Haiti's president made a surprise appearance before the Miami-Dade School Board to thank the district for storm- relief efforts and to appeal for more assistance.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES AND KATHLEEN McGRORY
Haitian President René Préval -- on a brief layover in Miami while en route to a summit in Quebec City, Canada -- made a surprise visit to the Miami-Dade School Board on Wednesday.
Préval thanked the district for its support of Haiti's hurricane-relief effort and also made a pitch on behalf of his efforts to rebuild classrooms in the storm-ravaged country, asking Miami-Dade for its surplus portable classrooms.
Préval's unexpected visit brought members of the board and others in the audience to their feet with a standing ovation when he entered the auditorium. His appearance came after a private meeting with Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who visited the devastated country last month.
''As you know, over the past two months, Haiti has suffered two hurricanes,'' Préval said, speaking in French with a translator at his side. ``It is like Katrina in Haiti. All of the schools have been damaged, all of the health centers are damaged and all of the homes have suffered damage.''
The portable classrooms, Préval said, would be used for schools, shelters and health centers. ''We still have people sleeping on the street, or on the roofs of their houses,'' Préval said. ``The children are exposed to the sun and the rain. It is unimaginable.''
The request for Miami-Dade's surplus portables comes after Broward School Board member Benjamin Williams offered to donate 600 of that district's portables.
APPEAL FOR DONATIONS
When Carvalho made an expected appearance at a spiritual revival at Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church in Little Haiti Tuesday night, The Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary asked him about donating Miami-Dade's surplus portables to Haiti. Carvalho agreed.
Last month, both men visited two of the hardest-hit areas in Haiti -- the northwestern port city of Gonaives and Cabaret, just north of the capital of Port-au-Prince. Carvalho said he paid for his own ticket.
During a meeting with Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, Carvalho offered the school district's assistance. He told board members that the district was supplying 20,000 book bags and supplies to school children on the island, along with an out-of-service school bus.
''The fact that children in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere still have not begun school is something that we can help with,'' Carvalho said. ``Here, we have an opportunity to turn our surplus into a valuable commodity in Haiti.''
Préval told The Miami Herald that Carvalho told him there were between 6,000 and 7,000 surplus portables statewide and offered to help Haiti obtain them. Carvalho confirmed this, telling the board that he plans to contact Gov. Charlie Crist and the State Department of Education about the portables.
School Board members said they would look into donating the portable classrooms -- which could number in the hundreds -- and would otherwise be destroyed. Board Chairman Agustín Barrera asked that the district ensure the portables are usable -- even if it means tapping into dollars that would have been used to destroy the classrooms to repair them before sending them to Haiti.
''I am very happy,'' Préval told The Herald. The portables were ``something that could rescue Haiti from the situation in which we are living.''
SCHOOLS HELPING OUT
School leaders and students have also been collecting food and supplies at schools throughout the county. And Carvalho asked a number of community organizations and corporations to donate backpacks for kids.
Carvalho said 15 shipping containers worth of goods had already arrived in Haiti and he hoped to send an additional 15 containers in coming weeks. He said he thinks the portables could be sent to Haiti for free.
''In the name of the children of Haiti, I thank you,'' Préval said.