Alltech, UK strike a chord in Haiti

Alltech Optigen brand manager Jorge A. Gotuzzo slapped a high five with a student in the music program the company set up at a school in Haiti.
Alltech Optigen brand manager Jorge A. Gotuzzo slapped a high five with a student in the music program the company set up at a school in Haiti. Lexington Herald-Leader

OUANAMINTHE, Haiti — As cars and motorbikes bounce down the road, the voices of more than two dozen elementary school students spill out the front door of the Centre Educatif l'Union des Coeurs.

The language is French, but it is clearly understood by all the visitors as a warm embrace for people who are changing the students' lives.

The children were handpicked by graduate students in the University of Kentucky's voice program to form a choir. The short-term goal, if visas can be worked out, is to bring the choir to Kentucky to perform in the Sept. 25 opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The long-term goal is for the group to become like the African Children's Choir, touring the world and raising awareness of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

"It's going to be a ball for the kids," said Manuel Castillo, one of two UK students who is working with the students to prepare for the WEG event. "It already is a ball having the music classes.

"Their eyes are going to be opened. ... I want to think they will see what a human is capable of and that there is a lot more to do, that they can work hard for their families and make something good."

Right now the world of these children, ages 6 to 12, is a four-room schoolhouse with no electricity or running water in a city and nation rife with poverty and little hope.

Not that those adverse conditions appear on their faces or any other part of their appearance. The children are uniformly neatly dressed, most wearing clean, white WEG caps that they were given several months ago when Nicholasville-based Alltech's founder and president, Pearse Lyons, visited for the first time.

"I was dumbfounded," Lyons said. "The school had no air conditioning, the school had little chairs, the school had little people. These kids are looking at you, and they're not saying, 'Help me,' because they don't realize that they need help. But it just brings out the kid in you, and you want to help them."

That's when he started thinking about a music program and what it could do for the children.

Alltech has been a primary supporter of UK Opera Theatre, including presenting an annual scholarship competition that makes UK an attractive voice program.

"They sang for me," Lyons said of those children, "and it immediately registered with me, the UK Opera program, the Alltech competition, Everett McCorvey ... ."

So he called McCorvey, director of UK Opera, and began hatching a plan to create a music program, Haitian Harmony, at this little Haitian school, with the potential to go global.

Coincidentally, the first student selected to teach at the school was the winner of the first Alltech competition in 2007, baritone Eric Brown.

Brown and Castillo have visited Ouanaminthe several times, making the sometimes hair-raising commute across the chaotic border from Dajabón in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

McCorvey's first chance to see the program came earlier this month, when Lyons and other Alltech executives took a trip to check out several projects in Haiti. McCorvey came bearing an electronic keyboard that had been donated to the project. A huge grin crossed his face as the children's voices met his ears.

After being thunderstruck by the poverty he witnessed after crossing the border into Haiti, McCorvey said, "You go to the school and you see these incredible young kids, singing their hearts out and full of joy, and that's when you know there is hope for the country."

After the children sang, Lyons and Alltech employees distributed gifts, including backpacks and soccer balls that were quickly inflated with hand pumps. Lyons also presented furniture that Alltech had bought for the school. Through it all, the students kept their seats and stayed mostly quiet.

That was not surprising to Castillo when he was told about the trip during an interview in Lexington before he was scheduled to return to Haiti.

"What impressed me the most was their obedience," Castillo said. "We would say, 'We are done with rehearsal, that's it,' and you say that in a school here, and the kids run because they're off the hook. These kids will stay there and talk to one another very quietly. And when you ask them to pay attention, they are very attentive."

Castillo also recalled being impressed that when he and Brown gave kids stick-on name tags, which most Americans throw away at the end of the day, the kids returned the next day wearing the tags.

After the gift giving, McCorvey sat down at the keyboard to teach the students the gospel tune He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Though the English was tricky for them, they soon were getting the words and the melody, filling the room as they had before.

The music program is one of several educational initiatives Alltech is undertaking in Ouanaminthe. Lyons also has plans to create a secondary school for the city, where formal education essentially stops at the sixth grade, and expressed a desire to create more education programs in cities where Alltech is working. He and others see education as important in a nation where half the population is younger than 25.

And education is something the kids will need to make their dreams come true, as McCorvey found.

"When we asked the kids what they wanted to be," he said, "many said doctors and nurses and lawyers. One even said she wanted to be a singer."

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