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Hub teacher runs summer education camp in Haiti

Karen Morales
Hub teacher runs summer education camp in Haiti
Shaina Gilbert works as a teacher in Boston. Photo: Mike Lovett

Every summer, Shaina Gilbert hops on a motorcycle and rides around her mother’s hometown of Hinche, Haiti to announce her arrival from the States. Or rather, the arrival of yet another ETE Camp session.

Once the children in town spot her, they rush to tell their families that it’s time to go sign up for the annual academic leadership camp that Gilbert started nine years ago, in the summer after her junior year of college at Brandeis University.

According to Gilbert, the ETE Camp mission is to empower the most vulnerable youth living in Hinche to become the next leaders of their community and country at large. ETE stands for “Empowering Through Education” ⎯ and “ete” in Creole means “summer.”

“I thought ETE camp was going to be a one-time thing,” says Gilbert. “I fell in love with the kids and I wanted to continue, but I was a senior in college … when you have to figure out your career, your life … and then that January, the earthquake hit.”

The 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 was devastating, says Gilbert. But it also created even more enthusiasm for the summer program she had created with several other Brandeis students the year before.

“There was an outpouring of support from the school community,” she says. “Then a new set of volunteers popped up. As more people learned about it, more folks got involved.”

Gilbert graduated, then got accepted into Teach for America. “I was like, ‘Okay, you got a job now,’ and then I had my summer free and all arrows pointed to Haiti. I knew I’d be back.”

Father-daughter duo

Gilbert’s parents immigrated to Boston from Haiti in 1984. Her father, Gary Gilbert, taught English as a Second Language in Boston Public Schools for 20 years and “was a pillar in the Haitian community in Mattapan,” says his daughter.

Every summer throughout her childhood, cousins would stay with the Gilbert family and Gary Gilbert would organize activities that were academically focused “but still fun,” Shaina Gilbert says, “where he would tutor us and we would go on field trips to the library.”

“I got accustomed to Haitian families from the neighborhood coming over our house and my dad would give them advice and resources on immigration or anything else,” says Gilbert.

The family’s custom of extending a hand to the community stuck with Gilbert as she searched for something to do one summer. “I went to my dad and asked him if it was possible to do something in Haiti, even if it’s just eight kids in my relatives’ backyard,” she says. “He said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’”

Gilbert and her father recruited four other Brandeis student volunteers, who either raised money on their own to finance the trip or received funds from the university’s Latin American Studies Department. Gilbert used grant money given to her by the school to start her own nonprofit.

ETE Camp gained nonprofit status in 2011 and Gilbert says every year since the camp started, Brandeis has funded student volunteers through scholarships.

Learning curve

Forty-three Haitian middle-schoolers participated in the inaugural summer of ETE Camp. Gilbert recruited her students by visiting local schools and speaking with school administrators about her project.

Before every session, she holds an open house. Gilbert says she brings exactly 60 applications and 60 T-shirts with her each year to Haiti. Once all the applications are filled out by the families and the T-shirt are given out to students to use as their uniform, ETE Camp’s enrollment is complete.

“I have to cap it at 60, but it’s hard to say no to families, so I only bring that amount of supplies and in a way, it’s out of my hands,” says Gilbert.

Equipped with a backpack filled with school supplies, their ETE Camp T-shirt and other items such as shoes provided by volunteers, the young students begin their first day of camp the very next day. The program is four weeks long for two consecutive summers.

Gilbert says her mother’s alma mater in Hinche let ETE Camp use its space for the first summer. Other schools in town have also opened up their doors.

“The community knew us, so they made sure we had a space,” she says.

Gilbert, who is now a full-time ESL teacher at TechBoston Academy, admitted that during the first summer especially, there was a learning curve.

“I taught myself how to be both a director and a student.”

She recalls a moment when she was teaching her students how to play a game commonly played in the U.S. called “red light, green light.” She described their faces as looking confused.

“I realized they’re not getting it, they don’t understand what I meant by red light and green light, and that’s because there are no traffic lights where they live,” Gilbert says, laughing at herself.  “Things like that really humbled me and I became more aware,” she says.

When students become the teachers

In creating the ETE Camp curriculum, Gilbert took inspiration from The Steppingstone Foundation, a college preparatory program she participated in as an elementary school student in Boston.

ETE Camp students take four core classes in engineering, literacy, math and leadership skills. The students receive two meals a day and recreational time. The meals are cooked by local staff, who are paid a stipend.

The classes are taught in both English and Creole and many of the program’s alumni have taken over teaching the classes.

“When we first started, they were 8 and 9 years old, now they’re 18 and 19,” says Gilbert of her former students. “They became junior counselors, then counselors, and now I started leaving the camp a few weeks early and they run it on their own.”

She continues, “They’re able to train the next set of staff coming in. And that to me is the absolute indicator of whether or not we’re really empowering leaders.”

Over the last 10 summer sessions, 32 U.S. volunteers have traveled to Haiti, but now, Gilbert says, “I need less and less U.S. volunteers because the Haitian alumni are now taking over.”

In other words, the young people Gilbert set out to empower now have become fully autonomous and able to carry on the program on their own terms.

“Eventually I’ll leave the camp in their hands and focus on fundraising to support the students and alumni in other ways through scholarships or micro business loans.”

Gary Gilbert’s legacy

In the summer of 2016, Gary Gilbert passed away.

“Last year, the summer of 2017, was the toughest year because it was the first time I ran the camp without my father — but it was also the most impactful year,” she says. “Part of our slogan now is ‘We are Gary Gilbert’s legacy,’” says Gilbert.

A scholarship fund was created in Gary Gilbert’s name to help ETE Camp alumni succeed.

Gilbert says the students have pledged to be leaders in their community and continue Gary Gilbert’s work. “We started it, but it’s for the community and they have proved they are capable. I’m very proud and I feel comfortable leaving it in their hands.”

ETE Camp just celebrated its 10th summer and will be accepting counselor applications starting in January 2019 for the 11th session.

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