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The connection between Essex, Connecticut, and the nation of Haiti became bigger and stronger after the earthquake of 2010.
Local residents wanted to find a way to help the devastated country, and the non-profit Sister Cities Essex Haiti (SCEH) was born, bringing together volunteers from Essex and surrounding towns to build a library in Deschapelles-the only library within an hour's walk of the town.
The group selected Deschapelles primarily because of its location a short distance from a main street leading up to Hospital Albert Schweitzer, founded in 1956 by the mother and stepfather of Jenifer Grant of Essex, who has been traveling to the country for most of her life.
Kathleen Maher, a lawyer who had joined Grant in a micro-financing project in Deschapelles, came on board as president of SCEH.
"Hospital Albert Schweitzer provides wonderful health care to the people in the area-a rare thing in much of Haiti," says Grant, Sister Cities vice president; Deschapelles project. "It also serves as an economic engine as it employs almost 400 local people. The Haitian people respect education. They're thirsty for knowledge, and to have a library augment the existing education will enable the community to access knowledge."
"Because few homes have electricity, students congregate under streetlights around the hospital to study at night, sitting or standing on the ground, vulnerable to malaria-carrying mosquitoes," notes Terry Smith, chair of the Sister Cities library committee. "Access to books and the ability to study can provide a path to a better life and a way out of poverty."
The mission of SCEH was to build a mutual long-term relationship with Haitian residents - and make the library project as collaborative as possible - so SCEH formed a partnership with ODES (Organization Pour Development Economique and Social), a local group whose mission is to improve the lives of Deschapelles residents.
"Now that we've been going down to Haiti for three and a half years with the Sister Cities Team, everyone is happy to see us and trusts us," Grant says. "We are their friends, rather than coming in with our blueprint and telling them how to do things."
"We've learned to be very culturally sensitive, respectful and appreciative of their culture," adds Dan Taylor-Stypa, vice president; public relations.
Also underway is a collaboration among musicians and music lovers in southeastern Connecticut and Deschapelles, along with an early education teacher-training program and a sports program.
Build it and they will read
The original plan was to turn an old cattle barn into the library, but that option didn't prove viable.
Grant knew a Haitian man, now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., who owned a piece of property that was centrally located in the town. Because he has a deep commitment to his birthplace, she says, he was happy to lease the land for the purpose of building a library.
Essex architect Hope Proctor came on board to design the library at no cost for her services, working closely with both the ODES library committee and a Haitian-American architect to make sure the building reflected local Haitian architectural styles.
"Hope designed a beautiful, very simple building that's respectful of Haitian values," Smith says.
"She's very green in her conceptual building," adds Taylor-Stypa. "She wanted it to look like it belongs there-something the community would be proud of."
Construction began in the fall of 2012 and the library is expected to be completed this year-or at the very latest, on the fourth anniversary of the earthquake: Jan. 12, 2014.
The estimated cost of the project is $150,000, about half of which has been raised to date. SCEH is applying for grants and is fundraising through local schools and events in the extended community. The local chapter of Rotary International has made a donation for the purchase of 1,000 books. The goal is to open the library with at least 3,000 books-nonfiction and fiction-many in Kreyol, as well as French and some English.
"We're asking people in the community what they'd like to read. It's a really interesting list," Smith says. "Haitians typically don't read for pleasure-they read training manuals, education books-we're hoping to introduce that idea."
The most satisfying aspect of the library project, the volunteers agree, was to see the faces of the children light up when they held the first books to arrive at the library.
"As a result of the commitment of the people in our organization and the collaboration between SCEH and ODES, we're well on our way to building what may be a model library," Smith says.
Brenda Floyd and her son Logan of Essex have produced a half-hour documentary, "Welcome to Deschapelles, Our Sister City," to give people a better understanding of the people, culture, and spirit of the community.
The film will be screened on the following dates:
Friday, April 26, at 6 p.m. Hosted by New London Rotaract at Elks Lodge, 81 Washington St., New London. Cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and dessert. Film begins at 6:45 p.m. $10. Tickets on sale at Elks Lodge and McCue Mortgage Co., 8 Union St., New London. (Cash bar).
Friday, May 10, at 7 p.m. at the Essex Library, West Main Street, co-sponsored with the town of Essex. Free and open to public.
Monday, May 13, at 11:45 a.m. Hosted by Mystic Rotary at Mystic Hilton Hotel, Coogan Blvd., Mystic. Lunch at 11:55, film showing at 12:30 p.m.
Lunch is $15, the film is free. RSVP no later than May 8 to Jake Hanley at (860) 405-2032.
Proceeds from events/donations to benefit SCEH library project. For more information, visit www.sistercitiesessexhaiti.org.