Saturday, November 12, 2016

Local works to help Haiti

BOYCE — When confronted by unfathomable challenges, it’s easy to turn away and hope someone wealthier or with more resources will take over. When Boyce resident Larry Thompson returned from his first mission trip to Haiti in 2012, he felt overwhelmed and helpless to make a dent in the recovery of a devastated country.
His first trip was two years after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, that killed at least 220,000 and displaced 1.5 million people. Since then, he has gone to the Caribbean nation more than 15 times. He just returned from his most recent trip this week.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Eighty percent of its population lives under the poverty line, 54 percent live in abject poverty. It has always had the highest rates of infant, children under age 5 and maternal mortality in the Western hemisphere, according to UNICEF.
But the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in October made a bad situation worse for Haiti’s 10.9 million people.
“I came back after spending 12 days there, and my wife thought I had post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Thompson, 51, of his reaction after that first trip in 2012. “It was hard to reconcile how we live with how other people live.”
A professional firefighter in Arlington County, Thompson said he felt overwhelmed and it took him a long time to reach this conclusion: Trying to help the entire country is too much for any one person or any organization. But if organizations around the world each help one community, rebuilding and healing Haiti is possible.
Thompson, a man of faith, found his mission in the Bible verse Matthew 25:40 when Jesus said “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
He went about creating Least of These Haiti Foundation, a small nonprofit organization that ensures 100 percent of its funds benefit the residents — particularly the schoolchildren — in the village of Port de Bonheur on the island of La Gonave, which is considered poorer than mainland Haiti.
“In spite of being known as the ‘poorest of the poor,’ the people of La Gonave are generous and loving,” Thompson wrote on the Least of These Haiti website.
“The people in Haiti need food and education. Education is the key to ending poverty anywhere,” he said.
“A lot of people go to developing countries, build a building and leave,” Thompson continued. “I have to stay focused on the goal of our mission: Let’s get all the kids in school and give them a hot lunch every day.”
Thompson is well aware that money, materials and food sent to communities in crisis don’t always reach the intended recipients. It is too easy for unscrupulous individuals to intercept donations.
Subsequent mission trips and making connections in Haiti led Thompson and his wife to the village of Port de Bonheur, where they met Louisemene Ylance, the principal of a kindergarten through sixth-grade school.
Ylance explained that teachers were working without pay, but they taught because there were no other jobs. There were a lot of children in the community who did not attend school because they couldn’t afford tuition.
“She told us she needed $854 to pay her teachers each month, and we saw the children, who were underfed and malnourished,” Thompson said. He confirmed through other sources that what Ylance said was true. “I told my wife, ‘This is where we need to be.’”
He set up the Least of These Haiti Foundation in 2015, when almost 65,000 Haitians were still displaced by the earthquake.
Thompson is not a wealthy man. He did not attend college. “I’m just a firefighter. I’m as ordinary as you can get,” he said. “But I felt a call to help the wonderful, kind people I met in Haiti.”
Starting a nonprofit organization involved a few bumps and a big learning curve. There is now a five-member board to manage the organization; all but one live in Clarke County.
The board sets fundraising goals based on needs, manages donations, and determined Western Union is the best way to send money to the school.
“Miss Louisemene’s husband picks up the money, because it would be dangerous for her to walk around with it,” he said.
The foundation sends $2,500 to the school each month during the school year and $1,500 each month in the summer.
The money pays teacher salaries, children’s tuition and school-related expenses, and it provides hot lunches for the children throughout the year.
Thompson requested that parents be involved with the school, so mothers go every day to cook lunch.
Lunch is an essential part of the foundation’s mission, which is why it’s offered even when school is not in session. “How can you learn when you’re hungry?
“To not know when you’ll eat again, I can’t even imagine,” Thompson said. “We have breakfast, lunch and dinner. People in Haiti don’t schedule their lives around meals.”
Thompson talks with school administrators often to make sure money is arriving and being spent as it should. He is adamant that money be spent in Haiti to help its economy. “We buy all food and building supplies in Haiti,” he said.
Everyone who travels with Least of These Haiti to La Gonave pays their own travel expenses.
The island is about 10-by-30 miles with a population of about 120,000. The terrain is primarily deforested mountains. It is a three-hour sailboat ride from Haiti’s mainland.
Port de Bonheur has between 300 and 400 residents, Thompson said, noting it’s not a clearly defined town.
Thompson travels to Haiti at least four times a year. He works overtime and takes on handyman jobs to earn money for his trips.
Thompson is thrilled that students he met in 2015 are now unrecognizable to him because they have had at least one hot meal a day.
In the first year, there were 120 students enrolled at the school. This year, there are 230, and enrollment is going up. Some of the children walk 45 minutes to get to the school.
“Parents are sending their children to school so they can eat,” Thompson said, saying it’s fine if children go to school to eat, because they will also be educated. “Whatever it takes to educate children, so they can become employable, contributing adults is OK,” he said.
Principal Ylance was able to hire an English teacher this year, and Thompson said the women who have been cooking lunch every day can now be paid.
All this is possible because about 70 individuals contribute $300 a year to Least of These Haiti. Thompson believes 95 contributors would be ideal to sustain the education and meal programs in Port de Bonheur for the long term.
“I’m focused on breaking the chain of poverty, at least in one community,” he said.
Six years after the cataclysmic earthquake, Haiti is still recovering. October’s Hurricane Matthew, with its sustained winds of 145-miles per hour, delivered more death and destruction. It was the worst storm to hit Haiti in more than 50 years. Many hundreds died, 200,000 homes were destroyed and crops were obliterated.
A cholera epidemic broke out just as it did after the earthquake.
Thompson, who has been to Haiti 16 times now, immediately made plans to return sooner than scheduled.
“Our focus is education and food, but when a devastating hurricane comes through, we want to do more,” he said, noting additional resources were needed.
Two years ago, Thompson and other volunteers put a roof on the school, and he heard it held up well, but still needed repair. Many Port de Bonheur residents needed building supplies.
Thompson, his wife, his brother and another couple were in Haiti from Oct. 30 through Nov. 7. As always, they paid their own way.
“There was not as much damage as we expected. Two houses were completely collapsed and one had the roof ripped off, but most just had a few pieces of metal blown off,” he reported this week. “We purchased 100 sheets of corrugated aluminum in Haiti as well as 150 pounds of rice and 50 pounds of beans.”
They carried that in the boat from mainland Haiti to La Gonave.
On this trip, Thompson and his group also took 450 pounds of luggage filled with clothing, as well as 120 backpacks that were donated by a woman in Sterling.
“The kids look healthy, and school is functioning wonderfully,” Thompson proudly said.
The backpacks will serve as the children’s dresser drawers where they will keep their personal items. “They are much more than backpacks as we know them. They also received school supplies, and the English teacher is already making a difference,” he said.
A few people had serious medical problems, Thompson said. “One woman tripped while carrying hot cooking oil and had second- and third-degree burns on her chest and face. We gave her enough money to travel across the ocean to the mainland to see a doctor.
“Our focus is on the school, but we have to help people in these situations. I thought, ‘What would they do if we weren’t here?’ This is Haiti.
“You can’t fix it all, but if everyone takes a little bit ...” The sentence trailed off as Thompson imagined the possibilities.
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