Capital Region educators teach beyond borders
A group of teachers from the Capital Region have chosen to love not only their own children and students, but orphaned children in Haiti as well. They are spending precious time with them, bringing them art supplies, math and science projects, and helping their teachers learn new skills.
During their February 2012 winter break, Michele Brobston, a third-grade teacher and member of the Shenendehowa TA; Heidi Brewer, a special education teacher and member of the North Colonie TA; and Theresa Hayes, a teaching assistant with Northeast Parent and Child Society, visited two rural villages in Haiti, where orphans live in large tents. Their students here helped them test some projects to take to Haiti.
The teachers joined other volunteers through the organization To Love A Child (www.toloveachild.net), led by Executive Director Cindy Schmehl of the Capital Region. The non-profit operates on independent donations.
Both Brobston and Brewer have helped children in need from other countries before; they have traveled twice to Zimbabwe for mission work through Rotary International. Brewer became interested after accompanying her husband to Africa in 2003 for a bicycle race.
“I went in a school with no books; I saw a woman on the ground dying of malaria; I saw people with no clothes,” Brewer said. It was her clarion call.
On their trips to Africa, the teaching duo helped install a pump on a well, assisted with solar panel projects and worked in gardens and libraries.
To Love A Child has focused primarily on Haiti, where volunteers had begun helping residents before the earthquake two years ago that devastated the land and people. Schmehl had set up a partnership with a women’s group to help out in an orphanage. Several of their partners died in the earthquake, and others lost their homes and businesses. Reports log the number of dead at more than 300,000, thousands injured and more than 1 million survivors rendered homeless.
The earthquake left many more children without mothers or fathers.
“The number of orphans has just tripled,” Schmehl said.
The American teachers are helping Haitian teachers learn how to evaluate students and form groups for special needs and accelerated learners — even within the one-room schoolhouses.
They are helping with lesson plans, using natural materials for manipulatives. Counting can be done with sticks or rocks. Ash from a fire can be used for charcoal drawing in art class. Earrings can be made from recycled tin. Weaving and sewing can be taught.
“We had a special request by Haiti teachers to do a session on art,” Brobston said.
She pursued how waste scrap paper in Haiti could be used for art projects. She researched methods in her own classroom and then tested them with students so that leftover, discarded paper can be soaked, mashed, dried and remade into new paper.
“We choose projects relating to their culture,” Hayes said, noting they’ve learned how to make a rug with scrap fabric that is braided and hooked together with fishing line and thread.
Art “is something women can work together on, bringing a sense of community,” Brewer added.
Music is not forgotten, either. Brewer is going to teach her Haitian sister teachers how to make hand cymbals out of jar tops. The group is bringing bags of recorders and bells to donate.
Schmehl said a solar installation they put up in 2010 allows students to come back to school and study at night.
Students from the Troy college, Russell Sage, are also joining the trip, collecting supplies for a program called Bundle of Joy. It is designed to help mothers deliver babies in a sterile setting. Meanwhile, students from RPI — also in Troy — are working on building a 20-by-8-foot container that can be used as housing. A Capital Region veterinarian is traveling with the group to get a rabbit program underway as a source of food and commerce (bartering).
Communication between the New York teachers and their colleagues in Haiti will continue via e-mail as they work long distance to problem solve projects and lesson plans. Or, perhaps, it’s life’s lessons.
- Liza Frenette
(Michele Brobston is a member of Shenendehowa Teachers Association, Heidi Brewer is a member of North Colonie Teachers Association)