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Quake’s tremors felt close to home

Student’s revelation that relatives died in Haiti spurs a Tewksbury elementary school to action

Emmanuel Exilhomme's son mentioned in class that some of his relatives in Haiti perished in the quake, and his school in Tewksbury rallied to help his family and others. Emmanuel Exilhomme's son mentioned in class that some of his relatives in Haiti perished in the quake, and his school in Tewksbury rallied to help his family and others. (Michele McDonald for the boston globe)
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / January 21, 2010

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TEWKSBURY - The word of the day was astonishing, and first-grade teacher Teresa Enos challenged her 20 students to use it in a sentence. Ethan Exilhomme, a shy 6-year-old who loves comic book action heroes, raised his hand and wiggled his fingers. He said it was astonishing that 10 of his family members had died in the Haiti earthquake.

The teacher was stunned.

“I was shocked when he said that,’’ Enos said. “For a moment, I was speechless.’’

She continued with the lesson, calling on other students for more examples. But at the end of the day, she gave Ethan a note to take home to his parents.

The next day, the boy’s father called her, telling her that he had indeed lost 10 family members, including Ethan’s uncle, aunt, and cousins. Their two-story concrete house crashed down on them during dinner.

“What a tragedy for this family,’’ Enos said. “We decided to do something, anything for them.’’

Last Friday, Enos went to work. She told the North Street School’s principal about young Ethan’s revelation, and together they decided to raise money to help the family and survivors of the earthquake. They organized two fund-raisers, one for the family, the other with proceeds to go to survivors of the earthquake.

Since Monday, teachers and parents have written checks for the family, and so far have raised about $1,000.

Mitchell Hodgson, who is in Ethan’s class, decided to help out, too. He drew pictures and sold them to family members, raising about $12 for the Exilhommes. Yesterday, sitting at his desk with one of his drawings, a Christmas tree, Hodgson said, “I did it for Haiti.’’

Students have been raising money for the American Red Cross. Tuesday was declared Haiti Day, and students wore the red and blue of the Haitian flag. Yesterday was Pajama Day, and today is Backwards Day, when students can wear their clothing backward. Tomorrow is Sports Day. On each day, students are asked to donate a dollar.

Yesterday, Angela Kimble, principal of North Street School, stood before Ethan’s class and presented his parents, Emmanuel and Sandra Exilhomme, with a check for $567 and three large pieces of luggage filled with children’s clothes.

Emmanuel Exilhomme is scheduled to travel to his homeland today, and to bury his family on Saturday and Sunday. He plans to distribute the clothing to children affected by the quake.

“It was an amazing thing for them to do, to embrace us like this,’’ said Exilhomme, a 33-year-old social worker who is president of A Better Tomorrow International Charities Inc., a social service agency for the Boston-area Haitian Community.

He said yesterday that his Medford office has been flooded with calls from people asking for help for relatives in Haiti.

“A lot of families have come to me, but there is nothing I can do, no resources,’’ he said. “I can’t help myself right now.’’

Exilhomme said he first learned of the earthquake on his way home from his office.

“I was listening to the radio, and I heard about the earthquake,’’ he said. “I pulled my car over and took a deep breath.’’

Hours later, an uncle living in Haiti told him of the deaths.

“It was really hard for us to explain to a 6-year-old what happened, but I think when he sees our tears, he gets it,’’ he said.

Exilhomme said his wife, a nurse, still has not heard from her mother, sister, and aunt.

“It’s terrible for her, and we have cried a lot,’’ he said. “Since she is a nurse, she would like to go to Haiti and help out, but we have three children who need to be cared for here.’’

Spurred by the family’s grief, administrators at the school say they will continue to raise money and gather clothing to donate to the American Red Cross for use in Haiti. The school organized a fund-raising campaign last Friday, and plans are underway to expand the effort citywide to reach out to residents for donations.

Enos said that one of the donors is Ethan Exilhomme, who walked into class yesterday with five dollars to donate to the American Red Cross.

“That says a lot about this family,’’ she said. “In their time of need, they are helping others.’’

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com.