Rob Marchand didn’t live to see it, but his family made the arduous journey to Haiti to dedicate a school in the Yankton native’s honor.
“Seeing the school with Rob’s name on it was very emotional for me,” said his wife, Mary. “Although he’s no longer with us, Rob is still touching lives as far away as Haiti. I’m very proud.”
Marchand died in 2014 after a battle with cancer. He and Mary, also a Yankton native, moved to Mitchell and raised two children, Jay and Kate. However, the Marchands maintained their Yankton connections.
Behind the work of friend Bruce Blumer, a grade school was constructed on the island of LaGonave, just off the Haitian coast. The Rob Marchand Institute (RMI) educates 130 children in grades 1-6, serving an area filled with poverty and few easily attainable educational opportunities.
Blumer, a former Yankton elementary principal, moved to Mitchell and met Marchand through their children’s sports. The two men also made annual treks to Minnesota Twins games, where they held deep discussions about life and their Christian faith — Marchand was Catholic, Blumer was Methodist — on the road trips.
“Rob always cared for kids. If they didn’t have enough money for a pop or candy, he always had change in his pocket and would cover it for them,” Blumer said. “But he was also there for them in other ways. He would talk with them if they had a problem.”
Marchand also showed compassion for the disadvantaged, particularly Native Americans and AIDS patients, Blumer said. In both cases, Marchand felt they were often shunned for reasons not of their doing.
Through his church, Blumer made numerous mission trips to LaGonave. During those trips, Blumer met an orphan, William Hyppolite, who wanted to attend medical school. Churches supported his medical training, and he became important not only for providing medical care but also for establishing the elementary school that became the Rob Marchand Institute.
The school was erected much faster than ever Blumer ever imagined, opening in 2017, and to Blumer’s surprise, Hyppolite suggested naming the school in Marchand’s memory.
“William said, ‘Why not name the school for your friend that you’re always talking about?’” Blumer said. “William knew how much I valued Rob’s friendship. Naming the school after him would mean a great deal to me.”
Blumer approached the Marchand family about the idea, as he wasn’t sure about their reaction.
Mary, a retired elementary teacher after 35 years in the classroom, was ecstatic at the proposal.
“When Bruce asked me, it meant so much. I could clearly picture Rob, however, saying that there were more people deserving of having a school named after them than him,” she said. “But our children, Jay and Kate, and I knew how much Rob loved children and how happy he’d be that children would be having a school, so we gladly agreed!”
Jay, a social worker in Sioux Falls, welcomed the chance to recognize his late father in this way.
“Something like this is very bittersweet,” he said. “Obviously, we would all prefer that he still be here. But if he can’t be here, I am glad that we can do something like this to honor his memory.”
Kate, a teacher in the Sioux Falls school district, fully supported the naming proposal.
“When the idea was brought to us, it was really a no-brainer,” she said. “This is a legacy that will live on for years to come. Not only is the building providing an education, but it provides meals and a future to students.”
Kate sees the school as a reflection of her father’s kindness and a tribute to his concern for others.
“In the days after our dad’s passing, I remember being on social media and receiving messages and seeing posts about the various random acts of kindness that our dad participated in,” she said. “It could be something as simple as giving kids a quarter because they were short a few cents for a treat or paying their way into the rec center because they couldn’t afford it.
“This (school) building sums up what he stood for — bettering the future of others. He was never one to broadcast the good he did. I think he would be overwhelmed if he saw it today.”
PAVING THE WAY
The seeds for the Rob Marchand Institute were actually planted in 2008, when a team from First United Methodist Church in Mitchell committed to funding Hyppolite’s medical education in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in 2009.
In January 2010, the situation changed dramatically after Haiti suffered massive damage from a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that claimed more than 220,000 lives, destroyed much of the nation’s infrastructure and created massive need for disaster aid.
Blumer and others visited Haiti that month and witnessed the aftermath. “It took a while to process the experience and how to react,” he said.
Hyppolite’s medical school collapsed in the disaster, and his benefactors arranged for him to attend medical school in Santiago, Dominican Republic, which shares the island with Haiti. His main support came from donors who supplied $100 a month.
In February 2011, Blumer traveled alone to Haiti where he visited five small villages on LaGonave. While there, he interviewed pastors, community leaders and women’s groups.
“I came back with a simple conviction – we had to do something,” he said. “The areas that I heard from my interviews that needed the most attention were education, health care and providing for women, children and the elderly.”
