Juvelson Pierre was a curious boy.
An avid learner, the Grade 2 student asked constant questions outside the classroom. To his father: How did the crops grow? Could he help plant? He wanted to be a farmer too.
His father, Julner, insisted his son—one of 12 children—focus on school. While Juvelson loved school, he also wanted to learn how to farm. At nine years old, his goal was to help his father—who had never been to school—improve the family farm. They struck a deal. If Juvelson finished his homework, he could help his dad on weekends.
Juvelson’s weekday routine didn’t vary.
He’d wake-up around 5 a.m. each morning, like other children in La Chanm, a rural community in Haiti. He’d help his older siblings with chores like feeding the animals, before washing and dressing himself for school. Shortly after 6 a.m., he would start the 1.5-hour journey, hurrying to keep up with his brother and sister, who were just a few grades ahead, to make it to class on time by 8 a.m.
The children of La Chanm crossed a fast-moving river to get to their school, located in a neighbouring community. Just as there was no nearby school, there was also no boat or bridge to the one that was closest.
Each day, the students bundled their clothing into a makeshift sack and waded into the muddy water. Sometimes, heavy rains made the river higher and faster. Children who couldn’t touch the bottom struggled across, using dog paddle, one hand raised to keep their clothes dry. Once safe across on the slimy river’s edge, they’d re-dress and follow dirt paths to a main road, then school.
May 23, 2008, was a Friday. Juvelson left for school, like any other weekday, following his brother and sister.
He didn’t come home.
Julner was working in a field alongside the river when he heard the shouts from his other children. He and his neighbours rushed to the river bank. Once they understood the cause of the cries, they ran downstream, searching for the boy. A neighbour spotted him. Julner pulled his son out of the river and tried to resuscitate him.
When Julner’s younger brother—Juvelson’s uncle, Willy—arrived from a nearby field he saw Julner hunched over his son, still trying to save him. An hour had passed since he’d been pulled from the river. The reality was crushing: Juvelson drowned trying to get to school.
“We were shocked by what happened,” Willy says in Creole, through a translator. “My nephew was such a good boy.”
Julner nods as his brother tells the story. He is silent, his eyes wet. They sit inside a classroom—one that didn’t exist when Juvelson was alive.
When Julner chooses to speak, his voice is very soft and deliberate. “Truly, I’ve lost him,” he says. “But it is through him that we have the school here.”
Following the boy’s death, a sense of outrage and urgency accompanied the feelings of extreme grief throughout the community. No child should have to risk their life to get an education. Parents turned to Willy, a community leader, for a solution.
Willy is often called on to solve disputes or consult on community development projects. Willy has a Grade 5 education. As kids, Julner sacrificed going to school, so his younger brother Willy could. The family couldn’t afford for everyone to go. This gave Willy status, and he has become a respected leader.
He recalls, “Parents started coming up to me and saying, ‘Willy, you are the only hope we have. Please, figure out how to have a school here in the community.’”
Willy led the community in building a humble schoolroom out of plastic sheets, wooden poles and sheet metal roofing, and gathering community funds for a modest teacher’s salary. “Since I was a child, I carried the importance of education in my heart,” Willy says. He knows his brother sacrificed his own education for his benefit. Willy, a father of 12 children, wants to see all his children, and his remaining nieces and nephews, get the best access to education possible.
In 2009—over half a year after the tragedy—La Chanm opened its schoolroom and 35 students showed up. Parents took turns buying boxes of chalk for the teacher.
Enrollment quadrupled the next year to over 150 students. As enrollment continued to creep up, so did the need for more qualified teachers and buildings to house the students. They built more schoolrooms out of sheet metal, tarps and sticks. Four or five students shared a bench meant for two. If it rained, school was cancelled.
The parents didn’t want to force any students across the river, but how could they afford more buildings and more teachers’ salaries? Again, the parents turned to Willy.
Willy approached the local government. He told them about Juvelson’s life and how the community rallied to build a school in La Chanm, so children didn’t need to swim across the river. In 2012, Willy achieved a community milestone: the school was officially recognized by the government—meaning the government would pay for teacher salaries.
In 2015, Willy’s continued advocacy led to a partnership with WE Charity—an international development organization working in Haiti since 2002. WE Charity’s holistic, sustainable development model seeks to remove barriers to education and raise families from poverty. In Haiti, it is specifically focused on working with rural, displaced and orphaned populations. The organization has gained a reputation within Haiti for its quality infrastructure (it uses para seismic design—known as earthquake proof engineering—in its construction) and practical programming.
WE Charity approached the government looking for a new community partner. The local authorities suggested La Chanm, hoping to pair the community’s deep need with the organization’s know-how.
Upon meeting Willy and Julner and learning the school’s history, the WE team struck a partnership. In 2016, with the support of international donors, ground was broken for a new school building—this time, one with lots of light, with bricks instead of tarps, with a roof that can’t be washed away, with educational murals inside, and with brightly painted walls beckoning students from the outside.
Enrollment continues to rise—once completed the new school will be able to accommodate over 500 students—and with it, rises community pride.
“The beauty that exists on the outside, it represents the beauty that is happening inside the classroom walls,” Willy says. “From the outside, the landscape has changed. When people see this school… the way that it looks… they see that something important is happening here.”
Ydeline, in Grade 6, is Julner’s youngest daughter. On a Monday after classes, she does her homework at her kitchen table. Through the doorway, she can see the brightly coloured pink walls of a new school classroom that she and her classmates will soon move into. A math lover, she hopes to complete high school and go on to collage to become a nurse or a teacher. “I felt very happy with the new classrooms,” she says of the new school, inspired by her brother’s passing.
Says Willy, “We consider Juvelson an activist because of the way he used to behave, and the way he passed away. We consider this school to be his legacy.”
Roughly 60 per cent of children in La Chanm are enrolled in the school. WE Charity is starting a parent group program—known as Granmoun Tèt Nou—to support parents who want to send their kids to school, but are struggling to do so. The program provides skills development, income opportunities through goat rearing and leadership building. It is specifically tailored to parents who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school themselves.
“Without education, you are nothing,” Julner declares.
But that’s not true. Julner forewent an education to instill its importance in everyone he knows. And where there could have been only devastation and loss, he helped create a lasting legacy to benefit generations to come.
Wanda O’Brien loves finding out people’s stories and learning from different cultures. A Canadian abroad, she’s worked on four continents.