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Jamie Schumacher with kids

Children in Haiti, as shown above, have great needs. Jamie Schumacher, left, focuses her efforts on helping children from Divine Family Orphanage in Port-au-Prince.

A heart for Haiti: Educator helps ‘the least of these’

Jamie Schumacher has made a connection to a place and its people that runs deep like an electric current, which is no small feat in an island nation where electricity can be pretty unreliable. Light from her eyes shines back a little brighter when she talks about the spot in the Caribbean where she feels most at home—Haiti.

A 1992 English education major, Schumacher has spent her professional life focused on children. A Wisconsin native, she lives in North Aurora and teaches eighth-graders English at Sam Rotolo Middle School.

Nathalie worked with Jamie Schumacher last year to use rollers and paint pads designed for special-needs kids.

Nathalie worked with Jamie Schumacher last year to use rollers and paint pads designed for special-needs kids.

But her heart is increasingly in Haiti, where she envisions a future working full time with special-needs children at Notre Maison, an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. She is investing her time and money to make that dream a reality within the next two years.

Schumacher is president of the advisory council for Notre Maison, which means “our home” in French. Gertrude Bien-Aime Azor, who served for five years as a Sister of Charity nun, started the home in 1993. She runs it on an annual budget of about $80,000. The money comes from donations and income from a guesthouse.

Schumacher has raised $15,000 herself with the goal of constructing a school for the orphans. That plan has yet to materialize. In the interim, she and Gertrude have started a school within the orphanage where Schumacher works with the special-needs children for months each year, devoting her summer teaching breaks to the Haitian children who are considered outcasts.

“Culturally and within the medical system in Haiti, there is a stigma attached to special-needs kids,” Schumacher said. Many of these children have families, but their parents can’t care for them.

“Special-needs kids are seen as a curse from the devil. They are often dropped off at the Room of Abandonment at the main hospital in Port-au-Prince, or they are abandoned by the side of the road. Gertrude comes and takes as many as she can.”

Jamie Schumacher enjoyed a day at Wahoo Bay with orphanage children, who work hard to overcome disabilities.

Jamie Schumacher enjoyed a day at Wahoo Bay with orphanage children, who work hard to overcome disabilities.

There are 44 children at the orphanage and for some, the medical needs are great. One 6-year-old male born with cataracts is unable to see. Another child has a clubfoot and is unable to walk. Both are maladies that would be fixed at birth in the U.S. That fact makes the suffering much more difficult for Schumacher, who sees hope for these children and is committed to helping them find a full life.

Her ultimate goal is to make Haiti her home and return to the U.S. two or three times a year to raise funds. She’s looked into teaching at an American school there to generate an income and keep her weekends open to spend at the orphanage.

“It’s very much a Haiti calling, not just the orphanage I love the culture. I love the language.
I love the people.”—Jamie Schumacher

She specifically wants to develop the home’s physical therapy room further and start an internship program.

If she was there full-time to supervise and push for consistent therapy, she believes the children would be much farther along. “They could dress themselves. They could feed themselves, and they would have speech therapy to learn to talk. They just need some one-on-one attention.”

Her passion to meet that need started quite simply as a desire to return to the land where she lived as a young child. She moved there with her parents and two older brothers when her father was transferred to a manufacturing job in Port-au-Prince, with a population near 1 million. They stayed from 1971-1973, with Schumacher back home in Wisconsin by age 3.

She doesn’t recall much about living in Haiti other than being served pineapple soaked in rum, a fond 40-year-
old culinary memory. “I remember I loved it,” she said. “Funny, I stay at the orphanage, and I eat it the same way in the kitchen there.”

An area of stores and shops in downtown Port-au-Prince suffered such damage in the massive 2010 earthquake that rubble remained in the streets years later. Jamie Schumacher took this photo in 2013.

An area of stores and shops in downtown Port-au-Prince suffered such damage in the massive 2010 earthquake that rubble remained in the streets years later. Jamie Schumacher took this photo in 2013.

