One of Givology's development interns, Alison Verbeke, had the amazing experience of talking to Marcy Rehberger and Anne Clougherty, founders of La Vallee Community, one of our partner alliances! With the help of our generous donor base and of social media, Givology was able to raise up to $6500 USD for the La Vallee Community Library through July 1-8. La Valle Community library serves as the only communal center for learning in the region, offering educational resources to up to 8100 school children and 62 rural schools. Thanks to the funding, children in the La Vallee region will be able to combat illiteracy, discover the myriad joys of reading, quench their thirsts for knowledge, and acquire a lifelong love of learning.
We would like to share Marcy and Anne’s amazingly inspiring stories with the Givology network and the wider world, as well as thank the donors who have given new hope to the La Vallee Children’s lives.
[b][i]ALISON VERBEKE: How did you get involved, and why did you want to start the La Vallee Alliance?[/i][/b]
[b]MARCY REHBERGER[/b]: Antonica Pan was our nanny for many years and when they moved back to LaVallee from the United States we kept in touch and talked for several years about the ways that we could help the community because that’s really what they were there to do. Then, when the earthquake struck that was when we really got motivated to move. So the inspiration, we had been talking about it for a long time, but the inspiration was the earthquake, as everyone saw the devastating images on tv. We talked to Antonica on the phone right afterwards, and it just became clear that it was time for us to act.
[b][i]ALISON VERBEKE: Could you tell me a bit about the area and the people of La Vallee?[/i][/b]
[b]ANNE CLOUGHERTY[/b]: The region is about 40 miles south of Port-Au-Prince, and north of the coastal town of Jakmel. And, even though its only 40 miles, if you drive from Port-au-Prince, it can take upwards of between 3 to 6 hours, because the roads are so, I don’t even know how to describe the roads, bumpy and windy and your going through tight mountain passes. So it’s a very very rural area. The Haitian term “Mountains beyond Mountains” really applies to our region. It’s just rolling mountain after rolling mountain. So the area is really comprised of tiny little hamlets of little clusters of homes, maybe one little sort-of shop, or a little market area, and then there is one central town and then there is one central town called Ridoree, which is actually where Antonica lives. It is really considered the center of the region and it’s there that they hold market day on Fridays and everyone kind-of gathers in that one area. But, I think the most important visualization is basically provinces and hamlets connected by mountain paths, and tiny mountain roads. Really, the characteristic of our region is that it is extremely rural.
Most of the people are agrarian farmers. They have small little plots of land where they grow corn. It’s very, very poor area. There are a total of 40,000 people and about 10,000 kids. There is anywhere between 55 and 62 rural schools that are scattered throughout these mountains, and some of the children have to walk upwards of 3 hours each way to get to school over rough mountain roads, which is really shocking. When we talk to elementary school, or high school kids in our area their eyes just get huge when we tell them that these kids have to walk, literally, 3 hours to school each way. And it’s VERY hot. They’re sweaty and they do it! And they do it diligently. The other huge challenge is that in order to attend school, families have to pay $150 tuition for their children to go, and they make around $300 annually. So basically to send one child to school, you have to spend half of your annual income, which is obviously very daunting and it’s one of the reasons why the children’s ability to go to school is very erratic and inconsistent.
[b][i]ALISON VERBEKE: Do you have any inspiring stories that you would like to share with our community?[/i][/b]
[b]ANNE CLOUGHERTY[/b]: Initially, one of our founding partners was in Haiti with Antonica, and Antonica was showing her around to various of these rural schools and they went up to one, and there were some children sitting on a wall outside the school looking at a book. Our partner said, “Antonica, why are they sitting outside? Why aren’t they inside the school?” Antonica explained that these children’s families were unable to afford the tuition but these kids would still walk, again, sometimes 3 hours each way to school to just literally sit outside the school on the wall to feel as though they were participating in their education even though they weren’t allowed inside the school because their families couldn’t pay for them to really participate in the classroom. So just to be apart of the school, and to feel like they were in someway furthering their education they would still walk all the way to school, to sit OUTSIDE the school. That was one of the real inspiring stories that got us thinking that education was the area that we wanted to focus on in LaVallee. Even though there are SO many problems and SO many ways to try to approach helping the community. It was particularly through their great desire to receive an education, and our understanding of the doors that can open by being educated that helped us to focus in on that.
