PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Decades before the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti and killed more than 300,000 people, Father Rick Frechette left the U.S. and came to this tiny, Caribbean nation on the island of Hispaniola.
It wasn’t long before he realized what Haiti needed most was someone to care for the sick. Simply being a man of the cloth wasn’t going to cut it, so he began studying for his medical degree while continuing to work in the slums of Port-au-Prince. By 2001, Frechette had helped create the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti, which grew out of the programs he had started years ago. Today, St. Luke’s provides education, medical care and other humanitarian outreach by training and employing Haitian staff.
Hollywood director Paul Haggis first met Frechette while on a trip to Rome, Italy, in 2008. Inspired by the success of Frechette’s programs despite their lack of funding, Haggis founded Artists for Peace and Justice in 2009. Backed by the entertainment industry, APJ was dedicated to supporting Frechette’s mission to care for the poorest people in Haiti, with a special focus on education.
APJ initially worked with St. Luke’s and sponsored four primary schools (grades 1 through 6) in Port-au-Prince. When the earthquake struck, their focus quickly shifted.
At the time of the quake, the St. Luke Foundation had been working in Haiti for nearly two decades. Though they were operating 40 primary schools throughout the country, they didn’t have a single secondary school to send children to once they completed sixth grade. Compounding the issue, Haiti’s public school system is woefully inadequate due to a lack of infrastructure and funding. Only 20% of Haitians attend secondary schools (including private institutions), the majority of which charge fees.
APJ saw the need for affordable, secondary education in Haiti and took action — despite the immensity of the project.
Kathryn Everett, APJ’s Program Director for the past two years, said that initially, the task seemed tremendous, but because of the character of the Haitian people, she knew it would be a success.
“The first time I came to Haiti, I was shocked at just how big the challenge would be but also completely inspired by the Haitian people,” Everett said. “They are joyful, hardworking, smart and they always stand up for what they believe in.”
BUILDING A SCHOOL AFTER THE QUAKE
Work began on the Academy for Peace and Justice in March 2010, just two months after the earthquake. APJ helped create over a thousand jobs by employing local Haitians as designers, planners and construction workers. The cost of the school was funded entirely through donations to APJ, with the help of celebrity supporters like Olivia Wilde and Ben Stiller.
Despite the hard workers and celebrities powering APJ, building the school was far from easy. Everett said St. Luke’s played a huge part in the project’s success.
“Progress in Haiti can be challenging, especially during construction because everything is imported and its hard to know who to work with and how to move things along,” she said. “Luckily, our partners at the St. Luke Foundation have been on the ground for 20 years and their relationships, expertise and record of success is incredible. We have been able to succeed because of our ability to work in direct partnership with the Haitian people and following St Luke’s belief in empowering the local community to take ownership at the school.”
Everett was also quick to praise RYOT co-founder Bryn Mooser’s leadership as APJ’s Country Director at the time the school was built.
“Bryn gave all of his heart and soul to building the Academy and making sure the dream of a beautiful, dignified school for the very poor became a reality,” she said. “Haiti became his home; our students became his family. We couldn’t have asked for more.”
Seven months after construction began, the Academy for Peace and Justice opened in October 2010, welcoming 400 students.
Today, it stands among the most beautiful buildings in Port-au-Prince. The design is free and spacious, with open-air hallways and 48 classrooms named after celebrity donors spread throughout two wings. Its brilliant, blue roof stands out in the Haitian sun. The school includes courtyards, basketball courts, a soccer field, a cafeteria, computer labs and a library. Future plans call for an auditorium and music classrooms.
When RYOT News visited a few days after the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, more than a thousand students dressed in matching, beige uniforms were enjoying their lunch break, talking, eating, playing soccer and running around in general chaos — just like kids should be doing. But when the bell rang, nobody lingered in the hallways or loitered in the courtyards as many have come to expect in American schools. Instead, students darted into classrooms, eager to return to their lessons.
St. Luke’s Administrator Edy Janvier proudly took RYOT on a tour of the school. In both of the classrooms we visited — English and math — the entire class stood and greeted us enthusiastically, as they do their teachers every day. RYOT co-founder David Darg spoke in Creole with the students, who said they were thrilled to be in school, learning so many different subjects. As classes resumed, the students seemed engaged and interested as their teacher passionately launched into the day’s lesson.
Everett gushed about the students’ desire for education, and the extent to which they cherish the school.
“What I love most about our school is how much the students love our school,” she said. “They are filled with pride, always singing the APJ song, happy to be in class, working as hard as they can. The change is not just a change in their lives; it’s the introduction of opportunity. A chance to succeed and the support to make it happen.”
Students at the Academy for Peace and Justice pursue a traditional, Haitian curriculum — language, math, history, science — with some modifications, including music, dance, art and computer classes.
The school is quickly becoming one of the largest in Haiti. When it opened in 2010, the Academy for Peace and Justice served 400 students, all in 7th grade. Every year since, it has added an additional grade — 400 more students per year — and now serves 1,400 children in grades 7 through 9.
A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR THE SCHOOL AND HAITI
APJ just secured funding for a third wing for the Academy for Peace and Justice and hopes to break ground sometime in February, with plans to open in October 2013, bringing an additional 400 10th graders to the school. Another 400 11th and 12th graders will follow in the next two years, with a smaller wing to support 13th graders planned for the future.
“We’re at 1400 students now and will add another class of 400 every year until we reach capacity at almost 3,000 students,” Everett said. “Pretty huge and pretty exciting to see the school quadruple in size since it was built.”
The students who attend the Academy for Peace and Justice come from some of the poorest primary schools in Haiti, all of which are run by the St. Luke Foundation. Prior to the work of APJ, these students had nowhere to continue their education. Now, they have a beautiful school full of competent teachers hand-selected and trained by APJ’s local, Haitian partners.
But the work is just beginning. APJ plans to continue improving the Academy for Peace and Justice, with additional plans to build a post-secondary, arts education center focusing on film, music, art and design in southern Haiti.
“We’re going to keep building at the Academy for Peace and Justice until it is the best school in all of Port-au-Prince, with sports programs and arts programs,” Everett said. “And this spring we will break ground on the Artists Institute of Haiti, a free college for art and technology — the first in Haiti’s history — in the southern coastal town of Jacmel, strengthening Haiti’s creative industries, providing jobs and opportunity.”
Thanks to APJ’s work creating the only free secondary school serving Haiti’s poor, children have the opportunity to pursue their education beyond the 6th grade — an opportunity to acquire knowledge and hope.
And that’s a side of Haiti that most people never see.
“A lot of what you hear about Haiti is just bad news, over and over again,” Everett said. “The good news is this: There are organizations like ours making real progress, working to empower and educate the next generation of Haiti’s leaders by providing opportunity and celebrating dignity. If you look at the 1,400 smiling faces at the Academy for Peace and justice, the future of Haiti looks bright.”
RYOT NOTE: Artists for Peace and Justice is a shining example of an organization that doesn’t mess around. They started work on this school only two months after the earthquake. Less then a year later, a beautiful school was born out of the rubble and devastation. And they built it by employing local Haitians. APJ continues to add to this school every year in addition to pursuing other projects. You can support their life-changing efforts by donating today, or by sharing this story.