Donor Gives Haitian Student an Opportunity of a Lifetime

Promises to Fund His College Education

Prof. Robert Giles with the donor, Kristen Williams.

Prof. Robert Giles with the donor, Kristen Williams.

06/03/2011
By Edwin L. Aguirre

Blessings can sometimes fall from the sky, so to speak. It happened recently to Prof. Robert Giles, chair of the Physics Department.

Returning from a conference in Orlando, Fla., late in the evening of April 28, Giles struck up a conversation with the woman sitting beside him on the flight home to Boston. The topic of conversation? Her discomfort with the amount of wasted food on her Florida cruise.

“This woman had recently visited a Third World country and was supporting several students in school, recognizing their only meal each day was the school lunch,” says Giles. “I told her I understood her efforts because since 2001 I have been supporting students in Haiti for many of the same reasons.”

Urged by her interest, he began describing his experience in Haiti over the past decade, and showing her slides from his recent lecture on the subject.

“While discussing the students, I mentioned that my oldest student in Haiti, Pouchon Jean Amazan, had been accepted at UMass Lowell for the fall semester, but that an $8,000 shortfall in his education funds might preclude him from attending,” says Giles.

While they were talking, the woman — Kristen Williams — pulled out something from her purse and started to write.

“By the time I finished describing my proposal for a UMass Lowell Haiti Development Studies Center,” Giles recalls, “she slid me a folded piece of paper and said, ‘I can tell you’re concerned for your Haitian student and you shouldn’t be.’ ”

Giles opened the paper. It was a personal check from Williams.

“I could not believe it was written in my name for the entire $8,000 amount!” he says.

It turned out his seatmate is the wife of George Haseotes, whose family founded Cumberland Farms and owns Gulf Oil. Together, they established the George Haseotes Family Foundation.

'Speechless'

“Speechless, all I could think of was suggesting she rewrite the check to UMass Lowell and earmark it for Pouchon’s education so it would be tax-deductible,” he says. “Rewriting the check, Mrs. Williams expressed an interest in staying informed of Pouchon’s progress and promised to provide him financial support each year at the University.”

“Prof. Giles never asked, I offered,” says Williams. “He needed $8,000 to guarantee the student’s first year of education. This coincidentally was the same amount we spent on our vacation — and it was the message I wanted to deliver to my children.”

Amazan, the 21-year-old son of a farmer in Les Cayes, Haiti, will enroll in the physics program and will work in the department as an undergraduate research assistant.

“I know the misery that my family has been through and our only hope is for me to get a good education,” wrote Amazan in his application to UMass Lowell. “I consider myself a smart boy who wants to study as hard as possible to achieve success.”

The Value of Education

“Listening to Prof. Giles, I learned about the challenges facing Haiti — before and after the earthquake, the body count, the smell, the lingering devastation, the lack of potable water, sanitation, education and health care,” says Williams. 

“I learned about the roadblocks to real change and development in the country, the corruption and the frustration. I also learned that hope has emerged through the rubble and, what I knew to be true, that education represents hope.”

“Our good fortune cannot be compared to the work of Prof. Giles. My husband’s parents were both immigrants. Education was very important to them. He remembers his mother crying when he left college after his freshman year to help her take care of the family farm. George was the one who encouraged me to support the education of the less-privileged because he knows the value of education. Thanks to that flight home, we were given an opportunity to make a difference and we are grateful.”