For the past several years, SUNY Broome has been dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance through Health for Haiti, a global service-learning course. While the majority of the participants are SUNY Broome students and faculty, the Health for Haiti initiative, which includes support in the areas of health/sanitation, education, and community development, is bolstered by community involvement. Incredibly, one of Health for Haiti’s most committed partners is comprised of some of our youngest Southern Tier residents, the students of Tioga Hills Elementary School (Vestal).
The combination of the global pandemic and the civil unrest in Haiti prevented SUNY Broome students and staff from traveling to Grande Saline. Though a physical, tangible presence in Haiti could not be facilitated, our young partners at Tioga Hills Elementary did not want their Haitian friends to be forgotten. Through two separate fundraising events, the students of Tioga Hills Elementary raised over $2,000.00 to sustain the kitchen construction project. This donation will go directly towards building a solar powered kitchen connected to the school. Currently, school meals are prepared over an open fire, under a makeshift structure composed of a tarp and some sheet metal. The new kitchen, which is being designed by SUNY Broome’s Engineering Club, will provide a safe and sanitary space for food storage, preparation, and distribution.
“The Tioga Hills connection to Health for Haiti is truly inspiring. All of the children in Haiti that we visit know the name Tioga Hills. Tioga Hills’ involvement has enriched the program not just for the Haitian community, but for the SUNY Broome students who participate in the course,” said Dr. Jen Musa.
The bond between Tioga Hills Elementary School and Health for Haiti happened by chance.
“Principal Jane Hashey, who has since retired, heard Dr. Jen Musa speak about the work being done through Health for Haiti at their local church. She was genuinely inspired by Jen’s message and felt that the Health for Haiti initiative aligned perfectly with our mission,” said School Counselor, Rhonda Ruhm.
Since then, Dr. Jen Musa, professor of biology and co-coordinator of the Health for Haiti course with Professor Maureen Hankin, has been visiting Tioga Hills Elementary School for years to talk to the students about the children of Grande Saline and what it means to be a good global neighbor. The students, ranging in grade from kindergarten to fifth, become engaged through photos, stories, videos, and updates about their counterparts in Haiti. The children then spend their year connecting with the students of Grande Saline through writing letters, sharing pictures, and sending supplies.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Travel halted, schools were closed, and the operations behind Health for Haiti needed to be drastically altered. Even with all that turmoil and uncertainty, the students of Tioga Hills Elementary wished to remain an active partner.
The motto of Tioga Hills Elementary School is “Make Your Actions Count” and the students truly take that to heart. Understanding the students’ desire to stay connected to the children of Grand Saline, Principal Hayley Crimmins and School Counselor Rhonda Ruhm, assembled their “Actions Count” committee to focus on innovative ways to raise funds.
“In 2019, we collected an entire stage full of supplies, activities, and lesson plans to send to Haiti for the students and teachers. We knew that replicating those efforts would not logistically be possible, so we asked each homeroom to brainstorm on ways to raise money. We settled on drives for coins and bottles,” explained Crimmins.
For the bottle drive portion of the fundraiser, Tioga Hills Elementary partnered with Nathan’s Butterflies. Nathan’s Butterflies, named in honor of Nathan Frederick Cucci, is a Vestal based charity that focuses on encouraging acts of kindness. Over 6,700 bottles/cans were collected by the students and were deposited at the Vestal Beverage and Redemption Center. Nathan’s Butterflies graciously offered to match the money that was raised via the drive.
“We also ran a coin drive for two weeks. One day would be, ‘bring in your pennies’ day. Then the next day would be ‘bring in your dimes’ day. We also used this as an opportunity to not only focus on teaching generosity, but also teach some practical things like asking parent permission before donating the coins and sanitizing after touching money,” laughed Crimmins.
In sum, the students raised over $2000.00 to support the construction of the kitchen that will serve nearly 200 students and staff at the school in Grande Saline. This project fits in perfectly with the Grande Saline community’s request to focus our efforts on the basic needs of food, water, and education.
The faculty and staff of Tioga Hills Elementary have long shared a communal desire to teach their students about empathy and perspective. This year, that lesson came beautifully from the students of Grande Saline. Via video, they collectively put their hands over their hearts, bowed their heads, and reverently observed a moment of silence in honor of their friends from Tioga Hills, whose lives had been affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This gesture was particularly moving, as the Tioga Hills Elementary School community had recently lost a custodian due to complications from Covid-19.
While there is still uncertainty about future trips to Haiti, we know that if and when they can resume, that the students of Tioga Hills Elementary will not only be thrilled, but will be ready to help in any way that they can.
“I’m looking forward to the year when the first Tioga Hills Elementary student takes our Health for Haiti course and joins us in Grande Saline. Students always tell me that they want to come with us when they are old enough and I just can’t wait for that to happen,” said Musa.