Independently, Bertrhude Albert and Priscilla Zelaya energize classrooms. As a pair, they’re re-charging a nation’s teachers and illuminating the future for their students.
The inseparable duo started a nonprofit, Projects for Haiti, during their junior year at UF after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
For them, making a difference through donations only was not enough to help Albert’s country. Albert, a graduate student in Latin American studies, and Zelaya, a UF alumnus, are now inspiring Haitian teachers to make a difference one student at a time.
The two decided to start a teacher’s conference in Haiti for 60 Haitian teachers through the project, and this June it will be hosting its third conference with more than six times as many educators — about 405.
Zelaya, 25, said it will be the largest teacher conference in Haiti.
“They are the keys to unlocking the doors to success for their students,” she said. “They are the one’s leading the future presidents. It starts with them.”
About 17 U.S. teachers will travel with the Projects for Haiti team to host the conference. The four-day event features training sessions, keynote speakers and workshops on topics like special-needs education.
Donald DeVito, a special education teacher at the Sidney Lanier Center, will be providing trainings on inclusion during the conference. Thanks to the Projects for Haiti conference, he said, he will be able to inform more teachers on the importance of special education.
“Projects for Haiti isn’t a one-time thing,” he said. “It’s something that is being built consistently and effectively over time to where you will have real change.”
Albert and Zelaya’s idea has motivated Haitian teachers to create similar conferences for each other. After attending the project’s first conference, Haitian teachers formed a teachers association to network and collaborate with teachers in different cities. The nonprofit was able to provide BlackBerry phones to the teachers in the association to help them stay connected, Albert said.
To foster more collaboration, the duo also created Teachers Affecting the Globe to connect Gainesville and Haitian teachers.
But the nonprofit is not only growing in Haiti. It’s also spreading its mission throughout Gainesville.
Through its 10K Connected initiative, the project is reaching out to Gainesville students. With 50-minute interactive presentations, Albert and Zelaya hope to connect 10,000 local students to Haiti. Since October, the pair has given presentations on social justice advocacy, international development and poverty to more than 2,000 students.
Albert said their goal is not for students to fall in love with Haiti, but for them to realize that there is a problem they can be the solution to.
“Age shouldn’t determine whether a person is socially aware,” Albert, 23, said.
Zelaya’s own students are learning about Haiti, too. Zelaya teaches second grade at Joseph Williams Elementary School. She said she keeps a Haitian flag in her classroom and incorporates as much culture as she can into her lessons.
Zelaya said working with the Haitian teachers made her more creative with her teaching. During one conference, a teacher demonstrated an alternative method of teaching math by using rocks.
“Some of the teachers in Haiti go months without getting paid, and they’re still at their job every single day with the same passion and love for their students,” she said.
Before Projects for Haiti spreads outside of Gainesville and Haiti to Zelaya’s country of Nicaragua, Albert said they need to establish themselves firmly first and reach their 10,000-student goal.
With their energy and hope for Haiti, expansion doesn’t seem too far down the road for the two best friends who live, laugh and work together.
“Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid,” they recited in unison. “Little by little, the bird makes its nest.”
[A version of this story ran on page 9 on 4/22/2014 under the headline "Gators found nonprofit to help brighten future of Haiti schools"]
Pictured are 135 teachers from the conference held by Projects for Haiti. The event helps them network and improve teaching skills through workshops and training exercises.