As news of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti faded from the headlines, students in GSR 221-03 were stepping in to make a difference in the ravaged nation. The general studies class, entitled “Rebels with a Cause: Picasso and the Rebirth of Art,” discussed Picasso’s love for experimentation and created art projects using his techniques. In conjunction with the title of the course, they discovered that over 200 years ago Haitians led the only successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. For the service-learning component of this five-credit class, students designed and carried out activities to benefit deaf Haitians in need after the earthquake.

“The goal was to get everyone involved and to generate a strong sense of solidarity with our Haitian brothers and sisters,” said Dr. Cristina Berdichevsky, a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, who taught the course with Dr. Marguerite Glass, chair of the Art Department. While all undergraduates take two General Studies courses with a service-learning component, service projects take on many forms. In this case, the faculty left most of the details up to the students in the class, making the planning process part of the course.

The first step for the class’ 15 students was to gather information about the needs of deaf Haitians in the Port-au-Prince area. Who needed their support the most? What did those individuals need? How would aid reach them? Which organizations would make the best partners in their efforts? A presentation by two Gallaudet community members answered many of these questions.

Sylvie Marc-Charles, a Haitian-American student in the Master’s of Social Work program, and Eve Mitton, a benefits and records technician in Human Resources Services who grew up in Haiti and attended its first deaf school, Institut Montfort, gave the key presentation. In it, they discussed the organization Friends of Montfort, which supports the school, and described conditions in hard-hit areas. Institut Montfort, which is located in Port-au-Prince, could no longer serve its more than 650 deaf and hard of hearing students after the January 12 trembler caused major damage.

The class decided to devote its service-learning project to providing a durable tent that would allow the Montfort students to learn and play out of the elements. The class dubbed their project Picasso for Haiti.
The students got to work creating a campaign based on art and action. Using their new knowledge of Picasso’s cubist style, the students created a montage of their faces. The resulting design soon became ubiquitous around campus. Students distributed prints of the collage when they asked individual faculty and staff members for their support in March and April. It appeared again at a table during Gallaudet’s fourth annual UnityFest on April 22, where students, faculty, and staff could pay to answer Haiti trivia questions for prizes. The students also affixed it to a donation jar on the Campus Activities desk.

Students even brought the spirit of that image into the D.C. community. In preparation for the UnityFest trivia game, class members asked Union Station businesses to contribute prizes. As a result, the students garnered donations like Godiva chocolates to reward those who knew their Haiti facts, and they collected more than $500 toward improvements for outdoor living. The students’ visibility also kept Haiti on the minds of the campus community.

GSR 221-03 was joined by other classes that also prioritized Haitian relief. During the spring semester, General Studies courses on the global rights of children and French sign language-GSR 241 and another 221 section-collected clothing to send to the island nation. Students in Berdichevsky’s summer course, GSR 300: “What’s Next for Deaf Haiti?” will research Haiti’s past and present and the issues that impact the lives of deaf Haitians as they rebuild their lives after the earthquake. The students will also figure out their options for shipping the clothing donations. Friends of Montfort will continue to play a role as the class works with the organization to identify needs and then address them.

Students weren’t the only ones who grew from the experience. Glass, who helped to coordinate the UnityFest booths, collage, and campus fundraising effort, was impressed with the students’ motivation and creativity. Berdichevsky, who frequently coordinates international development programs in deaf communities abroad, found herself drawn to the project and learning alongside the students. “This project had special meaning for me,” Berdichevsky said. “Not because of the magnitude of the tragedy but because of the resilience and resourcefulness of deaf Haitians in Haiti and on campus,” she explained, echoing the spirit that compelled students to pour their artistic energy into the course. “Their plight has become my own plight,” she said.
Rhea Yablon Kennedy

For more on what the Gallaudet community has done to help deaf Haitians, watch this video narrated by student Nathalie Pluviose.

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