Paynesville natives share passion for Haiti

To Speak Loudly

Kozefò: the merging of two Haitian Creole words, Koze and Fò, meaning to speak loudly.

Kozefò:  an organization that funds the primary school A New Arrival Center in Port-au-Prince, giving a voice to students unable to speak for themselves through education.

With only half of the children in Haiti receiving an education and 90 percent of primary schools managed by communities, non-government organizations, or religious organizations, such as Kozefò, the school is vital to the 95 students who attend A New Arrival Center.

“You see, in Haiti, education is a luxury. Many children do not have the opportunity to attend school,” said Kozefò director Sara Lien, a 1986 Paynesville graduate. “Money is hard to come by, and parents often have to make very difficult decisions regarding feeding, clothing, and educating their children.”

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The students at the primary school receive their educations through sponsorships, which cover tuition, teacher salaries, two uniforms, and textbooks.

The Transformation

Lien’s passion for Kozefò and the students of A New Arrival, which was originally an orphanage, grew after her sister and brother-in-law, Lori and Scott Schlecht, adopted two boys, Eli and JP, from the center in 2005 and 2010.

Following the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, nearly 20 orphans, including JP, were adopted and joined their “forever families” in the United States. With only three young boys unadopted, the director of the orphanage decided the center should be transformed into a school and made his vision reality in the fall of 2010.

“At that time, the staff salaries, student uniforms, text books, and a noon meal were being supported by a private donor in Los Angeles,” said Lien. “The school provided class for approximately 30 students that first and second year.” 

In June 2011, Lien and her daughter Breelyn traveled to Haiti for the first time with Lori, a 1989 Paynesville graduate, and her two biological daughters, Avalon and Faith.

Having obtained degrees in elementary education and physical education from Jamestown College and a master’s degree in special education from the University of North Dakota, Lien was asked if she would teach an English class.

“Bree and I spoke no Creole, and the students spoke no English,” said Lien. “We taught four hours per day for three weeks that summer, learning from one another and building sweet connections.”

Just as her nephews instantly had, Haiti captured Lien’s heart after a month of teaching. Lien returned in December 2011 to provide training for teachers and to begin seeking student sponsorships that would assist in funding the school.  Beginning under the name Partners in Education, the organization eventually changed to Kozefò, and Lien became its director.

In 2013, she visited Haiti to shut down the school, as the primary funder had stepped away and there was a lack of financial resources. But the teachers exclaimed their love for A New Arrival and their students, and they begged her to keep the school open somehow. Without it, the children’s education would be lost. “We’ve come so far,” they pleaded to Lien.

“I had already grown to love our students and staff,” she said. “In the midst of that trip, it was decided that we would do what was needed to be done to keep the school running.”

When she returned to Minnesota, Lien reached out to Lori and Scott. The sisters came together and eventually created a board of “wise, committed individuals who were willing to volunteer their time and talents to run Kozefò.”

“I am forever grateful to my sister for loving this country of her nephews so dearly,” said Lori. “She has brought light, hope, education, respect, honor, and opportunity not only to the school children, but to the community that surrounds it.”

The determination of Lien, the teachers, staff, and board of Kozefò has paid off. Originally staffed by two teachers, the primary school  now employs 15 teachers and staff who dedicate their time and knowledge to Haiti’s future generation.

“There is thinking and dreaming and learning happening in our classrooms,” said Lien. Students, in grades first through sixth, learn core subjects such as mathematics, geography, science, and Creole reading/writing. The school also offers French and English.

A New Arrival also has a technology initiative and utilizes a computer lab, which was made possible by a generous donation in 2015. The lab includes 20 laptops, an LCD projector, and a printer. The computers allow students to become 21st Century learners by accessing more information, learning technology skills, and even interacting with other students around the world through video chat.

“Kozefò, as an organization, believes education is the key to developing thinking, creative individuals,” said the organization’s website. “This is the true meaning of Kozefò,  people together, hand in hand, speaking in a loud voice to bring about positive change in education, one school at a time.”

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Originally, A New Arrival was staffed by two teachers who taught 30 students. Now, the school has grown to 15 instructors and approximately 95 students, with plans for expansion.

Faith

Raised in a family that instilled strong Christian beliefs and values, Lien keeps Christ’s message of love in all she does. “I try to live by the greatest command in the Bible: ‘Love God, Love Others.’ For me, that is really all that matters.”

Becoming director of Kozefò was no coincidence for Lien, who now spends most of her time as assistant director of special education in the West St. Paul, Mendota Heights, and Eagan school districts.  The Paynesville native believes God has a plan for everyone. “The learning and growing that I was doing with my employed work was equipping me to do the work needed at our school in Haiti,” she said. “He orchestrates plans to prepare us for what he is calling us to do.”

Lien recalls attending a mega-rally at Bethel University before her first trip to Haiti where the chaplain asked, “What is your radical? What do you feel God is calling you to do?” Unaware of the impact the country would have on her life, she leaned over and whispered to a friend, “I’m going to Haiti for a month.”

Faith is also cherished by the people of Haiti, and it plays a large role in their lives, said Lien. The churches of Haiti are filled every Sunday with energy, live music, and prayer. “The worship we experience in the Creole church we visit is filled with truth and spirit-led singing,” said Lien. “Many nights when I would stay at the orphanage/school, I would hear praise music coming from local churches in the area.”

A Christian-based school, each day at A New Arrival begins with morning prayer, the Haitian national anthem, and singing.

