After nearly two years of plowing, planting and building - both virtual and real - L’Ecole de Choix (the School of Choice) was dedicated in Mirebalais, Haiti, offering a quality education for children living in the most extreme conditions of poverty. The school was made possible thanks to the collective imagination and generosity of Zynga players, Zynga.org, and a wonderful partnership with FATEM, a Haiti and Boston-based nonprofit. Through Zynga.org, players of Zynga games are given a chance to contribute to charitable causes by purchasing exclusive virtual goods within Zynga games, and 100% of the proceeds benefit our recipient partners. The early stages of construction of L’Ecole de Choix were funded from contributions by players in Mafia Wars and FarmVille and players in these games and others will have the opportunity to continue to support the educational development of these children as they mature.
A few members of our Zynga team took a break from dreaming up the next Zynga.org campaign to volunteer at the dedication festival of the school for the students and their families on December 4, 2011. For many of the children, the carnival - like the school - was a brand new opportunity to have fun and to play with clowns, snow cones, cotton candy, musical chairs, face painting and more. The ceremony had dignitaries from all over Haiti – the Mayors of Mirebelais and Port au Prince. The architects of the school, along with DePaul University, FATEM, and Zynga, were all acknowledged and spoke to the children and parents. But, of course, the best parts of the show were the children performing their local dances in exchange for the Chicago-based Children singing a song to a crowd of more than 500 (“‘tis a gift”). All the kids who participated went home with more than just a prize. They went home with a smile, knowing they are learning at a school that is very likely to dramatically change their lives.
Just like Zynga, Choix is an example of “positive disruption” in the field of education. This school is distinct from other schools currently being built or restored in Haiti in that, while approximately 4,000 schools are being restored, they are being returned to circumstances that perpetuate Haiti’s status quo – no electricity, no materials or textbooks, no meals, and teachers with only about a 6th grade education, themselves. To the contrary, while many of the children who attend might never before even have held a pencil, L’Ecole de Choix is offering these students a quality program with well-prepared teachers, a tech lab, the ability to learn three languages, and much more. Almost all of the students are from women-led households and almost none had been to school before this fall. These children have the ability to become Haiti’s next leaders; we are providing that opportunity so they can bring Haiti to the rest of the world and the rest of the world to Haiti.
The school is protected, sitting two hours from the rubble and devastation left by the earthquake in Port au Prince. It was built on a wide open space with beautiful views of the valley and mountains, a true inspiration for learning, which rewards the children after more than a two-hour walk to school for some of them. Each grade has its own building, and they have flushing toilets with sinks to wash their hands – not something you normally find in Haiti’s rural schools! They have a kitchen, a garden, and a flat area that hopefully will be a playground soon. The kitchen feeds the children the school lunches, often the only meal they have each day.
The goal is for 200 children who could not access education previously because of their conditions of poverty now to learn in an exceptional quality environment and bring knowledge and Haiti to the rest of the world. If this single school can become sustainable and continue to grow, it can serve as an example of what one small institution can do to change thousands of lives in the coming years. This trip reminded all of us that, without continued support and funding, the school could fail. What has been built is just too amazing to let fail, the kids need us, the community needs us. This one event marked the beginning of what can and will be an ever growing partnership.
Thank you, Zynga players, for generating real-world resources for positive change the lives of children and families in Haiti and in other parts of the world through your generous donations. While the Mafia Wars contributions and the Sweet Seeds may have been harvested by now, we are inspired and humbled by the seeds of hope you have planted in Haiti for future roots.
The drive out of Port au Prince was an onslaught of overwhelming oppressiveness. Densely crowded corners, sidewalks and alleyways were strewn with rubble, and the omnipresent cloud of dust draped layer upon layer over Haiti’s recent past. The mountainous roads to Mirebalais were filled with switchbacks and sharp inclines but spectacular scenery. Haiti is truly a land of “mountains beyond mountains,” for when one range is conquered, more come into view, and the landscape seems unending.
After entering Mirebalais, we turned off onto a gravel road and a mile later reached our destination, L’Ecole de Choix, The School of Choice. There it stood at long last after so much planning, design, construction, and collaborative effort. It was firmly planted to be a transcendent symbol for this Central Plateau region. The striking orderliness and uniformed angles of the buildings, the environmentally conscious landscape – including the unique straw thatched doors and windows – were visual evidence of the intentional planning that went into this school. We came from all parts of the United States to celebrate the dedication of this place and to share this day with the children and families of the community. The joy in meeting the children who looked sharp in their uniforms, seeing their teachers and touring the school grounds, and sensing the pride that existed from the community was well worth the arduous drive to get there. We played, sang, and danced with the school children, snapped endless photos with them, were charmed by their smiles and performances during the ceremony, and were generally deeply heartened to be a part of this historic day. We left exhausted, but heartened by the hope that L’Ecole de Choix will provide a place for the children of Haiti to learn and thrive in a stable and healthy educational system so they can grow to be the leaders that Haiti so desperately needs for its future.
David Fuder, 8th Grade English Teacher, Francis W. Parker School, Chicago, IL, USA