Apr 14

HAITI — Most people use spring break to relax, take vacations and reconnect with family.

Three Vero Beach High School students, their parents and their principal took a different path. They gave up vacations and canceled family trips to travel to Haiti and make new connections, ones they hope will last for generations.

The impoverished country, less than a two-hour plane ride from South Florida, is still recovering from a devastating earthquake that destroyed buildings and killed hundreds of thousands in January.

“It’s one thing to see things on TV, it’s another thing to see them in real life,” said Austin Carter, a 17-year-old 11th-grade student athlete with a penchant for communicating using broken Haitian Creole and a smile. “What I’ve come to realize is that they are real people, they have hearts just like you and me.”

Carter and his parents, David and Julia Carter of Vero Beach, were among the Indian River County residents who visited Haiti for three to six days to see how they could help. They were also hunting for a school that Vero Beach High could partner with to help local students connect with their peers in Haiti.

“I thought there was more violence going on, but driving around, everyone seems so nice,” said Todd Fennell Jr., 17, who arrived with his parents, Todd and Kathy Fennell, on April 1.

Others who made the trip include Vero Beach High Principal Eric Seymour, 11th-grader Bridget Johnston and her mother, Kathryn Johnston, who has visited the country three times since the earthquake.

Once in the country, John Engle, co-director of Haiti Partners, an organization based in Vero Beach and Mariaman, Haiti, arranged for the group to meet with engineers, attorneys, educators and already-established partner schools. Engle, who became the tour guide, translator and driver for the visitors, is a part-time Vero Beach resident who has lived in Haiti for 20 years with his Haitian-born wife, Merline.

Haiti Partners’ mission is to help Haitians change their own country through education. The non-profit organization that incorporated in October 2008 “brings Americans and Haitians together to build relationships and understanding,” Engle said.

That fits perfectly with the students’ primary goal of finding a partner school. The students are planning a school-wide event before the end of the year and hope to share their experiences with classmates. Their long-term goal is to create a model of how to partner with a Haitian school that other schools could follow.

And students are going to try to raise money to help.

“We are also going to try to raise as much funds as we can because they really need it,” said Todd Fennell, Jr.

Seymour, 49, himself a Vero Beach High graduate, wants to use his visit as a teaching tool.

“We have everything we need to create an open line of communication, establishing a support group student-to-student with the primary goal of caring for one another,” he said.

He wants his students to get familiar with what’s happening in Haiti through communication with Haitian students.

The three student ambassadors said they will have their hands full breaking stereotypes and dismantling fears, although since their return, their first-hand experiences have made that job easier.

“It’s not about the state of the building or the state of the roads,” Bridget Johnston said. “It’s all about the people. They have absolutely nothing and are so grateful for everything.”