It may be January, but it’s another blistering 95-degree day in Bwa Chandel, high in the mountains on the Haitian Island of La Gonave.
The occasional motorbike passes by; aside from that, the way of life here has changed little for hundreds of years. Goats and chickens run through rutted dirt and rock streets. The town lacks indoor plumbing, clean latrines, and even electricity in many buildings. There is not a formal school building. Instead, the school resides in a squat building behind the church in town. The school lacks air-conditioning, computers, lights or even books for the students.
This is where retired Saugerties High School English teacher Nancy Lanni is spending her retirement. After 34 years of teaching English and directing senior class plays for generations of Saugertiesians, Lanni retired in 2010.
She says a film made after the 2010 earthquake first led her to Haiti. She decided to join a construction crew that was helping to rebuild after the devastating earthquake that killed over 100,000 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings.
During that trip, she began teaching classes for young adults four nights a week on top of her work with the construction crew. “I loved it,” she said. “If I could ever come down here and teach for a longer period, I would do it.”
When that opportunity came, she took it.
Lanni says the biggest shock to her when she first came to Haiti was the sheer lack of infrastructure, and how the country is always in a state of “crisis.”
“It’s a very poor country; you would think there would be some infrastructure even in disrepair, but there’s not,” she said.
“It looks like Moses is going to come down the street,” she added. “It’s really ancient looking.”
On her first trip to Bwa Chandel, the truck she was riding in developed an oil leak on the rough dirt and rock road leading up the mountain, stranding her. She ended up completing the trip after a wild ride on a motorbike, dodging donkeys and cows in the road. She did the last half-hour on foot.
She saw tiny houses tucked behind bean fields on the steep hills that flank the town of Bwa Chandel, which means “Candle Woods” in local Creole language.
Children and adults alike steal away for a few minutes to play soccer on any flat ground they can find, even resorting to using rocks for goal posts.
“Soccer is the number one pastime here,” she said. “Everyone plays. If there’s a big match, people will mass gather around one of the few TVs in town, and the screaming can be heard for miles.”
She spots a little church, which housed six graves in one room. This is where she met the town’s teachers. A little rundown school building sits adjacent to the church.
After touring this building, Lanni decided that something needed to be done to give the community a better school.
Forming a charity
Lanni decided she would build a new elementary school for the community and teach English. Early in 2013, she created a charity called “The World Is One Place” with the sole goal of raising money to build a new six-classroom elementary school for this tiny community.
By September 2013, she had raised $5,000, which goes a long way in Haiti. She used the money to pay the teachers’ salaries and repair chalkboards and the church benches students use for desks.
By December, the foundations and floor of the new school were completed. Soon work will begin on the cement and steel portions of the building.
Not only is this project providing a new school, it’s providing employment for eight people. “Hardly anyone here has had a job in the sense we think of,” Lanni said. “Most people raise chickens and maybe a donkey, so this is the first regular employment in this town.”
Lanni says approximately 60 kids attend the school, which will be able to accommodate 25-30 kids in each classroom in grades one through six.
“The goal is to move the students into a facility that is ideal for learning where each class can be in its own room with good lighting,” she said. “We want to have a healthy teaching and learning environment.”
She hopes the school will be a place that fosters good community relations. Everyone in the community will be able to benefit from clean latrines at the school and health courses on topics like clean water, she said. She hopes construction will wrap up in time for the school to open in September for the next year of school.