November 18, 2013 | New York City College of Technology
Jean-Michel Voltaire, City Tech’s 2000 valedictorian, who went on to become a U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney, was awarded the Attorney General’s 2013 Community Service Award for his humanitarian work in Haiti.
Voltaire, originally from Port-Salut in southern Haiti, is the founder of Réunion Sportive d’Haiti (RSH), a 501©(3) non-profit organization providing relief to youths affected by the 2010 earthquake. This year, RSH, whose mission is “building skills, character and community through sports and education,” will serve nearly 900 youth in the Port-Salut area.
RSH organizes soccer camps and tournaments teaching leadership, prevention of delinquency and youth violence, conflict resolution and practical skills to help prepare young people to become productive members of their communities. It also has held an essay competition and musical performance, and built an elementary school in nearby Roche-Jabouin so that children do not have to walk three hours to and from their classrooms, as Voltaire did.
Last year, Voltaire was in Haiti with a delegation to meet with Haitian officials and United Nations representatives, and to discuss how the Haitian Diaspora can vote in that country’s 2015 presidential elections. Simultaneously, RSH sent sporting equipment to the soccer camps, while the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Catholic Relief Services provided food for the children.
“Seventy percent of the Haitian population is under 30 years old,” says Voltaire, who has siblings in Haiti, “and has experienced two coups d’état, hurricanes, two foreign government occupations, a major earthquake, violence, extreme poverty and political chaos. The idea of creating RSH was to give back to my native country and to assist marginalized youth in becoming more responsible citizens, because youth violence is an important issue there.”
Voltaire has a personal understanding of challenges young Haitians face. A political refugee, he came alone to the U.S. at 22, eventually settling in New York City, where some family members lived. While he couldn’t speak English, he had to find a way to support himself and worked in a factory, in a store and as a security guard. Inspired by his mother, a minimally educated, self-made businesswoman who was his biggest role model, Voltaire knew the value of a good education and on the recommendation of friends decided to go to City Tech and worked all through college.
“Majoring in legal assistant studies was not my first choice,” says Voltaire, “but when I took an African studies class, the professor read my writing and told me that law was an excellent field that I should pursue. He was right.”
After the devastating earthquake, Voltaire worked with State Department task forces, providing political analysis, working with Haiti’s justice system and security sector, and helping the U.S. government formulate its strategy.
“When I visited the refugee camps six months after the earthquake as part of a U.S. delegation” he says, “I was looking at the young children who were walking hopelessly around and wondering what life would be like in the months and years to come. Without the grace of God, I could have been there myself. So, I asked myself what I could do to help these kids. Everything was destroyed and they had nothing to do. Other organizations provided food and temporary shelter, but I was thinking about what meaningful activity I could provide. Maybe they would be more hopeful if they were physically active and engaged. So, I decided to create this organization to organize soccer camps to provide much needed psychological relief. RSH especially benefits girls, because previously they had no formal camps or teams. Now girls from many villages create their own teams and take leadership roles.
RSH is now partnering with Foundation Digicel and the Sisters of Port-Salut to rebuild the only school for girls in the area, a school in such terrible physical conditions that a simple rain forced classes to be cancelled. Voltaire plans to install a computer lab at this school to enable the girls to learn computer skills and connect to the wider world. Since cholera is a major concern, RSH is working with Water Mission International to provide clean water and adequate sanitation by installing a solar-powered pump with water filtration system, a project that will benefit over 5,000 people.
Voltaire plans to add more soccer camps and to expand this program to other cities. Funding is a constant struggle. Digicel, a major telephone company in Haiti, has been RSH’s biggest supporter, but various companies contribute equipment and other necessities. His projects, however, have been mainly financed by individual contributions.
His motivation is the children’s success. “I’ve learned as much from those kids as they have learned from me, by watching them playing sports, interacting with each other, and being so devoted, having such love and compassion, despite the struggles and obstacles they confront every day. They have taught me that life can be challenging and rewarding. These kids have been my role models. They are a source of strength, and that’s one of the reasons every year I find the time to focus on them and try to help them have a better future,” says Voltaire.
City Tech’s 2013 Scholar on Campus George Guida and several of his English Department colleagues support Voltaire’s fundraising efforts. Guida, one of Voltaire’s English professors and now an RHS board member, has organized two benefit poetry events, the most recent last April on the City Tech campus. The event featured readings by Guida and colleagues Nina Bannett, Monique Ferrell, Camille Goodison, Mark Noonan and Julian Williams, and other New York poets.
For more information on Réunion Sportive d’Haiti, visit www.rshaiti.org.