My wife Gouya and I traveled to Haiti last month with a group of supporters of the Mona Foundation, which included "The Office" actor Rainn Wilson (who plays Dwight Schrute) and his wife Holiday Reinhorn. Although I have also visited poverty-stricken villages in Africa, Haiti's poverty is coupled with frequent warnings of violence against visitors, especially ones from the United States. As I traveled on Haiti's treacherous (mostly unpaved) and pothole-packed streets, I glimpsed a dichotomous scene: a scenically picturesque, lush landscape marred by high level of poverty.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The top 1 percent of Haitians control 50 percent of its wealth. But despite the widespread poverty and lack of some amenities and social services (the type we are used to in the U.S.), many of the Haitians I met on my trip remained optimistic about the future of their country.
Haitians are some of the most beautiful people I have ever met. While by any measure Haiti is a poor country, one cannot help but notice the pride people take in their appearance. Every child who attends school in Haiti -- even the poorest of the poor -- wears a bright, clean, and pressed uniform. In this country, children looked immaculate as they walked and focused on getting to their destination as they bypassed the traffic and the difficult life they've grown accustomed to.
The Mona-sponsored schools we visited provide their students with a strong foundation in reading and writing, as well as a curriculum that stresses morals, values, leadership, community-building, vocational training, and pride in their heritage. The schools provide their students with the skills they need to continue to build their nation. According to one Mona school director, "These schools have great potential to serve the country by producing graduates who will be agents of change in their community."
While the Mona Foundation sponsors coed institutions, it is primarily focused on educating girls and women. Educating girls is crucial. As mothers, women are the first educators, and studies show that once a girl gets an education, she has the opportunity to raise the standard of living for herself, her family, her community, and her country. According to GirlEffect.org, research in developing countries has shown the children of educated women are healthier, and more likely to be in school themselves. A woman or girl will reinvest 90 percent of her income into her family, while a man will reinvest only 30 to 40 percent. An extra year of primary school raises a girl's lifetime wages by 10 to 20 percent, and an extra year of secondary school raises a girl's lifetime wages by 15 to 25 percent. Focusing money on educating girls is important because for every development dollar spent, girls typically receive less than 2 cents.
Highlights from the trip included visiting the New Horizon School, which is run by Bernard Martinod, a tireless French architect who has built a lovely, renowned school outside of Port au Prince that serves some of the small villages in the area. We also visited the Georges Marcellus School in the rural village of Gureot, where the kindergarteners charmed us with a song: "Hello, my friend. Hello, my friend. How are you?"
On this trip, I had the chance to observe how integral education is to the transformation of any country and community.
The Mona Foundation was named for Mona Mahmudnizhad-- a 16-year-old girl who taught children in orphanages how to read and write and in 1983 was executed by the Iranian government because she was a member of the Baha'i Faith. In her memory, the foundation supports schools and orphanages with a specific focus on those dedicated to education of women and girls.
While many of us are not actively engaged in careers that will find the cure to cancer or solve global warming, we can still get involved and do a lot with our resources to make a valuable impact.