Westfield High School earth science teacher Sara Soriente is the first to admit that while a student at Cranford High School in the late 1990s, she did not do much volunteering. A few years ago though, Soriente had an experience which changed the way she thought about her life.
A teacher in the school's Project 79 program, Soriente had the chance to spend a week in the Dominican Republic, volunteering with the Foundation for Peach helping to provide more for the Caribbean country's residents. Touched by the experience, Soriente started to look for new ways to help, particularly in underdeveloped countries.
Several weeks ago, Soriente received an e-mail from the foundation looking for teachers to volunteer in Haiti, helping to rebuild the country ravaged by a massive earthquake in January. Soriente jumped, hoping to not only rebuild the country, but also to use her trip as a coachable moment for her students.
"I am at a point in life where I care about this and want to do this," she said. "Our kids do much better when they see a result."
The result part is a key reason Soriente decided to forgo the option of spending her spring break soaking in the sun on a Caribbean beach. Since the earthquake, she has been spending her time searching for a way to communicate the devastation of Haiti to her students. As a result she has built her trip into a school wide event.
"I got in front of them and said 'I don't expect them to care about me going to Haiti,' but I want them to know why I care about about going to Haiti," Soriente said of her presentation to the 96 students in the Project 79 program.
To help raise money for her trip and for the foundation's work in Haiti, Soriente has been working with others in the Project 79 program, which is an alternative education program offered in the high school, to create a series of fun fundraisers designed to build community within the program and at WHS and to help better Haiti. One of the more popular has been the buzz the coordinator program.
Peter Horn, the Project 79 coordinator, volunteered to have his head shaved for the cause. Selling tickets to students and faculty, the winning participant - teacher Kevin Johnson - got the opportunity to shave Horn's head before a cheering student based crowd.
Soriente has also been holding bake sales and receiving support from her fellow teachers, along with working the corporate sector. Through contacts from her father, Soriente recently raised $12,000 for the foundation from Planet Honda in Union Township.
Soriente's trip comes on the heels of a variety of school based work for Haiti. Immediately after the earthquake, a quartet of WHS seniors founded the Hearts for Haiti fundraiser. The WHS French Club hosted a fundraiser and students in all 10 schools in Westfield for relief efforts.
While in Haiti, Soriente will be based in the Fond Parisien refugee community, working with other foundation volunteers in getting the community ready for the rainy season. This will include helping to build shelters and provide for the residents in the community.
Soriente said she's been getting a great response from the students she teaches and hopes the experiences she can share from helping out in Fond Parisien will help let her students know the importance of volunteerism.
"I want them to know why I am out there," she said.