By Thomas Nybo
JACMEL, Haiti, 6 April 2010 – When the earthquake shook the mountains outside this port city in southern Haiti on 12 January, rural schools throughout the area were destroyed or damaged. Not only were classes cancelled for the short term, but looking ahead, parents were afraid to send their children back into damaged classrooms that they feared might collapse.
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Among the compromised structures is a pre-school run by nuns belonging to the Lauritas religious order. It serves about 250 young children who suddenly found themselves without functioning classrooms or adequate covered play areas.
In response, UNICEF has delivered three large tents, along with 20 early childhood development (ECD) kits, to the school.
Supplies for children under six
On the day of the delivery, a large truck loaded with the supplies navigated the long and deeply-rutted dirt road through the hills, as volunteers cleaned the grounds and prepared the site for tents. The next day, more than 200 children showed up at the school and waited patiently while the ECD kits were unpacked.
UNICEF launched the kits worldwide last summer to help meet the needs of children under the age of six in emergency or post-crisis environments resulting from natural disasters and armed conflicts. Each kit contains 37 items designed to promote social interaction – not only between children, but also with their caregivers.
The kits include hand puppets, puzzle blocks, memory games and colouring pencils. UNICEF has distributed more than 1,000 of the kits in Haiti, and more are on the way.
A long journey to school
“What is amazing is that the children are walking, every day, eight kilometres in the morning,” said UNICEF Emergency Specialist Arnaud Conchon. “They wake up at 4 a.m. to come here, and they go back in the afternoon with their parents. So they are really, really willing to have access to play and to learn and to be part of these interactive activities.”
One of the parents at the Lauritas-run pre-school is Stephanie Saint-Fleur. She and her five children escaped their house just moments before it collapsed in the earthquake.
he day the ECD kits arrived, Ms. Saint-Fleur walked an hour with her children to get here. She had to carry her youngest daughter, whose legs are paralyzed but who had no trouble dancing with her upper body as the toys were distributed throughout the tent.
‘The tents are a haven’
“We are so happy to receive these toys and supplies,” said Ms. Saint-Fleur. “And the tents make us feel secure, because we are scared to return to our damaged houses…. We don’t want to send our kids into damaged classrooms, so the tents are a haven.”
She explained to a visitor that her family is sleeping outside at night with no roof over their heads. She has many unanswered questions about the family’s future – most important, how will they rebuild their home? But for a few hours, at least, she was content, knowing her children would have many more days like this one.
“It’s very comforting for me as a mother to see my daughter here enjoying herself,” Ms. Saint-Fleur.
Model for rural areas
UNICEF is encouraging communities like this one near Jacmel to develop their own ECD materials. Along with the kits and tents provided by UNICEF, this sustainable approach gives children access to stimulation, early learning and play, without making the community dependent on external aid.
“We are establishing a model here,” said Mr. Conchon. “I can see the enthusiasm of the community here, and really, we hope that we can establish a good model that we’re going to replicate and scale up in other places – especially in these rural areas that are somehow forgotten.”
All around him, the silence of empty classrooms was broken by the laughter of children.