Shock waves reached the little school of in Encino last year when word came that a magnitude-7.0 earthquake had hit Haiti, killing an estimated 316,000 people, injuring another 300,000 and leaving 1 million people homeless.
Lauren Levine, a sixth- through eighth-grade reading and English teacher, and Dorothee Chadda, an English teacher and ninth-grade-level adviser, were chatting on the Internet two nights later.
“I said, ‘We need to do something,’ and [Levine] said she was thinking the same thing,” Chadda said on Tuesday, the first day Westmark students returned to school after summer break.
Students and school officials at the private institution, which is geared toward children with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia, discussed how they could help their counterparts in Haiti, where many schools were destroyed.
“I felt bad seeing the pictures. I wanted to know about their stories,” said Sophia Valli, 15, a Westmark sophomore. “I was empathetic to how everyone was feeling, and I knew I’d feel good after helping someone.”
Westmark created a school-supply drive last year, but instead of sending a bunch of supplies in a plain cardboard box, the local students sent 200 bags engraved with their school logo to needy and at-risk children.
“I thought it was nice to help other people by giving away something we have for a good cause,” said Jerzey Dean, also 15 and a sophomore.
Each bag included a handwritten letter. Westmark students wrote about why they thought education was important and also asked Haitian students what their hopes and dreams were.
It was a jumping-off point for a pen-pal program between Westmark students and their Haitian counterparts. A full-blown letter-writing campaign begins this school year between the two countries.
“There was also a service learning component,” said Levine. “We decided to educate [the students] about Haitian cultures and the type of education that is historically practiced in Haiti.”
This year’s eigth-grade class put on a fair with several booths celebrating the different aspects of Haitian life. This year’s 10th graders created the artwork that decorated the fair, while a group of upper-grade students played traditional Haitian music in a drum circle (see the attached video).
“They had studied the music with a Westmark School parent,” Levine explained.
The goodie bags were sent to Gina Hortance of Florida-based Cilia Foundation Inc. and HaitiEcole.com’s pen-pal program. Hortance contacts the Dynasty Foundation, which films the delivery.
Half of the 200 bags are headed to Carrefour, Haiti, where students, who were former gang members, attend school. The remaining bags are destined for Grand-Goave where another school was destroyed in the earthquake.
Hortance said the HaitiEcole.com project started as an e-learning educational project for high schoolers to take free classes online after the earthquake. She said the pen-pal program engages Westmark students in a French-speaking letter-writing relationship.
The letters students wrote were translated into French through Google Translator and also proofread by Chadda.
To read more about the process of Westmark students putting together the Haitian program, visit sites.google.com/site/studenttostudentletterstohaiti/.