In January of 2010 the world came together to aid those devastated by Haiti’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The disaster was news for weeks, but soon it was onto the next topic. Meanwhile in Haiti, millions still feel the effects of that fateful day.
But some have not forgotten. The organization Opportunities for Communities, whose membership includes Saugerties teacher Cyn Kendall, has continued to work to educate Haitian children in Bellabe Village near Les Cayes in the southwest part of the country.
“We really believe that education is the key to change, especially in one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere,” said Kendall, a special educator at Mt. Marion and Woodstock Day School. “Our main focus isn’t being an aid organization, but to help sustain, to help support a small village and a couple schools, even a soccer team.”
The founders of Opportunities for Communities include former Peace Corps member Doug Albertson, former University of Massachusetts professor of Public Health Ken Mundt, veteran of the humanitarian Young Life group Dave Wintsch, and their Haitian counterpart and Young Life activist Timothe Indrik, who recently passed away.
After the 2010 earthquake, Kendall felt the need to help in any way she could. The group appealed to Kendall due to its focus on education. Since joining, she has become a board member and vital contributor to the cause.
A major cause for the group is restavek children. According to the website restavekfreedom.org, “Restavek is a form of modern-day slavery that persists in Haiti, affecting one in every 15 children. Typically born into poor rural families, restavek children are often given to relatives or strangers. In their new homes, they become domestic slaves, performing menial tasks for no pay.”
Of Haiti’s population of approximately 10 million, 300,000 are restavek children.
This is where Opportunities for Communities comes in. “This was our fifth summer of a summer school,” says Kendall. “We’ve helped to support them during the year, but a really innovative program one of the co-director’s daughters, Amanda, started five years ago, blended the restavek students and general education students.”
However, not all of their endeavors have been smooth sailing.
“What happened when we were there last summer is we were renting space from a Baptist church, and they said they’d no longer let us have the space for the restavek program.” After losing its space, the group built its own school. It is the first of its kind in its community and, the group believes, the first of its kind in the country.
“It has flushing toilets, something they’ve never had,” said Kendall. “After we left this summer, they were actually going to be trained how to use them. We have about 200 kids who do the blended summer program, but those restavek kids, this is their school, and they’ll have it for years and years.”
Ages of students can vary widely.
“One man, he’s 25 years old, we’ve seen him year after year, he’s just finished his sixth grade education and moved on to seventh grade,” said Kendall. “He’s the proudest, most amazing man there. He was a restavek child, and he’s at an age that usually they wouldn’t consider keeping someone, but we just found out this summer that he would wait until all the other kids left because he was also homeless. He didn’t want anyone else to know that he didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
The community has shown its gratitude.
“This past summer when we opened the school, they held a celebration party for us,” said Kendall. “The Haitian people are so proud and so grateful and gracious and they wanted to make a big celebration to open the school; all the kids came in their uniforms, and all the teachers came in their uniforms. We really got the sense that it wasn’t just going to be a school, but a community space that we know we can build off of. They’re taking such pride in that being in their little town.”
Currently, the school has six bedroom-sized classrooms and a modern bathroom, with space above for a computer room. The issue they face now, however, is that their funds are completely depleted. Ken Mundt funded the building of the school, but the project isn’t over when the last brick is put in place.
Kendall explains, “At this point that’s what we’re really trying to focus on, trying to do some crowdfunding and get the word out to get some more funding. It costs $100 to pay a teacher, that’s what they get paid for the year. We support the teachers, the person who directs the school, so it’s ongoing.”
The work is paying off.
“To see how the summer program has taken off, how we were guiding these teachers and teaching them how to teach, how to do more critical thinking,” said Kendall. “When we were there this summer, we were just completely taking a back seat, watching them do it all on their own.”
Visit opportunitiesforcommunities.org/ for more info.