We talk in depth to Holiday Reinhorn, Rainn Wilson and Kathryn Adams about their latest visit to Haiti, where their charity LIDÈ works in rural areas.
An earthquake hit Haiti this week - bringing back memories of the 2010 disaster that killed more than 230,000 people.
In response to the challenges faced by girls in the aftermath of the quake eight years ago, the organisation LIDÈ Haiti was established by the married couple of author Holiday Reinhorn and actor/TV star Rainn Wilson, along with Executive Director Dr Kathryn Adams.
LIDÈ - it means both leader and idea in Haitian Kreyol - provides academic support and arts programmes that empower girls who have been denied equal access to education and strengthen their resiliency.
It trains and employs Haitian teachers and youth programme facilitators and collaborates with grassroots organisations and schools so that programmes derive from local needs, strengthen local capacity and foster the community support girls need to begin their educational journeys.
This week's earthquake killed at least 17 people and injured 350. Some damage was sustained at LIDÈ's offices and programme locations - but their biggest task now is dealing with the trauma suffered by the girls and their families.
Before the earthquake, Theirworld talked to Holiday, Rainn and Kathryn about their latest visit to Haiti and recent developments in LIDÈ's work.
What were the highlights of your visit to Haiti this time?
Holiday: It is always such a revelation to me - the power of young girls having a voice and authorship over what is necessary and needed in their communities and what happens when girls are offered the support and space to achieve their dreams.
Every time I leave Haiti, there are new programme goals that the LIDÈ staff and students wish to bring into reality - and every time I return to Haiti I watch these goals achieved. It’s really remarkable.
Girls who just entered the programme have found a special interest or talent and are passionately going about exploring it.
The professional development workshops with the teachers and senior staff are filled with incredible new growth and creative revelations of how we can support the girls dealing with all the same issues they do everywhere - cliques, bullying, self-value, etc.
The community food programme of locally-sourced food, cooked by local women, has doubled its staff and is offering cooking classes to the older girls. The list goes on.
The close-knit bonds of the staff and their teamwork and collaboration in creating curriculum is remarkable. This trip was all about the success of the mobile tutoring lab and how it has benefitted the soul and spirit of the girls in the programme.
There was a marked difference in the confidence, vocal participation and creativity I witnessed in the classes thanks to the computers, not just in academics but in the creative disciplines.
In the United States, as a creative writing teacher, I find freedom usually comes by taking away the screen and returning to the notebook. But in Haiti, there is so much stress and pressure related to writing “correctly” in a notebook in rural schools that the computer screen becomes a door to freedom of expression.
Is there a particular success story from your trip you'd like to share?
Holiday: Junia, one of the first students I worked with years ago, was struggling academically to the point of nearly dropping out of school. She is now a thriving apprentice in our programme and leads the arts activities herself.
Junia has also just thrived in the mobile computer training to the point that she qualified to attend a computer coding camp in Port au Prince. There, as the youngest participant, she tested at the top of the class, with higher scores than the university students and professional women in her class.
The growth of our programme has also allowed us to bring girls together from all the different villages who would never have the chance to meet under any other circumstances and brainstorm about some of the deepest issues affecting their lives.
Rainn: Another great success is the teamwork and leadership of Deputy Director Soeurette Rigodon and Education Coordinator Isabelle Joseph.
Soeurette is Head of Creative Programs for the Arts and Empowerment, and Isabelle is the Coordinator for the Centers for Learning and in charge of all scholarships, which is a huge task now that we have over 60 active scholarships in play with girls of different ages - all in different schools with different learning gaps and needs.
We also had Josette, our first LIDÈ graduate from an amazing local Montessori programme. Josette earned her Montessori certificate with high honours ... and is currently leading a pilot project for LIDÈ in the south where we are “re-kindergartening” some of the girls under age 10 who cannot read and write.
The girls think they are just playing counting games and word games but, in reality, they are filling significant gaps in their education.
Kathryn: Roseberline, now age 18, began in our Mapou programme nearly three years ago. In those early days, like many of the girls in that community, she giggled nervously and lingered on the sidelines during theatre, hesitated before writing and read her work in a voice barely audible.
Three years later, though, she not only engages in theatre and writing without hesitation but leads those activities as one of our apprentice facilitators in her own community.
As I watched her come to life and bring others to life before my eyes, I felt the joy that one feels when someone you care about shines brightly in the world.
You aim to empower girls and women through the arts. Has your model changed over the years?
Kathryn: It feels like change, or maybe I should say evolution, is a part of our model because that model is one of doing what needs to be done to create a space where girls can discover who they are, find their voices and find the light that is inside of them.
And “what needs to be done” evolves as the girls peel back layers of guardedness, as our local teachers become more confident in putting forward the needs they observe and the programmes become more and more an integral part of the communities.
When we began, we thought we would just be doing arts programmes that enhanced learning skills and empowered young girls.
But we quickly saw that we needed to also provide informal education that had more formal structure and goals - basic literacy and numeracy for some participants, and gap-filling in core subjects for secondary students who were two to five years behind in age to grade level.
But even that, we discovered, wasn’t enough when a girl in our programme wanted to attend a vocational workshop but couldn’t produce any legal identification to do so.
