Three weeks before the earthquake that devastated Haiti, Molly Nuell traveled with her mother and aunt to a remote part of the Caribbean country, a central plateau area of broad valleys and green mountains, far from the better known urban centers.
It was a balmy December day in 2009 and Nuell, then a ninth-grader at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic school in Miami , remembers staring out the window at a bucolic landscape as her group bumped and lurched in a white van down the rutted roads to La Colline. She didn’t know how her life would change, how she would find her purpose so far from home.
Then Nuell saw the school building, the reason for her visit: a thatched-roof structure so bare of the essentials that she felt a pang in the middle of her chest.
“It was like a shack,” said Nuell, now 20 and a sophomore at Boston College. “Dirt flooring, walls that weren’t really walls, one large chalkboard and multiple classes going on at the same time. There are no words to describe it, except I don’t know how anybody can learn in a place like that.”
That image — and the realization that elementary school-age kids had to wade through mud at the school when it rained — proved the inspiration for a years-long fundraising effort that would eventually include one determined nun, a network of Sacred Heart schools, hundreds of generous girls, the University of Miami School of Architecture and the man who started it all, Paul Farmer and his Boston-based nonprofit, Partners in Health (PIH).
The school Nuell and Sister Suzanne Cooke, Carrollton’s headmistress, helped build in partnership with UM and Zanmi Lasante, the Haiti-based sister organization of PIH, opened its doors to students just a few weeks ago. For PIH, the school is more than just a new building, “it’s about removing barriers to high-quality education,” a spokesman for the organization wrote in an email. The students “are the ones who will help to lift Haiti out of poverty.”
The school’s official dedication is scheduled for the weekend of June 14, a ceremony both Sister Cooke and Nuell plan to attend.
The Notre Dame La Colline Community School — two buildings framing a courtyard, with decorative metal work by Haitian artists and seven classrooms, an administrative office and an infirmary — stands as testament to the power of partnership that transcends distance and language. It is a story of hope and renewal, of promise and possibility.
“The school proves things can be different, that change is possible,” Cooke said. “No single experience has given me such a tremendous gift of hope.”
The tale of La Colline’s new school actually begins long before Molly Nuell’s first visit to the area. Farmer, a Harvard-trained physician and medical anthropologist, had been working in Haiti since the early 1980s. Along with a Haitian priest and an English medical volunteer, he had founded a community-based health project, known as Zanmi Lasante. In 1985, he and his colleagues opened Clinique Bon Saveur, a health facility in Cange in the central plateau. Today, that facility has several other satellite sites in the area, serving hundreds of thousands of people.
Molly Nuell’s mother, Laurie Weiss Nuell, also a Carrollton graduate, had become involved with Zanmi Lasante. The elder Nuell, who was on the board of her alma mater, told Sister Cooke about the needs of the organization. The nun was all too familiar with Haiti’s poverty. In 2000, as the network of Sacred Heart schools celebrated its 200th birthday, American, Mexican and Canadian leaders of the Catholic religious order had vowed to help Haiti.
“Laurie introduced us to the medical clinic in La Colline,” Cooke said. “She said, ‘There’s a clinic there. Now, they would like a school.’ ”
The headmistress realized it was a great project for Carrollton and its sister schools, which seek to give their students opportunities for social advocacy, as well as instilling in them a life-long commitment to service.
Her first visit to La Colline was eye-opening. “The mud was everywhere, indescribable,” she said. “It looked like a pig trough.”
The site of the new school was a pasture where animals grazed, including an intimidating bull and an unfriendly goat. Yet Cooke was touched by the optimism of the people and the enthusiasm of the children. She realized that building a new facility to replace the current ramshackle school was “a sign of hope. It said to them, ‘We believe in the future.’”
She would later visit Haiti several more times, including on a mission with South Florida civic and religious leaders organized after the January 2010 earthquake by Peter Dolara, then senior vice president of American Airlines. After the quake, “I was more convinced than ever that we had to do something,” she added. “It was not just the destruction but the depth of chaos.”
Though La Colline was far from the horrific earthquake damage in the capital of Port-au-Prince, residents of the city were streaming into the central plateau to flee the post-earthquake anarchy.
In the meantime, UM architecture alumni and students had been working with Farmer’s organization, designing clinics and other structures. When the subject of the school came up, acting dean Denis Hector and professor Joanna Lombard were immediately interested.
“From our very first involvement with Paul Farmer and his group, we’ve been inspired by what they do,” Hector said. “It’s an opportunity for our young professionals to do outreach and say, ‘Any skill we have, we want to contribute.’”
The La Colline community would determine what it needed in a school, as well as supply the workers and supervisors. “We were there to help not to tell them what to do or what they needed,” Cooke said.
In Miami, it was Molly Nuell who, through the Hearts of Haiti school club, spearheaded the effort to raise money. With the backing of classmates and the Carrollton administration, Nuell and a group of young volunteers raised $200,000, half of which went to build the school and the remaining portion to earthquake relief. Some were outright donations from Carrollton parents and alumni, but most came from money made through fund-raisers, including bake sales, an art exhibit and parking cars for the Coconut Grove Arts Festival.
For Nuell, helping with La Colline’s school was the continuation of a family tradition. Her late grandfather, Jay W. Weiss, a founder of Southern Wine and Spirits of America, was a well-known local and international philanthropist, having donated time and money to such causes as Jackson Memorial Hospital, the University of Miami School of Medicine and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. His daughters and grandchildren have continued the tradition of giving and volunteering.
“I grew up knowing I was expected to engage in social and community services,” Nuell said.
The commitments from Carollton and Nuell don’t end now that classes are under way in the new facility. The school’s operating budget will continue to be financed by the annual Heart for Haiti fundraisers led by Carrollton and sponsored by the network of Sacred Heart schools.
“We want this to be the start of an ongoing endowment,” Cooke explained. “We will do whatever we can to help them.”
For Nuell, who plans on becoming a teacher, that means a lifetime commitment. “I don’t go a day without thinking of Haiti,” Nuell said. “I think about the school, about the kids, what they’re doing, what they’re studying. I will be eternally grateful for being able to work on this project. It’s so much a part of me.”