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WHS Students Turn Haitian Art Into Life-Saving Opportunity

With some help, Wellesley High School students have become overnight non-profit entrepreneurs.

The serene setting of Pam Lofblad's seasonal store is far cry from the impoverished, squalid landscape of post earthquake Haiti. However, a connection now exists between the two thanks to some young Wellesley entrepreneurs - a longstanding business class and a local doctor.

Through WHS teacher Jane Lord's Global Marketing class, students have developed the Cite Soleil Opportunity Council (CSOC), a not-for-profit company, which sells Haitian art directly from Haitian artists. The organization's proceeds help provide much needed medication to people suffering through earthquake ravaged Cite Soleil, a densely populated and extremely poor section of Port-au-Prince, the country's capital.

The art-for-medicine tradeoff was the brainchild of Dr. Lawrence R. Kaplan, formerly the CEO of MetroWest Medical Center, who helped set up art purchased on a recent trip to Haiti at Lofblad's Wellesley Holiday Boutique, a seasonal consignment shop at 102 Central St. Kaplan has made numerous trips to Haiti since the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 – his first trip was three days after the catastrophic event.

During his subsequent trip, he got an idea.

"I was walking in this area … and I came across artists doing this work," he said. "I bought some of their art; thought it was marketable."

The base material for the artwork is scrap tin or recycled oil drums which are shipped to the artists' workshops by way of a taxi or handcart, according to Kaplan. The art, typically painted tin carvings of animals native to the tropical island country, is produced by 12 Haitian artists and sold for between $20 to $35 on average per piece, once stateside. Because Kaplan purchases the artwork, there is no shipping cost levied on the artists.

CSOC gives all profits to Haiti Clinic, a not-for-profit organization in Cite Soleil that has been providing medical services to the poorest populations in Haiti since 2007. So far, the Council, which was established in September, has raised $2,000 and managed to provide food and shelter to 140 people in Haiti.

While the population of Haiti was on difficult ground prior to this year's earthquake, these days the strain on the Haitian community is nearly impossible for citizens to overcome, Kaplan said.

"This is a place where the unemployment is about 95 percent," he said.

For Kaplan, a 35-year veteran of non-governmental philanthropic efforts, this type of relief effort, while very real, is nothing new – he said he lead the first non-governmental American team into Cambodia after the fall of the ruthless Communist leader Pol Pot in 1979. He has another trip to Haiti planned in two or three weeks unless the now widely publicized cholera outbreak hits Cite Soleil. In that case, he would go immediately.

"Once you've walked through the killing fields of Cambodia and seen 12, 13-year-olds with AKs and sub-machine guns, this is nothing," he said.

Beyond helping Haiti's ailing population through philanthropic efforts, the students of Lord's class have been able to take part in the first-hand experience of setting up and running an actual not-for-profit organization, a first for the longstanding Wellesley High School course.

Christy Adler, 18, the teacher's assistant for the course and overall liaison for the CSOC, has expressed interest in working for this organization full time, possibly as part of a senior project in spring. The senior hopes to make a trip to Cite Soleil in the future.

"This is such a crazy opportunity," Adler said. "There's so much weight on what I'm doing, I can help so many people. It really motivates me to help the class succeed and sell as much as we can."

The business has a large staff that spans multiple grades of Wellesley High School. There's a marketing arm, a financial department and an established business hierarchy. During off-school hours Tuesday night, Adler purchased a domain name for the organization's Web site and spent yesterday afternoon of a school workshop day setting up the art at the boutique.

The project has gone beyond just the class. Senior Katie Lofblad, 17, daughter of shop owner Pam Lofblad, helped set up of the artwork as well. She's not in Lord's Global Marketing class – she is instead taking her Business Entrepreneurship class – but she was asked by Kaplan to photograph some of the artwork for the organization's Web site.

After learning about the impact her efforts could have, and her mother's shop's involvement, Katie Lofblad jumped at the chance to help.

For these students, this isn't just homework anymore.

"We've done lanyards and sunglasses and stuff [in Business Entrepreneurship], but this is the real thing," she said.

CSOC will be selling Haitian art at the 34th annual Wellesley Marketplace at the Wellesley Middle School Nov. 20.

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