How did we get here, and where are we going?

In 1999 six parishioners and the pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Lewisville, Texas participated in a Food For the Poor Pilgrimage to Haiti.  We spent four days sampling the sights and sounds and smells of Haiti.  We visited orphanages and clinics and housing projects and schools and soup kitchens.  It was good to see that a few people were getting a little help.  We also saw a sampling of the hundreds of thousands who are not getting any help.  We saw adults working like oxen, pulling large carts loaded with heavy material, and were told they would probably earn just a few dollars, enough to provide a little food for their families for one more day.  In the slum of Cite Soleil we saw thousands of little shacks pieced together from boards and tin scavenged from the dump.  Many in these slums did not know if they dared hope for food the next day.  Emaciated adults stared at us with the vacant eyes of lost hope. Children ran down the muddy paths with bloated stomachs and orange tinted hair which the doctors told us are signs of advanced malnutrition.  Other children crouched down, picking up a handful of dirt to eat in a futile effort to appease the gnawing ache of an empty stomach.Later we learned some statistics.  The “average” Haitian must live on less than $300 per year; 8 of 10 in the countryside must live on less than $150 per year.  At least 70% of Haitians are unschooled and illiterate.  Unemployment is about 80%. Child mortality – death before reaching age 5 – ranges from an average of 20% up to 50% in some areas.  More than 60% suffer from malnutrition and chronic hunger.

After a visit to the hospital for lepers, one of the group sat quietly for a few minutes then said, “I never thought I would meet a leper.  Now I’ve joked with them and embraced them. My life will never be the same.”  He spoke for all of us.  Our lives could not be the same. As we met them individually, face to face, and attempted to talk in our respective broken French and broken English and improvised gestures, we discovered that they were not distant statistics, they were simply people like ourselves, our children, our brothers and sisters.  The difference was that they were born in Haiti; we were born in the US.  Our claims to achievement were an accident of where we were born.

For many of us, words in the Gospel that we had heard for years were suddenly not just abstract words.  Whatsoever you do for these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”  The poorest of the poor; in the eyes of the world these Haitians would qualify as “the least”.  Our small group agreed we could not just return to our middle-class lives in suburban Dallas and do nothing for the people we had met.  But the question haunted us, “What could we do that would make any difference?”   We are, after all, Americans who are trained to assume we can “fix” problems.

It was very clear that we could not “fix” the problems of Haiti.  What we could do is whatever we could do.  We had not yet heard the “Starfish Story”, but we embraced the concept of focusing on a grassroots approach of helping a few individuals with the resources we had rather than allowing the staggering magnitude of the problems to overwhelm us into paralysis.  We could do whatever we could do.

Port au Prince, Haiti’s Capital, was built with an infrastructure that was sized for about five-to-six hundred thousand people.  In 1999 there were more than two million people in Port au Prince and the adjacent slums.  Neither the infrastructure nor the economy could support them.  In addition to having about 80% unemployment, acres and acres of slums had no sanitation facilities.  Drinking water had to be carried in whatever bucket they could find from a few public hose spigots for several blocks to their shack.  The human pollution and limited clean water created a hotbed of disease.  Yet, people from the rural communities continued to migrate to Port au Prince with the desperate hope of finding some chance for a future for their families.  Life in the rural areas was difficult and hard and short.  But, moving to the city was most often moving from deprivation to desperation.  They discovered too late that the city did not offer hope or a chance for improvement.

We decided that we wanted to do something to reduce the migration from rural villages to large cities.  We wanted  to do something to help those in rural areas feel they could have a future by staying in their villages.

Food For the Poor told us about a small village of about 3,000 people that was desperate for some medical help.  They qualified for a government program to provide weekly visits from a doctor and nurse, but they had no place to work.  The doctor was meeting with patients under a tree near the dilapidated parish chapel.  They had no official statistics, but the estimate for child mortality – children dying before the age of five – ranged from 25% to 50%.  If they could have a place to examine the patients, the doctor and nurse would continue to visit each week.

