Minnetonka Teacher in Haiti

Teacher Mary Fenwick and her sixth-graders raise funds and awareness for Haiti.

The sixth-graders thought of it themselves. The class had been studying world history through the lens of current events such as the global water crisis. After the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, they wanted to help. “They knew I would listen to them,” says their Minnetonka Middle School East (MME) teacher Mary Fenwick, “so they asked me what they could do.” They decided to raise money for the Haiti Outreach organization.

Fenwick has sky-blue eyes and the serene, open face of a Willa Cather character. It’s easy to see why the kids put their trust in the tall, fair woman. Together, they developed an enduring passion for the people, culture and struggles of Haiti. After the kids raised a few thousand dollars for earthquake relief, Fenwick was moved to do more. She met with her principal, Pete Dymit, and with Peg Keenan, a school board member and Board Chair of Haiti Outreach, to discuss the possibility of developing a sister school in Haiti.

When Keenan arranged Haiti Outreach’s first all-women visit, Fenwick was quickly on board. Of the 12 travelers, Fenwick was the only school teacher. According to Keenan, “despite the fact that Haitian people face crippling effects of poverty, undrinkable water, high infant mortality, poor medical care, illiteracy and high unemployment, given the opportunity, the Haitian people will help themselves. Haiti Outreach is committed to providing that opportunity.” 

The nine-day trip took place in February. “I went as a representative of MME and to provide information to the classroom,” Fenwick says. “My kids were a huge part of the trip. Before I left, the class studied Haiti, and while I was gone they read my travel blog together.” The kids also worked with the KIVA organization to provide micro-loans to countries around the world while learning basic business and economics lessons. In May, the class made its 100th loan over a three-year period.

Fenwick had never been to a third-world country. The level of poverty and hardship was shocking, and Fenwick admits that the group went though an initial period of overwhelm. “But as we met people and got to know them,” she says, “we found them to be warm and loving. I learned a lot about strength and being satisfied with very little; the very idea of celebrating clean water was life-changing for me.”

When Fenwick visited one of Haiti Outreach’s three schools, the Pignon Lycee, the language barrier confounded her. “Despite what we were told,” she laughs, “Haitian Creole is nothing like French!”

After her return, “I wanted to do something for Haiti every single day,” says Fenwick. The kids jumped at the idea of a Water Walk-a-thon to build a well in Haiti. On May 6, more than 300 students walked the track at MME and sold homemade cookies, lemonade and “Haiti Outreach” pins. They decorated Caribbean-themed booths with photos and built a model well, and they participated in Haitian activities.

Fenwick presented the checks from the MME Water Walk-a-thon at the Haiti Outreach annual spring luncheon. The amount came to $12,600—exceeding their goal of $8,000, which is the cost of one well. “We were shocked at the size of the donation from MME,” says Keenan. “It was so much more than we imagined. I had to wipe the tears from my eyes so I could see my notes for my speech.” The best part? The kids asked to keep the fund drive open until the end of the school year so they could raise even more money for Haiti.

“I fully intend to go back,” avers Fenwick—“with the kids, too. Our students would be a great help, not only with the physical chores but also with communication with the Haitian kids. And once we get computers there, they’ll need help learning to use them. Technology would be a wonderful gift.” Keenan is not surprised by Fenwick’s vow to return, saying, “Haiti does that to people. It’s such a different country than most of us are exposed to yet it’s so close to the U.S. It’s amazing to experience that.”