By Kathryn G. Menu
In 2004, Aprillina Setyawati watched in horror as Indonesia was devastated by a tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in 14 countries, including many around her native Bali where she was living at the time. While Bali was untouched by the Christmas Eve tsunami, considered one of the most horrific natural disasters in recent history, witnessing the ruin in the aftermath of the waves changed the young girl and she began to feel a calling.
“It really impacted me,” said Setyawati in an interview this week at the Bridgehampton School, where she has been a student for a year-and-a-half.
The impact of watching people struggle in the wake of the tsunami left Setyawati with a desire to find a life in the work of humanitarian organizations that come to the aid of others in crisis. That passion led the high school senior away from the traditional Spring Break destinations and to Haiti last week.
With Bridgehampton School teacher Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz fostering Setyawati’s desire to contribute to a greater cause and the support of Sag Harbor resident Jonathan Glynn’s Wings Over Haiti organization, the 18-year-old spent four days in Haiti last week, and just days after her return, is itching to get back into the field.
Setyawati passed out Kashi bars in Haiti that Bridgehampton School students and faculty collected for her to bring to the small Haitian village of Croix de Bouquet. There she spent time at an orphanage that has most recently suffered from the effects of a nationwide cholera epidemic, and met other volunteers from across the country, unified under the Wings Over Haiti mission for long-term, sustainable solutions to the crisis in Haiti.
But her main task was leading a new project by Wings Over Haiti — to construct a vegetable garden near the future site of a school the organization has founded.
In its current space, the school now educates children ages three to five, but it’s growing. In addition to basic education and language courses, it now provides students with a hot meal during the school day and dry goods to take home to their families — homes often made out of tents that sit in lines, one after the other, dotting the Haitian countryside.
The garden, which has already started to germinate, will grow corn, beans, peppers and cucumbers, providing a valuable food source in a region that has yet to recover from the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people, leaving over a million homeless.
It was that quake that led Glynn to fly his single-engine plane to Haiti to provide emergency aid in January 2010. A year and a half later his organization, Wings Over Haiti, has evolved into a not-for-profit committed to long term, sustainable growth in the ravaged country. In addition to the school, which is getting ready to move to a new location near Setyawati’s garden, the organization has branched out into other areas of need like health care.
The organization hopes to build a medical center on the same site as the new school, if funding allows the project to move forward. Last week physician assistant Rich Ruppenstein, who will serve as the organization’s medical director, traveled with the group to Haiti to aid children in the cholera stricken orphanage, as well as conduct over 200 sick and well visits throughout the community.
Setyawati’s contribution on her first international excursion as a volunteer aid worker was tied directly to her experience over the last year and a half at Bridgehampton School. Specifically, Setyawati brought the knowledge she has cultivated through Carmack-Fayyaz and the landscape design course she has taken at the school as Bridgehampton has grown to offer both outdoor gardens and a recently opened greenhouse where students learn.
Working with Carmack-Fayyaz and retired teacher Nancy Karlebach, Setyawati was able to design a plan for the garden. She and her classmates also collected donations of Kashi bars, and gardening equipment and supplies she would need on her trip to Haiti.
On the ground, Setyawati helped choose the site for the new garden and constructed it with volunteers and family members who have children in the Wings Over Haiti school, creating a similar growing space to the one right outside the doors of the new Bridgehampton greenhouse.
However, she modestly deflects the conversation away from her own efforts, and towards the strength that her fellow volunteers, and more importantly, the children of Haiti, have given her.
“People ask me, why would I want to do this for my life,” she said while flipping through over 100 photos she took during her trip. “They say, you won’t make a lot of money, but for me, helping people, it is so satisfying that I feel like I am helping myself too.”
Setyawati plans to attend college in the fall, but admitted the call to return to Haiti is strong, and working in international relief aid is something she will strive for.
“Coming to the United States was my first dream,” she said. “I came here and I feel like I have so much now. I want to give something back. I was happy there. It is not about the place. People were so worried for me when I was going down there, worried about the crime. But it is not about the place, it is about the people and I had faith in them.”