Building Schools Fulfills a Legacy

After a friend’s death in Haiti earthquake, a commitment to helping endures
Stephanie Crispinelli’s mission continues thanks to the efforts of her family and friends like Sarina Peddy of East Hampton, who flew to Jamaica in April to build the seventh Steph’s Place school on the island. Photos Courtesy of Sarina Peddy

“I went to Jamaica to help the poor and the poor ended up helping me.” Stephanie Crispinelli wrote in her journal a year before she died in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010 and killed approximately 200,000 people. She was 19 years old.

Her roommate and best friend at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., was Sarina Peddy of East Hampton. They were sophomores at the time. Every January, students at the university are required to do community service. Ms. Peddy chose to do beach cleanup along the Florida coast while her friend chose to go to Haiti on what was called a Journey of Hope, which was a continuation of her 2009 trip to Jamaica and a collaboration with the organization Food for the Poor

On Jan. 8, 2010, four days before the earthquake, 12 students and faculty flew to Port-au-Prince. Only six made it back.

Ms. Peddy, who is now a substitute teacher at the Springs School, recalled the heart-rending emotions that followed the awful news. But she also described an ongoing and successful effort to honor her friend’s commitment to helping poor children, which has resulted in seven schools in Jamaica.

“There was minimal communication with Haiti after the earthquake so no one knew if she was alive or not. Then we got word she was alive and had made it back to the U.S.” Sadly, Ms. Peddy said, it turned out someone had found Stephanie’s passport in the rubble at her hotel and used it to get back to this country. Her remains were identified 26 days later.

“It was extremely difficult for me to go back to school,” Ms. Peddy said. “Lynn University’s enrollment is about 2,100 so classes are very small. I had to sit in classes with some of the survivors from that trip and that was very hard.”

It was the Crispinelli family of Somers, N.Y., who decided that one way to try to make sense of their daughter’s loss would be to continue her mission, which her mother, Lin Crispinelli, described as “making a difference in the world, one child at a time.”

Recovered among the young woman’s belongings at the devastated Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince was her journal. “There are too many kids going hungry in the world. I’ll keep coming back to help,” she wrote.

Six months after the earthquake, the Crispinelli clan, Ms. Peddy, and representatives of Food for the Poor, through which the Stephanie Crispinelli Humanitarian Fund was founded, traveled to Jamaica visiting orphanages where she had worked a year earlier.

 Their first school there — Steph’s Place 1 — was completed in four days. Despite this life-affirming accomplishment, Ms. Peddy remembered that her emotions were so raw and she was still too broken to feel much else than profound sadness over the loss of her friend.

The Crispinelli family has persevered and their daughter’s mission has continued. In the first six years, the Stephanie Crispinelli Humanitarian Fund built five schools in Jamaica and a house for a family living in intolerable conditions.

 Each July, in Westchester, the family holds a benefit and raises approximately $30,000 in order to return to the island with a team of volunteers and build a new school, each one known as Steph’s Place. The organization has grown to attract like-minded people from all over the country and the annual benefit now centers on a huge softball tournament with over 50 teams.

While Ms. Peddy helped through the years with fund-raising, it was only earlier this year — during the group’s seventh trip — that she decided it was time for her to be a hands-on participant. In April, she traveled to Jamaica with the Crispinellis and about 30 others to build a school for 75 students in Galina, a remote part of Jamaica, where no school had existed. It took four days to complete Steph’s Place 7, a 1,300-square-foot building, the biggest one yet.

Planning for next year’s school is underway. Stephanie’s Annual Family Fun Day will be held next Sunday at Reis Park in Somers, with raffles, free food, family-friendly games and activities, and the softball tournament.

“Now people who didn’t even know Stephanie are getting involved and helping,” Ms. Peddy said. “It’s exactly what Steph would have wanted to happen.” There is also a nice epilogue in the tragic story: Three years ago she introduced her best friend from East Hampton, Mylinh Nguyen, to Stephanie’s brother, Nick. They are still dating.

For more information about Ste­phanie’s Annual Family Fun Day, please email stephaniecrispinellifund@gmail.com.

Sarina Peddy and volunteers working on the 1,300-square-foot school, which took four days to construct.
Ready for the start of school: Steph’s Place 7 in Galina, a remote region of Jamaica. Plans for Steph’s Place 8 are already underway.