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Sgt. Mark Gallgher Vocational School

In memory of Mark; Woodstock-based committee unveils plan to build the Sgt. Mark Gallagher Vocational School in Haiti

As help flowed from around the globe to the people of Haiti following January's devastating earthquake, few people reacted with more caring, compassion and commitment than the residents of Carleton and York counties.

The existing close ties between New Brunswickers and Haitians prior to the earthquake only grew stronger in the aftermath of the tragedy. Few bonds were tighter than those connecting the small community of Northampton to the small nation of Haiti.

The region, the province and all of Canada mourned the loss of Northampton resident RCMP Sgt. Mark Gallagher, who perished in the earthquake while serving as a police trainer with the United Nations peacekeeping forces.

Yet, through the pain and tears at the loss of their local hero, the community celebrated the safe arrival of two young Haitian orphans to Northampton, adopted by the family of Tim and Michelle Gray.

Now, as the world's attention turns from the rescue and care of Haitians to the reconstruction of a nation, residents of Woodstock and surrounding communities, including Northampton, continue to set themselves up as compassionate leaders.

This week, a committee in Woodstock unveiled its efforts to co-ordinate the construction of the Sgt. Mark Gallagher Vocational School in Riviere Froide, Haiti.

Few communities in Atlantic Canada were as personally affected by the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake as were the people of Woodstock, the home of Sgt. Gallagher, said Richard Blaquiere, a teacher at Woodstock High School and spokesman for the Woodstock Coalition of Care.

"It was almost an intuitive decision to name the school after Mark," said Blaquiere.

He noted Woodstock continues to be home to Sgt. Gallagher's wife, Lisa, School District 14 superintendent, and stressed the other deep ties within the local community to the devastated country.

Blaquiere identified a long list of area groups and organizations devoted to helping the people of Haiti, before and after the earthquake.

"As many as six local churches have missions in Haiti, building hospitals, clinics and orphanages, as well as working on community development projects," he said.

He noted the joy expressed throughout the region when the Grays flew to Florida in mid-January and became the first family in Canada to adopt children from Haiti after the disaster.

Blaquiere pointed to two teams of Carleton County health professionals, including physicians and nurses, who visited Haiti in recent weeks ministering to the sick and injured in near primitive conditions.

Only this week, Blaquiere, with the help of Dean Stephenson of Florenceville- Bristol - a member of a Wesleyan mission which operates a hospital in La Gonave, Haiti - arranged shipment to Haiti of medical equipment rescued from the Carleton Memorial Hospital after it closed in 2007.

As the local committee launched its plans to build the school, Blaquiere began searching for and finding a wide cross section of willing partners.

Among the first to lend a voice to the committee were the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA) and District 7 RCMP of Carleton County, along with District 9 RCMP of Restigouche - where Sgt. Gallagher served for several years.

One of the key partners is the Association Québécois pour l'Avancement des Nations Unis (AQANU), a Quebec-based NGO with 35 years experience working on education and land management projects in Haiti.

AQANU director Réginald Sorel recently visited Woodstock to meet with the school committee.

On April 9, Blaquiere and Canadian Teachers' Federation vice president and former NBTA president, Carleton County native Brent Shaw will fly to Haiti to visit the proposed site of the school in Rivière Froide, a community about 50 kilometres north of the capital city of Port au Prince.

Blaquiere explained the vocational school will be a separate building from the primary/secondary school - built and run by a Haitian order of nuns - which was destroyed in the earthquake with the devastating loss of 144 children, four nuns and two lay teachers.

Blaquiere said, initially, it was thought that perhaps the Woodstock committee could raise funds to rebuild the main school. But he said that is being taken care of by a German NGO that has a long-standing relationship with the community.

"The nuns suggested the vocational school," Blaquiere said of the Petite Soeurs de Sainte Thérèse, who run the school complex in the Haitian community.

"They see the vocational school as a way to keep young people from ending up in the slums of Port-au-Prince."

A vocational school would serve the economic and social needs of the region, which is largely inhabited by peasant farmer families.

The school would teach specific skills in areas such as sewing, computers, carpentry, electrical and plumbing, he said.

Blaquiere added the committee has also garnered support on the political front, with both New Brunswick Opposition Leader and Woodstock MLA David Alward and Tobique-Mactaquac MP Mike Allen taking part in the meeting attended by Sorel.

"It's a pretty exciting idea," said Allen, who sits as chairman of the Atlantic Conservative caucus.

The Tory MP said the committee hopes to enroll the support of CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency.

"There may be some programs to apply for," said Allen, noting a key element of the process is not only to build the school, but also to ensure it is sustainable going forward.

In addition to the active support of Alward and Allen, Blaquiere has also received words of encouragement from Speaker of the Senate Noël Kinsella.

In a March 23 letter to Blaquiere, Kinsella commended the effort, calling it an appropriate memorial to Sgt. Gallagher.

"After a long career serving the people of Canada, Sgt. Gallagher died while serving with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on a United Nations Peacekeeping mission that sought to make Haiti a better place for its people," Kinsella wrote.

"The proposed vocational school will be a fitting tribute to Sgt. Gallagher's life and service, as well as a lasting benefit to the people of Rivière, Haiti," he continued. "As the short-term priorities following the devastating earthquake are satisfied, attention will turn to the medium and longer term. Building the Sgt. Mark Gallagher Memorial Vocational School is a worthy enterprise which looks to the future."

Allen also praised the effort of Blaquiere and the level of local involvement in the project.

Other active support has come from several fronts, including Sgt. Gallagher's family members, who have given their blessings to the project. Shane Gallagher, the late RCMP officer's son, is a member of the steering committee.

Blaquiere explained the Woodstock Coalition of Care has been in place for several weeks quietly laying the ground work for the massive project which will require $500,000 to $1 million to make the dream of the Sgt. Mark Gallagher Memorial Vocation School a reality.

He said he continues to pursue support from individuals, corporations and a variety of service groups and agencies. He said the idea has gained positive support, especially with it involving the name of Sgt. Gallagher, who proved tremendous community leadership during his career as a police officer.

"I didn't know him that well myself, but everything I have heard about Mark tells me he was a very caring individual," said Blaquiere. "He embodied those values Canadians prize the most - selflessness and compassion. We feel this school would be the perfect memorial to him."

Gallagher, 50, was a native of Bathurst who served with the New Brunswick Highway Patrol and the Moncton Police Force before joining the RCMP. He was a media relations officer in Moncton for several years before transferring to Bathurst and then to Halifax.

Gallagher was on a nine-month tour of duty in Haiti with the RCMP, attached to the United Nations peacekeeping force. He had just arrived back in Haiti on Jan. 12 when the devastating earthquake struck.

He was found dead two days later in the rubble of his apartment building.