Before David Broida traveled to Haiti to volunteer in April, he had read about the problems with international relief in the country still suffering from a devastating earthquake more than three years ago.
Even Haitian president Michel Martelly told international donors recently to stop sending money, saying “the system is broken.”
Broida and others at Legacy Youth Tennis and Education, a local nonprofit organization that helps underserved children, were so concerned about the apparent lack of coordination among relief organizations and the general distrust of the government that the organization had not yet used the several thousand dollars it had raised to help the country.
Then, Ben Hirsch, who works with Broida at Legacy and is also Jewish, heard that a group from Lower Merion High School had traveled to Haiti last spring on a community service trip, and that they planned to go again this year. The high school students were part of an active club at the school affiliated with buildOn, a national nonprofit organization that works to fight poverty and illiteracy.
Students and adults from the two organizations met and decided to join forces. In the end, 14 students — seven from each — and three adults — Broida, Hirsch and Tom Reed, a Lower Merion history teacher who runs the buildOn program at the school — traveled to Haiti at the end of April.
In Haiti for one week, the Philadelphia group spent four days in the rural village of Menard,where they stayed with host families. Their primary task: to build a three-room elementary school.
Each organization raised $30,000 for the project. The funds paid for their travel and living expenses, as well as construction materials and the labor of several skilled Haitian workers. The village, in turn, agreed to provide volunteer labor and to fund three teachers, a principal and school supplies when construction on the school is completed.
What set this project apart from other efforts was the commitment to working cooperatively with the local community, said Broida, 68, who has served on the board of the American Jewish World Service, an international relief and service agency. He said it’s crucial to have a contract in advance of such a trip.
“The success of the project is totally dependent on the idea that we’re working on a project that they want,” said Broida, an instructor and board member at Legacy tennis who spent three decades as parks and recreation director of Upper Merion Township.
The residents of Menard had felt tremors from the earthquake three years ago but were only indirectly affected.
When the visiting volunteers arrived at the village, there were about 200 residents at the entrance, singing and dancing to welcome the group, Broida said. The local volunteers and the group from Philadelphia worked together, using only manual tools because there is no electricity in the area. They used pickaxes to stake out the ground and then poured the foundation for the school.
Participants said they spent much of their time trading stories about each other’s cultures and customs. In spite of the austere conditions, the village was not as primitive as other third world countries, said Broida, who has also traveled to Cuba. All the children he encountered were literate — though that wasn’t true of older generations — and many women traveled to a nearby town every few months to receive birth control injections.
“In the village of Menard, I didn’t see one single cigarette,” Broida said, also noting that people seemed to have a positive outlook.
Broida and others from Legacy also taught Haitian children how to play tennis. They played on a field with grass short enough to allow the ball to bounce. At the end of the trip, the group left two nets, 20 rackets and several dozen balls. One child particularly impressed Broida.
“I’ve never seen someone pick up the sport so quickly. Not only had he never touched a tennis racket before, he had never even heard of the sport,” he said.
For Julia Kramer-Golinkoff, a senior at Lower Merion, this was her second volunteer stint in Haiti. She went in 2012 and wanted to go again this year. To make that happen, she said, she raked leaves, babysat and requested donations from family and friends. The buildOn club, which also does community service projects locally throughout the year, collectively raised funds through events such as a bowling night and a spaghetti dinner.
Kramer-Golinkoff, one of two Jewish student volunteers from Lower Merion, said Port au Prince, the city most affected by the earthquake, looked like it hadn’t changed much in a year; it remained an impoverished place filled with piles of rubble.
When she arrived at the entrance to Menard this year, she recalled, “I was just looking at the village waving their arms and the younger mothers holding their babies and I got the goose bumps; it was just so touching.”
Kramer-Golinkoff, who is heading to Tulane University in New Orleans for college, said she met a 5-year-old named Kenney who loved going to school but usually couldn’t go on Fridays because he was too tired from walking one hour each way to school during the rest of the week.
The new schoolhouse in his village, which is expected to be finished sometime in June, would solve that problem.