Woodbury Families Connect with Children In Need Across the Sea

Gefte now lives in Woodbury with his adoptive family, the Rodriguezes.

Sara Lein never dreamed of riding on the back of a motorcycle on a Caribbean island, running a school in a foreign country, or helping find homes for three special kids—but she feels honored to say this is all now part of her journey. At a conference in 2011 she jotted down one word in a notebook: Haiti. She didn’t know what she was going to do there, but she felt called to go.

Lein decided to spend a month volunteering at an orphanage in Port au Prince, because that’s where her sister adopted two sons. As an educator herself, Lein started teaching English to a handful of kids, and eventually found a natural fit as the director of an orphanage that had been transformed into a school. Most of the children were adopted after a catastrophic earthquake the year before, but the need for quality education was so great within the surrounding communities that Lein and the Haitian staff felt drawn to respond to that need. “After you see it, you can’t un-see it,” says Lein. So over the next few years, they trained teachers, established funds and worked with partners around the U.S. to further transform the orphanage into a primary school dedicated to providing high-quality, free education to kids in the high-poverty community of Pernier. Kozefò, which means “to speak in a loud voice” in Creole, is entirely funded by donations, and students are able to attend the school for free thanks to sponsorships.

This fall, Kozefò will enroll its first class of ninth-graders and is looking to expand to a new building as soon as funds allow. Lein is eager to move to their new location, which she describes as “a beautiful little spot with mango trees,” because they have outgrown their current building, with 124 kids. Lein feels inspired and awed by the Haitian enduring spirit as she watches students study happily in tight spaces, eager to learn, in spite of their obstacles.

When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, it had a ripple effect that reached all the way to Minnesota. Lein, a youth leader at her church, discussed Haiti and the kids at the orphanage with her group, who, in turn, shared the stories with their own families. Doreen Haroldson of Woodbury remembers hearing from her daughters that only a few older kids remained at the orphanage. “It sparked a conversation between my husband and I ... and we couldn’t think of a solid good reason why we shouldn’t [adopt],” she says. So in June 2012, Haroldson and fellow Woodbury mom Amy Rodriguez decided to pursue this new calling. Haroldson adopted her son, Stanley, from the school. During the lengthy adoption process, they made a couple of trips to Haiti, and overheard that a boy who had just arrived at the school was in need of a family. That’s when Rodriguez spoke up. “He was singing for an event … and God placed something on my heart,” she says. She and her husband decided during that week-long trip to welcome Gefte into their family. A couple of years later, in the middle of winter, both boys (and another now in Oakdale) arrived in Minnesota. This fall they start seventh grade at Woodbury Middle School and New Life Academy.

Although Kozefò is guided and funded by U.S. families and individuals, the school itself is run by local Haitian staff. Rodriguez is proud to be a part of an organization that empowers and embraces local people. When anyone can choose to sponsor a student in Haiti and give that child the gift of education, “it is an opportunity to learn what it means to give back to another culture,” she says. Haiti might be thousands of miles across the ocean, but as Rodriguez points out, in many ways, “Kozefò is right in our backyard.”   

To sponsor a student or contribute to the building project, visit the website here.