How One Man's Dream Has Changed Lives in Haiti

America is a pretty amazing place. Most Americans aren’t happy with the unemployment rates or the government or a whole list of other things, but compared to other countries around the world, America has everything. We have free primary education, decent jobs and wages, and most Americans can afford to put food on the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

You’d be surprised by the number of countries around the world that have a literacy rate below 60%, and how many people in these countries can’t afford to have 3 meals a day— or sometimes even one. There are hundreds of organizations that give food, clothes, and shoes to underdeveloped countries, but what do these countries do about education or jobs?

To find out, I caught up with Jacques Jean, founder of the non-profit organization Universal Learning Centre (UCL). Jacques is a 45-year-old Haitian man who has a dream to see the world have the opportunity to receive an education.  Jacques was born and raised in a single room shack in Ferrier, Haiti. He is fluent in Haitian Creole, French, Spanish, and English and speaks Portuguese along with other languages.

Before I go on about ULC, here are some facts about Haiti to keep in mind: Haiti is a small country in the Caribbean, bordering the Dominican Republic. Haiti was the first independent black republic in the world. 80% of the Haitian population lives under the poverty line with an unemployment rate of 40%. Haiti has the highest percentage of orphans out of all the countries in the western hemisphere with about 430,000 orphans before the 2010 earthquake. Only about 53% of Haitians can read and write, and the average payroll is $2.75 a day. 50% of primary school age children are not enrolled in school, and only about 10% of the children enrolled in elementary school go into high school. About one-third of girls that are over the age of six never go to school. Around 30% of children that are in primary school will never make it to the third grade, and 60% will drop out before the sixth grade.

How did you get started?       

Jacques: My wife, Dana, and I made a business plan, and we worked for recognition by the government. We tried to get donations first, but it didn’t work so we just used our own money to build the first library. After the first library in Pilate was built, we got a grant donation of 25,000 books from Canada.

Why did you decide to build libraries?

JJ: My dream started when I set foot in my first library in New York City. I had never seen anything like it. I wanted to build libraries in my home country to give others an opportunity that I did not have. Haiti is a very impoverished country with no infrastructure for kids to educate themselves. The libraries can be used as a platform to get a better education.

What is your personal mission statement or slogan?

JJ: The ULC slogan and my personal mission statement is, “Everyone deserves an education.”

Can you tell me a little about ULC?

JJ: Universal Learning Centre is a non-profit organization that’s goal is to build libraries in Haiti. We would love to expand our libraries into the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and other countries. The only problem is financing these libraries and finding people to support us. We need more donations and people who are willing to help us reach out to other countries.

What are your goals for the next five years?

JJ: Our goals for the next five years are to build computer labs in the three libraries we have in Ferrier, Ouanaminthe, & Pilate. We want to sustain those libraries and develop different programs such as adult literacy, a book mobile, language courses, theatre, poetry, and technology training. We are aiming to build at least two more libraries in Haiti and at least one in the Dominican Republic and one in Jamaica.

What are some pros of having founded ULC?

JJ: One of the many good things that we have experienced since opening ULC is that we have all learned immensely since we started. We went in with the expectation that everyone doesn’t know what they are doing and we learned very good lessons about how an organization works. We’ve also realized the small things we take for granted can have a huge impact elsewhere. Giving someone the ability to become a better person should be a duty of everybody in order to make the world a better place and being able to do that through ULC is very beneficial for everybody.

What are some cons?

JJ: Finance has been a big issue for us. Raising funds can be extremely difficult. It’s hard to find people willing to donate their own money, and we need a lot of that. Dealing with people can also be very difficult. We had to learn how to deal with people from a different culture and background than us, and we are still working on that.

How does a non-profit work?

JJ: A non-profit works like a business because we need to budget and plan out our work. A non-profit is widely based on donations. Funding can be unreliable, and it can run out. A non-profit has different financial reporting than a business does. We report back to our donors so they can see how we are doing and where their donations went.

How have you improved over time and how do you know that you’ve improved?

JJ: Based on what we’ve seen, we learned from the data on a yearly bases and training staff how we are doing and what we can improve on. The challenge for us is managing the libraries in Haiti, from America. None of our staff in Haiti have been exposed to how a library works, and we are trying to work with them and get them to be more developed in their skills. They’ve improved greatly since we have first started.

What is the best or most prominent experience you’ve had?

JJ: When we opened the first library in Pilate, we were doing a drawing project, and I had asked everybody to draw a zebra. There was a 17-year-old girl, who looked very confused, so she came up and told me that she doesn’t know what a zebra looks like. She had heard of zebras, but she had never seen a picture of one. I showed her a picture book with a zebra in it, and the girl gave me a huge smile and a big hug. That was when I realized how huge of an impact we were making by giving people the opportunity to learn new things.

Working with a non-profit is very hard work, but in the end it is worth it. The amount of lives that can be impacted by improving education and producing jobs is huge. Building libraries in Haiti and other underdeveloped countries is a great way to help develop children in their education and hopefully give them an opportunity to build a better future for themselves.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7