All of us watched with concern as Hurricane Maria moved across the Caribbean, once again putting Haiti in the bullseye of a natural disaster. Fortunately, this time the storm did not make a direct hit on Haiti and our sister parish in Boucan Carre. While the 130 mile per hour winds did extensive damage in nearby Dominican Republic, Haiti escaped the worst of the storm. More than twenty inches of rain downed power lines and left many towns and villages cut off from roads, but we are thankful our partners in the Central Highlands of Haiti did not suffer the level of destruction experienced in recent years from similar storms.
Here in Knoxville our Haiti Outreach Program has been preparing for the 15th Annual Medical Banquet, the year’s most important fundraising effort for our work in Haiti. The banquet is a casual affair with the twin goals of introducing our projects to first-time visitors and expressing our thanks for the generous support from so many at Sacred Heart and the greater Knoxville community. Donations from the event fund a large portion of the support for our sister parish St. Michel, for teachers and 1,300 students in the primary and secondary schools in Boucan Carre, and for our medical clinic in the village of Bouly. Working in partnership with St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Tabb, Virginia, since 2000 the Sacred Heart program has developed into one of the most robust outreach efforts in Haiti.
This year’s medical banquet will be held on Saturday, October 7, at 6:30 pm at Sacred Heart School. The banquet’s theme will be “A Mediterranean Evening” and feature a variety of Mediterranean food and music provided by program volunteers. Reflecting an effort to attract young people to our mission, the short program will include students who have been to Haiti to see first-hand the country’s enormous challenges as well as the possibilities made possible by the sustained support of the Knoxville community.
As always, admission to the banquet is free. Our goal is to introduce as many people as possible to our mission. The simplicity of the event’s location and program reflects an effort to minimize costs and maximize the funds available for our projects. Our program has no administrative costs, meaning that every dollar raised at the banquet goes to support our mission.
The recent trip to Haiti by a group of six girls from Catholic High School had a specific goal of helping plan for future medical missions by doctors and nurses in the Haiti Outreach Program. In 2000 the program’s medical outreach missions began in the town of Boucan Carre, where our sister parish St. Michel is located. With a rectory and full-time priest, St. Michel is the “hub” for several much smaller chapels scattered throughout the mountains. The chapels are located in remote villages, often with no school and no medical care of any kind.
Since 2008 our program has invested a considerable amount of resources in the village of Bouly, where we have built a small clinic and have hired a doctor and a nurse who each month provide primary care to about 400 people from the surrounding mountains. With the Bouly program on a reasonably stable footing, we are considering whether and how we might undertake medical missions to some of the other chapels. The goal is not to build additional clinics, but rather to provide basic medical care to hundreds of Haitians who have never seen a doctor.
We used the recent trip as a “reconnaissance” mission to assess the viability of taking medical teams to additional chapels. The girls determined how long it would take to reach the chapels, whether we could travel by vehicle or would need to walk, what kind of facilities were available to see patients and house the medical staff, and a rough sense of the population that would be served. The trip was an opportunity for girls from West Knoxville to become culturally immersed in one of the most remote regions in Haiti.
As is the case with most everything in Haiti, the young girls encountered a host of experiences for the first time in their lives. After about an hour’s walk in Ferrobien, mud from the recent rains was so deep that vehicles became hopelessly stuck. Children sitting on a dirt floor attempted to learn in a school where the only evidence of equipment was a broken blackboard. The “church” was a structure with a dirt floor, no walls and a rusting tin roof. The hike to the chapel in Bellevue was about two hours from Boucan Carre. The tiny village had a small church that was heavily damaged by the 2010 earthquake, with large cracks in the walls on three sides. The most remote chapel visited by the girls was in Guillaume, located atop a small mountain. With no road, the two-hour trek to Guillaume required crossing the river and climbing a high ridge. When we reached the village, we were met by about 100 people in the little wooden church, painted a pastel green with a dirt floor and two-by-four planks for pews. Their presence left no doubt about their enthusiasm for the chance to receive health care from the Americans. Father Torres spoke to them through a translator and promised we would return.
The information gathered on the trip will be an important part of planning for our next medical mission in December. Over the next several weeks the medical staff will determine if we can visit the chapels, along with the logistical arrangements necessary to move medicines, donkeys and other supplies into the mountains.
