Students and teachers at Horizon de l'espoir set up class under a tarp in Port-au-Prince. Photo courtesy of Haiti Exchange of Hope.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I asked my good friend, Dr. Serge Pierre Louis, a Haitian neurologist who had visited Haiti on a medical mission days after the earthquake, how I could help. He told me his sister, Dr. Claudette Pierre Louis, a pediatrician, had been administering to the children and orphans at Horizon de l’espoir, a children’s home/orphanage in Port-au-Prince and its satellite children’s home in Cabaret.

He explained that the children at Horizon were living in tents and under canopies outside the orphanage and were very afraid to re-enter the building. Although there was minimal damage done to the structure, the children were still very much in need of items like water, food, medicines, blankets, and cots.

I decided to ask several of my former District 97 colleagues and dear friends if they would be willing to pledge two years to help Haiti, the idea being that during the first year we would raise money needed to purchase essential supplies, and in the second year we would begin to help rebuild.

While working as a teacher in D97, I frequently participated in fundraising efforts to help ease the effects of catastrophes in various places around the world. I knew that teachers would be eager to help, and because this would be a grassroots effort guided by Dr. Pierre Louis, the job would get done. So we formed the Oak Park Teachers’ Service Learning Haitian Initiative. Dr. Serge Pierre Louis, president of the DuSable Heritage Association, agreed that DuSable Heritage (a 501c3nfp) would be our fiduciary agency. We were ready to begin.

Teachers and students from all 10 schools pledged to commit two years to raise money for the children’s home Horizon de l’espoir and its satellite home in Cabaret through a variety of school projects, individual student council and classroom teacher efforts, and community support. Schools had pancake breakfasts, pasta dinners, a Hearts for Haiti Dance, a Chores for Change monthly challenge, classroom garage sales, and a Coins for Construction fundraising effort. Students crafted and sold many different kinds of jewelry, thank-you cards, Hands for Haiti note cards, candygrams, Valentine’s Day flowers, and made and sold birdhouses resembling Haitian homes. When the executive director, Kathelen Douyon, came to Oak Park twice during this effort, she brought huge thank-you posters made by the children in Haiti and spent much of her time visiting different classrooms in almost all the schools. She was overwhelmed by the students’ interest and concern and their commitment to help. Students here and in Haiti exchanged photos and letters written in French and English.

Our first job in the spring of 2010 was to ship over 200 boxes filled with clothes, toys, cosmetics, diapers, TVs, VCRs, and hygienic items that we had received from Oak Park families and staff. The Economy Shop in Oak Park joined our effort by regularly calling to let me know what new items were available. I would pick them up, take them to the district’s Multicultural Center for packing, and help prepare the boxes for shipping. We even had former D97 students from the high school come and help pack.

The shipping costs were paid for by DuSable and a private donor whose children went through the Oak Park schools. All boxes were received by the director of the children’s home, and their contents distributed among the children and staff there.

In two years, the teachers and students in all 10 schools raised over $15,000, and we were able to purchase, in Haiti, much needed materials, such as an inverter with 24 batteries, a generator, a water pump, washer, and dryer. We were also able to pay for 30 children to go to school and pay for one child’s hernia surgery, medications, and pre- and post-operative care. Another Oak Park business, Ten Thousand Villages, displayed the artwork created by one class in one of our schools and auctioned off the items. Matt Kuntz, a Lincoln School teacher, created a blog for us, which continues to post artwork, photos, and text documenting the efforts of the past two years.

This year, our private donors have begun building a vocational and cultural center, complete with a medical dispensary in Cabaret. When Dr. Serge Pierre Louis visited the children in the satellite children’s home/orphanage after the earthquake, they asked if they could have some place that didn’t flood after every rain and where they could learn a trade, invite groups in for cultural performances, and have a place where less serious medical issues could be addressed.

I loved working with my friends on this project, visiting student councils, and speaking to children at assemblies. Oak Park teachers enthusiastically embrace projects where students can learn from each other. This time it was helping others in need. Sometimes it has been exchanging ideas and projects. No matter the purpose, the lesson learned here is that Oak Park teachers have enormous hearts, great compassion and understand the significance of creating a global citizenry. Clearly, nothing is too difficult when we come together in a spirit of friendship and understanding. Thank you to all who participated in this endeavor. Having all 10 schools involved was just amazing.

At this time our private donor has already begun developing plans for building the center in Cabaret. Our hope is that when it is completed, teachers, parents, and their children will come and teach, work in the dispensary, plant gardens, and enjoy the many festivities that are being planned. One part of this center will be named in honor of the Oak Park teachers, students, and community. Their commitment enabled a dream to become a reality.

A special thank-you to the teacher reps in each school:

Beye: Karen Fogg, Judy Friesen; Brooks: Karen Tokarz, Susan Walsh, Lisa Lohman, Molly Dooley; Hatch: Karen Thomas; Holmes: Beth Lacy, Lakeya Shearill, Angela Patterson, Frances Kraft, Melissa Manuel; Irving: Lori Pelling, Joel Gray; Julian: Helen Chang, Jen Young, Logan Russo; Lincoln: Matt Kuntz, Kathleen Priceman, Diane Comfy; Longfellow: Melissa Hjalmarson; Mann: Jackie Beljung, Casey Klemp; Whittier: Georgina Swanson, Sue Wennerberg

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