We agreed to “find a way” to get the funds for a small health clinic.  We shared our experience with our home parish in Lewisville.  The people of St. Philip responded generously with funds to build the clinic.  Although struggling to pay the mortgage on our own church, the parishioners donated the $26,000 needed to build and outfit the small clinic in Boileau, Haiti.  Obviously, it was very basic.  No electricity, no running water, but it had a concrete floor and a roof for protection from both the blazing sun and the tropical rains.

It did not all happen quickly, but it happened.  Food For the Poor provided the “in country” guidance and project management.  Two years later, in 2001 we went down for the “ribbon cutting” ceremony to celebrate the completion of the clinic. An additional 8 parishioners participated in this second Pilgrimage trip.  We discovered that Boileau is only about 100 miles from Port au Prince, but the roads are so poor that it took 4 hours to drive each way.  During the few hours we were there, we learned much. We thought we were there to celebrate completion, but we discovered that we had only started a long, challenging journey.

First, we couldn’t help but love the people of Boileau.  They welcomed us as visiting royalty and were effusive in their thanks.  Their spontaneous joy was contagious as we celebrated mass with them.

We saw the ramshackle structure they were using for a school.  It was essentially poles holding up a tin roof.  The only partial relief from the sun were pieces of broken chalk board and a few bamboo curtains to provide partial walls for shade.  When it rained, the tin roof leaked onto the children and teachers; the dirt floor became mud.

They didn’t say anything, but as we traveled back to Port au Prince, the question was too obvious to ignore.  “Have we really helped much if we reduce the mortality rate, but they don’t have any education?  What is their chance for a future?”

We launched a fundraiser to build them a school.  In this phase we were invited to share our story with two other parishes in the Fort Worth diocese, St. Francis in Grapevine, Texas and Sacred Heart in Seymour, Texas.  They were both generous in their help.  Together we raised the $70,000 required to build the school.  Again, we partnered with Food For the Poor.  They provided the critical “in country” expertise and project management, as well as administration of the funds.

In 2002 we returned to Boileau to see the progress on the school.  Again, there were several new members of the Pilgrimage group.  The school was not yet completed, but they were using the partially finished classrooms.  We were encouraged by the progress and by their eagerness to move from the tin-roof dirt-floor classrooms to the partially finished cement block rooms.  We were, however, disappointed to learn that the government had discontinued the program to provide a weekly visit by the doctor and nurse to the medical clinic.  We consulted with Father Jocelyn, the priest who provides leadership for the community; he found a doctor with a practice in a town close by who would see patients at the clinic twice a week for a modest salary.  We agreed to provide the doctor’s salary.

Shortly after starting to see patients, the doctor advised us.  “Most of their ailments are various intestinal problems.  I can diagnose them and, sometimes, provide some medicine to treat them.  But then they go back home and drink the water that is full of bacteria and parasites that makes them sick.  We’re not really doing much good here.” They were primarily dependent for water on either local streams or cisterns that collected surface water.

Once again, we took our plea to the parishioners of St. Philip.  Once again they responded with funds to provide 5 artesian wells to pump clean water up from deep beneath the surface.

The doctor was delighted to report the transformation.  The patient complaints changed dramatically.  Intestinal problems caused by the water reduced dramatically. The villagers drawing water from the wells did not suffer from the periodic waves of diphtheria and typhoid that swept through other parts of the area.  He did, however, note that many of the children in the school were so weak from hunger that they could not concentrate and could not retain their lessons.  We committed to help their “school lunch program”…. they already had attempted to provide some nourishment for the children, but simply did not have enough.  The group from St. Philip committed to provide $500 per month – only about $2 per month per child for some rice and beans with an occasional piece of chicken.  Not much, but still more than they had before.

In 2003 the new pastor of St. Philip, Fr. John Stasiowski, participated in the Pilgrimage along with 10 other new Pilgrims. This group energetically reaffirmed the commitment to help “the poorest of the poor.”  Fr. John formalized adopting St. Therese of Boileau as our sister parish.  During his visit at St. Therese, he got a piece of wood from their new church.  Upon his return, he inserted the wood from St. Therese into the altar at St. Philip.  They are now present at all of our liturgies.

