Students in the classroom at Institut Edeline in Haiti.
Photo by Brian Biery

Institut Edeline in Croix-des-Bouquets, (Beudet) Haiti, is built of concrete and lots of rebar to fortify it against the destructive earthquakes and hurricanes that menace the Caribbean island.

The 200 students of the K-6th grade school sit on benches at long wooden tables to study math, science, social studies, French and Creole. Asked what their favorite subjects are, many of them say: “Math, science, grammar and writing.”

Outside, water is pumped from a well so the children use flush toilets and have fresh water to drink. Like the fencing around some schools in the U.S., a concrete wall surrounds the Institut to improve safety and security.

The kids jump rope and play soccer on dirt and gravel, while trying very hard to keep their uniforms sparkling clean. Usually, each child owns just one.

The Institut is where children like Dachna, Chagui, Gerardson, Lens and Midjine learn to raise chickens and aspire to become mechanics, teachers, engineers, policemen and doctors. The first class of sixth graders will graduate next June.

Edeline Felizor has never seen the schoolhouse that bears her name, but she thanks God the children are being fed — in mind and body.

“My dream has always been to help children,” the nurse-teacher said. “I want to do that through a school that will give hope to the poorest children in Haiti.”

The school serves children orphaned by the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti Jan. 12, 2010, killing an estimated 100,000 to 316,000 people, and injuring and displacing hundreds of thousands more.

The temblor, one of the country’s worst natural disasters, toppled the teacher’s college in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, where Felizor had been teaching on the third floor, trapping her in the rubble and debris of the collapsed building.

There she drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to move — and suffering from a broken neck, and several fractured vertebrae and ribs. Awake, she sang gospel songs, and prayed to comfort herself and other victims who cried out in pain. Some would eventually die.

Stephanie Hoffman and Edeline Felizor, cofounders with Byron Shewman of Youth Without Borders. Photo by Brian Biery

The community of Croix-des-Bouquets, with a population about half the size of Idyllwild’s, was devastated. Many children survived, but lost their homes and the safety net of moms and dads, aunties and uncles, and neighbors and churches that played a role in looking after them.

Now living in San Diego, Felizor visited Idyllwild Library May 21 to talk about the school and the trauma of being buried alive, rescued and reunited with her family days after the initial quake. “God … granted me life after the earthquake and it … [is] even more important that I serve Him and my people,” Felizor said.

After being dug from the wreckage, and placed nearby exposed to aftershocks and without medical care, Felizor eventually received X-rays from the only functioning machine in Port-au-Prince. Later, she was transferred to the U.S. Navy helicopter base and to the USNS Comfort hospital ship.

Aboard the Comfort, she underwent an operation requiring four screws to fuse her spinal column with her skull. There she met Oceanside resident Byron Shewman, who was in Haiti serving as a translator for medical staff. Later in San Diego, she met Physical Therapist Stephanie Hoffman.

“One of the doctors told Byron, ‘If you can sign off on her medical costs, I’ll give you a humanitarian visa, because she won’t survive a day back in Port-au-Prince,’” Hoffman said.

Shewman sponsored Felizor and her sister Isemene to come to San Diego on humanitarian parole visas. Dr. Lee Rice and Hoffman provided medical services free-of-charge.

The sisters lived with Hoffman for three months after arriving in the U.S., and then moved in with Shewman where they have been ever since. Felizor had to relearn how to walk and now does so independently.

Thousands of miles away from the chaos and destruction, Felizor, Shewman and Hoffman co-founded Institut Edeline in 2011.

“Croix-des-Bouquets was all we could bite off;” Hoffman said, “our attempt to improve that community, to give the people a voice, hope and an optimistic view that education will make a difference.”

At Idyllwild Library where she spoke recently, Felizor responded to a question about her native language by delivering a mini-lesson in how to say simple expressions in Haitian Creole.

The “30-something” fluent English and French speaker smiled as she fielded questions from Hill residents about her “formal education, the jobs available in Haiti, how families eat, if they have gardens, how they get food.

“We don’t even have a copy machine in the community,” Felizor said. “The teachers tell me when the students come to school they are happy because they are eating.”

Hoffman added, “We serve two meals a day, which is unheard of at a school, and we don’t charge.

“Half of Haiti’s children do not attend school. Sixty percent will abandon school before the sixth grade. Street vendors earn money selling harvested corn, or water frozen in plastic baggies.

“If they’re lucky and have been educated at the collegiate level, they do industry work, or become nurses and teachers.

“We’re hoping to raise $15,000 to build a library and computer lab, and another $5,000 to furnish and stock with computers,” Hoffman added.

Idyllwild Branch Library Manager Shannon Ng will advise the school on the library project.

Before the evening was over, there appeared to be quite a bit of interest in donating to the school.

Operating under Shewman’s nonprofit umbrella organization, Youth Without Borders, the board hopes to make the school self-sustaining, “with the intent of sending … children into healthy professions to restore economic hope and stability in the region.”

Idyllwild resident and board member Kate Sirkin visited the school in January. “Shewman put up some of the money for it. Through fundraisers with Stephanie in La Jolla, we bought a 1-acre property. The Oliver McMillan Group in San Diego has been responsible for the school’s construction and expansion ....”

“And the school’s accredited. Almost three-quarters of the private schools in Haiti are not, and families must pay out-of-pocket at both private and public schools,” Hoffman said.

“We’re trying to get a better plan for sixth graders. The school is funded at ‘50 grand’ a year — which is not ‘an arm and a leg.’ One hundred percent is raised through talks at schools and libraries, and having dinners around town.

“The board doesn’t want to go through the government — we’re in for the long haul. If each kid is sponsored at $300 a year, that pays for it.

“We don’t look for the big check writer, but for the ‘Kate sponsors a few kids.’ That sponsorship has paid the expenses. All donations go directly to the school.”

Having hosted several fundraisers in Idyllwild for the school, Sirkin considers Felizor “a true inspiration in my life.

“We also have an active guild of women here — ‘Dress a Girl.’ They sew and send 300 dresses each year to the girls. Many have never had a new one.”

Felizor communicates daily with the school’s staff, but soon she and Isemene will see them face-to-face. Their humanitarian visas run out June 2019. “I’m looking forward to meeting the students and teachers at the Institut,” Felizor said.

To contribute, visit www.projectedeline.com or call 1-858-454-5545.

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