Bring on the bake sales, pizza sales and online donations, as a three-year volunteer project at New Trier High School nears its finish line.
After raising $150,000 for a new school in Haiti, students and teachers need about $5,000 more before a May 24 celebration assembly in Northfield. Donate here.
The Haitian school, St. Joseph Elementary School in Petit-Goave, shares a special bond with New Trier, where two Haitian security officers have worked for nearly two decades combined.
Since moving to Chicago, childhood friends Jean Cayemitte and Maurice Bonhomme spent any extra resources and time trying to rebuild a school in Haiti, originally opened by Bonhomme's father. A few years ago, they asked Carolyn Muir, the service learning coordinator for Northfield and a ninth-grade social studies teacher, if the school might be interested in collaborating.
Starting in a Hallway
It all began, rather fittingly, in the hallway.
"Around the C Building Carolyn was passing by, and she asked what could be done to help out in Haiti," said Cayemitte. "When I mentioned Maurice’s school, she said we could work on it and see what we can do."
Muir traveled to Haiti the following summer in 2009 to survey the work to be done for the school, which served 167 students, ages 5-12.
"There were holes in the ceilings and cracks in the walls," said Muir. "The conditions were far worse than we thought or imagined."
When the 2010 earthquake occurred, St. Joseph Elementary School was destroyed, and the volunteer efforts kicked up a notch.
"Instead of repairing, we were rebuilding," said Muir, who said the entire school and staff got involved in the volunteer effort. During the summer of 2010, New Trier organized a day camp for 400 kids in Haiti. For 2011, organizers met with Haitian engineers to plan the new school. Construction began in November 2011.
Opening New Doors
Now, it's almost time to open the doors. This October, the school will officially open.
"The main thing for me is that I believe by the end of June, the project will be complete," said Bonhomme, who also works at the head chef at a five-star restaurant downtown after completing his shift at New Trier. "It’s not complete yet but we’re going to have all the materials and can go from there. Everything will be great, everybody in my town will be happy, having a school with a nice building like that."
For Bonhomme, who described himself as "shy" about asking Muir for help, and Cayemitte, the experience working with New Trier has influenced their opinions of the school.
"Some people think of New Trier as a rich school with a bunch of spoiled rich kids," said Cayemitte. "It’s not what it really is: kids with a lot of compassion. Kids evolve a lot, helping others, especially the less fortunate. With the Haiti project, these kids have been wonderful."
"I don’t want to wait too late to thank Carolyn," he continued. "If not with her, we would not have school in Haiti."
The Worth of a Person
Muir believes the experience has opened students' eyes to new perspectives.
"It's really important how we view Haiti," she said. "The message above and beyond is that while we might have material wealth, it doesn’t define who we are. We cannot control if we are born on the North Shore or in Haiti; it doesn’t determine the worth of a person."
"I wish we could all go," she said. "It helps maintain perspective that is hard to fully understand until we can look beyond our own."