The following article was published in the Post-Crescent in anticipation of our upcoming Arts and Craft Sale.
When Oliver Zornow made his first trip to Haiti in February 2006, he was a senior at Valley New School, an Appleton charter school that emphasizes project-based learning.
For his senior “project,” Zornow wanted to see some of the poorest of the poor. In Haiti, he got an eyeful.
“I was full of curiosity,” he said. “I had planned the trip as a tool to expand my understanding of the extreme poverty I had been researching back home, but I had hopes that the trip would help me to see life from another perspective.”
So he asked a lot of questions, including one so vivid, it still replays again and again in his mind:
“One afternoon, while visiting children in the rural region of Caneille, I pieced together a question in broken French: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ They all simply stared at me, so I asked my translator if I had misspoken. I had not, and even when I had him repeat the question, the stares continued.
“What I saw in the eyes of those children has had a profound impact on me. As a high school senior in the United States, I had grown tired of people asking me that same question, but it never occurred to me what it must be like to grow up, as these children are, with absolutely no hope for the future.”
Zornow resolved then and there to give them a chance at a future.
“I came home with a mission to do everything I could to change the lives of these children,” he said.
With others’ help, he put on his first arts and crafts sale that April, with the goal of starting and sustaining a school in Haiti. More fundraisers followed, from car washes, rummage sales and recycling cell phones to collecting seat belts from the junkyard and alternative-giving fairs.
His initial proceeds of about $5,000 to $6,000 allowed him to set up the Caneille Regional Development Fund and, the following September, Ecole de la Grace de Caneille opened with 130 students, just as he began his freshman year at Lawrence University.
With persistence and a steady dose of funding, the tuition-free school added another grade level annually.
Today, Zornow, 21, is married and a senior majoring in government and economics.
The school he founded four years ago is a full-fledged primary school and he’s proud to say it provides a high-quality education to 127 students in grades 1-6.
A fourth annual arts and crafts sale to benefit the school is Friday and Saturday at Appleton Christian School.
In all, Zornow has raised about $25,000 to meet the school’s $1,000-a-month costs.
But there’s still much more work to do.
The school can hold as many as 180 students but filling all grades is a challenge, he said, because most of the children in the community, regardless of age, perform at a first-grade level.
“It will take some time for us to be able to fill a sixth grade of 30 children,” he said. “Every year, there are more first-grade applicants than we can take. We expand as much as we can without hurting the quality of education for the first-graders.”
Even with his college studies, Zornow has continued his mission in Haiti.
“I, along with help from students, professors, and organizations at Lawrence, as well as old friends from high school, have been able to keep the school open and growing,” he said. “In addition to the school, we have purchased part of a truck to provide emergency medical transportation for this isolated rural community. The past two school years, we have also been able to provide a daily meal program for our students.”
Along with raising resources to support the school and other programs in Caneille, he leads groups to visit the school and its students, teachers and parents, every nine to 12 months.
Zornow is applying for a graduate school scholarship that will allow him to continue his work in international development. He and his wife, Rebecca, are also considering joining the Peace Corps.
“But no matter what direction we take,” he said, “Rebecca and I plan to continue with the Haiti project.”
For Zornow, a recent trip to Caneille confirmed the impact his efforts have had already.
“On the last day of school before winter break, I posed the same question to the student body,” he said. “Their reaction brought my travel companions and me to tears. The blank stares that I had received just over three years before had been replaced by a sea of raised hands, with students anxious to announce to everyone their desire to be a doctor, teacher, seamstress, community leader or lawyer.”
What: Fourth Annual CRDF (Caneille Regional Development Fund) Arts and Crafts Sale featuring local arts and craftspeople selling hand-woven baskets, glass art, jewelry, home decor, paintings and more.
When: 1 to 7 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Appleton Christian School, 614 E. Kimberly Ave, Kimberly.
Why: Sale is one of largest fundraisers annually to support Ecole de la Grace de Caneille.