A group of Roaring Fork Valley residents who are working to help build a new school in the small town of Villard, Haiti, are not only seeing the project through to completion. They’re also empowering workers in the poverty-stricken country to become self-sufficient.
“What’s really great about this project is that it’s one of the few where an outside group didn’t just come in and say, ‘Here, we’ll do this for you,’” said Tim Myers, a retired builder from Aspen who co-founded the Haiti School Project two years ago.
“We’re there providing training on some of the building techniques, but the project is really being driven by the locals,” he said in a recent phone interview from Villard, where he has been since mid-summer.
Myers and fellow co-founder Fred Ireland of North Carolina started the nonprofit organization not just to build the school, but to train teachers and provide textbooks for students.
The school construction had barely gotten out of the ground with a half-finished foundation after a previous fundraising effort. It stalled when the money ran out following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. Villard itself was spared from the earthquake damage, but suffered from the economic consequences.
Myers’ group reached out to donors all across the country and around the world to help resurrect the project, and Myers himself lined up several of his colleagues in the construction industry locally to help out as well.
Among them was Glenwood Springs resident Al Cunningham, a long-term co-worker of Myers’ on numerous home projects in Aspen, who is also now retired.
“Tim came to me after starting the project and told me what they were doing, and it sounded like they could use some help,” said Cunningham, who wrote grants to start, before taking on a role as part of the construction management team in Haiti.
Most of the actual hard labor is being done by the people directly involved with the school and in the larger community. The project in turn has pumped more than $100,000 into the local economy.
A better living
Part of the money raised through the Haiti School Project is going to pay the workers on a contract basis.
From negotiating a price and contract terms, to finding local sources for the materials, it’s a skill the crew of nine or so workers who are building the school can put to use once the project is complete to make a better living for themselves, Myers said.
“It’s exciting, because one of our goals from the beginning was to employ local people,” he said. “By doing it that way, the money is also making its way around town and supporting other businesses, so it’s nice to see that happening.”
That has been one of the most inspiring outcomes for Cunningham as well.
“We are as interested in helping the people in the community as we are the children in the school,” Cunningham said.
By giving the people the contract to do the work and to get things done by a certain time in order to get paid, it shows them that’s how they need to do business, he said.
Recently, the Haiti School Project was able to raise the final $10,000 needed to do the stucco and painting on the interior and exterior walls of the school. The school is set to open for classes next week.
Villard, with a population of about 5,000 people, is the center of a major rice-growing region. While it wasn’t directly impacted by the 2010 earthquake, it took a hit when relief efforts from around the world sent tons of cheap rice into the country, negatively affecting the domestic trade, Cunningham explained.
“Whenever you ask in Haiti how they can help themselves, the first answer is usually the international community,” Myers said. “Here, we’re trying to encourage them to take ownership.”
Once the stucco and painting are done, the private, tuition-based school, which serves about 350 students from preschool through sixth grade, will be ready for students.
Future construction projects at the school will include wiring the buildings for electric service, building a backup solar photovoltaic system, constructing a water catchment system, and building restrooms and a kitchen.
Helping students, families
Another aspect of the fundraising effort is to support teacher training for multiple schools in the area. Recently, renowned Washington, D.C., educator Pilar Lynch led a teacher training for 56 teachers and 36 school directors from the region.
The project also helps find sponsors to provide tuition assistance for students and their families.
One local girl, named Vilaine Registre, lives next the school and has been one of its best students. However, when her family could no longer afford to the pay the nearly $150 yearly tuition, a donor was found so that she could continue her schooling into the fourth grade.
Many Haitian children, especially girls, don’t make it beyond the third grade, Myers explained. Vilaine has become a sort of “poster child” for the project.
Also assisting with the project has been Richard de Campo, an architect with Poss Architecture and Planning in Aspen.
After working to help design the school building last spring, he signed on to join Cunningham and Myers in Haiti as a construction supervisor. It was an eye-opening experience for de Campo as well.
“They don’t have a lot to work with, but the resourcefulness of the people there is just amazing,” he said. “With a little direction, once they know how to do something they did it quite well.
“If we can build up their skills and knowledge base, that can go a long way to helping them and not always look to have someone else come in and do it,” de Campo said.
Cunningham said the experience has inspired him to continue to be involved in future efforts in the country.
“It really puts it in perspective when you live and work in a place like that how much we take for granted here,” he said. “You do get hooked on it, and you want to do whatever you can to try to help these people.”
For more information about the Haiti School Project, visit www.haitischoolproject.org. Donations to the project can also be sent to Haiti School Project, P.O. Box 1894, Glenwood Springs, CO 81602.