Colleen Jaeger was 8 years old when she fell in love with Haiti, sight unseen. It took her 14 years to make it there, and another five to fulfill her dream of building a school. Earlier this month, Jaeger, who works in Sweet Briar’s human resources office, traveled to Leogane near Port-au-Prince to break ground on the Ecole Notre Dame de Fatima.
Leogane was the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake that destroyed large parts of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. When Jaeger arrived in March 2012 with the nonprofit organization Food for the Poor, she had been planning the trip most of her life — years before the earthquake happened.
“When I was young, around 8 years old, I told my parents I wanted to go to Haiti,” Jaeger says. “I remember hearing a classmate tell us she went to Haiti, and it was as if God immediately placed Haiti on my heart that day. The country has been on my heart and mind ever since.”
Her parents, she adds, encouraged her “adventurous heart,” but told her she needed to wait until she was “a little older.”
Jaeger was 22 when she visited Haiti for the first time in 2012. At the time, she was a business major at Liberty University and was accompanied by her grandmother, who traveled to 98 countries in her lifetime and, among other things, built numerous drinking wells in Africa and houses in Haiti.
“Simply put, the trip changed my life,” Jaeger says.
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, she had moved to the U.S. at age 13. Her family settled in Richmond, a city not too different from her hometown — at least culturally. Haiti, on the other hand, was a whole new world.
“It was humbling and impactful,” Jaeger says. “I felt as though I had discovered a huge piece of my heart in Haiti. Upon returning home from our trip, I signed up to go back again in December of that year.”
When Jaeger got back to Haiti, it became clear to her that she wanted to make a lasting impact, and she found there was something practical she could do to address a widespread problem.
“As we visited various communities, I began to clearly see the need for education,” Jaeger explains. “Haiti’s literacy rate is about 60 percent. Fifty percent of the children do not attend school, while approximately 30 percent of children attending primary school will not make it to third grade. Sixty percent of children abandon school before sixth grade. Specifically, the average girl only attends school until the age of 7.”
The numbers — combined with what she experienced on the ground — told Jaeger everything she needed to know. She decided that she would build a school. As soon as Jaeger returned home, she began raising money. Her goal: $100,000.
“I have a heart for helping others and making a difference,” Jaeger says. “I want to help the children in Haiti and make a difference in their lives.”
It’s that same desire to make a positive impact that led Jaeger to focus her business degree in the field of human resources.
“I remember first going to college knowing that I wanted to major in business, but not being sure about my focus. When I took my first HR class, it clicked,” says Jaeger, who began working at Sweet Briar earlier this year while completing her law degree at Liberty. “I quickly realized I could put my passion for helping others and making a difference, and working in business, together.”
Jaeger returned to Haiti in March 2014 to reconnect with the people there, and to keep pushing herself to reach her goal.
“The truth is, progress those first few years was slow,” Jaeger admits. “I would write letters to various companies and news stations to try to bring awareness to my school, but never heard back. Still, I continued sharing my dream with friends and family and would frequently make updates on my social media accounts. Giving up was never an option. Whether it took me five years or 50 years, I was going to build this school.”
And perhaps she needed to look at it from a different angle. When strategizing with Food for the Poor about her plans, the nonprofit suggested that rather than building a brand-new school from the ground up, Jaeger consider reviving a closed school. After all, many schools had been forced to close — or were in danger of closing — because of unsafe structural conditions.
“This immediately caught my attention, and I decided to refocus my project,” Jaeger says.
While Food for the Poor narrowed in on potential schools that needed rebuilding, Jaeger continued fundraising. Partnering with the nonprofit, she posted her fundraiser on their website — to a section called “Champion’s Page.” Sharing that link frequently on her social media accounts, along with photos of her work in Haiti, really made a difference, Jaeger says. She also received a lot of support from family, friends, neighbors and co-workers, and Food for the Poor’s donor relations team made calls to potential contributors on her behalf. Finally, Jaeger herself donated as often as she could.
In June of this year, the phone call she had been waiting for finally came. Food for the Poor had found a school they wanted to present to her: the Ecole Notre Dame de Fatima. It was located about one hour away from the capital Port-au-Prince in a town called Leogane. Following the 2010 earthquake that leveled much of Leogane, the school was in desperate need of a new building.
“In fact, they had been waiting for four years for someone to select their school,” Jaeger says.
The total cost was more than she had originally planned for, but Jaeger accepted the challenge. By November, she had raised all $163,993 and in December, Jaeger flew to Haiti to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for “her” new school.
The renovations will include demolishing the current structure, as it is unsafe, and building six classrooms, as well as an administrative block, a cafeteria, a sanitation center and more. Jaeger says it will take about five months to build the school.
“It’s one thing to see pictures of the school; it’s a whole other thing to see it in person,” she says. “Meeting the project manager, contractor, parents, staff and children who will be attending was so meaningful. It took exactly five years to raise the money, but we did it!”
When Jaeger left Haiti on Dec. 8, her eyes “filled with tears” — joyous ones, mostly. It’s hard to leave a place one has loved since childhood. But, she adds, “My heart filled with hope in knowing I’ll be back.”
Jaeger plans to return to Haiti in 2018 to attend the school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.