Friends rally for Haitian student’s agriculture studies

A year ago, Aleme Benissoit was given a chance to fulfill his childhood dream: to study sustainable agriculture in the United States. But the journey to obtain his degree has proven to be a financial obstacle he couldn’t overcome alone.

“I am here to study and get more knowledge,” said Benissoit, 29. “In Haiti, we don’t have sustainable agriculture.”

On May 26, Benissoit was surprised with a fundraising party to help supplement his school funding.

Sarah Bein and Mary Palazuelos-Jonckheere, teachers at Coral Reef Montessori School, were the key people who rallied support for Benissoit’s fundraiser. Jonckheere allowed Benissoit to live with her and her family as a way to offset his living expenses, but Benissoit needed more financial help.

She reached out to people in the eco-agriculture industry — which focuses on farming that isn’t harmful to the environment — family and friends to attend the fundraising event.

“The end of the school year, we decided to do it,” said Jonckheere. “He really wants to study agriculture. That’s really his passion.”

Jonckheere met Benissoit five years ago in Kenscoff, Haiti, which is southeast of Port-au-Prince, while living with the owner of an ecological reserve called Wynne Farm. The owner of the reserve, Jane Wynne, is a woman Benissoit describes as his second mother.

Jonckheere was in Kenscoff for a year while going through the adoption process for her son. During this time, Benissoit helped Jonckheere look after her newborn son. Jonckheere said Benissoit’s honesty and infectious smile won her over from Day 1.

“He’s a very honest and open young man,” Jonckheere said. “He was so persistent and knew that we were in this destiny together.”

In 2011, Benissoit made his transition from Haiti to the United States. Benoit Jonckheere, Mary’s husband, said that he was in support of Benissoit coming to the United States to further his education.

Benoit said that his one concern was having enough living space in their two-bedroom home for Benissoit to live with them and their two children. The Jonckheeres quickly worked that out and allowed Benissoit to sleep on their couch.

“He’s not really a problem — you adjust,” Benoit said. “He’s part of the family.”

The Jonckheeres made a smooth adjustment to living with their new family member. Benissoit said he is happy to help with the children and do chores around the house.

He especially enjoys working with Benoit on the two acres of land the Jonckheeres have developed to grow various tropical plants.

During the fundraising event, Benissoit gave partygoers a tour of the land, describing the different species and what their purpose was for growing each one.

At least 60 people attended the fundraiser, which took place at the Jonckheere’s home in Homestead. Guests participated in a silent auction that showcased handmade jewelry, books and artwork.

Among the guests was Joy Klein, 52, an environmental resource project supervisor for Miami-Dade County. She met Benissoit last year through Jonckheere and has mentored him in the business of agriculture.

Klein says Benissoit’s plan to teach eco-agriculture to villagers is rare and will make a big difference in the ecology of that region.

“The more he learns, the better teacher he will be for the people back in Haiti,” Klein said. “He’s not just textbook learning — he’s got the hands-on stuff.”

During his speech to partygoers, Benissoit began to cry as he spoke of the happiness he felt, having the support to follow his dreams. He mentioned how happy his mother, Lifette Benissoit, was for him, although she couldn’t afford to attend.

Benissoit is currently studying at Miami Dade College, but plans to enter Florida International University in January to further his studies in eco-agriculture. His ultimate goal is to return to Haiti and teach the villagers in his hometown how to farm sustainably.

“The people who support me show how much they care for Haiti,” Benissoit said.