A Tale of Two Phillys: Students Join Forces to Build a School in Haiti, Learn Life Lessons
By Rosemary C. McDonough
This spring students from the Main Line – an affluent community in Philadelphia – met teens from the inner city, and together they went to one of the poorest countries in the world. What they encountered was hard work, a sense of community and hope.
The group was made up of seven students of Legacy Youth Tennis and Education, mostly from the inner city, and seven teens from Lower Merion High School who had established a buildOn chapter. The group would set up tennis clinics for the local kids and live with local host families for a week.
Every year, Legacy interacts with 4,500 Philadelphia children, ages four to 18, from underserved communities. It teaches them how to be leaders through playing tennis and engaging in service projects.
David Broida, a board member of Legacy; Tom Reed, a teacher at Lower Merion High School; and Ben Hirsh, Legacy Coordinator of Youth Leadership; were the ones who encouraged the students to join forces and build a new school in Haiti, in the remote village of Menard.
“We’re offering these villagers a hand up, not a hand out,” David says. buildOn works in partnership with the people who will benefit from these schools. With the money raised from the chapter, buildOn provides materials, engineering, labor and supervision. buildOn’s host countries provide both skilled and volunteer labor, teachers and a principal.
Working alongside the Haitian villagers and American students, David saw how a simple three-room schoolhouse changes lives. “In many villages, students walk nearly an hour each way to attend the closest school. But having your own school makes a huge difference.”
Each villager signs a covenant that promises an equal number of boys and girls will attend these schools. Some villagers sign with their thumb print, because they cannot read or write. For many villagers, particularly women, it is the first document they have ever been asked to sign.
“A local school means you have a better chance of attending secondary school, or maybe even university,” Ben says. “It means you have better health, a better job. It means you have a reduced chance of getting HIV. If you are a girl, it means you have a reduced chance of early pregnancy, which can end your education altogether.”
David says the Haitian students’ education was already beginning before the school was built. “(They) were amazed that some of our students were African American. They thought all the American volunteers would be white.”
The American students received an education, too. It was their first extended time with students from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from the inner city and the Main Line do not often meet, so the students had an opportunity to reexamine their lives at home.
Tom described the project through the eyes of one small boy. “Kenny, the five year old son of my host family, has the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. But he usually complains about his feet hurting after his 45-minute walk home from school. The school we are building is five minutes away. Kenny’s feet will hurt no longer.”
The students of Legacy and buildOn are building more than a school. They are building a community. They are building relationships across countries and social classes. In a weary, overburdened world, this is the way forward.
Learn more about buildOn’s work building school in developing countries and how to build a school with us. Want to start a buildOn Chapter? Learn how here.