So we created “Transitions” as a way to help older teens transition into adulthood by accompanying them through that milestone and helping them not just learn concepts but also apply them to real life by doing things like getting an ID card, exploring possible career options, learning about and addressing the needs of women’s health, learning communication and conflict resolution, prioritising and managing money.
Holiday: Yes, as Kathryn mentioned, we have certainly learned that it takes so much more than just a seat in a classroom to support the grassroots education of girls in rural Haiti.
It has been incredible how much we’ve supplemented what we do so that our programme can “wrap around” and support all the different aspects of a girl’s life and help her move through the obstacles she will no doubt encounter.
One-on-one tutoring, mentoring, public health education, gender-based violence training, pre-natal care, early child development, study skills, solar lights, social entrepreneurship, small business education.
Tell us about the theme-driven sessions you've integated into the Transitions programme this summer.
Kathryn: Girls in Transitions still do the themed programmes that other girls do. But the difference is that what was just a concept to discover, explore and play within the regular LIDÈ arts programme is now a reality of life. They must apply it not only to survive but also to reach the goals of their own making.
For example, we might be talking about courage in all the programmes one week - but in Transitions, this might be applied to practising for an interview, helping girls write and send a CV or prepare for an exam, or, as happened recently, talking about the taboo topic of what to do if your “boyfriend” is abusing you.
Holiday: Transitions is incredibly exciting to us as our newest programme. We have yet to see where the participants will take it as they move out into the workplace and begin to compose and create their own pathways to their future.
The Transitions programme is intended to support them with the skills and inner resiliency needed to take risks and explore things that they are passionate about in a values and assets-based environment.
If you dream it, you can do it. If you love it, share it. If you love it, teach it. This is not the usual messaging that the girls are used to hearing and acting upon.
Rainn: One of the greatest successes in my mind is that LIDÈ has become a safe space for the girls to share problems issues and vulnerabilities that they are often unable to get support with anywhere else.
Believing that you are supported by a community you can trust is key to courageously entering the unknown and overcoming both internal and external obstacles.
You hold computer tutorials for girls - is this purely for educational reasons or are you also giving them potential workplace skills?
Rainn: At LIDÈ, nothing is purely academic, nor purely art, nor purely life skills. Everything intersects or overlaps because life intersects and overlaps. So this too is true of the way we approach computer skills.
When girls begin, most of them have never touched a computer. We even had to teach the girls in a few of our communities how to open the laptop and turn it on.
To orient them comfortably to the computers, beginning lessons teach basic word processing and file creation, while at the same time they might be writing about friendship or choosing colours for fonts that match their “true self” or their emotions.
When they learn how to use spreadsheets, they learn the skill while creating personal budgets or calendars for scheduling homework and study time on their very busy days.
But we don’t want these skills to stop with simply “user-end” skills. To truly have a voice in the future, they need exposure to (and hopefully understanding of) the creator end - computer coding. So this summer, we sent three of our girls to a computer coding camp offered for young women in Port au Prince.
You are training staff in early childhood development skills. Tell us why you feel early years care is so important.
Kathryn: When we first began working in what is referred to as “dehors” in Haiti - meaning outside, or the countryside - we often heard the same question from adults in communities during consultations.
“But girls who have babies already,” they would begin, their faces always with the same concerned and yet embarrassed expression, “They certainly can’t be in the programme, can they?”
“Of course they can!” I would say. “Why wouldn’t they? They are still girls.”
And so the babies came with the young mothers and sat on laps or were passed from girl to girl like a precious baby doll being shared among friends. Along with the girls’ own children, we increasingly saw baby and toddler siblings joining the programme circle.
In families where everyone is expected to work from the moment they can walk, it is the work of the oldest girl (even if she is only 11 years old) to take care of the younger siblings.
And so, often, the only way they can come to the programme is to bring their baby sisters or brothers along too.
From the start, we had wanted to create a system where girls who were in the programme and had children of their own to care for or who were placed in charge of siblings would be paid by LIDÈ to take turns basically leading a daycare class for children or siblings of participants so that others could participate.
At our Terre des Negres programme last spring, the urgent need for this early childhood care and education system became abundantly clear.
We had nearly as many “ti-ti-moun” (little kid, i.e. babies, toddlers and preschool-aged children) as we had girls ages 12 to 18. None of the preschool-aged kids had ever been in a preschool … and their skill levels for age-appropriate milestones were notably behind.
They needed a good start and their sisters and mommies needed a chance to be the young teenagers that they are.
At the same time, we have wanted to teach all of the participants about basic early childhood development (and how to foster development) simply as a basic life skill.
So, education for early childhood development could no longer wait.
Holiday: One of the most important visual takeaways from this most recent trip for me was to watch the “ti-ti moun" who were brought to the LIDÈ classes in diapers four years ago now sitting on benches with their friends, drawing and practising writing the alphabet while their older siblings and/or mothers were in LIDÈ class.
This vision of their sisters’ and mothers’ education in progress is embedded in their earliest memories, so it will be exciting to see them seamlessly enter the programme when they are old enough.
It is said that the education of just one girl has a positive impact on 100 lives in their community, so when I see 10 little girls sitting there, with crayons, what I actually see is 1000 and a community transformed.
This success is incalculable and I would wish it for every single girl child on Earth.