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Teen regains footing after Haitian quake shook his life

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published June 14. 2010 4:00AM   Updated June 16. 2010 11:21AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Haitian Jerry Dauphin, 18, stands on the campus of Norwich Free Academy.

Norwich - Norwich Free Academy senior Jerry Dauphin was the "bad boy" on May 18, corrupting a recent Haitian immigrant girl, distracting her from schoolwork, getting her pregnant and even infecting her with HIV.

But that was a stage performance, in sharp contrast to Dauphin's real short-lived experience at his adopted high school.

Dauphin and his younger sister, Cristelle Dauphin, moved to Norwich earlier this year to live with their aunt and uncle a month after the earthquake destroyed their home and schools in Haiti.

Their mother remained in Haiti to keep her grocery business going.

Ask the 18-year-old senior about his four months at NFA and he answers in two mindsets.

"It was great. We raised a lot of money for Haiti," Dauphin said.

Dauphin, a polite, soft-spoken teenager, joined the school Haitian Club shortly after he became settled and secured his academic status as a senior - no easy task when you came from a school that lies in rubble.

The club hosts an annual Haitian Flag Day celebration on May 18, but this year's program took on a somber tone as it doubled as a fundraiser for the Diocese of Norwich Haitian Ministries. The evening of music, speeches, poetry and the play Dauphin co-starred in raised about $600 for the ministries.

Initially, teachers and students involved in Haitian Flag Day asked Dauphin to speak on stage about his experiences during and after the earthquake. He didn't want to do that, said Leo Butler, diversity director at NFA. When he first joined the actors in the play written by club members, he had to be coached to speak up and project himself on stage, Butler said.

Like it was with his school transition, Dauphin soon wowed them with his performance, making his fellow club members laugh at how the studious, well-spoken, respected boy could play the bad boy on stage so well.

"You talk about a seamless transition, that overused phrase," Butler said. "He interacts with non-Haitian students. He went from being a shy, unassuming kid to performing on stage in a play … He's found a home here. We certainly can't duplicate his home in Haiti. We made a home away from home here."

On Jan. 12, Dauphin was riding a commuter bus on his way home from school when the bus shook violently and eventually had to stop because the road was clogged with dusty debris and bloodied people. Once he realized what had happened he ran home seeking his mother and sister, both unharmed but equally shaken.

Jerry and Cristelle learned English over the years while visiting their aunt and uncle, Marjorie and Erik Johnson in Norwich during their summer vacations. They moved in with the Johnsons in mid-February, Jerry enrolling at NFA and Cristelle at Kelly Middle School.

His mother, Paulone Dauphin, calls frequently. She visited this spring and plans to come again for both Cristelle's eighth-grade graduation and Jerry's graduation from NFA on Friday.

Jerry Dauphin thanked his algebra and English Language Learners academic support teacher Elaine Porter, who "takes care of my grades," and NFA Registrar Melody Pishka for securing his position as a graduating senior. Dauphin's family was able to contact his principal at NouVeau College Bird in Port-au-Prince and get written transcripts of his classes.

Pishka called their first meeting, with Jerry and his aunt and uncle "heart-wrenching," because the earthquake had struck just a month earlier.

"He came in with no records. No birth records, no school records, no medical records," Pishka said.

Butler recalled when the envelope first arrived from Haiti, Dauphin came running into his office with a big smile on his face. Pishka was able to confirm his high school credits and secure him a spot in the senior class.

That's only the beginning for Dauphin. He will enroll at Three Rivers Community College in fall and plans to continue at a four-year college to study computer programming.

"I'm going all the way to get my master's degree," Dauphin said.

"Maybe a doctorate," Porter added later. "He has a real work ethic that will take him anywhere he wants to go."

Dauphin said his transition at NFA has been "too easy," thanking everyone from teachers to classmates and other students. The toughest part, he said with a chuckle, was winter. His visits to Norwich were always during summer. February and March were admittedly difficult, he said.

"I love NFA," Dauphin said. "I've met a lot of different people here."

But his thoughts also frequently turn back to the Haitian schools and friends he left behind. His high school has reopened in a makeshift wooden building, but the main school is still in rubble. He seeks out photos of it on the Internet occasionally.

"It's a really hard thing watching your school be destroyed," Dauphin said. "I spent almost my whole life there."

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