When Princeton teenagers travel to Haiti as part of the locally based summer service program known as KONEKTE, they often arrive with certain expectations. But those assumptions are usually dispelled as soon as the teenagers begin to interact with the Haitian people they have come to help.
“One of the things they are surprised to see is that in spite of the poverty, the people are positive and joyful,” said Judy Sarvary, a board member of KONEKTE, which took 15 teenagers and five adults to Haiti this summer to work on a variety of projects, from building a school to teaching art classes. “They are very welcoming to us. There is no resentment. They are so happy to share and are very proud of their country.”
Students from Stuart Country Day School, Princeton Day School, and Princeton High School were among those who were part of the group. KONEKTE was founded over three years ago by Madelaine Shellaby, a former art teacher at Stuart, and Anne Hoppenot, who teaches French at the school. Ms. Sarvary has been involved since 2012.
“What our kids come away with is that there is great productivity in Haiti’s younger generation,” she continued. “They’re expecting to see a lot of poverty and hardship. But they come away with how much joy there is.”
While the students are taken to Haiti in the summer, Ms. Sarvary and Ms. Hoppenot travel to the country a few times a year. “It’s really a collaboration,” says Ms. Hoppenot. “We stay in touch and keep a real relationship going all year long. It’s not just about going for 10 days. It’s about a long relationship, and that’s what we’re trying to build.”
The group’s focus is determined before they arrive on Haitian soil. “We do quite a lot of organization before we go,” said Ms. Sarvary. “They tell us what they’d like us to do, what is needed in the village. Then we say what we’d like to do, what skills we have. It’s a bit of back and forth. It ends up being a little bit of everything.”
Construction projects are always part of the mix. Last year, the group helped build a health and hygiene clinic. This summer, they worked on the foundations for a new remote village school as well as the second floor of the Men Nan Men vocational school, which is a project of the Foundation for Peace, the New Jersey-based organization that hosts the group in Haiti.
There was also a call for mosquito nets and repellents. Aided by Hillsborough Presbyterian Church, young team participants Eric Kinney and Celena Stoia raised funds for more than 100 nets and repellents to distribute in the village of Kwa Kok, where residents are exposed to the fast-spreading and painful Chikungunya virus. Princeton area dentists donated hundreds of tubes of toothpaste and tooth brushes, which were also distributed.
Volunteers helped out with mixing cement by hand, teaching business, and leading soap-making classes. They also brought solar power to an orphanage dormitory. Assembled by students at Stuart as part of a two-week program, a “solar suitcase” — a transportable system that provides lighting and charging for places without regular electricity — was given to an orphanage. A second solar suitcase was installed in a local middle school so that students can study after dark.
A celebratory graduation at the school KONEKTE sponsors and a soccer tournament were among the activities during the visit.
The participants stayed in a hotel near Port au Prince, traveling to and from there by bus each day to an area on Haiti’s east coast, near the border of the Dominican Republic. “We go back to the same place each year,” said Ms. Sarvary. “It makes it personal. It’s not just statistics or pictures you’ve seen on Facebook. These are real people and they’re our friends. There is a real sense of community.”
The idea is to educate people at home as well as helping Haitians in need. “This is year round,” Ms. Hoppentot said. “We’re trying to raise money, raise awareness, get more of the schools involved, and even talk to businesses about getting involved. We want it to be community-wide, and we’re trying to expand on that idea.”
For information about Princeton Haiti KONEKTE, visit www.konekteprincetonhaiti.weebly.com.