11/17/2011 12:19 am ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

The Schoolbag Haiti

The Schoolbag is a success. 14,189 students now have the school supplies necessary to pursue an education. I cannot describe the abundant joy it brings me to write those words. My little idea came to life.

But how did an American environmental activist, a Canadian student, an Australian lawyer-to-be, a social media expert living in Hong Kong, a South African businessman, a Dominican development specialist, and a Haitian mental health worker end up on this Caribbean island with tens of thousands of notebooks, pens, pencils, rulers, crayons, bags, and more? Allow me to rewind and share a story fitting for International Education Week.

Haiti holds a very special place in my heart. I have been deeply committed to my work there over the past year and a half, from medical relief to orphan care to surveying the education system. Working at a field hospital after the earthquake, I came to understand the pressing need for school supplies and educational materials to begin the process that would allow children to resume studies, grow intellectually, and contribute to our world.

"If I only had the materials, I'd teach the kids myself." An out-of-work teacher uttered these words to me one night in pediatrics, where he was acting as a translator. Lying in my dorm room at New York University after returning from my first visit to Haiti, this played over and over again in my mind. If a simple pen and paper would make the difference for him, I imagined it would for other students and teachers as well. Thus, The Schoolbag was born.

Literally, The Schoolbag is a tote bag filled with school supplies - environmentally sustainably and ethically produced - but as an organization, it represents hope. Lack of access to, or availability of, satisfactory school supplies and materials prohibits many children from learning. Acquisition of knowledge is the first step on the path to global sustainability, prosperity, and world peace; innovation and progress stem from education, a universal right. Raising awareness about the lack of access to education, each bag contains adequate materials for one student to learn for one year. The fact that all components are produced responsibly is the greenie in me shining through. I feel a responsibility to plant the seeds of environmental consciousness from the start. Inspiring stewardship and engagement among impressionable youth, having the opportunity to work with and empower those even younger than I, is a gift! Education, youth, and the environment; those are my passions. Through The Schoolbag, I have found a way to unite them all.

Back to the story... after conducting additional field research and implementing a test run of the program the summer before last, I had a mission: to deliver school supplies to 11,210 students in Haiti. I organized a team of six international volunteers to join me in Haiti to deliver over 28,000 notebooks, pens, pencils, tote bags, rulers, crayons, and other such school supplies. We directly reached more than 14,189 students at over 51 educational institutions in those two weeks, immediately before the start of the school year, far surpassing my goal. I stand firmly behind the power of collaboration and this project was no exception, achieving success only because of the paper donations from Arjowiggins Creative Paper, masterful notebooks from ecojot (you must see the photos!), shipping by Project Medishare, bags from Whole Foods Market, books from Kejriwal Green, supplies from New Leaf Paper, a home at the Haitian American Caucus, the list goes on... the in kind support of many corporations, financial generosity of donors (many of whom were friends of mine and other young people around the world through Facebook campaigns), and publicity to raise awareness, including features this summer in Vanity Fair, Teen Vogue, Australia's Peppermint Magazine, Sublime in the UK and a recent White House profile.

One phrase in a thank you note form the administration at a school in Cité Soleil struck me. "With unity, the burden can become light. Please don't hesitate to put your hands and brains to supports and work for the cause." That is precisely what we have all done to make The Schoolbag a reality.

We GSD - or get stuff done - a Bill Clinton-ism I quite enjoy. In the rhetoric-dominated sphere of humanitarian aid (where too many words represent too little action for too few), implementation itself is innovative. I am proud to say that we stand for relief and the alleviation of present hardships as well as a long-term strategic investment in the future economy, society, intellectual capacity, and development of Haiti, for freedom and opportunity for youth. If nothing else, we show up. Acknowledgment and attention to these issues is productive in it of itself, especially when the list of losses is long. Forgetting is the worst thing we could do for the survivors, the hundreds of thousands who are still living in camps and amongst rubble and destruction nineteen months after the earthquake, and the three hundred thousand victims.

Everyone agrees on the need to improve access to education, but too few act. I refuse to give the shrug of inevitability, so I have set out to address the cause of this troubling inequity. The Schoolbag is not the almighty answer, but it is a solution that empowers young people, preparing them with the tools to become innovative, progressive members of a prosperous and sustainable global society. With a Schoolbag, students become active agents of change, rather than passive recipients of charity goods.

The plight of Haiti has only worsened with the earthquake, tropical storms, cholera outbreak, political unrest, and other natural and manmade disasters over the past two years. I could easily speak about how injustice and apathy leads to death and failed opportunities, how Haiti is commonly cited as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, how much of the population suffers quietly yet is remarkably resilient - the typical things one reads about in articles on Haiti - but no, I wish to focus on the positive. Haiti possesses vast human capital.