[b]MARCY REHBERGER[/b]: So this story is from last summer. So last summer was actually our third year going to LaVallee and hearing about this community library that some of the people, that now live in the US had started in the main town, ridoree in LaVallee, and we finally got a chance to visit it last year so we walked in, you know its upstairs through this rickety door that doesn’t lock of course and there are floor to ceiling shelves filled with dusty books including, my favorite was the 1929 Collurs encyclopedia in English, pretty useless. So the librarian showed us around and he was so proud of this, I mean there is no other way to describe it, shabby library. They had very few books. You could tell the very few children’s books they had were all literally falling apart because they had been read so many times. There were almost no books in Creole. And so when we asked him what do you really need to make this library more useable, he said well it would be great if we could get some books in French and Creole. So as a result of that, we decided to start the library project that you see on our website and so last fall we bought the first set of books. Antonica was able to get a bunch of Haitian Creole children’s books in port-au-prince last September and when she brought them to the library she said they quickly had to put limits on how often and how many books the children could take. Kids would be in line; there would be 70 kids in line, all encircling the outside of the library because they so wanted to check out books. There are a few cute pictures on the website of bunches of girls, they would restrict and let 10 in at a time, and the looks on their faces, and they were just diving in to the books. If there was one thing that really motivated me to want to work on the library project its seeing those faces and those pictures and I cant wait to get back their this summer because we have more materials for them and some computers and I think its going to be really exciting to see how they react to 20th century technology, and just books.
[b][i]ALISON VERBEKE: What is the most challenging aspect of working with the LaVallee Community?[/i][/b]
[b]ANNE CLOUGHERTY[/b]: I think one of the most challenging things is kind-of knowing where to start, because the needs are just so vast and narrowing it down to where can we have the greatest amount of impact that is sustainable rather than somewhere where you can just go and dump items, donations, or stuff, rather than trying to create some sort of sustainable program or project that can really be useful in the greatest way because as I said their needs are just so vast. That’s again why we feel that education is so critical because that is giving them something that can really open doors to their future. That’s another reason why our library project is so exciting because its community based so its something that’s open to everyone, children and adults, and we’re really hoping that the library can grow beyond those basic books and become a center of technology and perhaps vocational training and perhaps holding, you know, adult literacy courses, and esl courses and really become a hub of education for the entire community. As far as what’s difficult, the list is very long, but I think one of the reasons why our program works in Haiti which is kind of a unique model is because we are small scale, we have a close personal relationship with Antonica and other leaders there. So we are able to control where our funds are directed. We can honestly say to our donors, your money is going DIRECTLY into the community and being put to its very best use per the communities desire and needs.
[b]MARCY REHBERGER[/b]: I mean communication is a problem for sure, you know, its hard to communicate with them because their internet never works, you can’t send them things, there is no shipping, no post office. They do have cell phones. One of the things, we have a lot of philosophical conversations, Ann and I, about how to create a sustainable impact without imposing our values, imposing our culture, and interrupting any kind of economic advancement that they are making, ore creating unintended consequences.
[b]ANNE CLOUGHERTY[/b]: for example, sending money down so that Antonica can find construction workers there to build the desks and benches and items needed for the library and the schools, rather than “oh, lets try to send a bunch of desks to Haiti.” Putting the means in THEIR hands for THEM to better their lives rather than imposing our own “stuff” on them.
[b]MARCY REHBERGER[/b]: Even from their end what I find really challenging, working with them, working with the community and trying to get them to tell us what they really need and what makes the most sense for the longer term, because they want whatever you suggest, since they are so used to stuff being dumped on them. So it’s been a challenge to try to get them thinking in the long term.
[b]ANNE CLOUGHERTY[/b]: And we understand because, like we said the needs are so vast, that that just sort of become the pattern that they are used to functioning in. Part of that is because as everyone reads there is 10,000 NGO’s in Haiti but we really feel that that is what sets ours apart from so many of those NGOs that don’t function as healthily.
[b][i]ALISON VERBEKE: What is the most rewarding aspect of working with the lavallee community? [/i][/b]
[b]MARCY REHBERGER[/b]: Honestly, every time we go there and see the peoples reactions to just anything, a book, bringing pencils and pens, they are SO excited about Markers and Books and just, once you see it, and once you experience their reactions to the similar things that we take for granted it really makes us thoughtful about what we can do to help their education system without intruding on it. Every trip is incredibly rewarding, and it is always in different ways. Why don’t we tell you some stories.
