Educator, yoga teacher and philanthropist launches The Haiti School Building Project with Toronto’s at risk youth

Serena Bufalino, Founder of The Haiti School Building Project. Courtesy of Serena Bufalino.
Serena Bufalino, Founder of The Haiti School Building Project. Courtesy of Serena Bufalino.

Serena Bufalino grew up in Hamilton, ON but now lives in Toronto. She’s an educator, a yoga teacher, a leader and a philanthropist. Just four years ago, Serena launched The Haiti School Building Project, an effort to bring stable and strong education to Haiti, helping to change the future of local children and their families.The best part about this venture, though, is that Serena was inspired by her secondary school students in the Canadian city she lives and works to make it happen.

Here is Serena’s story:

1. You are a yoga teacher, a secondary school teacher in Toronto, a voluntary caregiver, an education coordinator and the CEO of The Haiti School Building Project. Wow! When did your passion for helping others and spreading self-love and self-care begin?

I’ve always been a hard worker, very loyal and super dedicated to serving all those that I come in contact with. It is in my nature, I don’t know any other way. I have always cared about the welfare of others and can honestly say that I have lived the majority of my life serving others.

It started with my family and then snowballed into helping my friends, the various communities around me (specifically, Toronto’s most at risk populations) and in the past five years, [my aim has moved] globally to Haiti. Of course, there is The Haiti School Building Project, but I’m also working to launch Yoga for Haiti all over the world with international retreats in Mallorca.

Come 2017, I’ll also be starting a new project in Belize.

2. When did you launch The Haiti School Building Project?

The Haiti School Building Project launched in May 2011 and was implemented by my students, Toronto’s most at risk youth. The project’s aim was to increase self esteem and give students a sense of purpose, encouraging them to give back and help others. When my students in Toronto realized they had the ability to save lives while learning new skills, it lit them up and drove them to be their best selves.

3. The Haiti School Building Project connects at risk youth in Toronto and pairs them with the most at risk youth in the world through learning and creating. How did the organization’s mission come to be?

Every Tuesday, my students and I volunteer our time at St. Felix Centre, a local homeless shelter that serves daily meals and offers activities for those in need. Here, we learned about difficulties disadvantaged young people face and met John Callagah, a retired teacher, principal and humanitarian. He is the director of Third World Awareness and has been volunteering his time in Haiti for over two decades. My students were shocked to learn that there are people in this world who want to go to school, but do not have the means. They asked me if we could build a school – and so just like that, our cycle of helping young people in Haiti began.

When John returned from his trip to Haiti that year, we planned our mission. We decided we would build a small one brick classroom with a tin roof. The cost would be $20,000. However, when we arrived in Haiti, my project partners said a one brick classroom would be too small.  They pulled out the blueprints to what is now The Haiti School Building Project. A $20,000, one classroom school turned into a two-level, 16 classroom and $350,000 project. It will be used both as an elementary and secondary school by day and an adult learning centre by night.

4. Describe the kind of progress you’ve seen in students on both sides of this project.

I have had the privilege of watching my students grow in all areas of their lives. This project gave them a sense of purpose and the tools to not only help themselves but others, too. Together, we went around to other schools to present our work, we held numerous fundraisers and we learned valuable life lessons. My students in Toronto have begun to believe in themselves and continue to challenge themselves to reach new limits.

As for Haiti, the students there are filled with so much hope. They will, for the first time in their lives, have the opportunity of education. These students have big dreams, too. They want to be doctors, nurses and teachers. This is definitely one of the greatest things of which I have ever been a part.

5. What was your first job? How do you think this job helped you to become the career oriented, ambitious and philanthropic woman you are today? 

I remember when I was 11 and wanted a pair of Buffalo jeans that were way too expensive for my family. At that moment, I realized I had to fend for myself. If I wanted something, I was going to have to work hard for it.  So, I started working part time. I worked everyday after school and on Saturdays. My first pay check was $245 and I bought those Buffalo jeans.