Allow me to quote President Clinton and current UN Special Envoy to Haiti. "Never has there been [a natural disaster] so concentrated in such a heavily populated part of a densely populated country, one that has devastated a capital city and with this much loss of life and infrastructure. This is worse than what has happened before, but I'm confident that Haiti will recover and will build back better." I too believe Haiti is moving in a better direction. We must now prepare for, and equip, the "tsunami of youth," as economist and great global thinker Paul Collier calls Haiti's large population of youth about to come of age. Access to education has clear economic and political benefits, leading to growth and good governance, promoting jobs and dignity, moving away from costly social unrest and civil strife. It is our hope for peace.

The earthquake in Haiti worsened an already highly problematic situation; a natural disaster compounded with a vulnerable and tenuous social-political-economic-environmental-cultural landscape. While the unprecedented outpouring of generosity and donations that followed (a Charity Navigator report claims that nearly half of American households donated) has made tremendous progress possible, Haiti faded all-too-quickly from the headlines and public conscience. A concentrated and sustained effort is absolutely necessary to rebuild the nation. And how better to address national development challenges than to harness the brainpower of young scholars and involve them in governance and the global knowledge economy?

I cannot say that the needs of students in Haiti are the greatest in the world, but I can tell you that this need is real and great. Onel, the principal of L'Ecole Mixte Petit Coeur de Jesus in Site Solèy, one of Haiti's most notoriously dangerous and impoverished metropolitan communities, wrote us a beautiful note. "I send you this little message in order to thank you for the distribution you have made in our school. We are very grateful. You are very important to us and we need your support. Because we are dealing with the poorest children in Port-au-Prince! They face all the problems of life, such as hunger, housing, health, social, political. They are the real victims of all these problems. We are looking for good friends and charitable hearts that can help us to improve the living conditions - education, health, economic, nutritional, social - of these poor children. So once again thank you!"

The Schoolbag concept was generated by a Haitian teacher and came into being as a result of meaningful consultation that included teachers, students, parents, NGOs, government officials, and the Haitian people, regardless of class. We do not want to be 'just another NGO,' a failed experiment in the Petrie dish which Haiti has unfortunately become, and thus stressed such a collaborative conception and development process rooted in relevance and need.

I have made the conscious choice to work with the Haitian government, in a suitable limited capacity. While I remain skeptical about the ability of the weak public sector to deliver basic services, like education, and acknowledge the history of corruption, inaction, and neglect, the coordination and awareness of larger national planning and reconstruction efforts is vital to our mutual success.

The Schoolbag is a direct investment in people. I dream of Haiti being independent from foreign aid, but we must first equip youth with the tools to reach that goal, a process which will require great patience and energy. The country must now be reimagined and rebuilt to its full capacity, far beyond its pre-2010 status. Educating youth is step one, in my opinion. And I tell that to anyone that will listen: my friends, family, blogosphere, Twitterverse, magazines worldwide, radio in Haiti, student groups, you name it!

The Schoolbag is nimble in its approach and, as proven with deliveries and impact last summer, able to accomplish great amounts. As a small organization, we can largely avoid the bureaucratic red tape and flex to accommodate shifting needs, while staying true to our mission. Our goal is twofold: provide students with the tools to learn and thus contribute to the mental and social development of the new leaders of Haiti, while simultaneously addressing the current education crisis, which was only exacerbated by the earthquake and its aftermath.

Citizen activism is our power to affect change in the world. Not everyone can or wishes to physically go to Haiti - I fully understand that - but every individual can help in massive ways. With knowledge comes responsibility to act, to mobilize resources (I fundraised in my dorm and on Facebook prior to my first trip to Haiti!), to become involved. What happens half a world away affects us and you can start now to make a difference. Force people to care, to respond, to do the right thing.

A member of the staff at an orphanage we visited wrote to us. "They would not have had the opportunity to take part in school this year if it weren't for the contributions." A pencil in hand, a lesson learned, a smile; every bit of progress matters. No energy or resources are wasted. There is nothing left to say, but rather "to do" - and the power to affect change exists within each and every individual.

Together, we can - and will - change the world, beginning with educating young people in Haiti, my favorite place on earth.

Yon timoun ki pa gen konesans, li pa gen anyen nan men li, li pas konsidere nan sosyete a.
A child who is not educated has no tools for the future, and is not important in the society.
- Haitian saying