Mattapan sisters excel in classroom, as mentors to Haitian kids

By 
Lisa Hagen, Special to the Reporter
Apr. 12, 2012

Gilbert Sisters: Sisters Shaina and Gabriella Gilbert have spent the last three years volunteering at a camp that Shaina created in Haiti. Gabriella will attend Columbia University in the fall, while Shaina is presently pursuing a Master’s degree at Boston University. PhoGilbert Sisters: Sisters Shaina and Gabriella Gilbert have spent the last three years volunteering at a camp that Shaina created in Haiti. Gabriella will attend Columbia University in the fall, while Shaina is presently pursuing a Master’s degree at Boston University. Mattapan sisters Shaina and Gabriella Gilbert are six years apart in age, but they share the same passion for scholarship and volunteerism.

The Gilbert girls have particularly distinguished themselves by devoting their summers to teaching youth in their parents’ native Haiti.

In 2009, Shaina created a summertime leadership camp called Empowering Through Education, or ETE, which derives from the Haitian Creole word for “summer.” In its first year, the camp started with 40 students that expanded to over 100 over the past four years, teaching children how to become leaders of their communities and learn about social change.

The sisters are traveling back to Haiti this summer for the camp’s fourth year, serving and teaching over 120 students.

One of the Gilbert sisters’ biggest influences has been their father, who a longtime Boston Public School teacher.

“We took school very seriously because we knew it would shape our futures. So we took that to heart and tried our best in school,” she said.

Shaina attended Boston Public Schools and participated in The Steppingstone Academy, a free summer and after-school program that helps students prepare for competitive high schools. After graduating from the program, she attended Boston Latin School (BLS) where she said she was challenged academically.

Shaina, who graduated from Brandeis University in 2010 and is now pursuing her master’s degree atBoston University, currently teaches math, ESL (English as a Second Language), history, and science to mainly Haitian students at TechBoston Academy.

“I teach Haitian students there and some have similar backgrounds to children I teach in Haiti, so I certainly appreciate it year round,” she said. “It means a lot to me because I do need more practice, but it’s been an awesome two years.”

At Brandeis, where she majored in sociology and public health, Shaina decided to go to Haiti with four other students in her junior year. But she didn’t “want to go back empty-handed.” Through fundraising and grant writing, she was able to create the ETE camp in Hinche, her mother’s hometown.

“I didn’t want to impose myself just because I’m Haitian, since I wasn’t born or raised there,” Shaina said. “I wanted to make sure I had their support and approval, and every year they want us to come back and we love it.”

Although the camp focuses on the age range between 8 and 12, it also offers ESL classes that include the community’s adults. Shaina also launched alumni classes in the afternoon so former students can still receive help during middle and high school.

“ETE camp is the bulk of their education and we can’t just let those reins go,” Shaina said. “We can’t introduce it to them and just take it away because for some it’s all they have.”

The Gilbert sisters had similar academic experiences since they both attended The Steppingstone Academy and BLS, but Shaina said that Gabriella created her “own identity at those institutes.”

Now a senior at Boston Latin School, Gabriella said attending BLS was her biggest challenge, but one she appreciated especially with support from her family. Along with the myriad of activities she participated in at BLS, she is also a community educator for City School where she teaches children about social justice issues.

Gabriella applied early decision to Columbia University and will pursue her dreams of becoming a computer engineer at the University’s School of Engineering in the fall. Gabriella said winning a spot at Columbia is a “whole other challenge” that she is excited about.

Gabriella joined the ETE camp staff as a leadership teacher in 2010.

“It is an inspiring experience because all these beautiful people had a story to tell and had a lot of hope and aspirations,” Gabriella said. “They are all eager to learn and come early in the morning for camp and didn’t want to go and stuck around for an extra English lesson.”

Shaina decided to create a junior counselor position for those students who have already completed the camp and can one day run the camp so it is “something that belongs to the community.” She also hopes to expand the camp to include her father’s hometown in the program’s fifth year.

“I’m pretty sure I can speak for [Shaina] that we definitely identify strongly as Haitian-Americans,” Gabriella said. “We both speak Haitian Creole fluently and it was something our parents thought was very important as children of Haitian immigrants.”

There will be a fundraising gala dinner for ETE camp on April 29 at 7 p.m. to help support the children they serve and teach in Haiti.
To learn more about ETE Camp or donate online, visit http://etecamp.blogspot.com, call (617-913-3282), or email (ete_camp@yahoo.com).

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