What is happening at Lycée Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable is truly extraordinary. In all of Haiti, there is no educational institution like the one founded by 1978 Niagara University alumnus Edward J. Brennan.
Only a handful of private high schools in Port-au-Prince that cater almost exclusively to the most affluent residents of the nation's capital are even comparable. Lycée Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable serves some of the poorest children in the country, offering them a trilingual education (Creole, French and English) and a full curriculum based on the International Baccalaureate program.
It is the hope of Brennan and his alma mater that these children will grow up to become the future leaders of this devastated nation, which has suffered from a troubling past and still endures distressing social inequalities.
As part of a new collaborative initiative between Niagara University and Hand in Hand for Haiti, Brennan's nonprofit organization that established the school, six NU students recently completed a seven-week internship at the school, where they served as instructors for its summer camp. This was the first edition of an annual internship that will continue to bring NU student volunteers to serve children in the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The students selected for the internship represented an interdisciplinary cross-section of academic majors: teacher education, business administration and French. They were joined at different points during their stay by doctors Michelle Ciminelli, assistant professor of education, and Henrik Borgstrom, professor of French and associate dean of Niagara's College of Arts and Sciences.
Prior to the group's departure, Niagara faculty members introduced the students to Haitian culture and other aspects of Haitian life, and provided them with the knowledge and materials they would find useful in teaching the Haitian children. An interaction with Brennan helped them better understand the school's educational philosophy, while a university health care worker spoke with the students about immunizations and precautions to take while in Haiti.
Beginning July 5, the students coordinated classroom activities - reading, crafts, sports and other recreation - for the Haitian children. The goal of the summer camp was to ensure the young people retained the language knowledge they learned and practiced during the school year. The interns helped to reinforce these skills by conversing with the children in English and French, and using their university training and personal creativity to teach them new activities, sports, games, dances and songs.
"I can still hear them singing 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat,' " joked Tara Topolski, an education major from Amherst. "The opportunity to reinforce language development through engaging activities is a powerful strategy - one that we can bring to classrooms everywhere and to all children."
French education major Tyler Van Leeuwen came away from the internship with a new appreciation for the opportunities he had while growing up in Southern Ontario.
"Children living in a country that's just a short plane ride away have so little and are so grateful for what they have. This opportunity opened my eyes and was a reminder of how lucky I truly am," Van Leeuwen said. "I also learned that people of all ages can make a difference. It was rewarding to see the students learn skills that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives."
Exposure to the sights and sounds of Haiti was a critical element of the experience, as well. The group visited local beaches, the Palace of 365 Doors, Cap Haitien, a prison and a fort, and also went horseback riding and navigated numerous mountain roads.
"Working with the children in Haiti has opened my eyes to the differences between North American culture and the culture of a lesser-developed country," added Bailey Rudow, a BPS student from Waterloo, Ontario. "It has also allowed me to see that all children have such wonderful spirits and, given the best education, opportunities will open up for them."
Brennan is the retired CEO and chairman of DFS Group, an international luxury retail association operating in 11 countries. He initiated the construction of the sustainable school complex for the children of Saint-Marc after an earthquake devastated the area in January 2010. The school opened its doors Oct. 3, 2011.
Borgstrom said he enjoyed seeing the strong bonds that developed between the Niagara students and their pupils at Lycée Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable over the course of seven weeks. After watching groups of children repeatedly run up to the interns to hug them, slap high-five or go for a piggyback ride, "It was obvious to me that this had been a life-changing experience, both for our students and for the children of Saint-Marc," he said.
For Topolski and fellow senior Bethany Bouthillier, the internship represented a culmination of four years of immersion in Niagara University's Catholic and Vincentian heritage.
"Going to Haiti was a prime example of how students like me can follow Niagara's Vincentian mission," Topolski said. "Since freshman year at NU, I have been taught the Vincentian values and now I could put them into practice. Helping people who cannot return the favor is one of the most rewarding gifts in life. Because of this journey, I have gained a new perspective on life, especially the way others value education. Sometimes we take education and so many other things in life for granted."
"I've gained a greater appreciation for the little things in life, as well," added Bouthillier, who will graduate in December with degrees in international management and French. "It truly reaffirmed why doing something small to help someone, even if it's just a drop in an ocean of things that can and should be done, causes a ripple effect for the betterment of their lives and the world we live in."
On Sept. 23, the students will address the community during "Niagara Reaches Out to the World," an on-campus, daylong summit that showcases the good work accomplished by Niagara University students, faculty, staff and alumni across the globe.
Ciminelli is confident Bouthillier, Rudow, Topolski, Van Leeuwen, Erin Burns and Amber Mis will inspire others to follow in their footsteps next summer.
"Each of the six students embraced this internship wholeheartedly," Ciminelli said. "They were so passionate about using their time in Haiti to help the children learn, and explored ways to make each child feel special through their interactions. This is a blessing in a country with so many needs. What a beautiful way to live as a Vincentian in today's world!"
For more on Hand in Hand for Haiti, go to http://hihh.org.
To learn about the mission of Niagara University, visit www.niagara.edu/our-mission.