Last week, a handful of educators from the Saugerties Central School District returned from a visit to Haiti. Organized through Opportunities for Communities (OfC), a not-for-profit educational group, the trip was focused on assisting local summer school teachers of restavek children.
Cyn Kendall, a special education teacher at Mount Marion and Woodstock Day School who serves on the board of directors at Opportunities for Communities, an Amherst, Mass.-based group, estimated that there are as many as 300,000 to 400,000 restaveks in Haiti.
A restavek is a child who is sent by their parents to work as a domestic servant because the parents are unable to provide for them. The term is a derivation from the Creole words rester avec, which means “to stay with.” The practice is common in the poverty-wracked Caribbean nation but the children are often victims of abuse in what is widely viewed as a kind of modern-day slavery.
Kendall joined OfC in 2011 as the group was beginning to work toward the construction of a restavek school. The group’s summer school (known as Lekol Dete) program is open to both regular and restavek children, and includes a nutritious lunch every day.
“We’re not an aid organization, but we’re an organization that wants to help sustain a very small community that we’ve established relationships with,” said Kendall. “The intention of our group on every trip is to go and listen and build on the relationships that were started when the group began back in 2008. Every trip is different because we learn more as we go, and the Haitian community and the people we’re involved with kind of direct where they would like to see things happen. It’s a program that was established six years ago by my co-director’s daughter. We interface with the teachers and do kind of a teacher training program together before the summer school starts, and then we stay for the first day of school when the students come. That was kind of what the focus was for this trip.”
Finding educators in the district to join the trip, which took place in early July, was as simple as getting the word out. Joining Kendall on this trip were Carole Kelder, principal of Mount Marion Elementary; Susan Kleinke, a fourth-grade teacher at Cahill Elementary; and Sandra Smith, a third-grade teacher at Cahill; Noah Barbaro (Kendall’s son) and Randi Kelder (Kelder’s daughter) were also part of the group, as were Natalie Scally and Lauren Thompson, two local college students.
“It was really people that were willing to go and learn more about what we do and about the country and the people,” said Kendall. “Part of that, too, is that people will then return to our own community and continue the conversation about what they saw and experienced and continuing the education here. What we would do each day was travel to the (Maranatha School for Restavek) we built. Generate more creative and critical thinking, and we do that with a variety of games that we bring down every year. During the time that we spend with them we’re kind of learning how to play these games together, and the Haitian teachers will then build that into their summer program.”
The group stayed in the village of Bellabe, where they donated around 40 pillowcase dresses to children; the dresses were made during an after school program by students at Mount Marion Elementary. And while representatives of OfC visit twice a year, Kendall was quick to recognize the people in the local Bellabe community who are instrumental in keeping the program running.
“We have Haitian counterparts there that are vital and amazing,” she said. “They maintain the program and what we have put in place, and they’re obviously there year ‘round because that’s where they live.”
But while the primary purpose of the OfC efforts are to help restavek children in Haiti, there is also a benefit to children and the greater community in Saugerties. Kendall said she was impressed by this summer’s group; while she was on her fourth trip — her second with her son — Kendall said everyone else in the group was making the journey for the first time.
“The response from this group on the trip was unbelievable,” she said. “They brought such insight. They had such an enormous respect for the people that we know there, that we’ve established relationships with, with the teachers that they met. They were continually thinking of ways that they could bring it back to Saugerties and share it with students to try to support the programs that we have there. They were constantly thinking of ways that would be beneficial, and continue and not just have it be a week’s trip and then come home and say, ‘That was great, but I have other things to do.’ I’m just amazed by their generosity and support.”
Kleinke said she was moved by the experience.
“I have to be honest, I am still amazed that there are countries where education isn’t accessible to many,” she said. “The OfC is bringing education to restavek children who would otherwise have no opportunity to attend school, as there is no such thing as free education in Haiti. For these children, education holds the only hope they might have to overcome poverty. I felt very grateful to be a part of this group and to see firsthand how life changing this opportunity can be for so many. We take education for granted in our country. It was humbling to be in a country where education is viewed as a privilege that is unattainable to many. Cyn Kendall and the directors of Opportunities for Communities are heroes in my eyes, and in the eyes of many Haitian families.”
District Superintendent Seth Turner said he was impressed by the educators who participated.
“I am pleased to see people engaged in acts of kindness and compassion during a time in which there is so much anger and hatred in this world,” he said.
For more information on Opportunities for Communities, visit: opportunitiesforcommunities.org.