Alumni Spotlights

Ed Brennan, '78: Providing Hope for Haiti

  • on December 16, 2011
  • by Lisa McMahon, MA'09

In the summer of 2011, 200 Haitian children had an opportunity they never would have dreamed possible after the January earthquake that devastated their country ”” the opportunity to go to school. This, due to the remarkable efforts of Edward J. Brennan, '78.

Brennan, CEO and chairman of DFS Group, the world's leading luxury retailer to the international traveler, is a steering committee member and chairman of Hand in Hand for Haiti, a travel retail industry response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. The organization is working to build a world-class educational facility in Saint-Marc, a coastal town in western Haiti, in an effort to assist in the growth and long-term recovery of that country. Brennan notes that while Haiti has received much support in the areas of medicine and food, “there hasn't been enough focus on the schools.” It is his belief, and the belief of the founders of Hand in Hand for Haiti, that providing high-quality education in a world-class school is key to Haiti's future. In addition, the school is expected to cultivate a strong sense of civic pride among its graduates, encouraging them to assist in their country's recovery.

“The best and brightest flee Haiti now to start their careers,” Brennan explains. “We want to instill a respect for Haiti and a responsibility that they have to work toward the betterment of their home country to pull Haiti up from the terrible challenges.”

Brennan became involved in the effort at the invitation of Olivier Bottrie, president of The Estée Lauder Companies Travel Retail Worldwide, whose wife is Haitian. Brennan immediately offered to coordinate the initiative.

“For me, this was an opportunity to show greater leadership within the industry,” Brennan says.

Brennan had a personal motivation to become involved in the project as well: a bout with cancer 10 years ago that helped him “frame his priorities and balance his life,” and instilled in him a greater desire to reach out and assist others. Brennan and his wife, Debbie, a member of the NU Class of 1979, had been generous financial supporters of a variety of charities in the past and were now looking for opportunities to take a more active role in a particular effort, hoping to take a project from the ground up. The school project was ideal.

Brennan joined Bottrie and Martin Moodie, founder and publisher of The Moodie Report, on a trip to Haiti in March. It was his first time in that country, and he was overcome by the devastation.

“There were people buried under the rubble that used to be their homes or places of work,” he says. “The survivors walk the streets and you can see sadness in their eyes because they know that their families and co-workers are still in the rubble.”

Brennan has made five trips to Haiti in all, conducting site visits and meeting with prominent Haitians to establish a local board that will guide the project. “You really need local insight if you're going to be successful in another country,” Brennan says.

With the help of the board, which includes a lawyer, a publisher, and a young entrepreneur, the project quickly gained the support of influential individuals in Haiti. “We've had an open door to the leadership in Haiti and that's attributable to these folks and the work they've done for us,” Brennan says, noting that the partners have been able to meet with the Haitian minister of education, and the U.S. and French ambassadors to Haiti, as well as local mayors and civic officials.

A Change in Focus

The project, which was initially envisioned as a school for 150 children in pre-K through fifth grades, expanded in scope after a chance meeting with Sister Mary Prema, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation founded by Mother Teresa. Brennan was in an airport, preparing to board a “rickety old plane” that his group of 10 had chartered to take them to several provinces that were being considered as the location for the school. Fifteen nuns were also in the airport, huddled together. “It was a strange sight, considering the airport was closed,” Brennan says. One of the nuns approached him to ask where he was going. When he told her Les Cayes, a town in southwest Haiti, she said that the nuns had been praying for someone to take them there. “You're the answer to my prayers,” she told him.

During the 45-minute flight, Brennan chatted with Sister Mary about their respective relief efforts ”“”“ hers with an orphanage that had doubled its occupancy after the earthquake, and his with a school for 150 children. “Ed,” she implored him,” please, please do something more.”

With her encouragement, Brennan and his partners developed a plan for a long-term sustainable facility that will offer accessible education to 720 students from the nursery to the baccalaureate level. The curriculum will be taught in English, French, and Creole, and the school year will be extended through the summer to offer continuous learning opportunities. To ensure the school offers an academically superior program, Hand in Hand for Haiti has partnered with the French Lycée in New York City to develop the curriculum and to train the teachers and school director.

“We knew we needed to go to the best in class,” Brennan says.

The state-of-the-art educational facility will include an on-site medical clinic to provide basic health care to those in need; several sports facilities to complement the academic setting; and a school cafeteria and kitchen to prepare two well-balanced meals each day, planned in consultation with trained nutritionists.

“It's very important to meet the nutritional needs of these students,” Brennan says. “Most likely it will be the only two meals these kids get.”

After an exhaustive search for the site of the school, the partners selected Saint-Marc, an area that took on 32,000 refugees after the earthquake. The men felt that the town's leadership had the clearest vision for rebuilding and that the area offered great potential from a tourism and agriculture view. In addition, its location, strategically situated between two major fault lines, would provide protection from hurricane winds.

Brennan calls the selection process one of the most challenging aspects of the school project, but notes that the partners received an unusual confirmation of their choice shortly after making it. The men had just concluded a meeting with local officials when they encountered a group of three young girls wearing school uniforms. The girls smiled at the men and said, in English, “Good morning, how are you?” These were the only words in English that they knew, but they were enough to convince Brennan and his partners that Saint-Marc was the right place for their school, with its focus on the English language. Brennan recalls that when he told Sister Mary about the difficulty of selecting a site for the school, she had reassured him that God would give him a sign that the province he selects would be the right one. Brennan took this as his sign.

A School of Hope

Phase One of the school, which was expected to open in the summer of 2011, will consist of eight classes of 25 students each. The clinic, preschool classrooms, cafeteria, housing for the director and teachers, a computer room, library, music facilities, and athletic fields will be completed during this phase. Phase Two will include the construction of the secondary school. Fifty students will be added each year until the cap of 720 is reached.

The facility will be constructed of environmentally friendly materials and optimize the use of renewable energy in addition to traditional energy sources. The land around the school will be planted with indigenous trees, including a symbolic Tree of Hope, and organizers are considering planting a school garden that could provide fruits and vegetables for use in the school's kitchen.

In addition to providing students with an exceptional education, the landmark school will be a training ground for teachers from surrounding schools. It will also play a key role in a community development program that will ultimately link with areas such as vocational skills training, medical services, investment, and job creation. Brennan notes that the primary purpose of the school is to instill hope in the Haitian people.

“Hope is what they have in their hearts,” he says. “If we can provide it, even if it's just for a small group of kids, it will be the greatest accomplishment of my life.”