BITHLO, Fla. — Four years ago, James Coqmard turned part of his home into an after-school program center, installing solar panels to combat a spotty electrical connection. Now, he's learning ways to forge beneficial partnerships that benefit his community — from a place far away.​

  • James Coqmard helping Bithlo with "United Global Outreach"
  • Was awarded State Department fellowship to study community
  • Noticed Bithlo lacked housing, infrastructure, transportation

Growing up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Coqmard​'s father died when he was 5 years old, leaving his mother to raise him and three other siblings. He wasn't born into a wealthy family and said that his name didn't mean much.

“My Mama had to forget herself and own comfort, selling food on the street," Coqmard said. “Giving up everything for your own kids, I think it requires a lot of courage and a lot of sacrifice.”​

But Coqmard focused on his studies, and driven by the desire to help his community, applied for an internationally competitive professional development program.

Coqmard was awarded a fellowship to study community solutions via the U.S. Department of State, winning a coveted spot of 80 people of 6,000 worldwide applicants.

The law school student quickly realized his new temporary home in Orange County, too, lacked safe housing, solid infrastructure, and dependable transportation.

“It’s not about the individual, it’s about the whole community," Coqmard said. “Spending four months in Bithlo really showed me the needs are the same everywhere."

Coqmard dove in, studying under the tutelage of Tim McKinney and his nonprofit United Global Outreach, which for the past decade has sought to improve life for Bithlo residents.

Coqmard taught French to children at private school Orange County Academy, located in the heart of Bithlo's Transformation Village, and led tours of the campus, meeting with community leaders to leverage relationships.

“He just jumped right in and helped in every way possible ... from teaching French to our students to jumping in and pumping water when we were flooding," said Andrea DiBartolomeo, who teaches first through third grade at the school. “It’s been so good to just expand their world beyond Bithlo.”

This January, Orange County Academy will celebrate being open for 10 years. What started as a one-room schoolhouse, housing kindergarten through third grade, grew year after year — it's now home to 50 to 60 students, grades K4-12, mainly from Bithlo.

But no one pays for tuition.

About a quarter of the students are on Step Up scholarships, DiBartolomeo says. McKinney's nonprofit raises funds to cover the rest.

“For students that for whatever reason aren’t succeeding in local, public school, it gives them a smaller option and an opportunity where we can be a lot more like family," DiBartolomeo says.

“We’ve probably gotten more from James than we’ve given," McKinney says.

Coqmard​, now 29, will return to Haiti in the coming weeks, after a presentation in Washington, D.C. on what he discovered.

He said that he'll take Bithlo with him.

“The kids here really showed me that they’re willing to learn," he said. “I’ve been able to see the world a different way … providing the words they really want to hear: 'I love you.'"