Garcon gives Haiti (and Little Haiti) hope

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No NFL player is prouder of his Haitian heritage than Pierre Garcon.

Since a massive earthquake hit the nation's capital of Port-au-Prince last month, the Indianapolis wide receiver has championed relief efforts at every opportunity. Garcon carried a Haitian flag bearing the motto L'Union fait la Force -- "there is strength in unity" -- after starring in each of the Colts' postseason wins.

Surrounded by reporters Tuesday at Super Bowl XLIV media day, Garcon approached his riser with a multicolored kerchief bearing the Caribbean nation's crest. He then twisted the cloth into a bandana and wore it for the world to see.

"I'm very pleased with what we have done," Garcon said. "I'm trying to be a role model. I just try to be positive about everything and make the best of the opportunity I have."

Garcon's efforts have made a more powerful impact at Miami Edison Senior High School than he could ever know. For the members of the 45-man Red Raiders football squad, which plays its home games in the heart of Miami's Little Haiti, Garcon is their hero both on and off the field.

"He gives them hope," Edison coach Eddie Jackson said. "It makes them stronger. They think, 'Why not me?'"

Hope was never needed more at Edison -- and that has nothing to do with the team's 1-9 record in 2009.

The emotional aftershocks of an earthquake that killed at least 200,000 people are still being felt in a disadvantaged community not far from where Garcon was speaking at Sun Life Stadium. Little Haiti is what the title suggests -- a scaled-down version of what Port-au-Prince was like before catastrophe struck.

According to the most recent census figures, Haitians comprise roughly half of the 30,000 residents in an area just north of downtown Miami. There is a strong emphasis on family, religion, Haitian culture and the Creole language, which Garcon was taught by his Haitian-born parents. But like in Port-au-Prince, poverty and violence are also a way of life. The average family income in Little Haiti is about $19,000, which contributes to the area's high crime rate.

"I had friends who really struggled," Colts running back/returner and 2004 Edison graduate Chad Simpson said. "They wore the same shoes for two years, no toys on Christmas and things like that. It's awful."

A convenience store sells beer and wine just across from the high school. Even at midday, the surrounding streets are filled with people milling outside dilapidated houses. One football player said knowing the neighborhoods and their residents is essential for survival.

"It's the street life," Jackson said. "If you're not focused, it's easy to be led astray."

Parts of Little Haiti are a disaster area in their own right, but nothing compared to what has transpired in Haiti.

Edison associate provost William Aristide said "everybody in this school one way or another was impacted." He isn't exaggerating. Most students lost family members. Others have relatives that are still missing or presumed dead.

Non-Haitians have also been affected by their classmates' loss. Michael Lima said one Haitian soccer teammate lost 13 relatives.

"Before the earthquake, you usually saw everybody playing around, giggling and laughing," said Lima, a senior kicker/punter on the football team. "Since that moment, you see people down."

It's in this environment where an 80-year-old educational institution teeters on the brink of extinction. Edison students must perform at a "C" level on upcoming standardized testing or the school could be permanently shuttered.

Actually, I should say the remaining students.

Edison once had a student population of 2,400. The surroundings were rough for decades, but the school has groomed plenty of successful graduates. Among them are an astronaut (Thomas Mattingly), actress (Tangi Miller), and current and former NFL players like Nat Moore, William Joseph and Nate Harris.

Edison now has fewer than 1,000 students, some of whom are Creole-speakers still struggling to master the English language (a major problem when it comes to standardized testing). There are multiple student transfers to other schools for educational and athletic reasons, not to mention safety concerns that only intensified after a February 2009 riot.

The exodus has crippled what was once one of Miami-Dade County's best football teams. Edison reached the state playoffs in four straight seasons from 2001-2004, advancing as far as the state semis in 2003, but hasn't been back since.

Jackson faces more pressing challenges at his alma mater. Some students can't play because they work to keep their families afloat financially. There are those who have to take their babysitting responsibilities to practice, forcing Jackson to provide food for hungry toddlers in between drills.

"Some of these kids have a rough road ahead of them," Jackson said.

The path out of Little Haiti may not be an easy one, but the hope is that they can take inspiration from Garcon's example. In one respect, they already have.

Garcon's fundraising has encouraged Edison students to also make a difference. A water drive far exceeded the 1,100-gallon benchmark set by school administrators. Collections of clothing, food, hygiene products and school supplies are forthcoming.

"He's playing at the same time with his people in Haiti that are injured and probably dead," said Red Raiders running back Jensky Mezadieu, who moved to Miami from Port-au-Prince in 2002. "That's hard for him. It could have been me in his position."

The charity push has carried over to the classroom. Edison students are more resolved than ever to get the necessary test scores to keep their school open. The NFL has provided assistance, sponsoring a Super Learning program that emphasizes education and anti-violence initiatives. The Red Raiders had four football players receive scholarships to small colleges Wednesday on National Signing Day. That number will grow once seniors receive word on their qualifying test scores.

"The big challenge is people underestimating us," Lima said. "They think Edison is in Little Haiti so it's a bad environment with guns and drugs. We're trying to show the people that hate that this school is starting to change.

"The football team, we did bad. But little by little during our season, you saw teamwork. We stuck together. And at the end, we won a game. We still kept our heads up."

And once some of those heads hit the pillow, they begin dreaming about one thing: Trying to follow in Garcon's footsteps as a player and a person.

"He's somebody that came from my background -- a Haitian," Red Raiders wide receiver Richard Tema said. "I can go to sleep and think, 'Wow, I can make it because he's made it.' He made that clear to me."