Leis and her husband Wayne, who do work with the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) orphanage in the Dominican Republic, first met a Haitian named Pierre a few years before the earthquake. Having met Leis on a fluke, he wanted her help with efforts to build a free school in Haiti, a country long ravaged by the elements, a destitute economy, and perhaps most tragically in this case, the targeting of children for the sex trade.
Back in 2007, Leis knew little of the efforts brewing outside of a small village about two hours from Port au Prince. But four years of Pierre’s persistence piqued her interest and she contacted the organizers in 2011 to arrange a trip.
“I started being in contact with them by e-mail and then last year in February my friend and I went. It was my first experience of being in Haiti. It’s very hard to describe – it’s hellish,” she said.
Though conditions in the country were deplorable, she was soon touched by the perseverance of the people in a small village located in the Cayes Jacmel municipality, where the school was to be built.
A group of locals started the efforts for Jakdesa Community School in 2006. This was an attempt to stop con artists from the city from coming in to take young children from the village. Parents who couldn’t afford school fees were promised that their children would go to school and receive lodging and food.
“They found out that what was happening was the children were being put in the sex trade. This has been going on for years – since before the earthquake,” Leis said.
The group of educated locals – mostly in their twenties and thirties – were tired of seeing children disappear and had been working on building a free school.
They had the teachers, but had no means of paying their salaries, Leis explained.
Leis warned that she did not have the money to build a school, suggesting instead that the group use available structures. A roof and four posts were being used as a classroom for the youngest children and she suggested that the structure be turned into a closed building. Two weeks later she was sent an e-mail which read that the building had been completed.
“They found a way to do it. That’s one of the reasons I’m really anxious to help this group: they have the drive. It’s just they can’t afford to pay the teachers,” she said.
A friend and NPH employee who grew up in Haiti makes an unannounced trip to the orphanage once a month and reports on progress and makes sure the teachers are being paid.
Last year Leis sent the school 500 pounds of school supplies and later backpacks for the kids, filled with a homemade blanket and enough school supplies to last for a year.
Leis is working with her church, Eastwood Christian Fellowship, to take the school on as a mission project. She still gets emotional when speaking of the children and the efforts of the Haitian group.
“They desperately care about their children and they will do anything they can for them. That’s one of the reasons why, even though it’s physically and financially and mentally and spiritually exhausting to do this, it’s just worth it, because of what these people are willing to do for their children.”
Leis plans to return to Jakdesa Community School next month to help build a swing set for the students.