[When] I started teaching at risk students, I saw first hand just how much of an impact I could have by helping someone get to where they want to be. I saw that I was able to make a major contribution to my students’ overall health and well-being. This ignited a fire in me.

My students are my main inspiration and through helping them, it has turned into helping all of humanity heal. One student, one classroom, one school at a time.

6. When did you first start practicing yoga?

I attended my first yoga class on my 30th birthday. I was looking for a new experience and wanted to try something different.  I immediately fell in love. It got me out of my head and into my body. It provided healing ground.

I knew right away that [yoga] was for me. [It would soon become] where I would make sense of myself and the world around me. Yoga is my medicine and it is that one thing that has helped me grow emotionally, physically and spiritually. Yoga allows me to be the teacher, leader and humanitarian.

7. How long have you been teaching secondary students at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB)?

I’ve been a Special Education Educator at the TDSB for 10 years. I work in partnership with the Ministry of Child and Youth Services. All of my students are no longer in the mainstream school system and they may suffer from mental illness, trauma, abuse and/or neglect. There are programs set up all across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where teachers like me go to various centres to deliver education to these students with special needs.

8. What’s the best part of your role as a Special Education Educator in Canada’s most multicultural city?

I am honoured to have the opportunity to teach students in a unique educational setting. I have created a specialized curriculum that gets students off the streets, into the classroom and ultimately into the world. I focus on using students’ strengths to build upon their weaknesses. I have 10 to 12 students in my program at a time and teach them for a maximum of two years.

It’s a great opportunity to witness the transformation of students over the course of the school year and to see their growth and their improved ability. I know first hand that the relationships that I form with my students are like no other.

9. You have so much on the go – how do you manage your time?

Time management can sometimes be overwhelming and difficult because I have a tendency to say yes to everything. This translates to setting daily, weekly and monthly to-dos and goals that I use as guidelines.

It is also essential for me to have a five year plan. I then take steps everyday to reach these goals and dreams. A clear path helps me move in the right direction. However, there is also the element of going with the flow and being ready for everything. Flexibility is very important.

10. Where do your get your energy and creativity? Creative projects are inspiring, exciting and addicting, but often times, they can be draining and overwhelming, too. Tell us – how do you stay awake and alert.

Most of my energy and creativity come from trusting my heart. I am very much inspired by the communities and people I serve. I see the impact that my work is having and this drives me to continue.

I also know that proper sleep and nutrition are key to having good energy levels. I try to eat as healthy as possible and ensure a minimum of six hours of sleep each night to operate at my best.

On top of that, I get energy from spending time in nature and at yoga.

11. What will the future of The Haiti School Building Project entail? 

At the present moment we are just ready to open up the elementary portion of The Haiti School Building Project. Once we’ve launched the elementary side, I will start building the secondary portion of the school. Sadly, in Haiti, only eight per cent of the population who complete elementary school move on to secondary school. Once the entire building structure is complete, it will benefit 500 students every day, including the students who will have access to the adult learning centre.

12. How many people are on your team at the project? 

My team consists of about 20 volunteers from all over the GTA. We have no paid staff here in Toronto.

In Haiti, there are about 10 to 15 paid employees. We have a supervisor, a foreperson, a construction crew, an engineer, an electrician, a plumber, etc. This project is about empowering the Haitian population and giving them a chance to success at life. We pay all employees in Haiti and bring as much opportunity to the population possible.

13. How do you spread news and awareness about the organization effectively? 

Every opportunity I get to promote, I go for it: Public speaking both here in Toronto and internationally, yoga classes, family and friends and traditional and social media are examples.

Soon, I will be making major changes to my workload and hope to focus more on my role with The Haiti School Building Project. I want to emphasize my role as a businesswoman, public speaker, humanitarian and leader. I believe this will help me drive more awareness for this initiative.

Readers, we recommend following the Haiti School Building Project on Facebook and Instagram. To learn how you can get involved in Serena’s ever-growing project, reach out to her directly at info@haitischoolbuildlingproject.com.

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