On Jan. 12, 2010, Lizzy Sandlin was a 12-year-old eighth grader at the Atlanta International School busily studying the courses required on the international baccalaureate diploma track and practicing the viola, her instrument of choice.
Before starting at the international school the year before, she had spent eight years in Germany with her parents where her father had been rector of an Episcopal church in Frankfurt and an avid musician who plays the viola as well.
It was her father who first told her about Haiti and the Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, she recalled in an interview with Global Atlanta.
“My Dad has always told me about this music school in Haiti, where the director of the school is a violist and Episcopal priest — just like him,” she said.
She recalled hearing about the Jan. 12 catastrophic earthquake and its aftershocks that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians that fateful month.
But she didn’t comprehend the extent of the devastation until visiting Haiti two years later to teach viola lessons at the Holy Trinity Music School.
The school is affiliated with Haiti’s Episcopal Cathedral, which was destroyed, as were its outlying buildings for academic, trade and music classes. Additionally, its three grand pianos, 20 upright pianos and a music library were destroyed as well.
“Although I was there nearly two years after the earthquake few rebuilding efforts had been made,” she said. “I saw the circumstance many of the students themselves were living in, and how music was a way for them to escape.”
Their passion to play was obvious, she said. But the earthquake claimed many of the instruments, and many of the surviving instruments had missing parts.
“It was hard to see so many passionate young musicians, my age and younger, who loved playing, but had no instrument to play on,” she added.
“Some of the students I taught didn’t have their own instruments and would spend the first half of their lesson times looking for someone who didn’t need theirs right then.”
Even those who were able to find a violin or a viola to play couldn’t count on the instrument having all four strings.
“These were never things that I have had to even think about,” she said. “I knew that I had to help the students in whatever way I could, so I started collecting donations from various people around the country.”
Her first steps were to launch a blog and compile a list of musicians to whom she wrote asking for their help. The initial responses were positive.
For instance, the San Antonio Symphony sent bags of supplies including a variety of instruments parts. Heidi Castleman, a viola professor at the Julliard School at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York and a family friend, sent some 200 worn strings.
Lizzy managed to collect five boxes of instruments, strings, bows, pegs, other parts and rosin, which she sent off to Port-au-Prince.
Meanwhile, the music education at the school continued in Haiti with lessons in all the orchestral instruments, piano and voice.
In view of her early success and the responsiveness of the Haitian students, she decided to form a nonprofit to further their support and learned to fill out the application for a 501(c) 3 status.
Hence RestringHaiti Inc. came to life. Before it was an official nonprofit, Lizzy managed to send three violins and a viola to the music school. Once the initiative became a legal entity, however, she stepped up the fundraisers, benefit concerts and instrument drives and it has been a conduit for many more including 15 violins from the Lovett School in Atlanta.
“I got those this spring,” she said, “and since most of them needed some work done before they could be played, I spent about a month working at Stephanie Voss’ violin shop here in Atlanta, fixing them up to be shipped down to Haiti.”
Her next step in regards to what inevitably is to be a “lifelong mission” for her, according to Ginger Fay, her Upper School Counselor at the Atlanta International School, is to visit Haiti again so she can teach the students how to secure their own supplies and instruments and learn to repair them — just as she did.
Meanwhile, she has continued her own involvement with the Atlanta Young Singers, participating with this musical group, one of several with which she has been involved over the years, on a summer tour in Europe to compete in the World Choir Games, an international competition that was held in Riga, Latvia.
Currently she is starting her freshman year at Barnard College in New York. She said that she isn’t totally certain about what to study but has an interest in international politics, human rights and French, which she wants to learn “at least enough to be able to communicate better with people in Haiti.”