San Juan Student Brings Family Tradition to College
The Roberto Clemente Middle School in North Philadelphia is a world away from Haverford where Yamile is a senior and thousands of miles from her native Puerto Rico. But, every Saturday for the past three years, the modern, three-story school has been her home away from home.
In a classroom whose walls display the life and achievements of the school's namesake, 21 eighth graders at the Clemente School huddled in front of computer stations. Their teacher was in the room, but guiding them through the Web was a group of Haverford College students - among them, Yamile Marti-Haidar - who had come to help the young learners with their reading and math skills.
On one particular Saturday morning in December, the eighth graders were learning how to navigate the Web to do research. They had been reading about Anne Frank and were searching the Internet for information on World War II. Their teacher, Claire Chappele, appreciated the one-to-one tutoring, but was equally impressed with the tutors' loyalty and commitment to the weekly project.“I've been involved with the program since my second year of teaching here, and the Haverford students and Yamile have come every Saturday, every year. As a result, our students have been able to build relationships with them,” said Chappele.
This relationship-building began three years ago, when Yamile, then a first-year student at Haverford, was flying home to Puerto Rico for the holidays. "I happened to be seated next to the principal of the Roberto Clemente School,” she explained. "She's from Puerto Rico too and was going home for vacation." The principal talked about her plans and hopes for the school, and Yamile expressed her interest in working with children. "She gave me her phone number; I contacted her when I returned to campus, and we put together this tutoring project," said Yamile. "I called it 'Amigos', which means friends.”
By the start of Yamile's sophomore year, Amigos was well underway, but the following fall semester she left to study overseas, and the project languished. When she returned to Haverford in the spring, she was determined to re-establish the program. With the help of a friend, she eventually encouraged upwards of 35 Haverford students to participate. "At times I worried that we would be too busy with our studies or too tired from a Friday night to make it to the tutoring sessions on Saturday morning," said Yamile. "But, we knew this was a commitment and, in fact, both groups of students have benefited from the experience." According to Yamile, the Clemente School, many of whose students are Latino, is known nationally as a very good bilingual school. "It's been great for Haverford students who are learning Spanish because they can practice their language skills while working with the kids."
Yamile grew up in San Juan where her parents, Jaime Marti and Magda Haidar de Marti still reside. She and her older sister and brother, Magda Marie and Pedro Jaime, learned the importance of helping others at a very early age.“When we were very young, our parents took the three of us to homeless shelters, especially around the holidays. We would bring food with us and just spend quality time with people from all walks of life,” she recalled.
Yamile particularly remembers their visits to a shelter in the outskirts of San Juan.“It was a place for children who had been abandoned or abused,” she said.“ I met kids my age, who have had very different opportunities in their lives from mine, and I learned a lot from them.” Over the years Yamile and her family quietly helped dozens of children and the elderly, and eventually formed a foundation which supports, among other projects, a summer camp as part of the non-profit organization, Centro Sor Isolina Ferre in Caimito. Yamile believes that the success of the foundation is based on the family's continued personal involvement in its operation.
It would appear that Yamile, now in her final year of studies at Haverford, has continued her family's tradition. In addition to her work with Amigos, she enthusiastically promotes voluntarism to the rest of the Haverford student body through her position as chair of the advisory committee for 8th Dimension, the campus office which coordinates student volunteer activities. Since her first year at Haverford, she has worked with and lent her support to other students who have started or who are continuing various types of student-generated volunteer projects, from distributing food to the homeless to volunteering as“big brothers” and“big sisters” for neighborhood children. The director of 8th Dimension, Mary Louise Allen, is awed by Yamile's commitment and passion.“ She's quite a remarkable student,” says Allen.“She understands that when you offer to help people, they are counting on you. And she also recognizes that there's as much benefit to the volunteer as there is to the person being helped.”
Last spring, Yamile was awarded a prestigious Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship which recognizes talented minority students who are poised to do independent research with a faculty mentor. The fellowship program is the centerpiece of the Foundation's efforts to encourage members of minority groups to pursue graduate studies and create diversity in academia.
In Yamile's case, the fellowship supported a research project, which took her back to San Juan and the Caimito community where she knew many of the people through the Foundation's summer camp.“I wanted to study how to empower an underprivileged community such as Caimito,” said Yamile. She did so by going into the various barrios and sectors of the community talking to people individually. She also met with heads of various community and governmental agencies that oversee land redevelopment and provide social services in that part of San Juan. By the end of the summer, she had developed an extensive profile of the needs and services in the Caimito community both from the government's perspective and that of the people who live there. Alice Lesnick, who teaches education courses at Haverford, served as Yamile's mentor.
“ Her work on this project has been quite extraordinary,” says Lesnick.“This research has been completely apart from her course load. She's demonstrated enormous initiative; she's been a very patient, tireless and sensitive researcher in trying to understand and reconcile the gaps between what she learned from governmental agencies and from the people in Caimito.”
On the last Saturday tutoring session for the semester at Clemente, Yamile anxiously thought about a graduate school interview she had later that afternoon in Philadelphia. She wants to pursue a master's degree in social work with a law degree and return to Puerto Rico to help her fellow citizens.“I would love to go back and try to implement what I learn,” said Yamile.
As the departing Clemente students exchanged hugs and farewells with their Haverford tutors, Yamile handed each of them a colorful bag of holiday candy, leaving several behind for the children who couldn't attend that day.“That's just like her,” said Chappele afterwards.“She knew the kids who couldn't make it would have been disappointed, so she brought enough candy for all of them. They've come to count on her. She's their friend.”