Posted by: universallearningcentreblog | September 7, 2011

Dry Bread With No Topping by Saskia Van Vactor

Featured author Saskia Van Vactor is a treasured ULC volunteer who wrote this piece shortly after her trip with the team to unpack and organize the new library in Pilate.  ULC is incredibly fortunate to count Saskia as a member of our family and we look forward to her joining us on many more adventures!

We went to Haiti to build a library. Jacques promised us mangos and hard work. It turned out not to be mango season – but I worked harder than I had in a long time. It was both emotionally and physically challenging. The work was hard but witnessing the poverty and the need was far harder. The rewards were seen in the faces of the teachers, the principals, and the children as they experienced the library.

Jacques is a Haitian man, with tremendous character and stature. Raised in Haiti, he was educated at Harvard Business School, Carnegie Mellon University, and La Universidad De Guadalajara, in Mexico. 
He is a successful businessman with a contagious smile, a charismatic spirit and a story that compels one to make his dream their own.  

My trip to Haiti was inspired by a project I had done with my students last spring. We had created “Mother Tongue” books, initiated by the Matènwa Community Learning Center, in Haiti.  My husband, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who also runs a scholastic out-reach program, Basic Science Partnership (BSP), became intrigued with these books and in his interest in out reaching to Haiti  formed a relationship with Jacques. It was with great enthusiasm and excitement we entered this project. I hadn’t initially planned to go myself, but the more involved I became with the project the more I realized I needed to see it to fully understand it.

The night before I left Boston for Haiti my anxiety about the trip peaked. After a sobering visit with the travel nurse, several shots and a bag full of medicinal precautionary drugs, I turned my attention to Internet research regarding travel in Haiti.  I read dozens of websites cautioning against it with lengthy descriptions of all the possible dangers. For weeks preceding my departure I was inundated by both solicited and unsolicited stories from friends and friends of friends who’d traveled to Haiti.  And then my husband mentioned for our daughter’s sake it might be prudent to take out life insurance. As he drove me to the airport the following morning he told me it was not too late to back out, then kissed me good-bye, as he knew I had made up my mind.

I was to meet Jacques at the terminal in Miami.  We’d met briefly, we’d talked via Skype. I knew he was a dear friend of my sister. With no personal connection, I was putting all my faith in him and his project. On arriving in Miami on my way to meet him, I changed my shoes to look more professional. Jacques had asked me to be the library expert, to show the team how a library should be organized. I had spent the last several weeks studying local school libraries as well as a few public ones. After conferring with my librarian friends for guidance on the project, I left an engaged group ready to take my place at a moments notice.  At last I reached the gate and peered into the crowd of passengers praying he would really be there. Butterflies flapped furiously in my stomach. I hoped I was ready.

A man on the far side of the room near the window was on the phone. He turned, with a radiant smile, walked over and gave me a huge hug. This was Jacques. I immediately felt better. I immediately felt at ease.

Port-au-Prince was hot and humid. We were met with joyous music which quickly contrasted with desperate chaos of the post earthquake makeshift arrival terminal. There was a frantic energy as we moved through customs and claimed bags. I kept my eyes locked on Jacques, never letting him out of my sight as he searched the airport for the rest of our team who had arrived hours earlier.  Moving through the crowd, throngs of people pushed to sell their wares, to beg for money and for food. It was a big hustle and bustle to get everyone together as quickly as possible, get the car and be on our way. Michelle, Chris, Henry and I met, piled into the car with Jacques and were off. We were four people tied together through our relationships with Jacques and with the unifying belief in his dream, which had become our own.

We arrived in Pilate on October 1, 2010, and went straight to the library. It was smaller than I expected and contained many more thousands of boxed books than I had anticipated. It was exciting to see so many books and a little daunting as I realized how much we had to do and how little time we actually had: six days.

The next couple of days, as promised, were physically and mentally exhausting.  Dreams of creatively demonstrating my new library science skills evaporated as we hauled endless boxes out of the packed storage room, trying to make some kind of order out of this mountain of books.  We couldn’t possibly go through them all, there was not enough room, not enough time.  How could we get to the finer organizational aspects of implementing even the crudest version of the Dewey Decimal System with so little time?

