In most respects, Nittai is a regular seventeen-year-old: his schedule includes school, soccer, and spending time with his three younger siblings. A few days after Haiti was hit by a 7.0 earthquake in January, however, this high-schooler found himself assuming the kind of responsibility most adults would shy away from: he started a grassroots movement. Called One Love, this nonprofit initiative’s main goal is to improve the substandard education that thousands of Haitian children have been receiving – especially in the aftermath of the quake. A self-proclaimed entrepreneur, the Palo Alto native takes a break from his SAT study session to tell us about his trip to the devastated nation, starting his own organization, and his newfound popularity at school.
So you came back from Haiti just a few weeks ago, right? How was it?
It was a bit of a shock when we initially got there. The airport and the surrounding area are probably among the most destroyed in Haiti. Right when you step outside, hundreds of Haitians want to help you with your bags, hoping for some money. But then it got much better as we got to work with the local population.
Do you have a particular story of interest from your trip to Haiti that you’d like to share?
Yeah. There are so many different stories… [thinks] So one person we talked to told us that in Haiti, they have a kind of bus called a Tap-Tap. Right before the earthquake, a passenger told the driver that he had to go to bathroom. Five seconds after he got off, the earthquake hit. A building fell, destroyed the Tap-Tap, and killed everyone in there. He survived just by chance… because he had to stop for a minute. But overall, what was really inspiring was to see how people are resilient and appreciative of what they have. I was expecting to see sad people with low spirits, but everyone there was surprisingly happy and appreciative of the things they had.
Can you give me a brief background about your organization, One Love?
One Love is a nonprofit initiative I started that is aimed towards helping Haiti after the earthquake through education. I am planning on building schools and helping other people make a difference as well.
You’re so young to have your own nonprofit! How did you first hear about the earthquake and how did you decide to get involved?
I was at school when it happened. We watched the news like everyone else. I didn’t even know anything about Haiti beforehand, and it interested me. I felt like it was terribly unfair that these people who lived in such an impoverished country to begin with were hit with a devastating earthquake. It was our responsibility to help them since they couldn’t help themselves.
Is that how One Love came about?
I wanted to know what the biggest needs were over there and respond accordingly. My dad and I talked to some people who all said that they needed food and water. However, after a few weeks, we realized that most organizations were already focusing on that. Plus, it was important for me to have an impact… but in a sustainable, long-term kind of way. There were other needs over there, which is how I got down to the educational aspect of it. Since the infrastructure in Haiti is almost nonexistent, I thought that if the youth could enjoy a good education, then in just a few years their country could be fully ‘rebuilt,’ so to speak.
What were your next steps?
At first I just made the blog and didn’t even plan on going to Haiti with my dad. I just really wanted to raise awareness among other teenagers and stuff so that people my age could help. I sent fundraising letters to everyone I knew. We raised somewhere in the lower tens of thousands of dollars. It’s incredible to see how generous people were.
And so the whole point of the trip was to establish what Haitian youth needed, correct?
Exactly. We realized that, for obvious reasons, none of these kids really had access to modern technology. We had brought a simple laptop with webcam and a printer. We went to one school and found a local Haitian technician who was familiar with technology. Since then, we started a program with this man who goes around to 14 schools in Port-au Prince once every two weeks and each time gives kids a different lesson about computers. An important amount of the money One Love receives has been used to fund his services. He speaks the local language and really brings happiness to the lives of the children. We hope to eventually be able to afford more teachers.
What is the current state in Haiti in terms of schools?
I believe that 5,000 or 6,000 schools were destroyed in the earthquake. Even beforehand, things there were very tough: no infrastructure, corrupt government… Now, after all the destruction, a lot more kids are out of school.
And how is an introduction to technology important? It seems like it would be pretty low on the list of priorities.
Not really. It has provided this opportunity to leapfrog everything that is underdeveloped there. Through new technology and learning styles, we can bring Haitians more up-to-date with current educational systems.
How can readers contribute to the success of your organization?
What do we need… [thinks] Well, for those who are lucky enough to be able to give, that can make a difference. For those who have the time and who want to, groundwork can really make the biggest difference. Since we’re only starting, it’s hard for us to set up trips and stuff, but anyone who’s interested is more than welcome to contact me. We are just starting, so whether you wish to help us with the blog or with the computer program, we welcome everyone!
What has been the most surprising aspect of this adventure?
Something I’ve learned from this whole process is the power of social networking. You don’t have to be a big organization or a big name to get a lot of attention. All of the responses to our fundraising emails have been fantastic and everyone has been inspired, telling me that the work we’re doing is fantastic. I’ve also been getting a whole lot of attention at school! Kids I haven’t been speaking to before have written to me on Facebook or have come up to me.
So basically if you want a girlfriend or a boyfriend, all you have to do is create a nonprofit organization.