Behind the small wooden desk she shares with two other classmates, Estelle Jean mimics the phrases issued by her French teacher with the rest of her first-grade class while subconsciously toying with her plaid jumper and satin hair ribbons.
To some, including her teacher, this tic might suggest that she is distracted, anxious or even bored, but Samuel Lee St. Hubert knows her actions are actually rooted in pride. Estelle and more than 3,000 other students throughout Port-au-Prince’s Croix Deprez neighborhood have recently returned to school with assistance from the American Red Cross.
“Uniforms and books are very valuable; they mean renewed access to education and future opportunities for families living in the camps,” said Samuel, a senior field officer supporting earthquake recovery programs.
As part of its multi-year assistance program in Haiti, the American Red Cross has committed to paying the second and third trimester school fees for families, who primarily live in the Tapis Rouge, Croix Deprez and Galilee camps and had enrolled their children in primary and secondary school by the government’s deadline last month.
For this first-of-its-kind program from the American Red Cross estimated at nearly $3 million, it will pay each of the more than 200 participating schools directly as well as provide a cash grant of $100 per child to help reduce the families’ other education-related expenses, including uniforms, transportation and lunch money.
“I wake up in the morning and know that I’m sending more than 3,000 kids to school that day,” said Madushi Lansakara, an American Red Cross delegate leading the program. “That alone is amazing.”
Prior to the earthquake, Haiti already struggled with inadequate access to schools with only 8 percent of the institutions being operated by the state. As a consequence, an estimated 37 percent of Haitian children over the age of five never receive formal education, according to the United Nations’ education cluster.
This and literacy levels below 53 percent suggest that school attendance rates in Haiti are among lowest in the world. However, in speaking to Haitian families it is obvious that parents are unanimously in favor of sending their children to school. The main issue holding them back is the lack of money to pay for private school fees and other related expenses.
On average, families can end up paying 11 to 13 percent of their household income on education expenses, according to the World Bank. For most, coping with the post-disaster economy, this is entirely out of reach.
“School fees can easily exceed $140 per trimester for each child,” said Samuel. “This is very expensive when you consider that some 70 percent live on less than $2 per day.”
For Christophe Laguerre, a 40-year-old father of four living in the Tapis Rogue camp, this causes him great shame. Before the earthquake he was able to scrape together enough money by working in printing and gardening to hire a tutor for one of his children. After Haiti’s devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010, however, Christophe lost all sources of income, forcing his son to discontinue his studies.
“When your children don’t go to school, people think you don’t take your responsibility toward them seriously,” he said of his struggles through a translator. “For so long we saw our neighbors sending their children to school and wanted the same opportunity.”
Today, their situation has improved with this program, and all four of Christophe’s children are enrolled and attending school paid for by the American Red Cross.
“I am very hopeful,” he said. “I had no hope before, but now I have a chance thanks to this program to give my children a future. Something better is in store for them. I would love for them to finish school, study what they want to learn. The only thing I can leave them when I die is an education.”
For parents like Christophe, this program puts the money they were saving for their children’s school fees back into their hands. For others, like his neighbor Yolen Fancois who is raising eight children of her own and did not have any money to contribute, it gives them one less thing to worry about.
Ultimately, the American Red Cross plans to help the families restore their livelihoods and cultivate some savings so they will be able to take over payments for their children’s school fees at the start of the next academic year.
M. Wilnick Cius, a director at one of the participating schools that lost some of its staff when their building collapsed, knows first-hand it is not only the parents and children who will benefit from the American Red Cross initiative.
“First of all, this program is very helpful for the children who want to achieve a certain level of education. But it also helps the school when we have a group of students who can pay on time,” he said through a translator. “This means the teachers get paid on time, stay employed and provide the children with a better education.”
Luckner Bright Junior, an administrator at the College Le Normalien, also recognizes other benefits. His Catholic school which was severely-damaged in the earthquake reopened in April and serves children of all ages, including Estelle and 20 others sponsored by the American Red Cross.
“If you don’t go to school, you can get involved with drugs, prostitution and gang activity. We know what happens in the camps,” he said. “It’s better to have them out of the camps for 5 to 6 hours a day. It’s safer.”
To continue receiving the American Red Cross assistance and ensure the program’s success, students are required to attend school at least 60 percent of the time. Luckner reports that this condition and built-in counseling for families who struggle has helped improve the children’s grades and provide stability for both the school and the students.
Jean Lynonel Nico Alexandre and Joseph Elie, two high-school students who are sponsored by the American Red Cross and lost relatives in the disaster, are focused on securing their future and have dreams to be a plumber and engineer respectively. They appreciate how important attending school each day is to achieving their goals.
“Without knowledge you can be nothing in life,” said Jean Lynonel – a sentiment echoed by Joseph.
For decades, the American Red Cross has supported initiatives at schools in the US and throughout the world, such as providing preparedness, health and safety education, food assistance, and psychosocial services.