It Takes a Village
Vero Beach-based nonprofit Haiti Partners promotes an innovative, community-led approach to education
BY JANIE GOULD
Even though mass demonstrations have shut down Haiti’s government and kept virtually all schools closed for months, it’s been business as usual for one small primary school in the Haitian countryside that has strong ties to the Treasure Coast.
The Children’s Academy and Learning Center, supported by Vero Beach-based Haiti Partners, has remained open in a village five miles from the capital, Port-Au-Prince, despite anti-government protests that have paralyzed the country. The demonstrators, angered by rising gas prices and severe food shortages, have blocked roads in major cities, set fires and even harassed children wearing school uniforms to frighten them into staying home.
John Engle, co-founder of the Children’s Academy with his wife, Merline, said one thing has changed at the school since the most recent wave of unrest. The students no longer wear uniforms.
“Our parents are doing the right thing,” he says. “They know their children need an education. We won’t turn our backs on people who are trying to do the right thing and educate their children.”
John Engle, who grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, was working for Panasonic in Chicago in 1991 when, at the age of 26, he realized there might be more to life than the corporate world. Panasonic gave him a two-year leave of absence to go to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. There he worked for a small group supporting improved education for Haitians.
“I determined that this was going to be a new direction for me and that I was going to stay,” he says. “I never went back to the corporate world and have never had regrets about that.”
He co-founded Haiti Partners to support six “partner schools” in the country and later, with Merline and their Haitian and American co-workers in agreement, decided to establish a school that would demonstrate the importance of collaboration and joyful learning rather than the Haitian tradition of authoritarian management. They collaborated with village residents when they planned the school, holding monthly meetings in the Catholic church, the largest building in the village.
The Children’s Academy and Learning Center opened as a preschool in 2012. This year it is offering eight grades from age 3 through 5th grade, with a total of 230 students receiving a “joyful, student-centered education” that includes character development. This year, Engle said, a total of 1,274 children are getting a quality education in the Children’s Academy and partner schools. Plans call for adding a grade every year for the next 10 years, reaching an eventual enrollment of 900 and providing online university education within 10 years.
“This is a vision held by the community, the teachers and the leadership team, in addition to Merline and me,” Engle says. “Everyone’s commitment to the vision is quite extraordinary.”
The students get practical lessons in entrepreneurship from a business project at the school in which parents make greeting cards using paper made from harvested banana plants and other local natural fibers. Parents also maintain gardens at the school, using permaculture techniques to ensure that the land is productive year round.
Haiti Partners is headquartered in a small suite of offices on U.S. 1 in central Vero Beach. Vero Beach is also the home now of the Engles, who lived in Haiti with their two children until John was robbed at gunpoint in Port-au-Prince one afternoon in 2016.
“After that, we had a couple of strange things: somebody coming to the front gate at night, motorcycles that were unusual in the neighborhood. We felt vulnerable, especially with our young children.”
Now, Daniel, 13, and Leila, 11, attend Gifford Middle School in Indian River County. Merline makes frequent trips to Haiti to attend to duties at the school. She’s also launched a company that makes hot sauce using Caribbean Scotch bonnet peppers grown in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in order to raise funds for Haiti Partners.
Haiti Partners has always had strong ties to Vero Beach, receiving generous support over the years from churches, especially Our Savior Lutheran Church and Community Church, and numerous foundations and individuals. Originally faith-based, it became non-sectarian when it was reorganized two years ago, but the schools it supports continue to teach the Christian faith. This year, around 800 donors from across the U.S. gave $839,794 to Haiti Partners.
“We are fortunate to have communities of support along with board members in Hershey, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere,” Engle says.
Vero Beach native Gene Waddell visited the school in 2018 and was impressed with the students and parents.
“These elementary age kids would walk for miles across a mountain and up rutted roads to go to school,” he says. “We were there during a parent meeting and there were perhaps 50 parents attending and participating!”
Waddell, owner of a local insurance agency, served on the Indian River County School Board and later helped start Indian River Charter High School. He sees similarities between the charter school and what he observed in Haiti.
“The charter high school is a school of choice,” he says. “All students want to be there and want to learn. Haiti Partners’ school is the same and it shows. The morning opening ceremony is always the Haiti national anthem and the Lord’s Prayer.”
He says his support of Haiti Partners is nothing exceptional.
“I don’t think my attitude is different from many others, in that I will do anything for somebody who is putting forth effort to help themselves,” Waddell says. “When children walk for miles to get to school, literally uphill, and parents put in time and effort to make their children’s lives better, they need all the help anyone can give them.”