 But, we were a great team! Jacques had hired three people in Pilate to work with us. They would be the ones to maintain and run the library after we were gone.  All together we were a team of about 9 people. Though it was hot and humid, and the dust from both the books and the street coated our skin we worked hard and well together. We had become a team through a shared desire. By the end of the second day it was beginning to look like a library!

We were thoroughly welcomed in Pilate by a wonderful family who fed us beautifully and generously. The Catholic Church gave us rooms in which to board. The teachers came to us, embracing the library. The principals came. And the children came.

Children peered in through the windows and called out to us, beaming each time we acknowledged them. Their wide-open faces, their curious eyes, their gorgeous smiles propelled me forward in the project. Now I knew WHO it was for, changing it from a beautiful idea into something tangible. We were making this library for them.

Midway through our project the priests of the Catholic Church invited us to come speak about the library at the special Mass for the first day of school. Not only was it a huge gesture for the church to endorse us, it also gave us the opportunity to speak about the library, what it meant to us, why we were here putting it together.

It was impossible to look into all those faces and not love every one of them.

Later that day many of the students came to see the library and to thank us. They came with their teachers. They came in groups. They came alone. They registered with Yvanne, our new librarian, to get their library cards.

Through the children’s visit I discovered why we were truly there. Michelle and I had wanted to do a project with the students, so when one teacher brought his class to come see the library and thank us for making it a reality, we had our opportunity.  Michelle asked her group to draw a picture of “What they wanted to be when they grew up? “ What immerged were pictures of doctors and nurses. With the other half we worked on illustrating an alphabet. I gave them each a letter and asked them to draw at least one thing that began with that letter. It seemed very simple to me but proved much more challenging than I had imagined. What happened there put the whole project in perspective for me. I asked a little boy to illustrate the letter “Z”. He didn’t know what to draw. He just stared at me. I went and found an illustrated dictionary to give him ideas. “A zebra,” I said, “why not draw a zebra?” He just stared. It suddenly clicked. He had no idea what a zebra was or what it looked like. How could he? He had no books. He had no T.V. He certainly had no internet. There is no zoo in or near Pilate.  How could he possibly know what a zebra looks like? I saw in that moment what we completely take for granted. My daughter has had books available since she was born, she’s known what a zebra is since she was nine months old. It seems almost inconceivable and yet here were children who were growing up without books, without the basic images and knowledge we build so much upon. It broke my heart. For me that incident summed up why we were there, why it is so important to continue this work, what ULC stands for. The little boy eventually drew a zero; he understood that. And it made him happy to be able to participate in the project.

I did get the opportunity to visit a couple of schools. School hadn’t quite started, so unfortunately I did not get to see classes in session. I was really hoping for that. I was initially stuck by the bareness of the classrooms. Where were the supplies? Where were the books? The maps? And then I imagined all of those beautiful children in their school uniforms so well cared for, each hair ribbon so meticulously tied and what an extreme contrast to their school setting it was. This stark contrast was the situation: school, knowledge is valued and hungered for even if it comes one crumb at a time, dry bread with no topping.

We did get the library together. We worked until the last minute, the Principals were gathering outside the library to meet with us before we left and we were doing finishing touches, training the staff to continue the cataloguing and giving them the tools they would need to maintain the order. I wished we could have stayed longer, it suddenly felt like such a HUGE responsibility we were leaving them with, a gift, yes, but a major responsibility too. But I left knowing in my heart that we had done something important. I left knowing that it was just the first step, but it was a big step and I know we will be back.



  1. Myself amongst a group of 9 other girls are planning to build a library in India for the Sikligar community, all of which lives in poverty and deals with 300 years of illiteracy. This story is very inspirational and thank you for sharing it with the world. It has provided me with a greater perspective on the challenges to expect and how rewarding it will be once the project is complete.

    • Thank you for your comment! Your project sounds fantastic. How far along in the process are you? I’d be happy to share some of our “trials and tribulations” if it would help make your journey any easier! Feel free to email anytime – Best wishes!

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