BRADENTON — Wenshiny Senat, 13, lost his aunt and at least two cousins in Haiti’s earthquake last week.
Jecica Altidor, 12, found out Wednesday that her family who lives there is safe.
Stanley Decimus,13, has no idea if his two sisters and cousin are alive.
The children are just a few of the students at Harllee Middle School who have either lost loved ones or are waiting to hear if they are OK.
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They’re not alone.
Of the Manatee County School District’s approximate 42,000 students, there are about 660 pupils of Haitian descent in the district, with 411 being natives of Haiti. And of the entire student body, 295 pupils speak Haitian Creole at home. So district officials have identified schools with high Haitian student populations and are providing them with support.
“The schools are very tuned in to their kids and their needs,” said Pat Bernhart, district supervisor of student support service. “We have counselors at all the schools and they are very good at what they do.”
Stanley, who is in seventh grade and lives in Bradenton, said no one has been able to find his 2-month-old cousin and his half sisters, ages 2 and 3.
He approached his guidance counselor Joanne Banks the day after the earthquake.
“He was crying,” Banks recalled Thursday. “He wanted me to see if I could get a hold of them.”
Knowing she couldn’t do that, Banks suggested he and the other students with loved ones in Haiti think about ways they could help.
They decided to host a car wash fundraiser. It is set for Saturday at the school on Ninth Street East.
“Some of the students feel helpless, so this is part of a healing process,” Harllee Principal James Hird said. “They want to do something, so this kind of gives them an outlet.”
Millie Castaneda, a social worker at Southeast High and Manatee, Daughtrey and Wakeland elementaries, said many students at those schools have family members or know someone who is missing or dead.
“Others who didn’t directly know anyone are upset because their parents are upset,” she said.
Of the 1,361 students at Southeast, 38 speak Haitian Creole, the largest number in the district, said Danny Lundeen, district supervisor of student demographics.
At schools including Southeast and Manatee High, officials have started support groups.
“Just being able to talk about it with an adult and each other makes a difference to the kids,” said Matilda Bediako, Manatee High School’s ESL teacher.
At that school, which has about 20 students who speak Haitian Creole, one student lost an uncle and a cousin, another one lost a grandfather and a third student lost a cousin.
“When other Haitian students in the student population who are not ESL realized my kids were doing fundraising and collecting items, they pitched in and got involved,” Bediako said. “It‘s definitely brought the Haitian community in the school closer.”
Williams Elementary School Principal Nancy Beal said she’s not aware of any of her students with relatives in Haiti losing loved ones.
But the family of at least one first-grade boy in teacher Courtney Hayes’ class did lose their home, she said.
Support groups provide an opportunity for students to talk about their feelings so they can return to class with better concentration, Castaneda said. It also gives them time to brainstorm ways they can help.
During the groups, she also encourages them not spend a lot of time with the news coverage because it can be traumatizing.
“Dead bodies dumped into mass graves — with children those images stay with them,” Castaneda said. “And on top of that, some of those children have relatives who are missing. It’s like pouring salt into a wound.”
At Southeast, Castaneda said that ESL teachers and students plan to adopt a sister school in Haiti to help. They’re also providing monetary assistance and plan to work with a community agency to collect blankets and food.
The district also has started a Hope for Haiti effort among students and staff, a campaign to raise funds to assist the Red Cross with its Haiti disaster efforts.
So far they’ve raised more than $3,000, said Margi Nanney, district spokeswoman.
At Harllee on Thursday, students including Wenshiny, Jecica and Stanley looked over the signs they made for the weekend’s car wash.
Jovanica Jean-Charles, 12, who once lived in Haiti, will be at the car wash handing out popcorn, slushees and other treats. Her brother-in-law’s brother was injured in the earthquake.
Jean Henry, 14, is awaiting word on his grandfather’s safety. He plans to DJ during the fundraiser. Haitian music, of course.
Jecica, who is in sixth grade, moved here from Haiti in August and speaks a little bit of English.
Her family, she said with translation help from Wenshiny, is alive. She said she is excited to help her motherland.
Stanley said the last time he saw his missing family members was when he visited the country with his parents this past summer.
The bright-eyed boy has not given up hope he will see them again.
“Please support the Haitians in this disaster,” he said quietly. “They need us.”