From ESL to cum laude, Haitian graduate beats the odds

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(Photo: David Fritz/The News Leader)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Wearing a gold sash to celebrate her cum laude status, Shinay Dine Geffrard was one of 180 to graduate Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton on Saturday morning.

“I am so proud of her,” her mother, Helene St. Fleur said after Shinay walked the stage to collect her hard-earned diploma.

“I want her to find work and continue to go to school.”

Those are tough odds for any students in this day and time, but for Shinay, it will be tougher. Fortunately, as she already has proven, Shinay is no ordinary young woman.

I remember clearly the first day we met.

She and her brother, Albert, and the rest of her family had been in my prayers since Jan. 12, 2010. They were living in Port-au-Prince, attending school in preparation for joining their father and stepmother in Staunton, when the massive earthquake hit Haiti. I was an editor at The News Leader and had just published a five-part series about Shenandoah Valley residents who had ties to Haiti.

Shinay’s stepmother, Karen Baer, sent me an email the day after the earthquake. Her husband, Altesse, had not heard from Shinay or Albert or their mother. We knew the quake damage was heavy in their neighborhood, but no word.

Understandably, they were frantic. All their dreams for bringing the teenagers to Staunton seemed on hold. Altesse, especially, feared the worst. He didn’t eat. He didn’t sleep.

He wept, and he waited.

And then, after three days, the phone call. The house they were in had crumbled, but Shinay, Albert and their mother had survived.

One relative had a serious injury, but they were alive.

I remember it all — the overwhelming fear and the thundering giving of thanks.

I already had become enamored with Haiti — with its powerful history of enslaved people overcoming all the odds for freedom, its natural beauty and, even its challenges. Baer and Geffrard taught me more about this country they love. She had lived in Haiti for several years since 2000. She met Altesse there, and later they had married and had two boys. Their dream always had been to bring his older children to their home in Staunton.

The odds, as always, were great, but they persevered. In February 2011, they arrived in the U.S. A family friend collected Shinay, Albert and Altesse at the airport and kept them at his house overnight. The next morning, Karen and I drove to Front Royal to bring them home.

On the way to the house, Karen drove by Robert E. Lee High School. “There’s where you will go to school,” she said. Their first semester at Lee, they both took English lessons, studied their new language along with their homework, and started as freshmen in the fall of 2011.

I would like to tell you that I contributed to Shinay’s accomplishment this morning, graduating with honors in her new country, but actually, it is the other way around. While she still was learning English, she was teaching me.

She taught me some Creole. She told me stories about what it is like to live in Haiti. And never one to hold back the truth, she shared some pragmatic advice. I once told her that as an animal lover, it was my dream to be a part of helping Haiti care for all its people, and then turn its attention to the dogs that run the streets of every city and village.

“You’re going to have live for a long time,” she said.

But most of all, Shinay taught me about what to do with a dream. Go make it happen.

I asked her what she’d like to do for a career, and she said she wants to be a doctor. A lot of people would look at the odds against and advise a less ambitious start. But I know Shinay. And I know odds don’t stand a chance with her.

This is a girl who kicks snow in sandals. This is a young woman who will achieve what she wants to achieve, not only what others believe is possible.

While Shinay was receiving her diploma, her mother, Helene St. Fleur, was in her home in Boi de Laurence in rural northeast Haiti. She has no regrets that her children live so far away. She makes that sacrifice so her children can have a better life than they could find in their home country. They speak often by phone.

“She wants to be a doctor,” her mother told me this morning in Creole. “God willing.”

Congratulations, Shinay and all your family who love and support you.

Not only on your well-earned diploma and gold sash, for being you.

Bondye beni ou, bon zanmi pa’m.

God bless you, my good friend.

Write Cindy Corell at


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