Sharon Gaskell

This is an article from the magazine “In the Hills” about Sharon Gaskell for their 2010 Local heros profiles.  By jeff Rollings, photography by Pete Paterson.

There are those who feel parenting one teenager is a task of Herculean proportion. Try 120. As a senior citizen with limited income. In Haiti.

Sharon Gaskell is the founder and unpaid, hands-on director of the non-profit Starthrower Foundation. It provides educational opportunities for teens and young adults in the abject poverty of Cap-Haitien and the nearby mountain village of St. Raphael, on Haiti’s north coast.

On her first visit in 1998, as a student chaperone, Sharon knew within two days that her life had changed forever.

She was taken to a “home” that was a six-by-six foot tent housing eleven people. There, a young mother pleaded with her: “Please take my baby to Canada. I want her to live.”

On the same trip, she bore witness as a five-month-old boy, dead of dehydration, was buried in a cardboard box in the back yard of the hospital. And she was appointed godmother at the baptism of a fourteen-year-old girl dying of AIDS, whom Sharon next saw in the morgue. In the midst of that misery, she asked herself, “Why did this girl die when she never lived? ”

And so it went. By the end of the second day, she was over-whelmed: “I screamed at the universe. Somebody do something!”

“Well, Sharon,” came back a little voice in her head, “how about you?”

She made a few more trips, with no particular plan at first, but says she decided “to let Haiti tell me what it needed,” and eventually it did just that.

In 2004 she sold her house in Waldemar, along with her car, took early retirement from her job, and launched the foundation. She has spent nine months a year in Haiti ever since. For six weeks each spring and fall, she lives in a small apartment on Broadway in Orangeville.

Starthrower Foundation provides sponsorships to secondary and post-secondary students and operates food and potable water distribution programs. Though Sharon had a twenty-year career as a teacher, the organization does not operate its own school. Instead, Starthrower sponsors students to attend existing, accredited schools.

Along with tuition, sponsorship includes paying for uniforms, textbooks, backpacks, hygiene products, even in-town rent for rural students (which some of the students pay off by working for the organization).

Sharon specifically chose the teen and young adult age group because “they were the ones falling through the cracks. The cute babies and little kids were already getting attention from the larger NGOs.”

Despite Starthrower’s status as a registered charity, it is “social justice” rather than “charity” that is the organization’s driving force. As Sharon writes on its web site: “‘Charity’ maintains a distance; ‘Justice’ smells the stench, suffers the heat, cries over each death, and cheers each small success.”

Crowds in the hundreds gather outside Starthrower’s tiny office seeking assistance. As a result, Sharon says, the small organization is obliged “to vet people carefully.” Candidates must have some basic education, supply school report cards, attend two meetings and write a letter explaining what they hope to achieve with their education. Then they have to sign a contract with Starthrower. “We call it a relationship of equals,” Sharon says. The contract spells out the long-term commitments on both sides.

Candidates must also agree to a home visit. Though living conditions are far from acceptable by Canadian standards, Sharon says, “We check to make sure things aren’t so bad that a child will be unable to learn.”

Sometimes Starthrower also funds supplies for simple home repairs, such as concrete for a mud floor, or tin for a roof. But Sharon points out even that can be complicated. “You have to be careful about improving people’s housing. We’ve had landlords who jack up the rent, or throw the tenants out to move his own family in. So now we only work with landlords we know we can trust.”

Those of us here may only have taken notice of Haiti because of the earthquake last January. For Sharon, though, that horrific event was in many ways just another day at the office. Although the recent hurricane was particularly bad, hurricanes have killed thousands of people over the past few years. Violent crime is also rampant. And, as the worst killers, Sharon fingers AIDS, diabetes and a lack of primary medical care.

“It’s like a whole stratum of the population between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five is just not there,” she says. The average age in Haiti is just seventeen. “It’s a country of kids,” she adds, and only two per cent make it to the end of high school.

A survey Sharon conducted last year revealed that of her 102 students, 90 had no living parent. And that was before the earthquake.

“I’m not the hero, these kids are the heroes,” she says. “They get up every day and face life head on. They may not have eaten or they might be sick, but they understand that education is their only way out.” Later, she adds, “I learn so much from them. Patience and humour have been the biggest blessings.”

When the earthquake hit, four of Sharon’s first-year nursing students were trapped at the epicentre. It was a week before they were rescued, but rather than waiting around, the students leapt into action, treating 5,000 patients. “They were delivering babies, treating wounds, and burying bodies,” Sharon says.

As inconceivable as it seems, Sharon has found one silver lining in the earthquake: “The quake served to throw the courage of the Haitian people into relief. When you’ve dealt with absolute poverty, you’re used to losing people all the time.” However, she says, “since the quake, finally young people are realizing they are grieving. They always had unresolved grief. Now, more kids are acknowledging problems.”

By way of example, she cites the story of a young man who had borne the loss of both his parents. When his brother also died, of apparent malnutrition, he came to her to ask, “Was it my fault my brother died?”

Sharon has not been deterred by risks to her own well-being either. She has survived malaria and typhoid, and most recently an even more serious illness. “Spending three days in a Haitian hospital with no drugs and no pain killers while E. coli eats your colon – and undergoing surgery without an effective anesthetic – is truly the closest thing to hell on earth that I know,” she says. Officials contacted her family and told them she had only an hour to live. She has since undergone two surgeries back in Canada to repair the damage. Still in recovery from the last operation, she rushed back to Haiti five days after the quake.

Among the many amazing details about Sharon’s foundation is its tiny budget, which this year is between $80,000 and $90,000. With that amount, up from $50,000 last year, the foundation has provided 120 young people with an education, and hope – come, quite literally, hell or high water. Still, there is a waiting list of 300 to 400, and Sharon says, “We could serve a thousand. We have the know-how, but no money.”

Sharon reads from a letter written by a girl seeking entry to the Starthrower program. In Haitian Creole, the words for “earth” and “heart” are very similar, and the girl has swapped the two. She refers repeatedly to the “heartquake.”

“Couldn’t be more apt,” Sharon says.

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Essays by Sharon Gaskell:
Social Justice vs. Charity

What Are We Owed