Men and women for others

Loyola French professor answers a call to help in Haiti

Catherine Savell smiling for the camera in front of a tree trunk

In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck and caused widespread destruction, killing more than 200,000 people in Haiti.

Catherine Savell, lecturer of French, recalled witnessing the tragedy on television and thinking about how she could help.

“We tell our students at Loyola to be men and women for others, but how do we exemplify that ourselves?” said Savell, who has been teaching at Loyola for 32 years.

Leading by example

During the summer of 2010, Savell traveled to Haiti with the support of International Programs to see if there was an opportunity to set up a service project. Her fluency in French and English enabled her to communicate with local organizations, and she soon found there was an urgent need for help.

She returned to the United States—her heartstrings still tied to Haiti—and began thinking of ways to incorporate service opportunities into courses at Loyola.

Julia and Ellie with Haitian students in classroom.

In the spring of 2011, taking a leave of absence from Loyola, Savell volunteered to be a project manager with Relief Team One. She fundraised and, with the help of the rebuilding organization, was able to build the start of what would become the Foyer Notre Dame de Lourdes. Also known as the Foyer, this space serves as an elementary school and home for approximately 129 Haitian children experiencing poverty.

Within the confines of the Foyer, there is a main cafeteria, classrooms, offices, a bakery, a chicken coop, dormitories, volunteer housing, and an infirmary.

In 2013, Peter Lorenzi, Ph.D., professor of management, invited Savell to talk to his social entrepreneurship class about her service projects in Haiti.

Fenal, Mirlaine, Mary, Julia, Raphael, Tyler, Samuel, and Claude in group photo.

A student in Lorenzi’s class, Rodrigo Cordon Villa de Leon, ’13, offered to help and worked to create Rendez-vous: Haiti, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to support initiatives leading to self-sustainability. The organization’s mission seeks to make each day better when members visit, to stimulate creativity and education, to foster entrepreneurship and job opportunities, and to support sustainability efforts.

Savell works closely with Maud Laurent, the director of the Foyer, to ensure each child is well cared for and has an opportunity to succeed.

“This project is more about development and preparing Haitian students and young adults for the future,” Savell said.

It takes a village

What began as a small service project grew into collaborative efforts in several Loyola classes and other organizations.

All French 104 students at Loyola write to the Haitian children at the Foyer. A communication class helped create brochures to share information about Rendez-vous: Haiti.

The university’s office of mission integration has been supporting the initiative, and various faculty members have invited Savell to speak in their classes—and have incorporated course work linked to her projects demonstrating global awareness, solidarity, and creative thinking in a variety of domains.

Three Haitian students around a table at the foyer library.

Aside from the support from Loyola’s community and personal friends, Savell has received donations from outside organizations such as Sign of Hope, Association Terre des Montagnes, La Guilde, the Sisters of Notre Dame, and the Church of the Transfiguration, just to name a few.

Savell launched a service-learning trip with Loyola students to the Foyer called Haiti Together, which ran during the spring breaks of 2017 and 2018. During the trips, Loyola students paid to stay at the Foyer, which helped support operating costs. They taught Haitian children everything from computer to manicure and pizza-making skills, as well as basic English. The Loyola students also encouraged creativity in painting, working alongside young adults to paint rooms and build a storage facility. In addition, they worked together in the vegetable garden and participated in fun activities such as dancing and soccer and spent a day at the beach.

Loyola students working with Haitian school children outside.

“When I got the approval to take Loyola students to Haiti, it was very eye-opening,” Savell said. “The students’ response was overwhelming. It gave our students and the children at the Foyer a learning opportunity. The type of students that volunteered are some of the best of what Loyola has to offer,” she added.

Evelis Casey, ’20, a marketing major and French minor who went on both Haiti Together service trips, bonded with the children, tutoring them in English, reading to them in French, and singing with them at the Foyer.

“I was accepted as one of the first students to go on the mission trip. This is the experience that made that tiny flame in me grow into a massive fire,” Casey said.

Continued support for Haiti

Thanks to donations and guidance from Savell, construction on a couple of extra rooms—in what will be a transition house—has started across the street from the Foyer. Residents who are 18 or older have to leave the Foyer, but Savell is hopeful that the transition house will serve as a place for young adults to stay while continuing their education and learning to become independent adults.

“This is the target age group I have been working with, so I can relate to their fear of not knowing what to do next,” Savell said.

Builders working on the transition house.

An ultimate challenge in a struggling economy is that young adults at the Foyer who have an interest in entrepreneurship, engineering, or computer science may never work in these industries because of their lack of professional development skills and a family/career network.

Savell mentors these students by communicating with them regularly, and Rendez-vous: Haiti supports their schooling or skill acquisitions in a variety of fields. Rendez-vous: Haiti also supports start-up initiatives. For example, Edouardson Montinard, one of the young adults from the Foyer, has benefited from a start-up initiative, as he now runs a small convenience store and café.

Bully Sanon, a young man from Tabarre, Haiti, who worked on the construction of the Foyer in 2011, was studying engineering when the earthquake struck in 2010, canceling months of classes. Savell and her husband funded his remaining three years of school. Today he is the engineer in charge of the transition house construction. Sanon and his assistant, Fredeline Bertrand, an engineering student, have been paying it forward by facilitating entrepreneurship workshops and six micro-business start-ups in their neighborhood. They dream of one day visiting the United States.

Loyola students and Haitian locals gather to pose for photo for soccer tournament.

In addition to the transition house, Savell would like to build a vocational center with a start-up micro-business incubator near the Foyer Notre Dame de Lourdes. The vocational center would provide young adults and community members with training, practical experience in their fields of interest, and mentoring, as well as grants or loans for start-ups.

The spring break trip of 2019 for Loyola students was canceled due to severe political unrest in Haiti. Despite the recent violence in Port-au-Prince, Savell is planning a trip in early summer to continue to build connections between Haiti and the Loyola community and to support initiatives.

"I believe we can collaborate in solidarity by connecting our skills here and in Haiti," she said.

For more information about Rendez-vous: Haiti, contact Catherine Savell at csavell@loyola.edu or visit the website: http://rendezvoushaiti.org.


Photos courtesy of Catherine Savell.