The first day of school at Lycée Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable in Haiti
by Sarah Tompkins ’10
On Jan. 12, 2010, the entire world watched in horror as a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti. The natural disaster threw Haiti into chaos, with images of utter devastation and news of more than 316,000 deaths rippling like aftershocks around the globe.
As the scenes of chaos began to unfold on news networks throughout the world, Edward Brennan P’06, P’12 watched from his home in Hong Kong. Shocked by the devastation, he recognized a call to action.
“I needed to do something that would help me understand Haiti, to try to comprehend what had happened,” he explains. As the chief executive officer and chair of DFS Group, the leading luxury retailer in the world catering to travelers in airports, Brennan knew he was in a position to affect real, positive change. So he immediately reached out to Olivier Bottrie, the president of travel retailing worldwide at Estée Lauder Companies and a friend whose Haitian wife still had strong ties to her home country. “I just asked: what can I do?”
Two years later, that question has been answered with a sprawling school in the port city of Saint-Marc. In October 2011, Lycée Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable opened its doors to 153 students, and will become a haven of learning for 720 pre-kindergarten through secondary school students by 2023.
For Brennan, the idea of kindling hope is rooted in his family. Brennan’s godson, Michael, was born plagued with medical afflictions including blindness and cerebral palsy. He was not given long to live.
Eleven years later when Michael did die, his optimistic outlook on life left his family with an indefatigable sense of hope. “Despite his physical limitations, he inspired the entire family,” recalls Brennan. “He made me realize that an individual who is able to receive proper care, love and help can lead a happy and productive life. He helped me focus on the importance of giving back.”
With Bottrie on his side, Brennan called upon another friend and associate, Martin Moodie, founder and chair of The Moodie Report, who has experience driving major industry charity projects. Armed with Brennan’s vision of helping children to live the best possible lives in a country seemingly lost, the three men began to explore how they could leverage their resources. During a brainstorming session, Bottrie expressed his dream of creating a school to educate those without opportunity.
Brennan and his colleagues formed a clear vision for a long- term, sustainable school open to the children of Haiti in greatest need. They wanted to create a safe haven with high academic standards and positive connections to the local community. Above all, Brennan and his partners wanted to create hope.
When Brennan took into consideration the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against Haiti – it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and only a little over half of the population is literate, with even fewer granted access to school – he was not daunted. “We looked at these facts and said, ‘Maybe this is where we have the opportunity to make a real difference.’”
“The three of us made a commitment that we were going to run this project,” says Brennan. “We did not want to simply donate financial support and then hand it over for someone else to run. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the situation, to live and breathe it. We wanted to ensure that our vision was executed correctly. We had a different philosophy than many corporations do – instead of writing a check, we wanted to take full responsibility for this and educate our industry on a new model of service and philanthropy.”
While developing the school, Brennan made frequent trips to Haiti. “The most important aspect of any venture is a commitment to invest time and research – which is exactly what we did; we made the time,” explains Brennan. “We all met with influential people in government, education and business. We approached the situation saying: here’s our vision, here’s what we’re thinking, and we opened ourselves up to learn.”
Brennan quickly discovered that one of Haiti’s greatest ongoing challenges is a so-called “brain drain” in which well-educated young men and women leave their home country to work abroad. “What we’re interested in doing is not only providing an education, but providing opportunity in Haiti,” says Brennan. “So we’ve been working with local industries, helping to strengthen businesses so that they can one day provide our graduates with jobs.”
Those future graduates are studying today in state-of-the-art facilities designed to help children in nearly every aspect of life. An onsite clinic provides children with healthcare, and twice daily meals are available to students at the school year-round – not just when school is in session.
The school also nurtures students through arts and music education, incorporating a variety of classrooms and a library. Construction has started on a new sports complex with completion scheduled for this summer. A vegetable garden serves as an outdoor classroom on sustainability and the environment.
With a dedication to academic excellence, Brennan and his partners consulted with the French Lycée in New York to create a curriculum that teaches the French, English and Creole languages. With a high level of academic rigor required for the program, the school sought a dedicated staff and strong support system.
The next logical step was to reach out to those who would help the growing school expand and enrich. Currently, Catherine O’Connor ’11 serves as a member of the school’s staff, working with the young students as a teacher.
“The students of HWS are incredibly enthusiastic about the school, and there has been a great interest in applying for teaching positions and internships,” says Director of the Salisbury Center for Career Services and Professional Development Brandi Ferrara. “This program really provides an excellent opportunity for our students to do meaningful work beyond the Colleges, while using every aspect of their liberal arts backgrounds. They are given the chance to hone their teaching skills while building a life of consequence.”
Before the school was constructed, Brennan’s connection with HWS students was well-established. Through DFS, Brennan has sought the skills of many students, providing a significant number with internships and jobs at the company’s base in Hong Kong. “I have always been impressed with the quality of HWS students, with the educational background provided to them and the breadth of courses that one can take. We have moved them into the business field and they have excelled. That is a relationship we have extended to Hand in Hand.”
Brennan hopes that more HWS students take advantage of the opportunities in Haiti. “All that you have to do is look at the children. You see this sparkle in their eyes and the big smiles on their faces. It says to us that these kids have hope – hope that their lives might be better than that of their families’,” says Brennan. “If you take a trip to Haiti, you will find yourself inspired every time. You realize that even in a small way, you can make a difference in the lives of those kids.”