Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=178497
Story Retrieval Date: 12/17/2014 5:15:10 PM CST
Courtesy of i2Believe
Tirf Alexius had just gotten a desperate phone call from a woman he met last year in Haiti.
Nicole Daulier had called to say she was dying of hunger and needed his help.
“Those calls just make you stop,” Alexius said.
Alexius’ i2Believe, which was formed after the earthquake last year, features Daulier’s children on its promotional materials. On a wall calendar, her three little girls stare wide-eyed into the lens.
“When she called,” Alexius said, “I saw these kids’ faces.”
While the organization’s funds cannot reach every individual in need, Alexius said he was able to help Daulier – with money out of his own pocket.
No stranger to hard times, the Chicago-based actor and producer said when he moved from Haiti to Rogers Park in 1982, he and his siblings slept four to a couch on an uninsulated back porch for months after he arrived. He was only 5 years old.
As he was growing up, the stigma attached to his native country made life difficult. Haitians were banned from donating blood in the U.S. throughout most of the 1980s because they were considered predisposed to HIV.
The hardships that stemmed from those stereotypes caused Alexius to question his identity.
“I didn’t want to be Haitian,” he said.
But moved by the devastation following the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that killed 300,000 people in his native Port-au-Prince, Alexius invested $25,000 of his own capital last February to start i2Believe, which aims to provide educational resources to Haitian children.
With an annual budget of about $30,000, i2Believe partners with a Port-au-Prince orphanage to provide 10 to 12 scholarship for Haitian children that will support them throughout their academic careers. In Haiti, the overwhelming majority of schools are private.
Skeptical of non-profits, Alexius predicted the start-up would be a challenge.
“I knew to get it off the ground, no one’s going to believe in it,” Alexius said.
So he approached his colleagues at Driven Entertainment and friends in the Chicago Public School system with his plan. It didn’t take long for the group with “believe” in its title to gather supporters.
“[Tirf] is very driven and passionate about this,” said i2Believe education coordinator Amy Bernstein. “He believes that education is the key to overcoming crisis in Haiti for the past 100 years.”
Bernstein, Alexius’ former co-worker at Armstrong Elementary in Rogers Park, researches Haitian schools’ curricula to determine what learning materials are appropriate to send to the children.
The fifth-grade teacher said the country’s relative closeness to the U.S. – and Chicago’s Haitian community – inspires her work.
“I do feel a connection because of the proximity of Haiti to us,” Bernstein said. “Haitians are really passionate, smart, driven people. When people are like that, you just want to help them.”
Reaching out locally
In her fifth-grade classroom, Bernstein’s students read articles about Haiti and discuss them in class. In one class, she asked students to write an essay on how they would help Haitian children if they had the resources.
And last year, her sixth-graders sent “care packages” to Haiti along with letters and dolls they had made.
“They were really interested in helping these kids once they learned about the devastation of it all,” she said.
Macdanne Edmond, another board member, sends Bernstein’s educational materials to Haiti from her Rogers Park business, Exclusive Merchandise Mart Inc. The only other Haitian on the i2Believe board, Edmond said everyone who cares about Haiti has a place in i2Believe.
“Whoever can fill the need and be able to share the emotion of it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be [a] Haitian.”
In conjunction with his production company, Alexius is about three months away from completing a 90-minute documentary on the group’s April 2010 trip to Port-au-Prince. He plans to approach HBO producers with the finished result, which will promote i2Believe and show the faces of Haitian children in need, he said.
And while Haiti’s future is uncertain, Alexius and Bernstein have big plans for i2Believe. He eventually wants to establish an exchange program with Chicago-area schools. She hopes the iPad will one day make its way into Haitian classrooms.
Edmond will visit her native Haiti this spring and plans to bring something special this time around.
“I have seen them play soccer with no shoes,” she said. “It kills me… If I take nothing else with me, I’ll make sure I have a soccer ball [and jerseys] and build up a team.”
And although it’s a point of dispute with his siblings – who all, except a sister in Florida, live together in one Chicago building – Alexius would one day like to transform the family home in Port-au-Prince into a community center.
It’s all about providing for the future of Haiti’s children, he said.
“If we want to be the Haiti of tomorrow,” Alexius said, “we can’t be the Haiti of yesterday.”