When Caprece Jackson-Garrett decided to visit Haiti with her two daughters last July, she knew they'd be visiting a desperately poor Caribbean country. But she wasn't aware that millions of Haitian children don't attend school because their parents can't afford school fees, and that those who can send their children to school make huge sacrifices to pay for uniforms and school supplies.
Through a series of unexpected events, Jackson-Garrett ended up meeting Haiti's first lady and leaving the country with a new mission: gathering 500,000 backpacks for Haitian students in need.
"A backpack is very symbolic for children," said Jackson-Garrett. "It means education and a love of learning."
Six years after a devastating earthquake that claimed some 200,000 lives and left millions homeless, Haiti is still in recovery mode. And after being slammed by Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful Atlantic tropical storm in almost a decade, the need is only expected to grow.
Jackson-Garrett, who lives near Towson in the Lake Evesham area, had volunteered to help after the 2010 earthquake, gathering backpacks with Fabienne Smith, the mother of her eldest daughter's best friend, who is Haitian-American.
Smith is now the secretary to first lady Ginette Privert. Smith told the first lady about her and Jackson-Garrett's previous efforts gathering backpacks. Within 24 hours of landing in Haiti, Jackson-Garrett found herself sharing tea with "Madame Privert."
"I couldn't leave there saying no," Jackson-Garrett said. "My daughters were looking at me like, 'OK mom, what have you gotten yourself into this time.'"
Jackson-Garrett's plan is to eventually gather 500,000 backpacks. She launched her effort on Aug. 1. Although anyone wanting to donate or get involved is welcome, Jackson-Garrett is trying to engage African-American school children and parents in the Baltimore area who might feel kinship with black children in Haiti. That many of the children Jackson-Garrett is trying to reach are from low-income families themselves, is not lost on her. She says involving area students, including those from low-income families themselves, is a good thing.
"It introduces them to an international perspective through the lens of philanthropy and cultivates their sense of appreciation and gratitude," she said. "It exercises their world view."
Jackson-Garrett, president of Bonneau Caprece, a Baltimore-based public relations and marketing firm, relied on her experience and her professional network to reach out to others who could help with her mission. She turned first to her friend, Tony Regusters, a former television news producer, filmmaker and science fiction writer. Together, they have reached out to various businesses and government members in Baltimore and Washington. Jackson-Garrett said staff at the Baltimore headquarters of Catholic Relief Services International helped the team develop a shipment system to get the backpacks to Haiti. The City of Baltimore has committed to donating 250 backpacks. Jackson-Garrett also enlisted help through social media and caught the eye of Jevona Anderson, an elementary school teacher at Furman Templeton Elementary, a charter school in the Upton neighborhood. Anderson knew she had to help.
"It doesn't matter where they are on earth, I'm an advocate for children," Anderson said. "I want kids to have an understanding of how Haitians rebuilt themselves." Saran Fossett, founder and executive director of the Aziza/PE&CE youth program at Arundel High School in Anne Arundel County, said she got on board immediately when she learned about the campaign.
"Our kids could get involved and learn what it's like to give back," said Fossett, who develops arts, athletics and mentoring programs for children ages 11-18. She said her young charges were excited to be a part of the backpack campaign.
"They embrace others without us having to do a lot of work," Fossett said, adding that she wants them to "understand philanthropy as they get older."
Students in the program took part in a discussion last month about their place in the world. They learned that putting themselves first is just as important as giving to others. One girl cried as she shared her feelings about helping poor children in Haiti.
Jackson-Garrett said her team is working on sending their first shipment of 1,000 backpacks to Haiti. The team is also collecting school supplies, clothes and toiletries and disinfectant wipes and hand wash, all certain to be in short supply after the hurricane.
"Whatever we can do this year will serve as the basis for a replicated effort next year and years to come," she said.