Carrying heavy buckets of water, balancing a basket on her head and completing work with crayons and paper gave Breton Downs Elementary fifth-grader Ella Gjorgjievski a sense of what a school day in Haiti is like.
But as Haitian Day unfolded at the East Grand Rapids Public School, Ella also gained a different perspective on life in the Caribbean country. “It shows you a different side of Haiti,” she said.
Most of the time, students learn about the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country or its high level of poverty and lack of resources. But there’s beauty there too, Ella said. And just like here, children skip rope, enjoy their lunch, learn to read and write. They have dreams and form friendships.
Haitian Day was the culminating activity of a year spent connecting with and supporting the Institution La Puissance de L’Education, in Port-au-Prince. Through the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit The Power of Education, Breton Downs has partnered with the Haitian school for the past three years.
Following Haitian students’ daily schedule, their Breton Downs counterparts dressed in simple yellow and blue shorts and shirts, emulating Haitian children’s uniforms. They walked to school, ate a beans-and-rice lunch, practiced carrying heavy buckets of water, balanced baskets on their heads, played with makeshift toys at recess and spent the day with no electricity or technology.
“I liked getting to experience how people in Haiti live,” Ella said. “We help them, but we never got the experience of being in their shoes.”
Broadening perspectives has been the goal of Jen Masternak, schools partnership program director for the The Power of Education, in connecting Breton Downs and the Institution La Puissance de L’Education.
“I wanted the students to know there is so much more to Haiti,” Masternak said. “There’s always more than one story for something.”
Haiti isn’t just a place, shetells them. The people there are proud of their country and support one another.
“I want kids to understand they have all of those other connections,” she said. Masternak regularly visits both schools, and serves as a conduit between the two.
Via Skype, students have gotten to know one another. They even collaborated on an ArtPrize exhibit. Last year, 550 Breton Downs and Haitian students worked on the piece, titled “If Everyone Does a Little.” The mural was shown at the annual downtown event and resulted in more than $30,000 in donations, helping pay for the Haitian school to stay in its building. Another $40,000 match from a family, who wishes to remain anonymous, is also pledged.
Second-grader Ayantu Knapp enjoyed the plantains, rice and beans, but not being able to grab a quick drink from the water fountain proved challenging.
“It was really weird that we had to use no electricity,” she said.
Within their classrooms, Breton Downs students have raised about $5,000 over the past three years to support Institution La Puissance de L’Education. Each grade level hosted a different fundraiser tied to the theme of literacy this year.
Kindergartners received pledges to read sight words for a penny each; first graders read for a penny per minute; second-graders received tips by holding a restaurant; third-graders provided a yard clean-up service; fourth-graders operated a mini-market; and fifth-graders hosted a book sale.
“It’s not just a one-time deal,” Principal Caroline Cannon said. “Our kids are really starting to understand Haiti, the people’s needs and wants, that they are just like us.”
The partnership will continue next school year.