Making room for joy: St. Michel’s School in Saltadère seeks to renovate

By Melissa Riches, with Laura Hartman and John Bugbee
July 18, 2005

It was just over two weeks ago that Père Blot unlocked the gates to the École St.-Michel in Saltadère and we entered a large, dusty lot, flanked by cement and clay buildings with mountains beyond. The heat of the afternoon was thick under the clouded sky, and my clothes clung to my skin. Although we had already observed the great need of the townspeople, their daily creative act of survival with no electricity or plumbing, their constant struggles with sickness, untreated injuries and disease, their lack of access to safe drinking water – still, the sight of the school was a rude awakening.

Later I would realize that the crumbling buildings conceal a wealth of hopefulness and joy for the children of Saltadère. Later I would come to see the small, dark classrooms and the chipped basketball court as one of the most positive, sustainable projects under way in the village.

But not in those first moments.

In those first moments, as my fellow Holy Comforter parishioner John Bugbee and I followed Père Blot from crumbling building to crumbling building, dark and stuffy without ventilation, crammed with uncomfortable wooden benches that must seat three or four children each – my response was one of overwhelming grief.

To me, the school appeared a prison of cement and clay buildings with locked gates surrounding an empty lot of swirling dust, a crude outdoor kitchen, and a shed of aging bags of rice to feed several hundred children. In one classroom, Père Blot pointed to some leftover algebra on the jagged chalkboard, and another set of figures. “This classroom holds 63 children,” he said in French. John and I gazed aghast at the small room before us – 63 children! Surely no more than twenty could crowd into such a small space!

As John and Père Blot left the classroom, I hung back, unable to keep my emotions in check. Leaning against the wall of earthen brick, dangerously crumbling after thirty years in Haitian rains, I imagined the children sitting there, struggling to learn despite the lack of the most basic resources, never knowing the meaning of having “enough.” I also reflected upon my own life and culture, our unsettling intimacy with the concept of “more” and our own ignorance about living so that all might know the meaning of “enough.”

I put my face in my hands and wept.

Yet as we talked more with Père Blot about the 433 children who attend school there, about the two small meals a day that are included in the deeply discounted tuition, about the students’ great happiness at learning their lessons, my first impressions changed.

And they continued to change as I talked to the students, currently on summer vacation but easily locatable elsewhere in the village. When I asked these open and energetic children whether they liked school, beautiful smiles would break across their faces and their eyes would shine – “very much” was always the answer. At St. Michel’s the students learn French, Creole, math, literature, science, social studies, and “Moral Formation,” but education in general represents much more – the greatest hope for the children, for their parents, for their village, and for the Haitian people. Someone told us that in Haiti, when torn between feeding their children and paying the teachers, Haitian parents will sometimes opt to pay the teachers – education is perceived as that important in fighting the devastation of the country. And when we asked Père Blot to prioritize all the projects he runs in Saltadère, he said without hesitating, “The school is my first priority—we must do something about the school.”

Besides St. Michel’s, there is also a state-run school in Saltadère. Both schools are public in that they are theoretically open to everyone. Yet according to Père Blot, the state school charges higher tuition, does not provide any food to its students, and the classroom environment is chaotic in instruction and discipline. It is no wonder, then, that every year St. Michel’s has to turn away many students of various ages seeking to begin at the first grade level. Père Blot, if given the chance, would expand and discount tuition further, to give more children in Saltadère the opportunity to attend St. Michel’s.

It was clear that we needed to document as much about the school as possible. St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Laura Hartman spent hours taking pictures of hundreds of students and recording their names and ages. John carefully photographed the inside and the outside of the school over the next several days. We were also given information about the basic expenses and statistics involved in running the school. Finally, Père Blot furnished us with an architectural plan, which includes replacing several of the crumbling clay-brick buildings with a larger, sturdier cinder-block structure.

But even before the new classroom building rises, Père Blot would like to expand an existing cinder-block building to include an indoor kitchen, and to convert the classrooms it currently contains into a cafeteria. At this point, the students must stay crowded on their classroom benches to eat meals cooked in the outdoor kitchen lean-to. Père Blot is committed to providing adequate food for the children, some of whom must walk four kilometers to school and are too poor to bring their own provisions. He believes that feeding their bodies helps feed their minds, and that feeding both strengthens their spirits.

At one point we asked Père Blot when he would like to start the renovation of the school. There was no hesitation in that answer either: “Tomorrow!”

In a perfect world, Père Blot would get his wish. In fact, though, he is facing a price tag of well over $100,000 U.S. for the construction. Architectural plans drawn up last year for the classroom building pegged the cost at $95,326.80, but since then there has been serious inflation in Haiti, and the indoor kitchen and refectory will cost tens of thousands more. The Haiti Committees at the two twinned parishes in Charlottesville, riding a wave of enthusiasm generated by Père Blot’s visit to Virginia last September and two delegations to Haiti in the last six weeks, are doing everything they can to energize their congregations towards a strong show of support for the École St-Michel. Still, raising these funds won’t be easy, given the relatively recent awakening of these two twinning programs from periods of inactivity, and given other fundraising projects under way at each parish. It is our great hope that the Haiti Education Fund will lend a strong hand in the collective effort to help Père Blot and the village of Saltadère see a safer, sturdier school rise – as close to “Tomorrow!” as possible.