Her journey to the orphanage started in 2009 when she Googled “Haiti mission trips.” She made contact with The Haiti Mission Project in Minnesota and traveled to the country that fall. Unable to find a group going during Thanksgiving of 2010, she returned to Haiti on her own and visited the orphanage she had discovered the year before.

Although Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Schumacher sees beauty in the people and land. Situated between Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s struggles escalated when the country was crippled by a devastating 7.0 earthquake in 2010 that killed an estimated 300,000 people and left 1.5 million without homes.

The earthquake was the worst in the region in 200 years, leaving Haiti in need of volunteers like Schumacher. She sees her involvement as an act of faith instead of courage. Having grown up in the Lutheran church, she wanted to be a minister as far back as the sixth grade. Hers was always a family that attended church, and faith was important. She describes her connection to Haiti as spiritual, a ministry of sorts.

“It’s very much a Haiti calling, not just the orphanage,” Schumacher said. “I love the culture. I love the language.
I love the people.”

A French minor at ISU helped prepare her to learn the language, and she plans to take a language immersion class in Creole when she returns this summer. “I want to become fluent, so that in a year or two—God willing—I can leave teaching and make my life in Haiti.”

The challenges she will face in reaching that goal are minor compared to the obstacles Haitian people encounter daily with a perseverance and attitude that touches Schumacher.

“They find joy where they can,” she said of her Haitian friends. “The money they make today is for food today. They don’t know about tomorrow. We live more by the month here in the U.S.—even our poor people. Haitians know that they may not eat on any given day.”

Schumacher appreciates and admires the very faith-based culture.

“Every Haitian I know goes to church,” she said. “They ask, ‘How is your mother? How is your family? Do you know Jesus?’ They don’t ask about your father because they think he’s off working.”

Jude, who needs physical therapy to develop his leg strength, had cataract surgery but is still only able to see bright lights.

Jude, who needs physical therapy to develop his leg strength,
had cataract surgery but is still only able to see bright lights.

Schumacher has had her own faith tested in Haiti, from seeing the orphanage struggle to make ends meet primarily through donations and child sponsorships to watching Haitians survive natural disasters. Children die there from treatable illnesses such as dehydration. She endured her own medical emergency with a serious MRSA staph infection, ringworm and salmonella last summer.

She made it to a hospital in Miami after two days of suffering, during which time she stopped at a local Haitian clinic. On that day, an American medical team was preparing to leave for home within hours. Schumacher recognized one of the group, an American woman she’d met the day before at the orphanage.

“I had the American privilege of being able to get out of the country, and I had insurance coverage,” Schumacher said. She spent three days at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, then headed home to North Aurora for more recovery. Two weeks later she had medical clearance to return to Haiti for four more weeks.

Schumacher has made several treks to Haiti the past seven years without qualms. She tries to fill breaks in her teaching schedule with return trips, and even took a leave of absence from school for five months from January to June 2013.

Driven by a desire to do more, she is working to start internship opportunities for Illinois State students preparing to teach in special education. “I’ve had three interns from elsewhere, but my goal is to get interns from ISU.”

Creating opportunities for others to get involved is just another way Schumacher shares her passion, commitment, and work, which she said is fun and not totally altruistic.

“You go where your heart is called,” she said. “We can’t all go out to the same place. Some people are called to serve locally in food pantries for neighbors or in soup kitchens. I feel at home there in Haiti.”

John Moody can be reached at jemoody2@IllinoisState.edu.

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Comments

I wondered if there is a direct e-mail to Jamie Schumacher. I read the article in the alumni association. I have been contributing toward a Lutheran organization that works in Haiti and would like to find out about what her needs are in that country. It is better that I work directly with those who can explain directly with the needed services. I graduated from ISU in 1967 and am now retired and would like to continue contributions toward her project as I know that the children there need sooo much! Thank you. Virginia H. Kelly (retired from the dietetics specialty and previously a home economic teacher). My e-mail: vhkelly@att.net