Miquette Denie McMahon offers a path out of poverty to fellow Haitians because she’s walked in their shoes.

The wife of Tallmadge native Art F. McMahon, she was born in St. Michel, a small town in the northern part of the Caribbean country, which is home to approximately 11 million. McMahon’s parents had nine children who often went hungry, McMahon recalls, even after her parents gave up the two youngest for adoption.

Trying to attend school presented another challenge, McMahon says. Because a lot of Haitian schools are private, McMahon’s parents were required to pay for her education. She recalls the humiliation of being sent home from school, sometimes for weeks at a time, because her family could not pay the tuition. "The walk of shame," as she describes it, both interrupted her education and dampened her dreams of becoming a nurse. Only 35 percent of Haitian children make it through the sixth grade, she says, and her own prospects weren’t promising.

In 2000, however, McMahon’s luck changed when she crossed paths with a Lutheran pastor on sabbatical in Haiti; the minister and his wife had adopted McMahon’s siblings a decade before and they hoped to meet their daughters’ biological family. They invited Miquette to come to America as part of Rotary International’s Youth Exchange program; she was 19, barely spoke English, and her education was at roughly a 10th-grade level.

McMahon remembers sneaking down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to open the fridge and stare at its contents: "I had never seen so much food," she says, adding, "At home we never knew if we would eat today." Equally exciting, she says, was the experience of carrying a full backpack, because her parents never had enough money to buy all her books.. "I just loved that heaviness," she remembers. 

When the Rotary program ended, John and Mary Lee helped McMahon secure a student visa, which meant she could return to complete her senior year of high school in the United States. The coursework was difficult and McMahon struggled, but with the help of her host family, she persevered. "I’m the first one in my family to finish high school," McMahon says, an accomplishment that whet her appetite for higher learning. 

McMahon then attended Concordia College to become a nurse, graduating in 2006. While she found a job she enjoyed at a hospital and nursing home, she says she experienced recurring thoughts of others growing up uneducated in Haiti. "I used to pinch myself so hard that I would leave marks," she recalls, adding, "I didn’t know if I was dreaming, living such a wonderful life, so I made up my mind I had to pay it forward. I was a registered nurse but there are so many kids like me in Haiti, being sent home from school all the time. Poverty can rob you of your dearest dreams. And that’s what it almost did to me."

McMahon says she realized God was leading her back home. "I am a strong believer that God orchestrated this whole thing," she says.

McMahon began to share her hope of helping educate youngsters in Haiti, a vision she named "TeacHaiti." Networking with Rotarians, churches and friends, she started fundraising with the goal of sending 10 youngsters to school when she returned.  Her passion for the project proved infectious and McMahon collected enough money to send 41 children to school at the cost of $350 per child; that figure includes tuition, a uniform, books and one meal a day. Today, TeacHaiti operates two schools, one in Port-au-Prince, and the other in McMahon’s hometown, St. Michel, and boasts 450 students.

Art McMahon came to Haiti to teach and coach at Quisqueya Christian School, where Miquette worked as an occasional substitute. The couple married in October 2011 and they have three children: Max, Rex and Raquel. While networking and fundraising are time-consuming chores which separate her often from her family, McMahon says she is driven to change the Haitian mindset that "just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you deserve a poor education." While she often doesn’t know where the money to pay bills and provide scholarships will come from, McMahon says God will provide — and He always does. Miquette’s sister-in-law, Wendy Ridenour, and her family visited Haiti this past spring to get a first-hand look at TeacHaiti; her parents-in-law, Art and Nancy McMahon, are ardent supporters of the program, too.

"It’s been a blessing," McMahon says, adding quickly, "I don’t take it for granted the education that was given to me." To illustrate that point, she reminisces about her childhood. Growing up in St. Michel, McMahon says a daily chore was to fetch water in 5 gallon buckets that you carried on your head. She remembers doing it faithfully with her best friend and says, depending on the availability of the water, a trip could take five minutes or be a half-hour walk. To pass the time, McMahon says, "We would talk about our dreams. I wanted to be a nurse and she wanted to be a doctor, and as we were carrying these big buckets of water we would say, ‘When we grow up we’re going to be doing so well we’re going to pay someone to carry our buckets of water for us.’" 

On a recent visit back home, McMahon says her friend passed her with a bucket of water on her head, a vision that brought McMahon to tears. "I had a flashback of the dreams that we used to have together," McMahon says, "and she didn’t make it. She has two children and works at TeachHaiti as a cook, but just knowing the dreams that she had for herself, I keep thinking there are thousands like that in Haiti. They have big dreams and they will stay as dreams unless someone gives them a chance. and that’s what I’m doing.

"She and I talk and I’m like, ‘I’m so sorry your dreams have not come true, but if your children want to be in school, we’re going to make sure their dreams come true’ … and she’s very grateful, she’s happy at least one of us made it. It’s a reminder of the gift that’s been given to me —I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to use it well and to help as many kids as I can with this program."

For more information, visit the TeacHaiti website at www.teachaiti.org. Donations may be mailed to TeacHaiti, P.O. Box 1173, Detroit Lakes, MN 56502. You may reach McMahon at miquette@TeacHaiti.org.

Reporter Ellin Walsh can be reached at 330-541-9419, ewalsh@recordpub.com or @EllinWalsh_RPC.