To many teens, spring break means partying on the beach, cruising downtown, hanging out with friends at dance clubs and malls. But for several students at York School in Monterey, California, spring signals a return visit to the desperately poor country of Haiti.
According to the U.S. State Department, about 75 percent of Haitians live in abject poverty. Of the 6.5 million who crowd into an area roughly the size of Maryland, 50 percent are unemployed.
There, accompanied by their headmaster, Roger Bowen, and Serena Beeks, former executive director for the Commission on Schools in the Diocese of Los Angeles, the students have made it their personal mission to fight the illiteracy that affects 80 percent of he Haitian population.
The students raise their own travel funds, undergo an arduous journey, and spend their days learning, laboring and teaching in the intense heat with minimal amenities.
'I really look forward to it,' says senior Maren Christensen. Her attitude is typical of the group, which also includes students Nathan Adams, Garrett Deese, Brian Jones, Audrey Spencer, Peter White, Margaret Karabetyan and Alex Yabroff.
An entry in senior Nathan Adams' travel journal makes clear that such visits are not just field trips with a bit of do-gooding thrown in:
'We had to stop [the jeeps] several more times to let [people] throw up. We then proceeded over the worst terrain yet, which consisted of mud and rocks. It was an adventure. A couple of guys had to get out and push the car to make it over the hillside. However, we finally made it to the beautiful school. This was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had, meeting the students.'
The seven-hour jeep ride from Haiti's capital of Port au Prince along rugged roads crosses seven rivers and brings students to York's partner school, l'Ecole St. Matthias. Like their own college preparatory school situated above the lush hillsides of Monterey, this K-8 school has a student body of about 250. But there all similarities end.
Here in Haiti there are no computers, overhead lights, or gleaming classroom windows, none of the ordinary equipment and ongoing upgrades that most North American students take for granted. St. Matthias is constructed, in the most minimal sense of the word, of coconut timber and thatch, with a dirt floor, and a roof of corrugated, rusting tin.
As recent graduate Brian Jones, recalls, there are 'palm-frond sidings that can't cover all the gaps in the wall.' To make matters worse, the hurricane season caused the structure to lean dangerously to one side.
It's enough to convince even the most altruistic to turn their efforts elsewhere. But nothing, it seems, can discourage the York School group, who have set themselves three ambitious--some would say impossible--goals.
First, there's the matter of getting school supplies to St. Matthias. If soliciting, organizing and transporting the various supplies sounds like a difficult task, that is nothing compared to what the York students faced on the eve of their spring trip in March, 2001. With everything packed and ready to go, political unrest threw Haiti into turmoil. Sobered but not undaunted, Bowen and the York students simply tried again in June when a relative peace returned. (Bowen will also travel to Port au Prince in October to address a conference for two hundred Haitians and Americans who work in partnership through the Episcopal Church.)
Nor did they travel with any false sense of security. As Christensen wrote matter-of-factly a few days before departure, 'The anxious part of me simply expects to survive. Even though I've done this trip before, it's always a little scary going into a situation that I know will make me uncomfortable both physically and emotionally. But I do expect to survive . . .'
Journey to understanding
A second, long-term goal has been to raise $100,000 to build a new school. Jonas LaBonte, headmaster of St. Mathias, has located a suitable parcel of land and Monterey architects such as Mel Blevins have volunteered to help design a multi-room, two-story structure with good lighting and airflow. Already, the small but dedicated group of high school students has raised more than $20,000. How? Just by approaching anyone who might be persuaded to help.
Yet there is also a third goal, one that is, perhaps, the most ambitious of all--that of establishing true rapport between people from two vastly different cultures. As Adams sums it up in his journal, 'I want to experience Haitian life so that I may be the same as the Haitians.'
No mere sentiment, Adams' comment reflects a common intention among the students, one that has endured considerable testing and, which, like many a journey toward understanding, has often begun with an honest recognition of what separates people from each other.
