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Ed. Magazine

One on One: Steven Kirby

Steven Kirby

[caption id="attachment_2228" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Photo by Lars Skroder"]Steven Kirby[/caption]

Deciding what to do with his life was never a struggle for Steven Kirby, Ed.M.’04; he’s been working with children in schools since he was a teen. What was — and still is — a struggle for him, though, is where his efforts are most needed: the United States, where the opportunity and resources exist, but some schools, especially in urban areas, are still failing; or in less-fortunate nations like Haiti, where the resources are scarce and schooling is not guaranteed. Although, he says, his “heart will always be with urban education in the United States,” for now he’s chosen Haiti.

The hardships endured by Haitian children, particularly street children and orphans, have concerned Kirby since he arrived in 2009. And conditions have only worsened since the devastating earthquake of January 2010. While working toward his doctorate at Vanderbilt University requires him to be in Nashville part time, he continues to commute to Haiti to run H.E.R.O., an organization he cofounded to provide housing, education, and rehabilitation for the children who need it the most. “I will return to the United States one day,” Kirby says, “but my current calling is to work in Haiti with children that have never entered a formal learning environment. … Education is the only true vehicle for escaping poverty, and every child on this earth deserves the opportunity for an effective, efficient, and high-quality education.”

Why education?
My lifelong devotion to education began in the Fiji Islands at the age of 16, when a local headmaster asked if I would like to volunteer as a teacher for his third- and fourth-grade classes. Despite being known as a tropical paradise, Fiji is actually an impoverished country. It was in Fiji that I truly experienced life in a developing country for the first time, and after teaching for a brief one-week period at the local primary school, I was hooked.

How did you come to Haiti?
I mentored Haitian youth during my senior year at the University of Miami. [Later] I was hired as a high school English/writing teacher at Union School in Port-Au-Prince.

Any surprises about Haiti?
Despite having visited developing countries like Ghana, Tanzania, and Fiji, Haiti was a shock to my system. As an educator, I was truly in disbelief that it was not uncommon to find communities of 200,000 people where not one single public elementary school existed. After having worked for three months at a school that provided education for the most elite of Haiti’s population, I knew that I had to expand my efforts to reach the other 80 percent of Haiti, the people that live on less than $2 a day.

So what did you do?
I found SOPUDEP (Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Petion-Ville), a local grassroots organization that provides an education to children in Haiti, regardless of their ability to pay. They had an afternoon program that specifically targeted street children, providing a daily meal and formal educational experiences. I began working with the street children teaching English.

And from that work, H.E.R.O emerged?
In November 2009, I unofficially formed H.E.R.O. (Housing, Education, and Rehabilitation of Orphans) through a self-created blog with the ultimate goal of raising sufficient funds to build a residence for street children and orphans. After the earthquake, the need for a self-sustainable residence became even more pressing.

You experienced the earthquake?
Yes. [It was] unforgettable. I had just returned home from work with five other teachers to our shared apartments. We were oblivious to the impending disaster. At 4:53 p.m., the entire apartment complex began to shake violently, swaying vigorously side to side. I immediately ran to the doorframe and stood underneath it. I could hear my colleagues yelling, and plates and glasses smashing to the kitchen floor.

How did you react?
As the earthquake subsided I ran outside to gauge the status of my colleagues, thankfully finding that they had all survived uninjured. We ran down to the open lawn of our complex and stared at each other, amazed by the absolute silence that lasted for more than a minute. And then the screaming began. We watched as a cloud of dust and dirt rose to the sky from a poverty-stricken neighborhood nearby, and we could hear the yelling of the injured.

I ran up to my apartment and grabbed first aid supplies, bottles of water, and flashlights. I was immediately joined by the other five teachers in the apartment building. Through the night we set up temporary first aid stations in soccer fields filled with thousands of people, now homeless. For the next seven days we provided first aid and triage at several major hospitals in Port-Au-Prince. Ten days after the earthquake, all six of us were evacuated from Haiti.

How did Union School fare?
It found itself with an enrollment of 30 children, down from 300. Subsequently my services were no longer needed, and for the first time in my life I found myself involuntarily unemployed. Rather than pursuing additional job opportunities in the United States, I instead focused on H.E.R.O.

How is it going?
H.E.R.O. provided school supplies and English instruction to more than 150 children in April. Of these, approximately 25 were street children. We have recently rented a house in Port-Au-Prince that will temporarily house 12 children orphaned by the earthquake. We are still in the development phase of our permanent residence. We have been donated one and a half acres of land in the province of Nippes, approximately three hours outside of Port-Au-Prince. We have partnered with several organizations to create a residence that will support up to 50 children.

A main focal point of our development is to become as self-sustainable as possible. To accomplish this task we will be using solar and wind energy, rainwater collection, and innovative farming practices to decrease our reliance on third parties for our operation. The residence is slated to open on January 12, 2011, the one-year anniversary of the earthquake.

Go to to visit Kirby’s blog.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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