Every summer when he was growing up, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril traveled to Haiti, the birthplace of his parents. The trips ended around the time he was 15, after his grandmother passed away.
But earlier this year, Avril, who was born in Jacksonville, Fla. and starred at Purdue before being drafted by the Detroit Lions, returned to the island nation for a football camp and health clinic, and to break ground on a special project: a school.
This week, as Avril and his Seahawks teammates prepared to face the New York Jets, his wife, Tia, former teammate Marshawn Lynch, and his cousin, Emmanuel Thalerand, returned to Haiti to officially open the first schoolhouse, which has classrooms for kindergartners and first-graders.
The blue-and-white cinderblock structure is a far cry from the previous school, and there are more coming.
“A lot of different things” contributed to Avril wanting to build the school, he said on Friday. “Your perspective on life is completely different from age 15 to 30, having kids, having a wife, having your values change over time. I had the opportunity to work with an organization called Free the Children that goes to different third-world countries. I met them, they do work in Haiti, and I realized this was the perfect opportunity to do something in Haiti and I’m fortunate to make it happen.”
The group also handed out backpacks, donated school supplies for the classrooms, and purchased shoes and uniforms for the kindergarten students.
The old schoolhouse served 450 children, and was spartan, to put it mildly: it was essentially 4x4s supporting a rusted tin roof, all of the children, of every age and grade, crammed under it.
But Avril has committed to building six different classrooms, one for each grade. The new structures will provide a better environment for learning, and the hope is that more children from the area will be able to attend school.
The realities of Haiti still exist: electricity is scarce, and there isn’t an internet connection. But it is undoubtedly an improvement.
When Avril visited in April, he brought with him two of his former Lions teammates, Gosder Cherilus, who is also of Haitian descent, and Stephen Tulloch. It is the recently-retired Lynch who connected Avril with Free the Children, and the running back dedicated himself to helping his friend.
“It’s amazing. It shows the support and type of people they are. Gosder is Haitian, he was all in, Stephen is just a great friend of mine, very charitable, and Marshawn is the guy that put it all together, connecting me with Free the Children. He got the process going and told me whatever I needed, he’s all in,” Avril said.
Before leaving this week, the group broke ground on the building that will house the second, third and fourth grades.
And just like he did as a child, Avril plans to make visits to Haiti an annual trip once again.
“I plan on going every year…I told the people in the community we’re committed. Hopefully by April (the second building) is finished and we can move more kids,” he said. “A lot of these kids walk an hour, hour-and-a-half to get to school every day, but hopefully we can encourage more kids to go to school.”
Avril’s mother, Marie, also was on the trip in April, and she is thrilled to see what her son is doing for her homeland.
“She was excited, just that she’s able to go back and do something this big,” he said. “She knows how she grew up, so she knows how valuable this is for the kids, and she’s excited to go back.”