Person of the Week
Alexandra Johnson: A Haitian Connection
Alex Johnson is stepping up from secretary to president of the Sister Cities Essex Haiti board. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Some 1,600 miles separate Essex, Connecticut from the rural community of Deschapelles, Haiti, but they are linked by Sister Cities Essex Haiti (SCEH), an Essex-based group that supports a number of programs in Deschapelles, including something the rural community would likely never have been able to afford on its own: a library. The World Bank identifies Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Alex Johnson of Essex is the new board president of SCEH.
“I’m a great believer in libraries,” says Alex, who has also served on the Board of Trustees of the Essex Library.
In addition to the library, SCEH sponsors music, sports, and robotics programs in Deschapelles. Students from Valley Regional High School, in fact, went to the Haitian town to help collaborate with local students on robotics projects.
SCEH was founded after the disastrous Haitian earthquake of 2010. The connection with Deschapelles grew as a result of Essex resident Jenifer Grant, whose step-father and mother founded Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles in 1956. Despite the continuing unrest in Haiti, Deschapelles remains a functioning location.
“What I liked about SCEH was that it was a good cause, and it was about tangible things, not just going to a gala,” Alex says.
She would like more people in this area to know about the significant improvements that SCEH’s participation has made to life in Deschapelles.
The library in Deschapelles has books in several languages: Haitian Kreyòl, the French-based language spoken in Haiti, standard French, and a few in English. Since homes in Haiti have no electricity, students who did homework by street light how have a place to study. More than just a resource for students, the library has become a center for the whole community, not only for books, but also for activities for people of all ages.
Alex, who is English by birth, got to the United States as a presumed stopover on a trip to Japan to marry her fiancé, but she has never left. In New York she got a letter from her then-fiancé explaining there would be no marriage, at least not to her. He had met somebody else but wanted to wait to tell her until she was in the United States so she could start a new life.
Not that her previous life had been unexciting. While still living in England in the 1960s, she and a friend took a house in Spain for the summer, underwriting the project by operating it as informal bed and breakfast. Famed artist Salvador Dali lived in a neighboring town. He asked one of the girls at Alex’s house, who she says was stunningly beautiful, to pose for him. Alex went with her and, as it turned out, Dali thought Alex would be a better subject and painted her instead.
Many years later, Alex visited Dali’s house in Spain, now a museum. The guide described one room as the bedroom. Alex told her that was not true, that it had been the studio and she knew because she had posed there. The guide was not interested. She told Alex that, experience notwithstanding, she was wrong.
Having gone to secretarial school in England, Alex got a job in the United States at first through an agency that specialized in British secretaries. After working for large corporations, she worked in Fairfield County for many years as a school secretary, which accommodated her schedule with her two sons.
Alex had made a vow about her life: “I was never going to miss an opportunity again,” she says.
One of the results of that was a challenging trek through Nepal when she was in her late 50s. She had trained, but as the trip progressed, she knew was holding the group back and needed to drop out.
“When they say keep three feet anchored before you move, it sounds more like mountaineering than trekking,” she recalls.
The group leader said with the aid of a Sherpa guide she could take a week-long hike back to base camp and a once-weekly bus would come by and take her to the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. The pair stayed one night at a Buddhist convent and the next morning to her surprise, a helicopter came to take some other travelers staying at the convent back to the capital. They told Alex there was no room for her. She said she would have to get her duffel bag, already loaded, off the plane. Instead, with the co-pilot’s help, she squeezed in.
She loves the story, especially telling people the helicopter belonged to the king of Nepal.
Before becoming president of SCEH, Alex was the secretary of the group. At the first SCEH meeting she attended, the secretary was absent and someone asked her to take minutes. She already had experience. She had been secretary of the library board.
Alex is clear about her goals for SCEH.
“I would like to broaden our support and let more people know what good work we do,” she notes. “I have a dream: When other libraries In Haiti see what we have achieved in Deschapelles, maybe they will be inspired to make their own libraries into havens of peace and safety.”
For more information on SCEH, visit sistercitiesessexhaiti.org.