My name is Gabriel Thélus and I was born and raised in a small rural village most recently named Jacsonville in Haiti. Jacsonville is located between the northern and the central parts of Haiti – equidistant between the larger cities of Cap-Haitien and Hinche and only two miles from the city of Pignon – and was named in memorial to my father Jacsonne Thélus who died a few years ago. He married my mother, Sylfica Christanie Prophete, many years ago and she lives down the road from me in Jacsonville. I have two brothers and two sisters still living today but my parents originally had 11 children. Farming was our way of life and we mostly grew sugarcane to provide for ourselves.
I am now 42 years and have a wonderful family. Back in 1996, I married Maricile Victorin. Although she did not grow up in Jacsonville, we are originally from the same area. We have three children, two girls and a boy. Marie-Gabrielle Simeon, the oldest daughter is affectionately known as Ti-Gabie and will be eleven years old in September. Garel Jack, the second child and our only son will be ten years old in December. Our youngest daughter Dominica Erinn just turned six this June.
When I was growing up my family was very poor and it was difficult for me to go to school. Both of my parents were illiterate and neither of them ever went to school. By the grace of God, however, I was able to attend school and perform very well. In the beginning, I went to a Catholic elementary school – Ecole St. Joseph de Pignon – run by the priest of my home parish three miles from my house. I was sixteen when I advanced to secondary school (high school). Unfortunately, the closest Catholic secondary school in my area was St. Martin de Porres in Hinche which was 20 miles from my house. St. Martin de Porres de Hinche was run by the bishop of the Diocese of Hinche and it was the only school I could go to and still have a chance to attend the university. Even though it was very difficult, I completed seven years of secondary school and graduated. Because St. Martin de Porres was so far from my house, I had to walk back and forth every weekend to get money and food to survive. I did not have enough money to pay for a truck to drive me from Hinche to Jacsonville so I walked the 20 miles to get home. I did it because I had no other choice and the future of my family and community depended on it. I always performed well in school and in the end someone finally noticed.
I knew that I was intelligent enough to attend the university but the only one in Haiti at that time was the State University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince, our capital city. University was a very expensive endeavor and only the very wealthy elite attended. After four years of applying, I met Brother Cosmas Rubencamp, an American missionary from the community of the Xaverian Brothers based in Baltimore, Maryland. Brother Cosmas saw how hard I worked and knew I could handle the academic rigors of university. He suggested that maybe I could attend Virginia Tech in the United States and earn a two-year associate’s degree. With the help of Americans living and working in Haiti including David A. Goy, Brother Harry Eccles, and Brother John Mahoney, I began learning how to speak English. I eventually took the TOEFL exam and passed! It was a very hard test and it was very difficult to obtain a visa to come to the United States because I was Haitian. Many people at that time were seeking political asylum in the United States because there was political oppression occurring in Haiti. I tried to get to the United States from the Dominican Republic with no success. Finally, a renowned Virginia Tech professor spoke with a Washington D.C. official in order to have the consulate in Port-au-Prince notified of my need to come to the U.S. to attend Virginia Tech. I was granted a visa and arrived in Blacksburg, Virginia on December 12, 1992. I will never forget that day.
Being from Haiti where the weather is very hot, I was shocked by the winter temperature in Blacksburg. On the second day I was in Blacksburg, it snowed and the temperature dropped below zero. I began classes in January 1993 and a whole new world was opened to me. I had a lot to learn including how to stay warm, how the traffic system worked, how to go shopping, and many other things. At the beginning of the semester, I could listen to my teachers only for the first 30 minutes before I became very tired. I persisted. I had to get help from my classmates and I worked extremely hard. I passed all my classes first semester and second semester I made the Dean’s List!
Being in Blacksburg was very interesting but I missed my family very much. I understood that it would be difficult and that I did not have enough money to go back and visit them during my two years at Virginia Tech. Even though it was only two years, it was not like two days and it seemed like a long time. At the end of 1994, I graduated and received my associate’s degree in plant agriculture from Virginia Tech. I was very proud and two days later I was on the airplane back to Port-au-Prince. I was eager to see my home village, my family, and my friends. I was ready to become involved in my church again and especially to continue on with the association of young adults I spearheaded before coming to Virginia Tech. I wanted to bring the knowledge back to others. It was so nice and joyful to be back.
I went straight to work. In order to pass on skills to others, the people need a level of understanding, so, an education program was needed. I reformed the association of young adults and we named ourselves AJAK – Asosyasyon Jèn Avni Kretyen. In English, this stands for Christian Young Adult Association for the Future. With its members we set up a program not only to do farming but to develop the entire area. We started an elementary school for children in the area. We were hoping that we could have nine grade levels in order to teach small skills. We were thinking that at that level they would be able to comprehend themes that would help to develop the area in any domain. We had to do this because the need was there. For the first 5 to 10 years, we worked on agriculture, youth activity, education, church activity, rural development, and many other needs of the people.
The education program was necessary because we knew that later on we would need skilled people to be involved in our community’s development. Our country has been devastated by a cancer for the last quarter century – a cancer called deforestation. People do not want to cut down the trees, but they have to so that they can cook food for their children. Farming is a bigger challenge here as well because the soils have lost their fertility and the entire population is migrating to the cities. Moreover Matabonite (Jacsonville’s catchment zone) represents 1/6 of the greater Pignon population, or almost 5,400 people (Pignon’s population is estimated around 32,000 people). We are in dire need of development aid. We are doing all we can with the little we have. Currently, we are opening streets, building parks, helping the population to build homes, implanting professional schools, creating jobs, and projecting to bring running water and electricity to the community. It will be so nice when we finish the first 40 houses so that our association members will give a face to our community. The homes will build now are built from loans that I give out to each one of my employees that they pay back slowly. As a community we must learn that things do not come freely but through hard work. But we still need capital to continue to build our area up and make a place we can all call home.
Nowadays, Jacsonville is the center of our vibrant community. As I said, we named this village after my father Jacsonne Thélus because he was the pioneer who wanted a future for the Matabonite area. I mentioned above that he did not receive any formal education, but he was genius. He tried and did a lot with little in return. His first goal was the development of Matabonite. He often passed his message to us children, “I don’t have an education to develop Matabonite, so I am sending you to school to do it. If you can’t do it, then make your children do it.” For me, I find no greater honor than to follow my father’s ideals.
My goals today are still the same although things have changed. We need to improve the living conditions of the people. We are trying to build bridges and irrigation canals so that people will have more access to goods and water. There is no way I could even have dreamed of doing these things without the prayerful and financial support of my friends in the U.S. and the cooperation of my friends and family in Matabonite. We depend on our friends from the U.S. for many types of support and I believe this is why God sent me to Virginia Tech.
My life and history are by no means a fairy tale. I think most of the time life is more challenging than it supposes to be. Sometimes I have to ask myself why I continue on. On the other hand, I like to see progress. I do know that if my life is difficult then I must be making a positive change in the people around me. I hope that you and your loved ones will consider helping me help the people of Haiti. We ask only to live with dignity and the same human rights that you enjoy.
God bless you,