By this time, the clinic had a nurse 5 days per week to supplement the doctor’s Tuesday and Thursday visits.  During this time, we had also provided some additional equipment for the nurse and a lab technician to perform some rudimentary diagnostic tests at the clinic.  One member of our group took on the personal challenge of raising $5,000.00 from his family and friends to provide a generator at the clinic so they could have some light and so they could use the electronic microscope we had provided.  When the doctor noted that many of the villagers simply did not have the money to buy the medicine he prescribed, we committed to provide a few hundred dollars each month to subsidize essential medicine for those who did not have the funds.  Also, on the Pilgrimages in 2003 and 2004 we took several thousand dollars worth of medicine with us.

With at least a little improvement in the health care and education, we agreed with Father Jocelyn to move forward on something that could provide the villagers to a source of income.  In 2003 we began appealing for funds to launch a three-year project for agricultural development within Boileau.  Once again, the people of St. Philip responded generously.

The Agriculture Development Project is designed to help the local villagers increase the production from their planting and livestock, but it also has a component to reduce soil erosion.  Deforestation is a major problem throughout all of Haiti.  Virtually their only source of fuel is the trees on the hillsides.  During the past couple of decades, this has become visible as a major problem since the lack of trees contributes to erosion that has robbed large sections of the hills and fields of the best soil.  Also, the silt has drained into the sea and has disrupted the fishing.  During 2004 we saw the devastating consequences both in March/April from the mud slides caused by heavy rain in the northern mountains that border the Dominican Republic and in September the mudslides after tropical storm Jeanne in the Gonaives area.  These mudslides caused thousands of deaths and have accelerated the long-range problems from the inability to grow crops and to get fish from the sea.  Although Boileau has not actually had the mudslides yet, the potential is there.  Deforestation and erosion is a major problem around Boileau.  An important component of the Agriculture Development Project is managing the trees – planting new trees and conserving existing trees.

Additionally, an agronomist is training the villagers to manage their crops through basic techniques such as crop rotation and effective spacing of the plants.  This training, combined with hardier seeds and appropriate hand tools (shovels, rakes and machetes) will provide the basic building blocks for improved production.  The goal is to grow sufficient crops to take some for “the market” in nearby towns.

Similarly, the Agriculture Project includes some hardier livestock.  Pigs, goats, and chickens are the mainstays of the area.

As a supplement for economic development, we have funded a very small “Micro Credit Program”.  We have allocated $6,000.00 to this program which will provide loans of $100 to $200 for villagers to launch entrepreneurial ventures.  Typically, this will be very small scale, local retailing.  The entrepreneur will travel to a larger town and purchase items in bulk for local resale in smaller quantities.  Or, in some cases, will purchase the local produce to take to town for sale in small stalls in the town market.

Our goal is to help the villagers of Boileau help themselves achieve self-sustainability.  As we talk with the local village leadership, despite the difficulties with translation, it becomes crystal clear that they simply want a chance.  We are striving to help tip the balance in their favor so that their own efforts produce positive results and become the building blocks for long-term development.  Our goal is to help them have hope in the future. We understand that not everything will work out exactly as planned.  Some of the seeds will not grow, some of the livestock will die, some of the micro-loans will default. But some seeds will grow, some livestock will thrive, and some of the micro-business will become small businesses.  The disappointments contribute by becoming part of their learning experience.

In 2004 we are told that the population of Port au Prince has continued to swell, probably up to the 2.4 to 2.7 million range (six times what the city’s infrastructure was designed to support).  The frustration and desperation within the slums has reached a point where the Food For the Poor Pilgrimage guides feel it is unsafe for us to even drive into the Cite Soleil to visit with them.  The road to Boileau has deteriorated.  It now takes more than 5 hours to drive the 100 miles from Port au Prince to Boileau.  The problem of deforestation and erosion continues to worsen.  The doctor in Boileau is doubly thankful that his patients are not getting typhoid and diphtheria because other villages that still do not have clean drinking water are having an increase.  We cannot say that Haiti has had a turnaround since our first visit in 1999.

On the other hand, the villagers in Boileau are effusive in their thanks to St. Philip parish for their clinic and doctor and nurse and generator and medicine and the school and the help with the school lunch and the wells for clean drinking and the start of an economic program with agriculture and micro-capital.  The kids are learning and are healthier.  There are fewer swollen bellies and orange-tinted hair.  Some parents are seeing a glimpse of hope for the future and for their children.