“Without education, the only thing you’re thinking about is, ‘How do I survive?'”
Schendy Kernizan grew up outside a small village in Haiti, where he spent his childhood worrying about his family’s safety and his future. Now, he’s the co-director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, where he develops cutting-edge materials that defy gravity and the limits of possibility. But Schendy has never stopped thinking about the thousands of kids in Haiti who don’t have the opportunity to go to school. He couldn’t just leave them behind. So in 2015, he set out to change their world forever.
“Haiti changes from day to day,” says Schendy. “One day, it’s quiet. The next day, tires are burning, and shootings are happening. I’ve seen dead bodies on the street going to school, coming from school, people and friends getting kidnapped…
“As a young kid, you’re scared, you’re afraid, you’re not sure what’s happening. Your dad is still out working, and you’re not sure if he’s going to be coming home safely.
“I remember growing up sleeping with candlelight - no electricity, no power. Without education, the only thing you’re thinking about is, ‘How do I survive?'”
Unlike many kids in rural Haiti, Schendy had the opportunity to go to school. And because of the doors his education opened for him, he could dream beyond the unpredictable and often violent world he walked through every day. School allowed him to hope.
But that wasn’t the case for many kids like Schendy, who started school too late or not at all. They would never have the same opportunities in life that he did, simply because they were not given the chance to try. While in architecture school in Philadelphia, that reality haunted Schendy and drove him to work harder than ever to prove he wasn’t wasting his blessings.
“Being on campus and having those opportunities like food, electricity… I felt a lot of guilt. I struggled with that for years, being focused in school and trying to ignore what was happening in Haiti.
“I knew in the back of my mind, ‘If you slack off, someone should be taking your place right now.’ It was always a reminder to keep pushing harder and harder.”
As Schendy built his career, he stayed connected to Haiti and the family he left behind. He even helped with rebuilding efforts after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed over 200,000 people. But it never felt like enough. The problem that haunted him still remained: Kids couldn’t go to school.
So in 2015, Schendy decided to take matters into his own hands. With the help of his family and a local pastor, he built a school in the small village of Lasserre outside Port-au-Prince.
They called it Lasserre’s Own Hands, and it became the village’s first and only school. Before, few parents could afford to send their kids to public school, where enrollment costs about 20 US dollars. Those who could afford it were forced to send their children to the nearest school-four miles away. As a result, 60% of kids in Lasserre didn’t go to school.
But with Lasserre’s Own Hands, things changed. For the first time, these kids have the chance to get an education, to dream, to hope.
The school has been so successful and desirable that they realized they needed to expand, hire more teachers, and support more students. That’s when Schendy started a GoFundMe.
Just $50 provides schooling for one child for a month, and $600 gets the child through the year-including two meals a day, school supplies, teacher training and salaries, and building maintenance.
Within a few months, the school’s GoFundMe raised over $7,000 to help the children of Lasserre. Ultimately, Schendy hopes to raise $50,000-enough to support the school for an entire year and reach even more children.
To the pastor in Lasserre, the promise of the school is clear: “Within every kid here in this school, there is a little Schendy in spirit who can develop to be like him and reach their potential with an education.
“Every time a school door opens, a prison door is shut, and you’ll have better citizens and a better nation.”