Letters To Haiti Provide A Different Kind Of Help [Opinion]

To show support for schoolchildren devastated by the earthquake, fifth-graders in Northridge, Calif., sent the kids letters that included poems, comic strips and stickers. The students in California and those in Haiti say they'd like to be pen pals for life.

When they heard I was going to report in Haiti after the massive earthquake, fifth-graders from Amylynn Robinson's class asked if I could deliver some messages to any children I'd meet. Their letters included drawings of flowers, hearts and rainbows. And they began simply:

"Hello Haiti, nice to meet you."

"Dear Buddy ... "

"Hi there, I'm a child as well."

"Dear friend, I am your friend. I wrote this letter to tell you I care about you."

The children wrote about their school, Balboa Magnet Elementary, a public school in Northridge, Calif., in Northern Los Angeles County, which was the epicenter of a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in 1994. Although these 10-year-olds were not alive then, many say they've heard stories about the damage in California. So they were sympathetic to kids coping with the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti.

"Because they were one of the poorest countries in the Western atmosphere, it shocked me greatly," Issac Choi said.

"I was like, oh, my gosh," said Joon Lee. "Their buildings were made out of rocks. Many people died, and I feel so sad for them."

Help In A Different Form

Matthew Del Castillo said they thought writing letters to children in Haiti might cheer them up.

So they wrote about their best friends, sports and their hobbies.

"My hobbies are gymnastics, drawing, computer games and reading," wrote Liliana Manamino. "I'm a total bookworm, but I'm not shy. I have a wild imagination and I'm not afraid to share what goes on in there. My favorite flower is a rose, and I really do believe in a lot of stuff like vampires and fairies."

The California kids also wrote about the Lakers basketball team and things they learned about space during a field trip to the Griffith Observatory.

"Did you know you weigh the least on the dwarf planet Pluto?" asked Michael Gelnack.

Several of the girls wrote poems about happiness, and Sam Gorman drew a comic strip for someone to fill in because "they might have lost all their toys or possessions in the earthquake."

The students from Balboa Elementary also pooled their money to send to Red Cross relief efforts in Haiti.

"Many people are pitching in to help people like you," penned Joon Lee.

"I donated my spare change," Isela Reyes wrote.

"P.S., our school raised $1,732 and 33 cents just for you," added Emma Martin.

Their letters included small candies and packets of seeds for planting vegetables. On the envelopes, they added glittery stickers and wrote things such as "Haiti Love" and "For a child in Haiti."

Pen Pals

More than 3,000 miles away, I found a group of children living in makeshift shelters at a fetid, overcrowded camp in Port-au-Prince. With their schools reduced to piles of rocks and dust, they gather everyday outside the devastated College Saint Pierre.

"Some of these kids have lost brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, friends and neighbors," said Jeanne Pocius, a trumpet player from Haiti's National Philharmonic Orchestra. She's been teaching the children to write about their feelings and aspirations in a daily journal.

"A lot of them have no possessions at all, other than basically the clothes they have on," Pocius says.

Their parents lined up for food relief and walked by carrying donated bags of rice on their heads and over their shoulders. Meanwhile, the children read the letters with delight. And they wrote back with paper and markers sent from friends of mine in California.

"Bonjour," wrote 11-year-old Jean Pierre Mason. "Me, I'm really sad. My house collapsed."

Mason chronicled what happened when the earthquake struck. He was home from school and watching cartoons. Then his house crumbled, killing his older brother. He told me what he misses the most about his brother is that he made him laugh, and he used to help him with his homework. Mason said he remains traumatized.

"Je sui triste," wrote 9-year-old Beatrice Guillon, who said she's very sad her two sisters died. And 13-year-old Christian Marcus Bucicoo said he's haunted by so many deaths. "I lost my favorite cousin. I cry a lot," he wrote. "But thank you for your letter."

Some children wrote about being trapped under rubble for days before they were rescued. Others asked for help.

"My name is Serghinio Dieg," wrote one adorable twin boy. "I'm living in the streets. Do something for me please? Send me a tent if you can or some food. May God bless you. Thank you for your support."

The Haitian kids also wrote to say they enjoy soccer and American movies like Transformers 2. Some wrote that they hope to someday be doctors and nurses. And despite the devastation, they still play with whatever they can, such as kites fashioned out of old plastic bags, rags and small branches.

For their new friends in California, several of the boys sent back a handmade toy car they created from discarded plastic juice bottles with bottle-cap wheels and lollipop sticks for axles.

'Merci Beaucoup'

The Haitian children said thanks in many ways and drew pictures of flowers, houses and themselves.

"Merci beaucoup," wrote fifth-grader Jovelyn Bosse. "Thank you for thinking of me, my friend."

"Thank you because you tell us to be strong," wrote Suze Dazeer. "We wish that this catastrophe never hurts your country. You're my friend for life. I'm going to keep this letter forever. This is a good gesture of life you sent us. I love you."

Sixteen-year-old Stefica Jean Pierre even wrote in English: "I thank your school for the money sent to my country. I am very happy for the poem you wrote. I don't know anything about poetry, but I will sing for you."

I recorded her beautiful voice soaring over the misery around her: "I'm so glad you're here in my life," she sang. "I'm so glad you came to save us."

Lessons Learned

I brought Stefica's song and their letters from Haiti back to the fifth-graders in California, who were impressed by the music, stories and the toy car.

"They're very resourceful," Sydney Setsui said. "They use what they can find."

Gabriel Martinez agreed. "Kids in the U.S. should be doing exactly the same thing instead of sitting on their butts all day with electronics," he said.

After reading her letter, Carla Villanueva said she was glad her class did more than just give money to the people from Haiti.

"I kind of want to encourage other people to send letters to them," she said. "Because even though help is like giving them food and stuff, another thing they really need is love and care."

The children in California and in Haiti told me they'd like to be pen pals for life. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit