Waaaaaaaay back in October, I started on a project at Maison Bon Samaritain (MBS). MBS is a home for the poor, specifically the elderly or those who have nowhere else to go. It’s run by the Religious of Jesus and Mary (RJM) with a wonderful staff of cooks, nurses, and guardians. Sprinkle a few kids into the mix who come in and out and MBS is a nice little community. During these months, I’ve gotten to know them pretty well in the afternoons I spend there. We talk and play games such as dominoes or cards as well as share a meal together.
MBS is connected with Lekòl Jezi Mari (the School of Jesus and Mary) as the RJM sisters are the ones who founded the school. Sr. Jackie asked me one day if I was crafty… in the artsy sense. “Kinda…” I did arts and crafts during my time in FrancisCorps with L’Arche Syracuse. Every Tuesday I went to Art Class, a wonderfully chaotic day that included an outing into the city followed by lunch and a craft of the organizer’s choosing. Towards the end of my year there, due to some assistant shuffling, I became the veteran Art Class organizer and planned quite a few outings and crafts.
So yes, I was “crafty”.
Sr. Jackie told me about a project that she was thinking about doing. It was an activity that the residents of MBS could do and benefit the school in the long-run. She had this vision of creating an alphabet wall for the preschoolers who were learning their letters. Something big and pretty.
So we hashed out a plan together and got to work.
Fellow MKLM-er Abby Belt asked the school for me about which alphabet we should make. She came back and told us to make the Kreyòl alphabet. While the official alphabet is still in the making, the current Kreyòl alphabet is a phonetic alphabet of 30 sounds that uses all of and/or a combination of letters in the English alphabet except for Q and X. You will also never see a C without an H or a U without an I or O. French also has a huge influence in Kreyòl so the French alphabet is learned in school as well but it is not the one we focused on.
Jackie bought two 4’x8’ plywood sheets in Port-au-Prince and brought them to MBS. One of the residents, Sauveur, has carpentry experience and he and I spent a few days cutting ninety-six 8”x12” tablets. Well, he cut and I held the boards for him. I asked him if he trusted me to cut them and he told me it was probably better for him to do it and I laughed. After that and with some help, we sanded down the tablets and smoothed over sharp edges.
Next came everyone else’s role. Armed with four acrylic paint bottles (red, yellow, blue, and green) and two powder paint tempera jars (white and black), we began decorating the tablets. The general format I was aiming for was to have background-esque tablets: multiple colors but still able to have a visible object in the foreground. Namely the letters.
Each day I planned to work on the tablets, I looked up design ideas and painting techniques. These varied from finger painting, sponge dabbing, blending, painted leaf pressings, splattering, and good old circles and lines. Not really being familiar with the painting medium, the MBS residents did their best with my stilted instructions and examples. Some became really enthusiastic and eager to keep painting despite time running out and the need to clean up.
In about a month, we finished with the “background” portion of all the tablets. As we were nearing the end, I was coming up with a plan for how to paint the letters. I thought the easiest way would be to stencil it. Using notebook paper, which is a horrible idea due to how thin it is and how easily it can rip, I painstakingly used an awkward measurement combination of inches and centimeters to create uniform letters that would fit nicely onto the tablets.
I wouldn’t be able to recreate it if I tried.
Anyways, when we finished the backgrounds and after distributing color and design themes equally into three groups of thirty and putting them in an eclectic order, I cut the stencils. With some of the more steady-handed residents—such as my partner-in-crime Sauveur—working with me, we began the tracing process (now, we chose to trace instead of dabbing paint because of the thin weak paper and each stencil needed to be used three times). Depending on the background, we traced with either a pencil, sharpie, orange highlighter, or white chalk. We came to regret the orange highlighter though as when painting on the letters with lighter colors such as yellow or white, the orange showed through as though the paint were transparent. Alas, ‘tis the curse of amateurs to make mistakes.
After a couple of weeks of work and trying to keep everything in order, we finished tracing.
Then came the really hard part.
Well, it wasn’t hard per say, but time-consuming and a little stressful. We just really didn’t want to mess up. Sauveur and I did most of the work with a couple of middle school kids helping out occasionally (they had very steady hands). Another resident tried once but after giving a “V” a bunch of wings we politely told him that we were okay.
Now, I like creativity and perhaps I was being a little too stuffy or strict, but I was a little scared the letters would become illegible for the preschoolers to read and recognize as a “V.” Unfortunately, I can sometimes be a bit of a perfectionist.
Sauveur and I got a system going. We’d sit down with one group of the alphabet and both start on a letter. Sauveur was nervous about the edges so I told him to paint the insides and set it aside for me to work on the edges when he finished. Sometimes we were joined by a few kids who helped us. A preschooler wanted to help too, but based on the work we had seen him do in the background design process, he didn’t follow instructions very well and was not always very conscious of where his paintbrush was so we gently warded him off.
One of the most important lessons we learned (aside from not using orange highlighters as a base trace) was that we hated white tempera paint. It was kind of chalky and clumpy and needed several layers to keep it from being transparent. Unfortunately, the second and third layers didn’t mesh well with the bottom layers so there were many obvious streaks. The black tempera paint wasn’t as bad since it was dark, but white… white. Thank goodness it dried better than we hoped! I have to say though, orange highlighters are the biggest weakness of white tempera paint.
Sauveur and I made it through two alphabets by the time Christmas came around and I headed home for two weeks to see my family. When I came back after vacation, I went into quarantine, spent barely a week out, and then had to go into quarantine again. When I finally got back to MBS, I poked my head in the storage depot and my jaw dropped to the floor.
There was so much DUST!
Which wasn’t a huge problem, thank goodness. I took a rag and wiped and swatted at the tablets (although that darn white tempera paint smudged) and everything was fine.
We finished painting the letters pretty quickly after I had gotten back to our usual routine. In three days we put a coat of varnish on all of them to protect the tablets and then we were finally finished. Coordinating with Abby at Lekòl Jezi Mari, we agreed on a day to bring the tablets to the preschool classrooms.
The morning came and 5 residents and I made a slow-moving parade to the school. It was an enjoyable walk and everyone dressed up. The older students were taking exams at the time and when we arrived the preschoolers were eating lunch. Mèt Leny, the principal, met us at the gate and led us into each of the classrooms where we could give our alphabet gifts and introduce ourselves. Mèt Leny quizzed them a little bit on their letters and we repeated the process for each of the three preschool rooms.
When we finished, we took a small pause and headed back to MBS.
Only one job remains and that is to get the tablets set up around the classrooms. However, as missioners, we know the work is never finished, it’s just a matter of time before another task introduces itself.
I hope you are all doing well! God Bless You!