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
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:
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.