Students Helping Students

By Bridget Meeds

Engineering Undergrads help design school for Haitian children with special needs.

Life in Haiti is difficult for everyone, as the country suffers through the aftermath of the 2008 hurricane and the devastating earthquake in 2010.  It is especially challenging for the children with special needs, for whom navigating daily life can be almost impossible. In Haiti, some refer to the disabled as "coco bai"—a slang Creole term meaning worthless. But to four Cornell Engineering students who are participating in a project to design and build a school for them, they are very worthy.

Those four students—Rena Mazur ’17, Margaret Meehan ’17,  Nadia Suha Shebaro ’15, and Walter Schaefer ’15—visited Haiti and are part of a large, interdisciplinary effort to build the Centre d’éducaion Inclusif, a school for children with special needs. It’s being coordinated by a dynamic young policy and analysis management student, Alexon Grochowski ’15, and the engineering students became involved via their membership in the student-led Cornell University Sustainable Design project team. 

The students knew ahead of time that the project would not be easy. A snapshot of Haiti by UNICEF notes that per capita income is $760; the infant mortality rate is 1 in 100; and the total adult literacy rate is 48.7 percent. In a country of ten million, there are 430,000 orphans, many of those who were injured in the earthquake. The Haiti Health Trust estimates that ten percent of the total population—1 million people—have physical and mental disabilities and hardly any services exist for them.

Cornell engineers first became involved in the project when Walter, who studies mechanical engineering, went on a service trip in spring 2013 along with Alexon. The trip was sponsored by Light Path for Haiti, a development non-governmental organization (NGO). The students on his trip performed a water feasibility study for the village of Trouchouchou, gathering data to evaluate potable water options, including a rainwater catchment system, a pump, and a well. On this trip, Alexon met a local philanthropist who inspired her to join his efforts to develop Centre d’éducation Inclusif.

“Alexon is organizing Cornell students to help create this school,” says Walter. “Our role as members of the design team is to define the physical structure. She wants it to be open to everyone who can attend and for the interior to be welcoming and calming so that the environment is conducive to learning for all students. We also need to ensure the structure will be able to withstand both hurricanes and earthquakes.”

Nearly one hundred undergraduate and graduate students from Cornell are collaborating on the planning, including students from the College of Human Ecology; the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs; the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning; the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies; and Engaged Learning + Research.

Walter, along with Rena, spent spring 2014 focusing on the water needs of the school. “Our job was to develop a system that would gather water from the roof whenever it rained, funnel it into a storage area, and make sure it is easily accessible whenever it is needed,” says Walter. “The really difficult part of that work was determining how big the storage needed to be. While demand was pretty much constant all year, supply changed due to the cycling rainy and dry seasons, which made it tough to determine the size of the storage so that when water was captured, there would be enough for the entire year. We needed to determine how many students would be there, what their daily water needs would be, and build to appropriate size everything based on those variables.”

Each project had two parts—a planning phase in Ithaca, and a trip to Petit Goave, Haiti, a coastal city of more than 100,000, 42 miles south of Port-au-Prince. “We needed to go to Haiti to assess the reality of building and maintaining these technologies in the Haiti environment and decide if they were feasible,” says Nadia, a civil and environmental engineering major.

In spring 2014, Rena, who studies biological engineering, travelled to Haiti to research available materials and make final recommendations. “In Haiti I observed various rainwater systems and tried to narrow down the options,” she says. “We are thinking of using a butterfly roof, in which case water would run along the crease of the roof and travel by PVC piping to the cisterns. While concrete is generally the best material for cisterns, in this case, we recommend plastic as it is less prone to crack in an earthquake.”

Margaret, who is majoring in information science, used the experience to explore design. Her role was to help design classroom interiors, and the big takeaway for her was the difference between making plans and what is really possible on the ground. “In Ithaca, we were thinking really optimistically about what we could do in the classroom and what materials we could use,” says Margaret. “When we went down there, the reality that they don’t have the resources we do struck home.”

Nadia studied the possibility of composting toilets at the facility. “Not only do composting toilets provide these communities with better sanitation but they also create this compost that you can use to reforest Haiti and replenish the country,” she notes. “As a result of this project, I got pretty passionate about them!”

She also grew passionate about the concept of working with people on a project they create and direct. “The impetus for the project came from within the community,” she says. “For me the most valuable part of the experience was talking to Haitians about their ideas for uplifting the country. Working on an international project like this, I always have these worries we’re not working for the community—that we’re just doing something we want to do. But this project is something this community can really benefit from, especially if we work with them.”

All of the students made recommendations to the project, and Rena, Margaret, and Nadia are continuing to work on it. But along with what they gave, they are also conscious of what they learned.

“While there are other competing needs in Haiti,” says Rena,” I believe that supporting education is the most important. By educating children, we are giving them the tools to pursue a professional career and make a difference in their country.”

“While visiting Haiti, I met a lot of people working on a community scale, planning social businesses, and providing education,” says Nadia. “Seeing all these people doing cool things was probably the best part of the trip. Haiti has a culture of people who are willing to work hard for things. There are lots of ways in which I could envision the country growing but it will take a lot of work to see real change.”

“I have always been really passionate about helping people but it has always been in the U.S., specifically in Philadelphia where I am from,” says Margaret. “This was my first time being in a developing country. I want to have a job where I’m helping people and doing productive things for the world, and that is why I am doing engineering.  This was a great opportunity to do things I am not doing in the classroom. “

“It was truly an eye-opening experience to see how differently people live down there, under very different political and social conditions,” says Walter. “This project reinforced my desire to work with renewable energy and sustainability after I graduate.  I want to make things that are not going to drain resources from the earth. I want to give back and to work in areas that may not have the greatest infrastructure or living situations and see if I can use sustainable engineering solutions to improve lives.”

As Cornell enters its sesquicentennial year, the project will continue. “The work is definitely not done!” says Margaret.

Currently, leaders are navigating the complex process of acquiring land rights for the site, and also raising funds to support the construction. It’s a project which says Cornell in so many ways; it’s interdisciplinary, it meets the land grant mission, and it empowers students to help others. One can imagine that if Ezra Cornell—a school builder himself—who  felt that education should be open to everyone was still around, that he might just roll up his sleeves and start helping as well.