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French students help Haitian girls make new life in Minnesota

Posted by Tom Larson, Morris Sun Tribune on Monday, Mar. 29, 2010


Two Haitian girls, Auddy and Islande, have had their lives upended, then reclaimed, by many circumstances beyond their control.

Living in orphanages in the poor island country, they waited for months while caring prospective parents from Donnelly worked to adopt them. Then, last month, their homes and lives were thrown asunder by a massive earthquake that killed and injured thousands and reduced their capital city to rubble.

But having escaped the devastation with their health intact, the disaster proved a godsend for Auddy and Islande.

The adoption process was hastened by the quake, as Haitian officials sought ways to make the most efficient use of scarce resources. They made their way, relatively quickly, to the loving home of Don and Tamela Sperr.

And with the help of altruistic University of Minnesota, Morris French students and instructors, they are acclimating to the American education system and the English language within the walls of Morris Area schools.

For several weeks, about 14 UMM students and faculty members have been volunteering their time and talents working with the French- and Creole-speaking Haitian girls in Joanne Thompson’s fourth grade class at Morris Area Elementary School.

Recently, their time with the girls has been tapered as more permanent tutoring has been arranged. But in the short time they’ve been there, the UMM contingent has gained valuable experience while giving to people who have had so much taken from them.

“It’s nice for the students it’s good for them to reach out,” said Sarah Buchanan, UMM French professor. “They get to use their French in a meaningful way, but more importantly, they like to contribute and make a difference in the community.”

“This is right up my alley,” said Kelley Swanlund, one of the UMM students, who intends to pursue a career in translation and interpretation. “I got to speak French and English with the girls, and slowly get them acclimated to the language and life in America.”

The Sperrs have poured their hearts into Haiti long before the quake hit. They have a long history of involvement in the organizations Jesus in Haiti and Feed My Starving Children, which enlists volunteers to put together hundreds of thousands of nutrition-rich food packages for Haitian children.

It was during their mission work in Haiti that the Sperrs decided to adopt Auddy and, later, Islande, both pre-teen kids they met during trips to the country. But the adoption process dragged on until the earthquake hit earlier this year. Thanks to pressure from the U.S. government, Haitian officials sped up adoptions that already were in progress, and very soon after the quake recovery efforts began, the Sperrs were in Miami picking up their new daughters.

The Sperrs wasted no time in integrating their daughters into U.S. culture and customs, and that included enrolling them in school soon after their arrival.

Jody Snow, a Morris Area teacher who also teaches Dakota languages at UMM, stopped in Buchanan’s office to see if she could help. MAES Principal Brad Korn also gave Buchanan the go-ahead to see what she could do.

Late one week, Buchanan sent a message out to students, and by Monday more than a dozen responded with pledges to help the kids. Buchanan and UMM colleague Stephen Martin put together a schedule that had at least one and sometimes two UMM French students in the classroom helping Auddy and Islande.

“It’s neat to know the students are there, but also that we can help out,” Buchanan said. “You have to remember that, beyond the language, these girls have been learning Haitian history and the history of the Caribbean, not necessarily U.S. history. Everything is new to them.”

The UMM students who volunteered are: Swanlund, Danna Bergantine, Sarah Ranney, Kathy Julik-Heine, Sarah Thiede, Miki Kolb, Libby Moore, Audrey Smebakken, Kacie Ramirez and Mariah LaQua.

The students helped the girls with real-time translation in the classroom, and also with homework assignments and on computers. Thompson and the students also had to determine the girls’ educational levels and adapt the teaching to them. And, with all 4th graders, attention to the task at hand was sometimes difficult.

“We had to find creative ways to get things done right now,” Swanlund said with a laugh.

The girls now have a more permanent aide helping them, but Swanlund and some of the students may keep working with the girls as time allows. The experiences won’t be forgotten, Swanlund said.

“I think we’ve all really enjoyed the time we spent with them,” she said. “I definitely enjoyed speaking French with them, but I enjoyed any of the ways I could help them.”

Photo: University of Minnesota, Morris French student Sarah Ranney (center) with Islande (left) and Auddy

Photo courtesy Shelley Swanlund