By Samantha Brandbergh
Just one day after Princeton residents Anne Hoppenot and Judy Sarvary left Haiti in
October — where they were visiting the newly constructed school, La Référence — a large
storm left roads and buildings in the town of Ganthier flooded.
The school, however, stayed fully intact. Members of the Haitian community, students
and teachers spent 12 hours cleaning up the mud and water that made its way inside the
“They really feel this is their own building and they respect it. It’s a beautiful thing,”
said Hoppenot, founder of the Princeton-based nonprofit Konekte Princeton Haiti.
Hoppenot decided to start the nonprofit eight years ago after a service trip with
Foundation for Peace, where she met the head of Haitian school College Mixte Marius Carnold, Marius Diery.
“I met [Diery] and he was opening the very small school for children who were displaced
by the earthquakes,” Hoppenot said. “He said, ‘Every child deserves an education.’”
According to the website, Konekte Princeton Haiti — “Konekte” meaning “to connect” in
Haitian Creole — helps to support education programs at two schools in Haiti, College Mixte
Marius Carnold and La Référence, and funds teachers’ salaries at College Mixte Marius
Carnold. The organization also provides teaching training workshops and service trips in Haiti for adults and students in the Princeton area.
Seven years ago, the nonprofit partnered with a group of young Haitian men — who
were looking to start their own school — to build and open La Référence, or “the reference.”
What started as 30 students crammed into small rooms behind a church, with six
students to one desk, is now an earthquake-proof structure.
Hoppenot’s son, Pierre-Henri Hoppenot, is a 2005 Princeton Day School alumnus and
the founder of Studio PHH Architects. With the help of 2010 Princeton University graduate and structural engineer Gregor Horstmeyer — who works for engineering company Eckersley O’Callaghan — the project was set to begin. Construction of the first phase of the building began in January 2018 and was completed in October.
There are four phases to the construction, Hoppenot and Sarvary said. Phase two, which
will include more classrooms, is set to begin this month.
La Référence currently holds 250 students in grades seven to 12, with the hopes of
expanding to 600 students ranging from preschool to grade 12.
“As a designer working in a country where buildings are as much a necessity as a risk,
the biggest value that we can bring is not a set of drawings or a perfect design solution,” Pierre-Henri said in a press release. “The true value that we bring is to share the process by which the project is designed, how best practices and safety standards can be combined with thoughtful design in order to create highly functional and beautiful spaces.”
Phase one of construction — excluding the cost of the land — costed approximately
$350,000, Hoppenot said, and was partially funded by private donors.
Students from local schools, including Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart,
Princeton Day School, The Lawrenceville School, The Hun School, Princeton High School,
Peddie School and Montgomery High School visited La Référence over the summer to
help with construction and participate in activities with the Haitian students.
“We always have things to do and games to play; whether it’s making bracelets, [playing
soccer] — just interacting,” Sarvary said of the service trips with local students. “They come back changed from it; they come, they work, they contribute, they connect. If we’ve changed their mindsets a little bit about what the rest of the world is like, then [this is] an important thing to be doing.”
La Référence is the only school in the region that offers art, music and dance classes,
which students participate in on Saturdays. Students also learn English, Spanish and take
driving lessons, and the school is open at night to offer free literacy classes to adults. Tuition costs $147 per year, with an additional $23 for uniforms and $52 for books and notebooks.
Both Sarvary and Hoppenot believe La Référence will have a “life-changing” impact
on the students.
“Haitians really do respect education and think of it as a necessary part of their future,
but none of the buildings we have seen reflect that except this one — in terms of ‘You are
important, what you’re doing is important,’” Sarvary said. “They’re really now beginning to feel it, they’re feeling proud of their environment. Education is something they deserve.”
To learn more about Konekte Princeton Haiti and its mission, visit konekteprincetonhaiti.org.