About a year and a half ago I was introduced to the Foyer Maurice Sixto (FMS) school in Carrefour, Haiti. Their head music teacher Skander Desrosiers and his brother Stanley Desrosiers led me on the 30 minute walk up a mountain in Brochette to the school. It was not too bad of a hike, but I was impressed that the students and teachers made this trek several times a week. I wondered, why in the world would you put a music school on top of a mountain? When we reached the top I understood. The view of Carrefour and Port-au-Prince below, the shade of the pink-flowered trees, and the silence (all expect for the steady hum of cicadas) evoked transcendence. The hustle and bustle of Haiti’s urban centers where I spent much of my time often made it hard to think clearly, to process all of the complexities of this country. And for musical purposes, trying to teach a child about the importance of sound quality when they can barely hear themselves over a truck going by, was very difficult. But the sense of peace and perspective I felt on that mountaintop was refreshing, and from up there it seemed as if anything was possible. I think this is one of the reasons that the vision and mission of Pere Miguel Jean Baptiste, the founder of FMS, is as broad and ambitious as it is. From his home at the top of this mountain, the path to the future of a more equal and prosperous Haiti is very clear.
The Foyer Maurice Sixto’s motto is “Tout timoun se timoun, tout timoun gen menm dwa” which translates to “All children are children, and all children have the same rights.” Founded in 1989, the school is named after the famous sociologist, and great observer of Haitian society, Maurice Sixto. He wrote about the problem of the “sentaniz” or more commonly known as “restavek,” which describes children living in domesticity. They typically come from country-side families who cannot support all of their children, and are given up when a more wealthy relative or family friend comes along. They promise a better life and education for the child in an urban center, but more often than not the child is not sent to school. Rather they are forced to do manual labor, cleaning, cooking, and other household chores. These children grow up without knowing the joy and freedom of childhood, and are often mistreated. FMS invites Restavek children to come and feel a part of a family, offering them access to food, education, and professional training. All children receive a free hot meal every day.
There are two main parts to FMS; the professional school, which has been a part of the school since it’s inception, and the talent school which was added about 2.5 years ago. The professional school focuses on basic and vocational skills. Children under the age of sixteen attend primary school where they receive instruction in reading, writing, and math. Children ages 16-24 study vocations such as culinary arts, sewing, carpentry, and car repair. If a child has gained all they can from FMS, but would like to continue their vocational studies, FMS will pay for them to further their education at another school. The talent school has four programs: music, dance, theatre and soccer. It serves approximately 450 students in the Carrefour area, and these students may also participate in the professional school programs. As you may have guessed I’ve mainly been involved with their music program. On my first visit I filmed their band rehearsal and a brief interview with Pere Miguel. Stephen and I decided to include it in the final version of “Kenbe La~Hold On” because it was such a strong example of music being used as a tool to address social justice issues. Pere Miguel believes that in showing the host families and the community how talented the Restavek children are, FMS will raise their stature and improve their quality of life.
Each time I would visit FMS to teach theory or work with their band, Pere Miguel would say “this is the person who will start my string program.” I would laugh awkwardly and try to explain that I was only 22, and not a “gwo moun” with the power to do something like that. I said I would try but could make no promises. Back in Appleton I started contacting string shops with meeting requests. I didn’t have much luck except with local family-owned StringWorks. A few years ago they’d donated a cello case, so I thought they might give a few more cases or violins, but I did not have high expectations. I met with vice president Pat French and began explaining FMS to her, and only a few minutes into my explanation, Pat stopped me and said, “That’s enough, I think I understand, let’s see what I can give you.” She proceeded to open the doors to their warehouse exposing rows upon rows of cellos and violins, and I’ll never forget what she said next “take whatever you want.” Sometimes it’s nice to have your expectations turned on their head. Over the next two months we worked to select which instruments and supplies should go to Haiti, and throughout the process, Pat was adamant that the children receive the best possible. Her generosity and caring have provided over 30 string instruments for FMS to start an orchestra program.
I decided that for now the best way to transport the instruments was as checked and carry-on luggage, so I convinced my sister and her boyfriend to help me, and collaborated with a friend with University of Pheonix in New Hampshire named Debra DiNola. I actually met Debra at a screening of “Kenbe La” for the 2010 Haitian Studies Association Conference. After seeing the film she stayed in contact and was very enthusiastic about going to Haiti to support the music programs. She recruited 5 other volunteers from the Manchester Choral Society, which she also sings in, to come with and they organized themselves into a group called ‘Pataje Mizik’ (which means ‘share music’ in Haitian Creole). So between the 9 of us, we brought $40-50,000 of string instruments, bows, strings, recorders, music, stands, instrument repair tools, reeds, soccer balls, first aid kits, notebooks, folders, and more. Debra’s group also raised enough money to buy four water filtration systems for FMS. With the help of a talented and dedicated Haitian luthier named Tchoupy Hilaris, in three days (Feb. 27-29) we got all of the instruments set up and ready to play, gave lessons in recorder, keyboard, choir, and band, and performed a concert with the FMS students for the community. The number of people from such diverse places that came together to make this happen still amazes me. And people using “Kenbe La” as a tool to recruit volunteers, collect donations, and raise funds makes me incredibly proud. This collaboration to support such a fantastic program as FMS was really born from this film, and so I’d like to thank everyone who has supported the making of “Kenbe La~Hold On” for your help. You have had a hand in starting a string program and supporting the ongoing programs of FMS in all the amazing work that they do. Please continue to use our film to rally support, and teach viewers about the importance of music education in Haiti. Even if you think you’re not a “gwo moun” like I’d thought, share the film with your university, high school, church, or family, and use the power of collaboration. Like the Haitian proverb “men anpil fe chay pa lou” meaning “many hands make the load lighter. The many hands involved in creating the string program at FMS made my load lighter, and greatly increased the amount of donations and volunteer time I could offer FMS. Please contact me if you are interested in put your hands, heads, and hearts together with others to support music education programs in Haiti.