UWM student working to build a school in Haiti

A large group of people pose for a picture.

Through hard work, perseverance and a little bit of luck, one UWM student is building the connections and resources to achieve his goals: construct a sustainable community in Haiti. The first step is to build a school.

Steven Duclair is the CEO and founder of the nonprofit  Sustain the Future. He will earn a UWM degree in interpersonal communications in August 2019.

The plans for the school are already in motion. A trip is planned for July to go to Haiti to set up an office, meet with the Department of Education and maintain already established business and governmental connections.

“Whatever community shows the most interest and engagement and is willing to invest is where we will build the school,” said Duclair. “When you have a high level of community engagement and investment, you solve problems much easier. Every person becomes a resource.”

Children look at the camera.
Haitian children gather to greet Duclair and his team during a visit last year. (Daniel Carillo Gonzalez photo)

Duclair is working with local professionals across different disciplines to build this school, including Lauren Beckmann, principal of St. Robert School, and James Steiner, senior lecturer at UW-Madison’s Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture.

“Steven has this very upbeat, charming, positive attitude that I think draws people to him,” Steiner said. “He has an interesting story, and the project is interesting. So, I’m very committed.”

Making connections in Haiti

Duclair and Steiner went to Haiti together in March with two goals: finding land for the school and learning about the logistics of building a school.

They accomplished both goals. What they didn’t plan on was the important professional connection they made.

At breakfast one morning at their hotel, Duclair and Steiner saw some wealthy businessmen and officials across the room. Duclair decided to introduce himself and his plans for building a school.

One of the businessmen he met was Reginald Abraham, a property developer with 2,000 acres of land and plans to build a new community for all levels of income in the town of Ganthier.

Abraham will be one of the people that Sustain the Future will be working with during their trip in July. Sustain the Future’s new grant writer, Nakisha Adams, will be going down in July to talk to Abraham and experience Haiti firsthand.

How donated shoes sparked inspiration

Duclair and others brainstormed plans for the school after their first service trip to Haiti in the summer of 2018. Duclair and a few friends fundraised over $4,000 to go to the township of Cité Soleil to give away gently used shoes and build a water filter for a community center.

Beckmann and her school had given monetary donations to Duclair and his colleagues and was one of the main partners for the shoe donation.

The 2018 summer trip was a success, although Duclair thought he and his team could do more.

“A pair of shoes, once it’s worn out, it’s worn out. Your mind, the education you receive, can never be taken away from you,” Duclair said.

Duclair and some his friends from the summer trip came together at the end of 2018 to create the nonprofit Sustain the Future. The nonprofit’s mission to create a sustainable community, with building a school as their first project.

State of education in Haiti

The state of education in Haiti is dire — the average Haitian 25 years and under has had only five years of schooling or less.

“Before going to Haiti, I didn’t know what developing world poverty looked like. It’s one thing to see poverty on TV and another to have actually witnessed it through these children,” said Nikia Johnson, operations manager for Sustain the Future.

These statistics are not only numbers for Duclair. These numbers are real life experiences for him, having grown up in Port-au-Prince for much of his childhood. There were days that he went hungry and had no shoes on his feet.

“I have this opportunity to live my life to give back to people who are in need,” Duclair said. “Especially when I go back to Haiti and the kids can see someone who looks like them, who speaks the same language as them, and who lived in the slums with them.”

Duclair hopes, with this new school, that Sustain the Future will have a hand in cultivating education from the ground up. The school will focus on elementary age students from kindergarten to fourth grade.

When Duclair started planning the school, he reached out to Beckmann to see if she would be an educational advisor for his nonprofit, which would add some credibility to the school project.

“I’m thinking this is a real project, it’s really going to happen, and I would love to be associated with it,” Beckmann said.

Beckmann will be advising on several aspects of the project, including the curriculum, an budgeting and other educational matters.

“I was a seed of inspiration as that reality check about what schools need and what schools are all about,” Beckmann said.

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