'Just the simple things in life that we do seem like an enormous chore for them,' admits Adams. ' I see how completely different I am from them, the things that I take for granted. I sleep in a house every night with a suitable temperature; I have fresh, clean clothes to wear everyday, and I have plenty to nourish my body. . . [The Haitians] do not take anything for granted.'
'I thought I knew what 'poor' was,' adds Jones, 'But in the village of Thomonde, women spend more than half their day getting wood and water for the night's meal. Kids spend a lot of time helping their families, sometimes working all day in the hot sun just to stay alive. Horses, mules and walking are the most common forms of transportation.'
Two-thirds of the Haitian workforce is engaged in small-scale subsistence farming that entails long days of grueling, physical labor.
The average life expectancy is 44 years. At age 67, headmaster Labonte is among the four percent of the population who survive beyond 65.
The hope of Haiti
Given these figures and the high rate of illiteracy, it's not surprising that qualified teachers are hard to find. In addition, only one in five families can pay the $25-75 in annual fees required to maintain the schools. 'But we have to educate the children,' says Jones. Nearly half the population is under 14 years old. 'They're truly the hope of Haiti.'
At the same time, one also senses that the Haitian spirit brings hope to the York students. Several mention being awakened from jaded attitudes toward material comforts. Some, like Jones, are struck by the extraordinary optimism they encounter, which, in their words, comes across less as some quaint notion of acceptance than as a highly dynamic faith.
'Everyone says to me, 'Oh, you're going to Haiti.' They have all these stereotypes. I wish they could see how hard the people work, how proud they are, how spiritual they are too. They're very formal, but kind and hospitable, as well. They welcome you with open arms.'
Adams, too, expresses strong respect for the culture. Recalling a visit to Cange, where he and others found a highly successful partnership project: a hospital center...and a panoramic look-out ('some of the best scenery I have ever looked upon'), he says, 'I was on top of a peak looking at one of the poorest countries in the world, but at the same time I felt enlivened by the whole concept that these people manage their lives so well.'
A subtle shift
After a day of sharing with Haitian students the finer points of reading sheet music and playing the trumpet, considers her own education in progress, revealing a subtle but significant shift to a more localized point of view.
As she notes in her journal, 'Nights are hard here. They're super super hot and often times my stomach hurts from hunger. And in the day, I sometimes can't get over how excruciatingly hot it is here. There's no point in complaining though, because it's rude, inconsiderate, and everyone else feels the same way you do . . .'
This shift into shared experience and the growing bond between students at York and students at St. Matthias are the reasons most of the York group returns year after year.
But what of the language differences? Creole, a mix of French and African dialects, is the primary language in Haiti, and only a few of the York students speak French.
'Language is not a barrier,' says Jones, 'You just communicate through motions. And yes, emotions. Besides, kids always want to play.' The York students took 50 recorders (musical instruments) last trip, and communicated through music and a recorder workshop.
Others have found the incentive they needed to learn a subject that might not have been their favorite. 'I hate to say it,' quips Adams, 'but French has its benefits. I spoke French with [the headmaster's] son and learned much about the country of Haiti. We talked about his life and role in the town and about life in the capital.'
In addition to the service they undertake in Haiti, the York students also volunteer throughout their local communities on California's central coast, where some of the nation's wealthiest and poorest citizens live only a few, life-changing miles apart. Jones, for example, has worked with homeless men and migrant workers and their families in his Carmel Valley parish of St. Dunstan's. Christensen participates in similar programs as a Girl Scout and as a member of an interfaith organization.
Meanwhile, the students continue to plan for the next trip to Haiti, which is scheduled for March or June of 2002. When not actively fund-raising for the remaining $80,000 it will take to build the new school, they stay on the look-out for donations of solar-powered calculators, crayons, colored pencils, and other school supplies, as well as personal items like toothbrushes, hair ribbons, jacks and small rubber balls.
They also continue to deepen their perspective on, and connection with, their brothers and sisters at St. Matthias. As Christensen notes, 'It really takes [time] to get to the heart of it all.'
If you are interested in the partnership between students of York School and St. Matthias, contact Roger Bowen at (831) 372-5229 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.