Haiti’s Crisis Is Now Ted’s, Too

Ross student returns to home island on mission of educational opportunity
Ted Morency, a senior at the Ross School, returned to his birthplace, Haiti, earlier this year as a board member of Wings Over Haiti. He is helping the organization raise money to build its second school in the country. Arthur Bijur

Dambite Morency, or Ted, as he is known, was 5 when he left Haiti with his mother and three siblings. In January, 13 years later, the Ross School senior returned for the first time as a member of Wings Over Haiti, the Sag Harbor nonprofit organization founded by Jonathan Glynn after the 2010 earthquake. The group is currently raising money to build its second school in the country, this time in a remote farming village with no access to education for its approximately 300 children.

For Ted, joining Wings Over Haiti offered the perfect opportunity to give back to his traumatized homeland. Four months after he officially joined the team, he became the largest fund-raiser within the organization, acquiring almost $20,000 through self-organized initiatives and by approaching potential benefactors. 

Then came the invitation to travel to Haiti with Mr. Glynn and other board members, such as Arthur Bijur and Magalie Theodore, a Haitian-American whose family has bequeathed the land on which the new school will be built. But with the invitation came a multitude of conflicting emotions for Ted.

“I had been living in a bubble,” he said, sitting in Sag Harbor one day last week after school. Besides his immediate family, who live in New Jersey, Ted said he had mostly lost touch with the Haitian community and felt estranged from his roots. “I knew going back there would mean finding out what it’s really like to be Haitian.”

Transplanted from Port-au-Prince to Ewing, N.J., a predominantly Polish immigrant community where his uncle and grandmother lived, he remembered crying on the way home from school every day because he spoke no English, only Creole. His mother worked as a chambermaid in various nearby hotels while putting herself through nursing school. For the last 10 years, she has worked as a nurse’s assistant at an elder care facility. Ted’s father has never been a part of his life.

He was in seventh grade when a representative from an education opportunity program called New Jersey SEEDS came to his school and spoke about the possibility of high-performing students getting placed in top-notch independent schools around the country, tuition free. He was told that the Ross School in East Hampton, an international day and boarding school, was offering scholarships to Haitian children. He applied, and joined the private school five years ago as a boarding student.

“Ross was my first trip out of New Jersey,” he said, laughing, an attempt to disguise the disconnect he felt about suddenly living in one of the most affluent areas in America and being surrounded by children from families with seemingly endless wealth and resources. 

“I’ve always been the only black kid in my grade,” he said. “But while Ross is not too diverse in terms of minority students, it’s really intellectually diverse, so I made a lot of friends from all over the world, which, for the first time, forced me to realize who I really am in a global context, and where I come from.” 

This fall, Ted will attend Cornell University’s School of Human Ecology, where he hopes to study policy analysis and management, which he explained was a hybrid of economics, health care, and public policy. He received full financial assistance from the prestigious Ivy League school, something that makes Ted happy, “because it won’t be a burden on my mom at all.”

In January, with acceptance to Cornell secured, and his trip to Haiti during a school week wholeheartedly greenlighted by the head of the Ross high school, he was left only to grapple with the conflicting emotions about returning to a ravaged homeland of which he knew little, outside of his grandmother’s stories.

“It was a massive shock,” he said of his first drive through Port-au-Prince, the capital city. “I didn’t expect to see the streets totally covered in trash or people living in such terrible conditions.” But he also noticed a resilience among the people he met at the first Wings Over Haiti school, which now has over 137 students. “They were not beaten down,” he recalled observing. “They didn’t appear to see themselves as victims.”

Ted said he made the trip for himself and for his twin sisters, who graduated a few weeks ago from Rowan University in New Jersey and hope to attend medical school. He FaceTimed his sisters daily so that they could experience his journey simultaneously. He also felt emboldened to do something positive, he said, after hearing President Trump refer to Haiti as one of the “shithole countries.”

He was the group’s official translator during the five-day trip, which included a visit to Ranquitte, a farming community in the northwestern part of the island, where plans to build a second Wings Over Haiti school are already underway. As he spoke with many of the kids who live in the village, he connected with several and learned about the dire circumstances in which they live.

“Almost all their stories involved fatherless homes, no economic opportunities, and absolutely no mobility out of their circumstances,” he said. “I felt both really grateful that my mom had got me out but also extremely guilty that I’ve had all these incredible opportunities and will soon go off to a great college, while most of these kids won’t even make it past fifth grade.”

Education has always played a big role in his life, he said, and his plan is to take what he learns at Cornell to help him further understand the issues that plague Haiti and, he hopes, how to formulate a solution-oriented approach to making a change, especially in its education system. About 90 percent of the schools in Haiti are private, making education prohibitive for most families. 

Mr. Glynn, Wings Over Haiti’s founder, believes that Ted will not only run his nonprofit one day, but also the school he is helping to build. 

“I’ll definitely go back to Haiti,” Ted said. “I have to. All those kids have my WhatsApp number, so they’ll track me down if I don’t.”

And since he promised those kids a school in their village, he is now helping organize the annual Wings Over Haiti art auction benefit at the Watermill Center on June 30. The team hopes the event will raise as much as possible toward the approximately $250,000 needed to fund and run a prekindergarten through 12th-grade school.

In his downtime, when he isn’t trying to save Haiti, Ted reluctantly admitted that he can be found in front of an Xbox, trying to save himself from elimination in Fortnite, the video game craze of the moment.