In 2007, Nadia and Joseph Odjo visited the rural village of Rodaille, Haiti, where Nadia’s father was born. Overwhelmed by the immense poverty and severe lack of education in Rodaille, the couple had a solution: to start a school.
“Ever since I was young, I have recognized that Haiti is an ailing place,” Nadia said. “Some people do work so hard and try so hard, but life is still super hard for them. So I’ve always wanted to come back to Haiti and make a difference.”
The couple’s youngest son, Webster University student Jonathan Odjo, said he remembers his mother always wanting to bring change to Haiti.
“My mom was always a big dreamer,” Jonathan said. “She would say, ‘I want to run for president of Haiti,’ and she was always big on social change. That’s where she was born so she’s always had a big heart for it.”
The Odjos founded the BRITE Initiative — Bringing Relief Internationally Through Education. BRITE is a nonprofit organization established in 2008. BRITE’s projects include the start of their school called Ecole Jeremie St. Fort (EJSF), community health fairs, volunteer trips and a sponsorship program for Haitian young adults.
Nadia, who lived in Florida before moving to Haiti, never planned on opening a school. Originally, her plan was to become a politician in order to make a difference in Haiti. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and French from New York University and got her master’s degree in counseling at Florida Atlantic University.
“I quickly realized that there is a lot of social work that needed to be done [in Haiti] and that sometimes politics might not necessarily be the way to make a difference,” Nadia said. “I came to visit Haiti and just was moved tremendously. My husband and I just decided that we were going to go ahead and get started [with social work and opening a school].”
Jonathan said anyone from Rodaille who wanted to go to school had to trek for miles to get anywhere.
“A lot of parents send their kids to the city to become child slaves just so they can make ends meet,” Jonathan said.
Starting out, a major challenge for Nadia and Joseph was building trust with the Rodaille community. When they decided to start a school, they announced to the community they were going to register students. Not one person showed up for registration.
“After talking to people, we realized that they didn’t think we were truly going to keep our word,” Nadia said. “Many people come and make promises to their community, but they very rarely actually act on it. So we realized we really needed to build trust with the community.”
Jonathan said his mother did not want the school to be just about her. She wanted everyone in the community to have a part in it, so she held meetings with parents regularly.
After working on relationship building for about a year, the Odjos finally opened EJSF in 2009. The school started out with three staff members and 74 students, varying in ages from five to twelve. Due to lack of prior schooling, all 74 students had to be placed in kindergarten or first grade, regardless of age.
Nadia said the older students’ pride was hurt when the younger students were able to grasp certain lessons quicker.
“It was a challenge for their own self-esteem, but we didn’t have a choice and that’s all we could do,” Nadia said.
Today, EJSF has 19 staff members and about 160 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. While the students are no longer all in kindergarten or first grade, there are still some students in fifth and sixth grade who are 18 years old.
Nadia said EJSF has many students who strongly believe their only way out of poverty is through education.
“We have some students in Rodaille that walk hours to go to our school,” Nadia said. “They have to cross two, three, sometimes four rivers to come to our school. They truly believe that [school] is their only way out [of poverty]. Most of our students understand the importance of school. They want to be educated; they want to get out of their situation.”
Parents of EJSF students pay a yearly fee of just $15 American dollars, although that money does not go toward the school. The money is put into a parent association and is used to benefit the whole community of Rodaille. Currently, BRITE is getting ready to open a community store with that money. EJSF itself solely runs on donations.
Nadia said she feels she is truly making a difference in having an impact on the Rodaille community. She said she does not want to be the center of attention, but instead wants to empower the community and build their leadership by taking their advice and input.
“They were looking for someone from the outside to come in and save them. But I’m not a savior, that’s not my job,” Nadia said. “My job is to help you assert yourself, provide for yourself, and solve your issues. It’s been nice to see the community grow, seeing people become leaders and taking responsibility.”
EJSF is currently an outdoor school structure. They are still waiting for the funds to construct a proper school building, hoping a corporate sponsor will step in and help.
Jonathan, who visited his parents in Haiti last summer, said it was amazing to see the students and how the school has changed the Rodaille community.
“You can tell that there’s a different atmosphere because there is a school there,” Jonathan said. “It’s been amazing to witness.”
Fortunately, Rodaille was not affected by the major earthquake in 2010. However, other challenges arose for EJSF.
Despite the Odjos’ effort, because of a lack of funds, they decided they had to close EJSF for the 2014 – 2015 school year. They had a hard time raising the money they needed to pay the teachers, and they announced to the community that the school was closing.
Nadia said announcing the school’s closing was very painful for her. One of the major components to their school’s success was building trust with the community, because many people do not keep their promises, Nadia said.
“When we started the school, one of the parents said to me, ‘we feel like God has not forgotten us.’ That really touched me profoundly,” Nadia said. “I really felt like I was letting them down by closing the school. They truly felt like the school was an answer to their prayers, so it was very difficult to make that decision [to close down].”
However, two visitors from a summer 2014 mission trip had fallen in love with Rodaille and wanted to keep the school running. They donated $11,000 to keep EJSF open until more money could be fundraised. EJSF did not have to close, and instead it opened back up in October 2014. However, since the opening for the school year was a month later than originally planned, EJSF lost 40 registered students who had made other education plans for the year.
After continuing the success of EJSF, in December 2014 the Odjos opened a second school in Haiti, this time a private school in the city of Jacmel. Students pay tuition to attend, and the school currently has 48 students.
Life in Haiti
When Nadia first told people in the United States that she was opening a school in Haiti, people embraced the idea. However, many people were not expecting her to move there permanently.
“To actually leave what we were doing and move to Haiti, I think people were kind of surprised by that,” Nadia said. “It’s totally nothing like people imagine. We have such a wonderful and blessed life in Haiti it’s not even funny.”
Jonathan said while he was in high school, his mother was running back and forth between the United States and Haiti.
“She said after I graduated she was going to move there full time to run it,” Jonathan said.
BRITE International Liaison and Volunteer Trip Coordinator Jaci Louis, an American, graduated from Florida Atlantic University and moved to Haiti a month later. It has been three years, and she hasn’t left.
“Living here, there’s not as much stress about money and success,” Louis said. “At the end of the day, you’re sitting in the Caribbean. The culture is just so accepting. It’s a beautiful place. Big mountains, fresh air and the breeze of the sea.”
Louis also met her husband in church in Haiti. They were friends for 10 months before they began dating. Louis said she truly feels like a part of the community, but her biggest challenge in the beginning was to feel like she belonged.
“I’m white and I was young and immature in many aspects,” Louis said. “Moving to Haiti I have grown into who I am, professionally and emotionally. I feel loved by the community in Rodaille. Haiti has welcomed me.”
Nadia, who has two sons including Jonathan, said one of the hardest challenges about living in Haiti is being away from her children.
“We are very, very close as a family. Ridiculously close,” Nadia said. “But we talk all the time, and we take advantage of seeing each other when we go to the states.”
Jonathan said he cannot put into words how difficult it is to live in the United States while his parents live in Haiti.
“A time like this in college, we want to be independent, but it’s nothing compared to having your parents here,” Jonathan said. “You don’t fully get used to it, but me understanding that she is chasing her dreams makes it completely worth it.”
Despite being away from family, both Nadia and Louis do not see themselves moving back to the United States in the near future.
“I feel like what I’m doing here is very important, and I also feel like I am needed here,” Nadia said. “I feel like this is where God wants us to be right now.”