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Sara Lien (right), a 1986 Paynesville High School graduate, taught in Haiti for the first time in 2011, eventually becoming the director of the organization that funds the primary school.

People

Although they may have minimal materialistic items in life, the Haitians Lien and Schlecht have met don’t let that impact their outlook and optimism. “There is a true sense of joy and generosity that shines through the students, staff, and others that I have met in Haiti,” said Lien.

As someone who spends time in the U.S. and Haiti, Lien is able to compare American values to Haitian values. “Haiti may be the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, yet the contentment and joy I have seen and experienced makes me ashamed of the materialistic views, negativity, and ungratefulness that I may feel or see in my American life,” she said.

“These people who have so little, have so much joy,” said Lori. “It brings such perspective, and it is always so hard for me to join the reality of my life when I return home.”

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Sponsoring A Student

As A New Arrival is completely funded by donations, those interested in funding a child’s education can sponsor a student for $30 a month. Donations cover tuition, staff salaries, two uniforms, textbooks, and supplies. Through Kozefò’s food program, each student also receives one meal per day at lunch.

“We currently have just one little student remaining in need of a sponsor; however, there will be new students added this summer in preparation for the 2016-17 school year,” said Lien.

Donations will also go towards expanding the school to include seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. “We have maximized our space by adding rooftop classrooms and transforming a bedroom into a computer lab,” said Lien.

To sponsor a student, donate to Kozefò, or learn more about A New Arrival Center, visit http://www.kozefo.org.

Finding A Forever Family

There are over 153 million orphans in the world, according to http://www.UNICEF.org. With millions of children waiting for their forever homes, Lori and Scott Schlecht wanted to make any difference they possibly could.

“The huge numbers of children in our world that didn’t have a family to grow up in stirred at our hearts,” said Lori. “Every child deserves a family to call their own.”

A social worker at Lutheran Social Services introduced the couple to the idea of adopting from Haiti, the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere. “After a lot of research and prayer, we knew Haiti was where God was leading us to adopt,” said Lori. “When we were matched with our sweet Eli, we knew dearly that he was meant to be our son.”

The adoption process began in September 2005, and four months later, in January, Lori and her mom, Beth Realdsen of Paynesville, met Eli for the first time in Haiti. “I had been with her (Lori) when the girls were born, so she said, ‘You were there when I first saw my daughters, you’ve got to be there when I first see my son,’” recalled Realdsen.

Eli’s mom and grandma were there to share in the joy of his first steps and first haircut at 16 months of age. “Our time was filled with so much fun, and we loved every minute of soaking up the culture and bonding with Eli,” said Lori.

The paperwork was finalized in June 2006, nine months after the process began, and 21-month-year-old Eli flew home to Minnesota with his forever family. “There are no words to describe how incredible it was to have Eli in my arms as we boarded that plane,” said Lori.

As she boarded, Lori looked back at the mountains and city, and she made a promise to never forget Haiti. “I knew that I would always hold a special spot in my heart for Haiti and that I would always do what I could for this homeland of my son,” she said.

Two days after Eli came to Minnesota, the borders of Haiti closed due to political unrest during elections. “If Eli hadn’t come home when he did, he probably wouldn’t have been home for another year,” said Lori. “We thank God that He brought Eli home when He did.”

Eli’s new family stayed in contact with the orphanage’s director and continued to help the orphanage in anyway they could.

On a visit to Haiti in 2009, Lori and her daughter Avalon met 12-year-old JP, who had been living at the orphanage since he was six. An instant connection was made.

“When I met him, he had a radiant joy that eluded from him,” said Lori. “He was the most resilient, joy-filled, compassionate dude that I had ever met.”

Lori discovered that JP’s previous adoption had fell through, and her family decided he was meant to join their home. An enthusiastic “Yes!” rang through the phone when they called JP and asked if he wanted to be part of the Schlecht family.

The process began in the fall of 2009, with the family expecting it to take up to three years. The 2010 earthquake that left Haiti in ruins hastened the adoption. “JP and his friends at the orphanage were sleeping outdoors in tents made from blankets,” said Lori. “I can still hear JP’s voice saying, ‘Mom, can you come and get me?’”

There was a silver lining in the aftermath of the disaster, as every child that was in the process of adoption was able to join their forever families in January 2010.

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Using a repetition of “I do know” and “I don’t know,” Schlecht’s book speaks from a parent’s heart to an adopted child.

What I Do Know

Shortly after Eli’s adoption, an episode of TLC’s “A Baby Story” brought tears to Lori’s eyes as she realized she would never be able to describe her son’s delivery story to him on his upcoming birthday.

“Then I started thinking about other first things that I missed: his first smile, his first food, his first word,” said Lori. “It brought a lot of sadness to me, but as I began to write and process it all, I realized all of the things that I do know about him and the life that he would have.”

After ten years, her book What I Do Know was published. Portraying the beauty of unique family situations, the book speaks from a parent’s heart to an adopted child using a repetition of “I don’t know” and “I do know.” “I’m proud of the story and hope that it will bring about wonderful conversations and beautiful moments that adopted families and even step parents or children can connect to,” said Lori.

What I Do Know is available online at http://www.whatidoknowbook.com or at Crafts Direct in Waite Park. It can also be found on Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s websites.

The Schlecht family includes Eli, now 12 and a sixth grader; Faith, 16 and a junior in high school; JP, 18 and a junior in high school; and Avalon, 19 and a sophomore at the University of Minnesota.

 

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