“I never spent a day in school in my life, and so on Elice’s first day of school all I could give him was one pencil, one notebook, and a prayer.” Elice Oreste’s mother shared, reflecting on the progress her son has made. Elice was the first in his family to go to university. His parents are farmers who grow corn, sorghum, and potatoes in southern Haiti. With what little money they had, they prioritized the education of their seven children. Though he worked hard all of high school and graduated at the top of his class, going to university was financially impossible for Elice. For two years, he worked as a teacher and a carpenter in his home community, a small town called Gris Gris, earning $600 a year – about the average annual salary in Haiti. He then heard about HELP from a friend. Not only was Elice’s life transformed, but so too were the lives of his siblings, his parents, and his entire community.
HELP was started by Conor Bohan in 1998. Bohan was a volunteer teacher in Haiti when one of his students asked him for $30 to register for secretarial school. This simple request opened Bohan’s eyes to the need for funding for undergraduate education in Haiti, and the impact achieving such an education can have on one’s life.
Last year HELP received over 225 applications from Haitian students seeking financial support to pursue an undergraduate education. Every applicant earned a straight A average throughout high school and graduated at the top of their class. HELP was able to take on 40 of the applicants, but hopes to increase their funds so they are able to take on a bigger percentage of the applicants in the future.
When asked what he was most proud of in terms of his organization, Bohan did not hesitate in answering “our students”. In a country where only 5% of the population graduates from high school, making it through with straight As and then going on to college is a rarity. HELP students are not only dedicated to their education, but also to their country. An overwhelming 84% of all Haitian college graduates live outside of the country, but 90% of HELP graduates stay in Haiti – and out of the 10% who leave most are pursuing graduate degrees on prestigious scholarships or working for international organizations on Haiti’s behalf. In fact, HELP students are so dedicated to their country’s future that some alumni have formed a program known as KOREM (a Creole acronym) through which students who graduate from HELP contribute 15% of their income, for the first 9 years they are on the labor market, back to the program.
HELP is the beneficiary of this year’s “Haiti Cherie: Pride. Love. Commitment.”, a fundraising event for Haiti that was founded by native Haitian Fabrice J. Armand. Armand is the president of Fabrice J. Armand Group, a company that “helps clients unlock the impossible”. His three major areas of interest in life are the arts, children overcoming adversity, and Haiti. Since 2011, Armand has been hosting an Annual Haiti Cherie event for his birthday to raise money for Haiti-focused non-profit organizations.
Armand’s commitment to Haiti has extended beyond his annual event. He has also produced and released a documentary called Haiti Is Me, in order to spread awareness of the situation in Haiti and encourage people to get involved. Additionally, he helped produce the Off Broadway play ‘BOX’, a play that compares the story of Henry Box Brown, a slave who literally “mailed” himself to freedom, and Haitian men who attempted to also ship themselves to the U.S.
Elice is a perfect example of a dedicated HELP student. Since graduating, he has secured a job at a Heineken brewery, where he makes $18,000 a year – over 30 times what he made before going to college. Every New Years Elice holds an event in his home community where gives prizes to the kids who have the best grades in schools and hosts reading competitions and similar events. Events like the one Elice puts on are a common scene for HELP graduates, and they are now being held across the Haitian countryside. This is just one of the many ways that increasing college education benefits the country. “My studies have not been only for myself. The knowledge I have gained will be put to use to support my family and to promote better ways of life for my Haitian brothers and sisters,” Elice states proudly.
This year’s event will be held at the Broad Street Ballroom in New York City, on March 27th. Members of the Roots team are excited to be able to attend and support their friend’s at HELP. To buy your tickets visit: www.haiticherie5.eventbrite.com