Students to build schools in impoverished nations

When Caroline Koenig arrived in a Haitian village last summer for a one-week service trip, a woman greeted her by waving palm branches, jumping ecstatically and running alongside her car. The builders had arrived. 

Koenig, a Pitt senior neuroscience major and chemistry minor, spent a week in Baie Du Mesle, Haiti, with Pitt buildOn, a service organization dedicated to running after-school programs in U.S. schools and building schools in impoverished countries.

“The experience was incredible, and I think that is because we worked hand in hand with the community,” Koenig said in an email. “It was truly a partnership, and for a week I felt like I was part of the Baie Du Mesle community.”

Pitt’s chapter of buildOn   — an international nonprofit organization that began as an after-school program for students in impoverished areas — started two years ago, and according to President Camille Falcone, a senior neuroscience major, the club will send eight members to Nicaragua this summer to start building another primary school. 

According to its website, buildOn’s mission is “to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education.”

Three students from Pitt, six students from Lewis and Clark College in Oregon and two students from Wayne State University in Michigan attended last summer’s trip to Haiti. According to Koenig, four Haitian translators helped the students communicate with the natives, in-country directors from buildOn and a small locally hired construction crew. 

Upon arriving in Haiti, Koenig and others on the trip were brought to a church where a welcome ceremony took place. Koenig said that the reactions of the native people during the ceremony were overwhelmingly positive. 

“The fundraising process was a lot of hard work, and it was often stressful,” Koenig said. “But that moment made all the hard work worth it.”

Koenig added that spending the trip with students from other universities was a good experience because they were able to fundraise separately, but ended up coming together to construct the school.

According to Falcone, membership in the club has grown significantly in the last year. 

“Looking at all we’ve been able to achieve this year, I’m excited to start planning for next year,” Falcone said in an email.

Pitt buildOn has held fundraisers, including a book fair in March and sales of bracelets handmade by Haitian workers in March and April to raise funding for the trip costs and supplies necessary to build the schools.

Abiola Ogunsola, a senior builOn member who is majoring in microbiology and minoring in sociology and chemistry, and Koenig both agree that one of the biggest and most successful fundraising events at Pitt was the group’s variety show in February at the William Pitt Union. 

Students raised $500 for buildOn by performing, singing or dancing acts for the show individually or with their organizations, including Sounds Like Treble, C Flat Run, Controlled Chaos and The Alcohols. 

Other ways buildOn raises awareness and money is through canning — carrying a can in a public place and asking bystanders for donations — at public events such as Penguins games or University functions.

Both Ogunsola and Koenig said that they hope to continue their work with buildOn after they graduate, and they look forward to seeing the rising success of the Pitt chapter.

Koenig said she thinks their work in Baie Du Mesle will affect generations to come in a positive way and that she was deeply saddened to leave the village. She cried as the truck drove away.

“I felt like it just wasn’t long enough,” Koenig said. “I could’ve stayed in Baie Du Mesle the entire summer.”