I met Serena Bufalino at Downwarddog Yoga Studio, were we both practice yoga, and only recently did I find out what an incredible force of nature she is. She moves through her life with a clear sense of purpose rooted in service to people who need it most. As a teacher she works with Some of Toronto's most at risk students, and with them has embarked on an inspiring school building journey in Haiti. Serena was recently awarded with The MacMaster Arch Award, which is a provincial award that recognizes past graduates and the good work that they have gone on to do since graduating, for the amazing work she has been doing.
Fostering strength and self worth in her students by engaging them with community and helping those even less fortunate than themselves began in the homeless shelters and food banks of Toronto and flourished in a direction she could never have imagined possible. It was her students, when confronted with the extreme poverty and helplessness in the post earthquake Haiti who challenged her,
It's about taking Toronto’s most at risk youth and pairing them up with the most at risk youth in the world, Haiti, and through education and learning, creating a miracle. Through in class programming and leadership skills The Haiti School Building Project gives youth the opportunity to attend a safe school building and receive an adequate education regardless of their life circumstances and or location on the globe. Our primary goal is to empower youth both locally and globally by showing them they have the potential to bring about great change in their lives and the world around them.
Where it all began… This is all because of my work as a teacher and especially because of my students:)) I wanted to role model to them and everyone that we can do anything we put our minds to.
For the past ten years, I have been privileged to work with dozens of at risk youth, arguably some of the most challenged youth in all of the Toronto School board. The circumstances surrounding their lives is so severe that they cannot receive an education in a regular school setting nor can they function in a special education classroom. These youth are in treatment centres and suffer every day with everything from learning disabilities, to mental health issues to family crisis and addition problems.
In an attempt to build their self-esteem and self worth we go out into the community and volunteer our time. This teaches the youth life skills, social skills and gives them an opportunity to build a working resume. Social activism and participation in the local community motivated these youth and energized them to give even more. They craved something bigger, something global. They imagined the unthinkable – that we could build a school in Haiti.
With the help and expertise of Third World Awareness (an independent, not-for-profit organization that builds school in developing countries) we have started to make our dreams a reality and the school construction site has already started on the grounds in Haiti.
Haiti School Building Project was born in May of 2011. Originally it was suppose to be a one year project and we were going to build a one classroom school. We were aiming to help a handful of students because that is what we are are. A small group of youth.
However after seeing the conditions in Haiti and learning about all the things that we would never know/understand, I did not have the heart to say “no” when my project partner pulled out the blue prints for the current Haiti School Building Project. Our one classroom school and what we thought was a $20,000 project has turned into a 21 classroom school and a $300,000 project. Thus the project has grown much larger than we ever expected and we are working based on the manner in which the funds come in.
Construction has taken this long for a number of reasons. Specifically, no work on the school site happens unless myself or a Third World Awareness (the organization that I represent) representative is present. This way we can directly apply the funds raised and we never have to put money into someone’s hands. We are personally responsible for our hard earned funs and this way we avoid any conflict of money “missing”. It is important tot note that 100% of the money raised go directly to the school site as our organization has no paid employees and all donations come with a charity tax receipt for income purposes.
There are many moments that stand out throughout this project. The entire experience of being in Haiti is a moment in itself. To see the way they live and to know that a place like that actually exists on our planet today is one of the hardest things to come to terms with.
The living conditions are so extreme and the poverty so intense that all you can do is focus on what you can do to help. It is almost like you are no longer a human being but instead a person of service doing whatever is necessary in that moment and without thought. It is a lot to process and every ounce of your being as well as all your senses are totally immersed in the experience. From noise and air population, to the most intense and dense transportation system, lack of basic amenities (no food, running water or electricity anywhere), lack of employment, lack of education, lack of health care and lack of security or protection. Every thing is to the extreme and all of it is impossible to wrap your head around.
Some of the most magical moments are when you see that you are directly having am impact on the people that you are serving. I love, love, love handing out used clothing or shoes to the children and workers. To see the smile of the kids face when you give them a toy or clothes is really the most beautiful experience ever. No words can describe the feeling of giving back and helping others. It is like christmas for them when the “white” girl shows up to work. The entire community lights up to see what I am bringing and what I will do for them. To know that this school is supporting the entire Haitian economy and brining not only education to those who need it most but also inspiring and empowering the Haitian culture as a whole. From hiring the Haitian workers and providing them with a meal plan to feed their bellies as well as provide them with shoes and proper equipment to build has been very rewarding. To start the construction and see the kids come around the site and be very excited to attend school for the first time in their lives is so beautiful. Watching the process unfold and being a part of something greater than myself makes me cry on a regular basis. Also to see how my friends, family and communities have stepped up to the plate to help make this happen is also a very beautiful
I definitely do not have a team of people working for me but I do have volunteers who come to Haiti every May and help spread love. Third World Awareness is the organization that I have been a part of for 7 years now and together with my mentor they help in any way they can. Overall. I do most of the fundraising on my own but there are always people who step up and really help out. My students help me with fundraisers, my yoga community helps by doing yoga for Haiti, my friends and family give when they can and throughout the years people just show up. I often give presentations whenever I can and I am constantly networking or promoting my work so word gets around. I like to plant seeds and possibilities in peoples mind and when they are ready they contact me and help or come on a trip.
No recruiting people. Everything is based on word of mouth and planting seeds wherever I can. I say YES to every opportunity and know that someway it will all work out.
I recently won The MacMaster Arch Award. This award is a provincial award that recognizes past graduates and the good work that they have gone on to do since graduating. I was shocked as their were thousands of nomination yet somehow I won. a very proud accomplishment on my end. I have also received an honourable mention in the Toronto Star for the work that I do in Toronto. I was nominated for teacher of the year in 2014 as well as the Excellence Award for Teaching. This is a national award that recognizes the top 20 teachers in all of Canada. Again a very proud moment in my life. To get noticed for all the hard work that I do is a rather beautiful experience.
Yes, i just recently completed my 500 hour yoga teacher training with Meghan Currie. Yoga for me is my healing space, my therapy and my way of life. When I am on my mat I not only heal my heart, body and soul but it allows me the space to process my everyday life.
Most of what I do is pretty extreme and intense so in order to be able to handle it all, I find my peace on my mat. I strongly believe in yoga as a healing tool and a coping strategy. I believe that yoga can heal a lot of the problems we face on our planet today. I have already started doing yoga with both my Toronto students and the future students of the Haiti School Building Project.
My plan is to start teaching yoga classes and retreats with all the proceeds going toward the Haiti School Building Project. I also plan on implementing yoga to the children of Haiti once we have a space to do so. Specifically, the roof of the Haiti School Building Project will be a flat surface so that the children can go up on the roof to dream and to do yoga:)) I cannot wait for the time when I lay out mats and start to teach the children of Haiti yoga.
On June 20th, 2016 I will be returning to Haiti to complete the first level of the school. We will be cementing the ceiling of the elementary school and getting it ready for September registration. Next steps are buying the desks and chairs, hiring the teachers and getting the students in uniform. Again, this can only be done once we have the funds to do so. After that is complete we will start build the second level of the school which will be a secondary school. The only thing that is preventing this from happening is funds and fundraising.
This is the first group of students how are attending class in a temporary spot until the school is finished.
When the school is complete it is meant to serve as both and elementary and secondary school during the day and then adult learning and trades programs in the evening.
All donations can be made on my website: www.
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