by Grant Moser & Len Lear
When the catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in Jan. 12, 2010, killing countless thousands of people and destroying much of the infrastructure of the already-desperately poor country in the Caribbean, it was front-page news all over the world. Today, however, Haiti rarely makes the news, but that does not mean the need is still not great.
It also does not mean that everyone has forgotten about Haiti. Rodney J. Snipes, for example, who owns R.J. Snipes Exporting, Inc., a seven-year-old company based in center city that ships cargo to 90 countries from the U.S. and Canada (their slogan is “Our Freight is Never Late”), is one for whom Haiti is not just a distant memory.
Snipes, 47, is a former student of Diana Reagan, president of the local chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French as well as a French teacher at La Salle University who has been taking her students to France since the mid-1960s.
“She mobilized her colleagues to donate French books to the people of Haiti,” said Rodney, “because so many of their books had been destroyed. France is the language of Haiti, so I decided to get involved because we try to do humanitarian work whenever we can. This project (‘French Books for Haiti’) is difficult, though, because unlike English books, French books are hard to locate here. So you can imagine it takes lots of time and man hours, and we are not a non-governmental organization (NGO).”
Many of the books being collected will go to a new library being built in Port-au-Prince, the island nation’s capital, by Samuel Dalembert, a 7-foot center with the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings and the only Haitian-born player in the league. It will be called the Dalembert Foundation Library. Some books are also going to organizations, schools and 74 orphanages in the Port-au-Prince area.
Dalembert, then with the Philadelphia 76ers, embraced the idea when he was approached, and Snipes started sending out the word that he needed books, particularly those in French. “Although French books are difficult to find, so many places have been so generous,” Snipes said. The foundation has received more than 60,000 books so far and ultimately hopes to collect many more volumes for the library, schools and orphanages, which Snipes’ company is transporting to Haiti for free.
Snipes has contacted many schools and universities around the country, some of which have made significant donations. “They may be discarded books, but in Haiti, they’re like gold,” he said.
According to Snipes, the most significant book benefactor in the Philadelphia area has been Chestnut Hill resident Dr. Charlotte Kleis, a retired professor of French literature at Temple University, who began collecting books in French when she was a student and continued to do so for more than 50 years. Over that time she had amassed quite a collection, but an email from Diana Reagan led her to donate more than 700 of them.
“She (Kleis) called me a little more than a year ago to inform me about her personal library,” said Snipes, “because she kept the people of Haiti in her heart so long, I just felt. The people of Philadelphia and Chestnut Hill should realize what a beautiful person and wonderful educator/humanitarian we have among us.” (Kleis did tell us modestly, “Full disclosure would add that I donated these books not only out of humanitarian concerns but also out of the need to downsize because I was moving in October.”)
Kleis felt a connection to the country on several levels. “It’s a French-speaking country of course,” she said. “Also two of our long-term adjuncts at Temple are both from Haiti and were students of mine way back when on the master’s degree level. I’ve very fond of them both. Plus at St. Paul’s Church in Chestnut Hill, we’ve had a few programs on Haiti and its needs. One of our parishioners who I’m good friends with [architect Bob Busser] went to Haiti for three months shortly after the earthquake with Habitat for Humanity.”
Thus, Kleis contacted Snipes about donating her books. “It’s hard to let go of any book, even the latest acquired popular paperback,” she explained. “However, it became more palatable when I realized I could donate them to people who would appreciate them, need them and use them.” Many of the books were quite specialized, including scholarly books, research books on French literature and even several published in the early 1800s.
Kleis encourages others to find ways to donate to help the relief effort in Haiti as well. “The need of the Haitian people, who were already among the poorest of the poor before the earthquake, is immense,” she said. “It’s only one of many countries in dire need, but you can’t be paralyzed by the magnitude of the need. You need to start somewhere.”
Kleis taught French at Temple University for 44 years. She began studying the language in high school and double majored in French and English at the University of Michigan, where she also obtained a Master’s Degree in French.
“Then I started my Ph.D and was accepted for a Fulbright and studied at the Sorbonne for a year. I started out studiously, going to the library all the time, and my advisor there said, ‘You’re in Paris. You can go to the library back home. Enjoy the city.’ My project during that year compared how contemporary French theatre played out on stage versus how it read out in print form.” Her dissertation was on the narrative point of view in Montaigne’s essays.
Regarding her age, Dr. Kleis remarked, “I think that I’ve taught for over 40 years and am now retired will be more than sufficient for people to have a good idea of my age.”