Many families live in one-bedroom houses without reliable electricity and lack a fresh water source. She said most Haitian families believe in education as the way for their children to have a better life.
“Once you get to our school – it’s quiet and it’s filled with trees and it’s beautiful – it feels like an oasis in a desert surrounded by trash,” she said. “Our students are really dedicated to keeping the campus clean and that’s part of their expectations.”
Students and staff maintain the campus and do work projects during the week, including community service work on and off campus.
She said Matthew 10:8, the school’s student-chosen motto, is central to their mission: “What you receive for free, you must give for free.”
“It is one of the basic principles for our charism and how we live our lives. They know that they have received this education for free and they are excited and willing to share it with their communities and country. It’s pretty amazing,” Thelen said.
According to a press release from THP, in Haiti, children are more likely to die before age 5 than finish high school. Historically, 98 percent of LCS students pass Haiti’s national exam and, thanks to a scholarship program, graduates have support to continue to university. Thelen said 76 percent of graduates from LCS have a university degree.
Another marker of LCS’s success is 90 percent of graduates continue to live and work in Haiti.
“That’s a huge number, because it shows that they are willing to stay to work in their country to make it a better place for the people around them,” she said. “That’s how we have empowered and lifted them up.”
Many of the students go on to work for private businesses, some become medical doctors or nurses, others return to LCS as teachers or administrators. Thelen said many of their graduates are in demand because of their translation skills.
According to THP, the students often come from families that make less than $1,000 annually, but several years out of university, alumni earn an average of $12,000.
“The reason we are so confident in the positive multiplier of education is not just because of our own mission’s success, but because of the Church’s long history providing education to immigrants, marginalized and disadvantaged people around the world,” said Deacon Moynihan in a press release announcing the expansion of THP schools. “We are joining a legacy in Haiti started 150 years ago by groups such as the Christian Brothers, Salesians and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny to name a few. The Church has every reason to be proud of its second mission – education – and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
The plan to expand throughout the country is not an end unto itself but is an opportunity to support and direct more funding to education throughout Haiti.
“Education is something that can never be taken that gives them pride in themselves and develops the individual,” Thelen said. “The individual is the true resource of a country.”
Get involved: Teach with The Haitian Project
10-month teaching positions are available in Haiti, beginning August 2019.
Community life: Volunteers witness to the ideal of sacrifice for others. They live at the school and spend time with the students. Since students live away from their families during the week, time spent with volunteers outside the classroom provides stable adult interaction.
Work: The primary responsibilities are in the classroom teaching language, religion, laboratory science or computers. Volunteers also teach physical education, lead extracurricular activities and monitor study hours.