GREAT BARRINGTON -- Neither distance, nor summer vacation, nor language barriers can stop the students and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District community from continuing their work together to help support the development of a school in Haiti.
During the past school year, Berkshire Hills students and faculty have invested time, energy and dollars into an initiative they call "Give 2 Give." To-date, they've collected and shipped eight boxes of school, art and playground supplies; a collection of donated musical instruments; and raised and sent approximately $5,000 to their sister school.
One student will leave the Berkshires this week to embark on a coast-to-coast bicycle ride to raise awareness and funds for the cause. Other students will continue to raise funds through the sale of an original compilation music CD, while others plan to do summer reading and research on the country.
"It's been a multi-faceted effort," said Lisa Baldwin, a faculty member who co-advises the Monument Mountain Regional High School Student Senate with Kristina Farina.
Baldwin has had a connection with Haiti since 2006, when her mother, Maryanne Dus, a retired nurse at that point, officially founded the Haiti Orphans Project in the island nation's capital city of Port-au-Prince. Baldwin, who has a fear of flying, never made the trip to Haiti with her mother before Dus lost a courageous battle with cancer in 2009. Baldwin said that helping her school community make a connection with Haiti has become a second chance to keep involved. She also plans to make the trip in the next year or so.
The Berkshire Hills initiative began with students and teachers at the high school level, after they began collaborating with another locally based nonprofit called HotFutbol, which was spearheaded by John and Elena Evans.
"Hot" stands for health, opportunity and training, while "futbol" refers to the international term for soccer. HotFutbol is partnered with "Ansemble Vwazen Jacquet" or AVJ, an alternative neighborhood school program in Jacquet, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
About 125 to 150 children between the ages of 6 and 20 attend school there each day from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. In addition to an education from teachers, who initially started teaching on a volunteer basis, students also have access to a meal and now a grant-funded computer lab equipped with shelves, computers and Internet access powered by a generator.
For now, it's been enough to allow the AVJ students to regularly interact with the children of Berkshire Hills through online Skype video chats. They've had open discussions and even have attempted some English tutoring through the interface.
"They really just like observing us and seeing our classrooms and what we do," said Shea Caligari, a junior.
She and her fellow Student Senate members also found out quickly that younger students from their own district were also interested in learning about and helping their own Haitian peers.
"They've had a great reaction from what they've seen and wanting to help," said Colleen Kelly, also a junior.
"We've got a team from the middle school down to our fourth-grade leadership team, even kindergartners. There's so much excitement," said junior Sarah Ward.
Peter Smith, a Monument sophomore, said when he first heard of the Give 2 Give campaign for Haiti, he didn't know much about it and didn't really care. Then he met the AVJ school leader, Antoine Gregory, who more recently visited the Berkshire Hills district in April. Gregory explained to students how the school lacked access to the basics that students in the United States have, such as food, potable water, electricity and bathrooms.
"I had a new inspiration," said Smith. "I realized how I could help change the world around me."
On Thursday, he'll fly from New York City to Portland, Ore., to begin a 3,800-mile bike ride from Seaside, Ore., back to New York.
He's riding with a teen travel adventure group called Teen Treks, calling his fundraising campaign "Sea 2 Sea for Haiti." He plans to blog about his experience.
The end goal is to raise $125,000 to build a new school for the AVJ students. "We learned from Antoine Gregory that the only way to effect change in Haiti is by educating the younger generations. By doing this, we can help them go further," said Smith.
Baldwin and the students said that the school district hopes to engage other schools in Berkshire County to join them in the cause so that the leadership of the current high school students will carry on long after they've graduated.
"As much as [this project] is helping students in Haiti, I see how it also helps the young people we work with in our schools," Baldwin said. "This could be something we do together for Haiti from the Berkshires."
To reach Jenn Smith:
or (413) 496-6239
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink
For more information ...
--To learn more about HotFutbol and to donate to Peter Smith's Sea 2 Sea for Haiti charitable bicycle ride, visit http://hotfutbol.org.
--To learn more about Give 2 Give and how your school can partner with Berkshire Hills, contact Principal Marianne Young at Marianne.Young@bhrsd.org or call (413) 528-3346.
--For updates and to read stories about the district's efforts, visit www.maroontribune.com and search for "Haiti."