Unlike the United States, Haiti’s public schools aren’t free, Blumer said. They charge a fee, similar to tuition, with most families paying $100-150 annually. The cost puts education out of reach for many families, and many students are sponsored by church or organizations.
At that point, the supporters shifted their focus to building their own school rather than paying for a growing number of scholarships, Blumer said. “It was a really naive idea to build a school. But in life, at times it’s a lot better to be naive than smart.”
The push began for constructing what became RMI, Blumer said. For $25 annually, the school would provide every student with a uniform and daily meal as well as the education. The school supporters believed the fee kept the students and their families invested in attending classes.
In February 2017, Blumer and other supporters broke ground for the school. The project used local labor and suppliers where possible to provide jobs and benefit the economy.
A team from First UMC in Yankton spent Jan. 28-Feb. 5, 2017, at the site, where it was consecrated as the Rob Marchand Education Center. The foundation was built to handle a two story-building but focusing on finishing the first level with five classrooms for grades 1-4.
Rather than the anticipated three years, construction on the first level was completed and the school opened in September 2018. A team, which included the Marchands, came for the dedication.
The school was recognized with the Haiti Department of Education, with one stipulation that the name needed to be changed to Rob Marchand Institute. GF Advertising donated backpacks for the RMI students, and supplies were distributed from the Back to School program.
The Marchands experienced strong emotions when attending the dedication, Mary said.
“Seeing the school become a reality has been such a joy. The Rob Marchand Institute exists because of the hard work and generosity of so many wonderful people,” she said. “It touches me deeply to see the people from the island of LaGonave, as well as the various groups from the U.S. that have flown down there, help build the school.”
Mary was stunned at how rapidly the school became reality.
“It has been so heartwarming, seeing the various ways people have raised money and donated items to the school,” she said. “It almost seems surreal how fast this all came together.”
Jay said he was pleased to see the school in person.
“We had the chance to be at the opening ceremony for the school and it was great to be a part of that and see the students and families that can be a part of this school,” Jay said. “I imagine that he would be in a bit of shock to see something like this being done in his name.”
Rob’s dedication to young people will continue with the school, Jay said.
“So much of my dad’s life and work was focused on helping the youth of his community,” the son said. “Having a school named after him serves his legacy as that school will impact children for years to come. Many more than he ever could have done himself.”
Kate said seeing the school for the first time brought tears to her eyes. “There was a surprise for us, and on the side of the school there was a painted portrait of our dad and words about his legacy and life,” she said.
The Marchands attended the first day of school, which Kate said reminded her of the first day of school back home.
“As a teacher, I was so excited to see the students and teachers,” she said. “It may not have looked like a school in the U.S., but one thing that is universal is the passion and excitement for learning.”
The family handed out backpacks filled with school supplies that had the RMI logo on it. The family also passed out T-shirts to the students.
“Our mode of transportation was sitting in the back of a pick-up truck. You can imagine that we stuck out like a sore thumb as we traveled throughout the city,” Kate said. “As we were traveling back to our home that evening, we saw a little boy running alongside the truck. He was wearing the Rob Marchand Institute T-shirt we gave him earlier that day. That was one of my favorite memories of the entire trip.”
The school has since added a second floor, and it now employs 12 people and enrolls 130 children in grades 1-6. Through donations, the school has added a computer lab and provided “Back To School” pens, pencils and notebooks for 2,000 children. The goal is to grow the school to include grades 7-8 with possible future expansion of the school building itself.
Mary said she feels excitement as a retired teacher and knowing Rob would love seeing children getting the education they deserve. She hopes the generosity continues so the programs can develop and continue serving students.
“I knew, and have learned even more so since (Rob’s) death, how much kids liked him and respected him. He would have enjoyed meeting the students at the Rob Marchand Institute,” she said. “I can picture his smile knowing children were learning and having fun at a building named after him. It does seem fitting that he’s associated with a building filled with children!”
Jay sees the school as giving people the opportunity to donate time and money to a cause that would honor his late father’s name.
Kate plans to make more visits to the LaGonave school.
“For me, I hope this school is around for the long haul. I imagine it providing education, hope, and joy to many students,” she said. “As an educator, I have hopes to travel back and help wherever I am needed. Education is universal and I am so excited that we can be providing it for so many children.
“I think it would be so special, when I have children of my own, to travel back to Haiti and show them the school that holds Grandpa Rob’s legacy.”
For more information, visit www.LaGonaveAlive.com, the Facebook site, @LaGonaveAlive.com on Twitter, @LaGonaveAlive on Venmo or write Blumer at 1035 N Spencer Ln, Tea SD 57064.
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.