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College students heading for Haiti

By Jim Kavanagh, CNN
Maison Fortune residents crowd around Penn State student  Darina Weitzmann on an earlier visit.
Maison Fortune residents crowd around Penn State student Darina Weitzmann on an earlier visit.
  • Penn State, Lawrence Tech students determined to help orphans
  • "See them smile and have them feel like someone loves them"
  • Both groups planned to go even before earthquake struck
  • "We weren't going to let a little earthquake stop us," coordinator says

(CNN) -- Alain Bonny knows his mother survived the earthquake in Haiti, but he doesn't know where she is staying right now.

Nevertheless, the American college student is going to resist searching for her when he leads a group of students into Haiti in May.

"I'm dying to go to Port-au-Prince right now," said Bonny, 22, a Pennsylvania State University senior in chemistry who lost three cousins in the January 12 earthquake.

He was told that his mother and other family members moved "to the countryside," but he doesn't know whether she's in a house or under a tarp.

Because Penn State's Project Haiti is a student-led organization without chaperones, Bonny is responsible for all 25 people on the trip, "and I don't feel that [searching for his family] is the best course of action for us."

Bonny said he'll go back on his own during the summer "to do what I can in Port-au-Prince and to seek out my family."

Project Haiti had planned to visit the Maison Fortune orphanage near the central town of Hinche during spring break in March, but the earthquake forced the group to wait until the week between final exams and graduation.

"It never occurred to me that I shouldn't go. It made me more determined to go," said Penn State psychology senior Liz Stock, 21, of Reading, Pennsylvania.

"Originally the plan was to go over spring break, and I'd never had an interest in going anywhere where it was just about lying around and partying, and that's not me at all," she added. "So I wanted to do something that would actually be worthwhile over my break."

Stock's roommate, Kelly Songer, 21, of Emporium, Pennsylvania, desires to bring hope and encouragement to Maison Fortune.

Songer, a senior business student, said she wants "to go there and help children and to see them smile and have them feel like someone loves them and someone cares about them. And also to show them there's more to the world than where they are right now, and they can do whatever they want to do."

Each Penn State student will bring to the orphanage two suitcases stuffed with clothes and other supplies for the children. The group holds fundraisers throughout the school year and a "packing party" shortly before departure.

Project Haiti was founded in 1997 by the Rev. Fred Byrne as part of the Catholic ministry he led on campus. The project is no longer affiliated with the church, which several years ago reassigned Byrne to an abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

"I'm a cheerleader on the sidelines," Byrne said. "... Our culture has such a lack of faith in young people, but there's a lot of good stuff happening out there."

Bonny, who will participate in Teach for America after graduation, has been to Maison Fortune twice before.

"We drive into the complex, and all the kids are waiting for us. It's almost like a parade, like we're important," he said. "... It's an absolutely awesome experience. It's like elephants; they will not forget you. And if you make a promise, they will hold you to that. I owe someone an iPod."

Penn State alumna Katie Burkhardt made the trip in 2000 and became president of Project Haiti the following year. She was on a long-delayed return visit to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince with her mother when the earthquake struck in January.

"The ground started to convulse; I thought we were being attacked at first," she said.

Burkhardt helped the Missionaries of Charity nuns comfort the children and provide first aid to victims before she and her mother got a flight out on January 14.

"It was kind of crazy how it all came full circle. My first time of doing a project in another country was actually Project Haiti, and it just kind of planted this seed," said Burkhardt, 29, of Frederick, Maryland.

She said all college students should be given the opportunity to serve in another country.

"It's so mutually beneficial. I realized pretty quickly that it wasn't just me helping other people. It totally changed my perspective on the world, and it was such a good lesson to have learned. You can sit in class in college forever and you just don't learn the same kind of things that you would learn in one day in Haiti."

Three students from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, are going ahead with a working spring break in Haiti.

"Since we were already planning to go, we weren't going to let a little earthquake stop us," said Melissa Grunow, the school's leadership curriculum coordinator.

Students Christine Costa, Christopher Harris and Kevin McLarney plan to arrive March 5 to put their backs into work at an orphanage in Les Cayes for a project called Reconstruction Efforts Aiding Children without Homes, or REACH.

"I know it's a time of need down there, so I can't wait to help out with my services," said McLarney, 21, a Lawrence Tech architecture senior from Macomb, Michigan.

McLarney, Harris and Costa will help lay the foundations for two structures that will house the dozen girls among the 680 residents of the Pwoje Espwa Sud orphanage.

You can sit in class in college forever and you just don't learn the same kind of things that you would learn in one day in Haiti.
--Katie Burkhardt

"I'm excited I have an opportunity to help," said Costa, 24, an architecture graduate student from Royal Oak, Michigan. Immediately after the quake, only people with rescue or medical skills were needed in Haiti, but "by the time we get down there, the next wave -- the rebuilders -- are going to be needed," she said.

She hopes seeing people coming to help them rebuild will give Haitians hope. The man who created the program agreed.

"Haiti doesn't need a bunch of Americans coming down and doing it for them, they just need some Americans to come down and do it with them," said Lawrence Tech alumnus Donald Stevens, the architect and builder who founded REACH after the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Harris, a 20-year-old junior from Lansing, Michigan, studying computer engineering, said he has used previous breaks as a pause for partying. But he's up for working in the sun in Haiti.

"They need our help now more than ever," he said.

McLarney wants the trip to have an impact at home as well as in Haiti.

"I just hope the work I do down there can inspire others to give back to their communities and the world in general," he said. "I think more people need to stop being selfish and give back to the principles that we're all instilled with from birth. It feels good doing good things."

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