Hands Across the Caribbean

. March 3, 2014.

Put a crayon in the hand of an American kid and you may need to watch out for artwork on your walls. But when Jeanna Heuring, the Gifted Intervention Specialist at the Toth and Woodbury School in Perrysburg, gave crayons to kids at the Brad Reddick School in rural Haiti, “they had no idea what they were for. They kept looking to us so we could tell them what to do with them!”

Jeanna, along with other educators in the Perrysburg school system, had journeyed to the Savanette area—“the middle of no place,” according to Jan Meier-Neilsen—with Missions International of America (missionsinternationalofamerica.com), which Jan founded with her husband, Dr. Jay Neilsen, after falling in love with the country on their first trip. The organization seeks to help Haitians improve their lives across generations. In addition to the school—named for a Perrysburg friend who died in 2004—the area now has electricity, water pipes, a clinic, farming projects, and Circle of Life (haitiancircleoflife.com), where locals create beautiful, brightly-colored jewelry and home items by hand. “We hire as many local Haitians as we can,” says Jan, “and 100% of profits for these handmade items go to Haiti.”

Access to education

Some of those workers include local teachers. “Education is the key,” says Jan, “and since it’s not free in Haiti, parents are desperate to access it for their children.” In fact, the lack of schools has fostered a tragic problem, the “restaveks.” The term translates to “stay with,” but really means a child slave. “People will come to parents in rural areas and promise to educate their children in exchange for the child living in another place,” says Jan. “But the children become slave labor; the practice is not even illegal.”

New teaching techniques

To educate Haitian teachers on new ways to learn, Perrysburg educators, including Jeanna, have been teaming up with the Neilsens since 2008. “Tom Hosler, the superintendent of Perrysburg Schools, has been incredibly supportive,” she says. Jeanna had a similar reaction to the Neilsens, and has returned several times. “Teaching tends to be lectures and rote repetition, with lots of workbooks,” she says. She and her colleagues have found Haitian teachers eager to utilize new ideas on how to incorporate more creative thinking and group work into classes. They work to include some project-based learning so that it can be continued after the Americans return home, typically after eight days.

Jeanna has founded a project of her own, A Gifted Generation (agiftedgeneration.org), an afterschool program four days a week that gives children opportunities to develop leadership skills for their community. “What I really want to do is connect the kids in Haiti with kids around the world through technology,” she says. Currently, her Ohio students are creating English lesson DVDs, which she’ll be taking to Haiti. Then the Haitian students will reciprocate, creating DVDs in their language, Creole, to send back to Ohio. “When we can connect kids to the greater world through technology in any country, there’s no limit to what they can learn.”

To purchase Circle of Life crafts, please visit the website: