Some experts in building custom homes in Aspen devoted some of their skills over the past few years to constructing a school in a hard-luck town in Haiti.
Tim Myers, a retired builder who has worked in the Aspen area for 35 years, recruited some of his contacts in the construction industry to help complete a school in the Haitian town of Villard. They did the planning and supervision; the labor and materials were from Haiti.
“That was one of my important goals — not to do it for them,” Myers said.
The town of roughly 5,000 people avoided physical damage in the 2010 earthquake that devastated much of the country, but it suffered an economic blow. It is in a major rice- growing and -processing area, but Haiti was flooded with cheap rice during the earthquake-relief efforts. The domestic price collapsed.
National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” show profiled Villard in 2010, and listeners contributed $3,000 to build a school in the town. NPR followed up later that year and found that all the money was spent on a foundation that wasn’t completed. The school project was abandoned.
Myers heard the NPR report and felt compelled to use his skills as a carpenter and construction project manager to help get the school built. Another radio listener, Fred Ireland, of North Carolina, got the same idea. They independently contacted NPR to find out how they could help, were put in touch and ultimately co-founded the Haiti School Project, a nonprofit dedicated to building the school, training teachers and providing textbooks.
Myers said he never volunteered before but that the story of Villard stirred something in him. After a career of building second homes in Aspen, he was looking for something a little more rewarding. He first went to Haiti in January 2011 to check the feasibility of the school project. He went again in 2012 to hear from school administrators, teachers and parents of the 350 children what they were looking for in a facility.
The project faced a daunting challenge from the start. The foundation wasn’t structurally sound. Myers called on Jack Albright, of Albright and Associates, an engineering firm in the mid-Roaring Fork Valley, to seek a solution. Albright dropped what he was doing, acquired a passport in near record time and flew to Haiti to investigate, according to Myers. Albright came up with a solution that salvaged not only the foundation but also the pride of the people connected to the school.
Several employees at Poss Architecture and Planning, of Aspen, also devoted their time to work on plans and supervising construction. Richard de Campo, a senior associate at Poss, was one of six Aspen-area construction experts who paid their own airfare down to Haiti, stayed there on their own dime and supervised the work for one week at a time.
“That’s the type of organization it is — very grassroots. It’s all volunteers. The money goes to the project,” Myers said.
De Campo said the time he invested in the project was worthwhile. In addition to gaining construction-management experience, his perspective got a welcome tweak from getting out of the Roaring Fork Valley and observing conditions in rural Haiti.
“It was one of the more meaningful experiences I’ve had,” de Campo said. The town residents were grateful for the help, and they embraced the project as something important for their part of the community.
“There’s a sense that everybody’s pitching in,” he said.
Myers said the project accomplished more than constructing a school. It pumped $100,000 into the local economy because local materials and labor were used. Workers learned new skills and building techniques.
De Campo said he was most impressed by the resourcefulness of the Haitians. They cut four tons of rebar for the project by hacksaw, for example, and they hauled 3,000 pounds of concrete by bucket brigade for use on roof beams.
The Haiti School Project raised $100,000 for the project, primarily through word of mouth among family and friends of the founders and members of the board of directors. The roof was added to the structure in May. A small amount of money remains to start adding the interior and exterior stucco.
Myers said his goal is to also add photovoltaic electricity for the school and tie it into the grid. A kitchen will be added, as will composting toilets.
But the folks at Haiti School Project won’t consider its mission accomplished when the physical work is complete. They have acquired textbooks and education materials and plan to buy more for the school. They also organized an ongoing effort to train the school’s teachers.
“In the long run, it might have a greater impact,” Myers said.
More about Haiti School Project is available online at www.haitischoolproject.org.