PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. — Jonathan Nash Glynn — artist, pilot and philanthropist — never envisioned himself as a missionary, but, absent religion, that’s what he has become in recent years.
“I’m a secular Jew from Jersey,” he says, laughing as we catch up by phone on the past eight years. “You don’t see many of those down there.”
“Down there” is Haiti, where Glynn is building his second school for children who have nothing. He is probably as unlikely as anyone to be a builder of schools, but in 2010, he had one of those Road to Damascus moments (if I may) as he and his dachshund, Lily, were flying toward Miami for a family visit.
Partway there, he heard of the 7.0 earthquake that had all but destroyed Haiti and decided to change course. Briefly stopping in Miami to drop off Lily, Glynn filled his single-engine Cessna with medical supplies and headed into the heart of darkest despair.
“I come from a family of doctors, so it was natural for me to take medical supplies,” he explains. Once there, however, Glynn was overwhelmed by the raw human horror — limbs being amputated with construction saws — and the immeasurable need. Because of his small plane, Glynn was able to more easily reach people in places that larger planes couldn’t. For about 19 days, he ferried doctors and supplies in and out of Haiti.
Amid the maelstrom, he wondered what more he could do. But how do you salvage civilization from scraps of debris and people immobilized by pain and hunger? How do you create a future from an apocalyptic past? Glynn says he knew he couldn’t save Haiti, but he thought he might be able to save one child.
He would build a school.
Within three months of the devastating temblor, the first classroom of what is today the Heart School in Port-au-Prince opened to about 25 children. Adding one classroom each year since, the school now boasts 178 students and 25 faculty members. At the current pace, the first graduates should receive their diplomas in 2024.
“I think they’re going to go to college,” says Glynn, with a mixture of pride and awe.
I previously wrote about Glynn in March 2011 after a chance meeting in Sag Harbor, New York, where he told me of his mission. When I recently received an email about an art auction to raise money for a second school, I decided to give him a call.
My first question: How do you keep going?
He doesn’t hesitate: “I live in a beautiful place and I have wonderful friends. But the real world doesn’t make sense unless I have my finger in it.”
But he concedes that sometimes he falters.
“It’s hot, it’s difficult and it’s not safe — and I’m getting older,” said the 67 year old, half seriously. He jokes that when he dies, his body will have to be reduced to some sort of molten material thanks to all his replacement parts.
If Port-au-Prince posed dangers from vandals and thieves, his new venture is challenging in other ways. Remotely located in the mountains, the town of Ranquitte can’t be reached by road once the rainy season begins. Whatever the season — and because there are no overnight accommodations — Glynn has to fly in and out the same day, his tarmac a stretch of grass. The closest school is 30 miles away.
After three years in Ranquitte, using land donated by a local woman, Glynn and his team have produced four classrooms scheduled to open for school in September. That’s when Glynn reaps his reward — the beaming faces of children in clean, blue uniforms who can’t wait to get to their school, to hold a book and, best of all, to eat two meals — all at a cost of just $1.50 per day per child. The school also provides free medical care.
The unfun part of Glynn’s nonprofit work is fundraising, hence the upcoming art auction. Glynn has collected a few big-name supporters, including Donna Karan, and hopes that others will lend their support.
Today must seem a century and a dream ago since that solo flight Glynn and the late Lily took in 2010. How, I ask, did a painter and sculptor know how to do all of that?
“By making a million mistakes,” he says. “It’s all sort of a miracle, if you want to know the truth.”