The water is too murky to reveal its depth, and the SUV seems poised to drown. But the driver, Garry Delice, plows confidently ahead. It's just another river to cross on just another journey through the Haitian countryside. When he reaches the other side, his crisp white-collared shirt is still clean and dry.
Mr. Delice continues his drive along a rocky and rutted mountain ledge. Locals on mule and foot stop to stare at a motorized vehicle on their back-country road. But they smile at Delice's disarming wave and cheerful Creole greetings – "Good afternoon, Madame! How are you, Monsieur?" followed at times by, "Is there a high school in your village?"
Delice is on a treasure hunt, driving to Haiti's remotest corners in search of brilliant young minds. He is national director of a scholarship program designed to help some of the country's smartest and most impoverished students join the less than 1 percent of Haitians who have earned a college diploma.
The Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP) covers tuition, housing, and living expenses for exceptional students in pursuit of that degree. To find these kids, every spring HELP delegates distribute application forms at more than 100 schools across Haiti.
Delice himself attended a public high school in the southern Haitian town of Jacmel, where he lived in a classic gingerbread-style house with his mother, grandfather, and younger sister. His grandfather supported the family selling coffee and cotton to exporters. His mother found occasional work as a tailor.
"My mother always said that she would have had a better life if she had been able to complete her education," Delice says. Neither his father, a bus driver in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, nor his mother made it past elementary school. "She always pushed me to read good books, and she was severe in monitoring my performance in school," he says.
After high school, with just $2 to his name, Delice took the three-hour bus ride to Port-au-Prince to attend the state-run teacher's college. He had no idea where he would stay. Eventually, friends at the university housed him and lent him money.
After graduating in 1990, he took two teaching jobs. One was at a lycée, or public high school, in Croix-des-Bouquets, a dusty town north of Port-au-Prince. The experience left him awed by the ability of students to excel in spite of hardships. “Their parents didn’t have enough money to feed them every day, and sometimes they couldn’t pay for public transportation to school,” he says.
"I cannot find an answer to how such people can be so intelligent. I was a history teacher, and sometimes I had the impression they were eating my explanations. They didn't have books. They didn't have anything. But when they took the [national standardized] baccalaureate test, they easily passed."
Delice found further motivation from the Louverture Cleary School (LCS), a US-funded free private boarding school, where he taught and served as principal for eight years. The dedication of the school's director, a Roman Catholic missionary from Ohio named Patrick Moynihan, rubbed off on him. "It was the first time I worked hard with someone who was dedicated to helping Haitians. That made me understand I have to do something for Haiti."
HELP grew out of the LCS. In 1996, a young American named Conor Bohan moved to Haiti to teach at the school and later raised funds to put a former student through medical school. He decided to do the same for other gifted students, and thus HELP emerged. In 2006, when Mr. Bohan moved back to the United States, HELP's board of directors voted unanimously to hire Delice to run the program in Haiti.
"He has a very good understanding of where [students] are coming from and what they need to do to escape poverty," says Bohan, now HELP's New York-based executive director. "And he's excellent with the students."
One former HELP student, now pursuing a biotech graduate degree, sums Delice up in a word. "He is tough!" she says. "I like people who push me, who ask me to do things better and better. I would say he is ideal for heading an organization like HELP, which requires such humanity and discipline."
Delice might not be with HELP forever. He would like to be Haiti's minister of education someday, in part so he can make community service a mandatory part of the secondary school and university curricula. "That's my personal dream," he says with a laugh.
After a rough, two-hour drive from Miragoane, the port town where Delice and two volunteer recruiters are staying, the team arrives at Lycée St. Joseph de Lazile, a rusty-roofed cinder-block building in a scraggly field. It is full of youths in navy and white uniforms, but there are no teachers or administrators to be found. Students are finishing exams, and the staff has already left for the day.
"I felt, once again, the children are being left to their own devices," Delice will later recall. "I felt a terrible fear for their future."
Talking to the Lazile students, Delice morphs from HELP recruiter into motivational speaker. "Why do you think you study biology, chemistry, and other subjects?" he says. "It's so that you can become something else. So it's important that you have a dream. What do you want to become tomorrow? Today you need to identify it and start to work toward it."
Delice has been talking for an hour, but the students are still riveted, leaning forward on their benches, eating up his every word. •