auto mechanics class
Silas Crews

MCC’s support helped to construct workshops such as this one used by an auto mechanics class at a technical school in Desarmes, Haiti.

In Haiti, MCC is helping give rural youth the chance to complete vocational training without leaving home.

When a 2010 earthquake destroyed the house where 16-year-old Rosie Tannis lived with her aunt and uncle in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, it took not only her home but also her plans to finish high school and study agronomy and languages at a university.

Tannis and thousands of others fled to the countryside in the next weeks to escape chaos and tragedy in the capital, where houses had flattened like pancakes, trapping people in the rubble for days. More than 1.5 million were left homeless and 200,000 people died — many of them victims of living in substandard housing in an overcrowded city.

Tannis returned to her hometown of Desarmes, about 100 kilometers north of the capital. Although her parents were no longer living, she had relatives who would take her in.

Rosie TannisFor Rosie Tannis, the tragedy of losing her home in the earthquake has led to new opportunities in Desarmes. Photo by Silas Crews

A far cry from the bustling capital and its bumper-to-bumper traffic, Desarmes has one main road and dusty side roads, where motorcycles and a few four-wheel-drive vehicles navigate ruts and holes, dodging roaming children and goats. Drivers make way for farmers coming down from the hillsides, clutching chickens or leading burros laden with sacks of charcoal, heaps of reeds or burlap bags of corn to sell.

Schools provide basic education, but as in most rural towns, students who could afford it went to Port-au-Prince to attend technical school or high school and college, and often stayed there for work.

Tannis left for the capital at six, earlier than most. “They say the best schools are in Port-au-Prince. That’s why my father sent me there,” she explains.

Over the next decade, she did well in school, especially in chemistry and physics.

After the earthquake, though, she and several hundred other young people from Desarmes found themselves back home, with nowhere to develop the skills they had studied.

And they were the fortunate ones.

Yoline Jules lost three daughters in the earthquake. Today, she is vocal about the need for better schools in all regions of Haiti so that youth can remain at home and study. “If this was done already, many people that died wouldn’t have died,” she says.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, that sentiment was echoed by the Haitian government, civil society groups and non-governmental organizations, including MCC, who agreed that a renewed effort to decentralize many services — including education — was essential for the rebuilding of Haiti.

Since MCC already had a thriving reforestation program in Desarmes and almost three decades of trust established there, MCC channeled 17 per cent of its earthquake response funding to create work opportunities, improve the water and sanitation systems and strengthen educational opportunities in and around Desarmes.

teaching business skillsRithot Thilus teaches a class on business skills, an important part of the school’s curriculum. Photo by Silas Crews

The fledgling Desarmes Professional School was a logical place to focus educational support.

In 2009, Groupe d’Accord Solidarité Action (GASA), a group of Haitian professionals committed to empowering people in Desarmes through education, reopened a technical school that had not offered classes in several years.

Located a little more than half a kilometer from the centre of town, the school had one building with two classrooms. Under GASA, new programs in agronomy, plumbing and masonry began in fall 2009, drawing about 50 students the first year and 85 the second year.

To strengthen the capacity of the school, MCC applied for and received a $682,123 contribution from the Canadian government through the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD). MCC added $232,625. With these funds, GASA, which also raises its own support, could improve its agricultural and building trades programs and increase opportunities for women.

MCC’s Haiti earthquake response*

$16.7 million total response (2010— at least 2015)

$13.1 million committed to projects so far

53 completed projects

12 active projects

(*Figures as of November 2013)

GASA built four new workshops with eight additional classrooms; established programs in electricity and mechanics; began offering instruction in computers, English and business management for every student and purchased a truck, outbuildings and animals for the agronomy program, as well as land for an experimental garden.

A construction store and food-processing centre were built and supplied, so that GASA could sell products to support the school well into the future. In the initial five months, those endeavors generated some $38,000, and the school expects that proceeds will grow as the businesses become more established.

Enrolment during the 2011–2012 school year jumped to 229 students. In 2012–2013, 257 students were taking classes, about 150 of them people who had previously studied in Port-au-Prince, including Tannis, who is enroled in the school’s electrical program.

“Because I am in my native town and the school is here, I don’t have a reason to study in Port-au-Prince,” Tannis says.

Living in the capital would be more expensive, she says, and learning to be an electrician allows her to use basic physics. Work as an electrician may also help finance further study in civil engineering and electromechanics.

Tannis was one of only six young women enroled in the construction trades in 2012–2013. The more popular program of study for women is agronomy, where a third of the students are female.

“Many of my friends were telling me not to enter into electricity because that’s a trade for men,” Tannis says. “I said, ‘There’s nothing a man can do that a woman can’t.’”

Challenging gender roles and persuading women to enrol in the trades has been a goal for the school administrator, Ramel Altidort. When he recruits in the community, he emphasizes the economic value of having two wage earners in a family and offers tuition breaks to get females to come. GASA also runs a daycare at the school, so mothers with children can study.

Tannis tells her friends, “There’s a school here where you can come and learn about something and maybe find a job after. You don’t have to depend on your parents or family.”

Carline BelceusCarline Belceus gained practical experience by helping build the walls of a guesthouse on campus. Photo by Silas Crews

Carline Belceus, 35, the first female masonry student, gained practical experience by working to build the walls of the guest house on campus, another effort established with the help of MCC and DFATD to raise funds for the school.

“I love when I fix the brick and I fix the iron columns and make a plan to implement (a project),” says Belceus, who enroled so that she could make more money than she did as a hairdresser. She gets some grief from the men in the program for wanting to be a mason, she says, but she holds her head high. “I just find a way to do everything well,” she says.

The agronomy program, which requires a high school diploma with skills in biology and chemistry, provides vital knowledge for many young people who live in the fertile Artibonite Valley, where Desarmes is located. A secure food supply in the region and the country relies on productive use of this land.

raising poultryClaude Dimanche, 22, is learning techniques of animal husbandry as well as skills for establishing plant nurseries and harvesting seeds. Photo by Josh Steckley


So students such as Claude Dimanche, 22, who travels about 15 kilometers by bus each day to attend the school, learn skills from establishing plant nurseries and harvesting seeds to techniques of animal husbandry.

“In the community where I live, people lack knowledge to (efficiently use) natural resources. We have land, but we don’t have knowledge,” Dimanche says. “I want to share my knowledge with the farmers in my area.”

That is the sort of vision that Altidort, the school’s administrator, was dreaming of when he and others began the school. Altidort, who is from Desarmes, spent years studying, including time in Boston, and teaching in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti. Now, inspired by Christ’s life and mission, he has committed to give the next 25 years of his life to making sure youth have a chance to learn and develop their skills in Desarmes.

“We think real change will start with education,” Altidort says. “You need new leaders, you need a new way of thinking and you need a new way of doing things. The best way is to prepare them. Then they will take charge of their community, their family and themselves.”

Josh Steckley of London, Ont., an MCC worker in Haiti until August 2013, contributed to this article.