[b]ANNE CLOUGHERTY[/b]: I’ll tell a story, but just to dovetail on what Marcy said, I think one of the most inspiring things to me is watching these people, the leaders especially, in the community, how dedicated they are to their community. It’s just awe-inspiring, and very humbling to see how they give of their entire selves, and their lives, to help these children, and to help their community. To me, just every time we go we meet someone, whether its Father Guy who is the parish preist, or Jean-Baptiste who helps run the sports events, or Frere LaMee who runs another school, these people are so decidated and giving and they sacrifice themselves for their community, and that’s just very inspiring to see. And, they aren’t paid. Just that value, is just amazing for us to go down and witness.
Last year, again, its humbling because we learn every year. A) how much we don’t know, and B) we need to listen to THEM, rather than listen to what We think might be best. Last year, about a week or 2 before we went to Haiti, we got a phone call from Antonica that said we need trophies and medals, for a competition that we are holding. Marcy and I looked at each other, we have thrown away so many trophies and medals from our kids, I mean, we throw them in the trash every time our kids get another soccer medal. But, we dutifully ordered the medals and the trophies, and we thought “okay, we’re trusting Antonica and Father Guy, they know what their doing.” Well, we got down their, and the very first day we pulled out the trophies and medals and the leaders were SO excited they literally had tears in their eyes with these trophies and medals. Then, they explained to us that they had been working on this interscholastic competition, all year long, where each school had selected a small group of students for an academic type competition. They had been running this throughout the entire year and competing just about every Saturday at the local parish church in the center of town. What was even more amazing was the proceedings of the interscolaire had been hyped to all the homes throughout the rural region by radio. So every Saturday last year parents had been sitting, listening to their kids and their friends kids compete in this academic competition. What they wanted the trophies and the medals for, was the finals, the culminating final event. And, we had no idea. I mean, these are kids that don’t own a pair of shoes. These trophies and medals meant SO much to them as a symbol of academic achievement and of furthering their education And, to the entire community this had become such a great learning experience, and a way to tap into education that we had completely underestimated. We had no idea that these medals and trophies would really mean so much, and yet following their direction they really had a huge impact.
[b]ANNE CLOUGHERTY[/b]: And, you know what was really cool, Ann had to leave actually but I was able to stay and the last weekend we were there they had the semi finals of the competition. I had no idea what it would be like. Well, the church was PACKED. There were 300-400 people packed into the church, up in the balconies, everywhere. All these kids, each team had maybe 5 kids from their school, 22 schools total, all the kids came and cheered these kids on. It was like a football game! So, it was so foreign to us, but it really just brought home “wow, these people really do value education.” In a way, that we really don’t, or rather that we take for granted. To be there for that thing, was really awe-inspiring.
[b][i]ALISON VERBEKE: Any other inspiring story you would like to share? [/i][/b]
Not last year, but the year before we were asked to help some kindergartens in the area and again, you think kindergarten you think a nice room, with posters on the walls, and lots of color. Well, we walked into this kindergarten, and its just sort of a dilapidated little shack to a school that is not even fully enclosed. These kids were sitting on wrought-iron chairs without seat cushions there were very few toys in the room. And, we were able, thanks to our wonderful, generous, donors we brought in puzzles and matchbox cars, and ABC games and all kinds of things. While we were there, and as we mentioned, the people there are so inspiring to us. The teacher started pointing out some of the children, these little kindergarteners, and telling us some of their stories. She pointed out one beautiful little girl in a pink shirt who had actually been a victim in the earthquake. She had been found in the rubble, next to her mother who had been killed by the earthquake, but this little girl had survived it and lived but had no where to go, all of her family was lost. So that teacher actually took this little girl, and raised her as her own. It was just, we’re standing their, with our own children, our teenagers and their friends who have SO much and have such charmed lives, and here we are just so humbled standing in this little shack with this amazingly generous women who was raising this little girl who had lost her entire family in the earthquake. I think, if you need anything to keep going, and to keep pushing and to say “we can do this” when things get tough, and things get complicated, you just got to think of that little girl’s face and you just know, “we can do this, and we can really make an impact, and a difference in peoples lives.”
[b]MARCY REHBERGER[/b]: What was really cool about her too, was the little girl was a little bit older than the others in the classroom, she might have been 6.5 or 7, and she was clearly the smart one, she was in charge. And, she was showing everyone how to use the ABC boards, and how to write, and passing out the toys, how to do the puzzles. She was not only a survivor, but clearly a thriver. It was really, just amazing.
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