Meanwhile, we are in the final weeks of planning our annual medical banquet, held this year on Saturday, October 7 at Sacred Heart School. The banquet is a critical part of fundraising for our efforts with St. Kateri parish in Tabb, Virginia, to provide education and medical care in Haiti. The banquet is free of cost with donations welcome. A Mediterranean dinner will be served at 6:30 followed by a short program. We hope you can join us.
This recounts part of a recent trip to Haiti by a group from Catholic High School. A second aspect of the trip, which focused on planning for future medical mission efforts, will be the topic of the September Update.
The group returned from Atlanta around 1:30 am, very tired and a little sunburned, after a seven-day trip to see first-hand our mission outreach efforts in Haiti. The group included six girls from Catholic High School and Father Arthur Torres of Sacred Heart Cathedral, whose multiple language skills proved on more than one occasion to be invaluable. The trip was part of an on-going effort to introduce young people from Knoxville to the extraordinary challenges in Haiti, with the hope that some of them will be attracted to participate in the educational, medical and spiritual outreach programs supported by our Haiti Outreach program.
The trip was both physically and emotionally challenging for the girls, most of whom had not previously been outside the United States or exposed to the level of poverty found in Haiti. One goal of the trip was to visit some of the remote “chapels” that are an extension of St. Michel’s, our sister parish in the town of Boucan Carre. The chapels are small outposts in very primitive buildings located in villages throughout the mountains surrounding Boucan Carre. The chapels do not have a full-time priest and are served by a sacristan under the guidance of Father Duportal, the priest at St. Michel’s in Boucan Carre.
On the first full day in Haiti the group made the grueling seven-hour trek over the mountain in one hundred degree heat to Bouly, where we have been operating a medical clinic for about a year. All of the girls should be commended for enduring a hike that included fording a river seven times and trudging across a dusty mountain in the midday heat with virtually no shade. Almost every member of the group was on the edge of exhaustion at one time or another. By hanging together through extreme adversity, they accomplished the most difficult physical and mental challenge of their young lives. They are all much stronger for the experience.
After returning to Boucan Carre, the group stayed in the new rectory, where even cold showers and toilets were luxuries after the conditions in Bouly. Their time was divided between activities that acquainted them with our outreach projects and the opportunity to interact in more personal ways with the Haitian people. Some of the girls painted furniture in the local primary school. Others took a second hike to the chapel at Guillaume, a two-hour trek into an extremely remote section of the Haitian Central Plateau where no one from Knoxville had ever visited. The group was met by more than 100 people from the surrounding area eager to have access to primary medical care.
In between their tasks the girls had the opportunity for a number of unique experiences. They attended “market days” in Bouly and Boucan Carre, where hundreds of people come to buy and sell produce, animals and a wide variety of household commodities. The sights, smells and sounds of the Haitian market are like nothing in America. The girls sought refuge from the heat by swimming in the river. On their last day, they went to the little home of a severely handicapped Haitian young man, located deep amid the corn fields and coconut trees away from the dirt road. They presented him and his mother with a new wheel chair--brought from Knoxville--that will provide a modest improvement to a difficult life. The last evening was spent at the convent of the nuns, who prepared a traditional Haitian meal that all agreed was the best of the trip. The trip back to the airport in Port au Prince included a stop at Mother Teresa’s Sister of Charity orphanage. The chance for each of the girls to hold one of the dozens of tiny babies, many of whom had been left on the doorstep of orphanage, was the most powerful moment of their time in Haiti.
The girls will likely not fully absorb the impact of their trip for some time. While each girl brought back a different set of memories and experiences, all returned with a greater understanding of how one-third of the world lives, and how Knoxville’s Haiti Outreach program is making a lasting difference in a small piece of that world.
The next meeting of the Haiti Outreach group will be at 6:30 on Thursday, August 3 in the library of Sacred Heart School. Those wishing to learn more about our program can visit our website at haitioutreachprogram.com
A priority of the Haiti Outreach program is the effort to involve young people of college and high school age in our group’s efforts. Our purpose is twofold. The young men and women bring energy and creativity to our projects, both at home and on our visits to Haiti. Even more important, as several of our group’s founding members grow older, the inclusion of young people is a critical part of sustaining our program and our projects. Each year we try to take a group of high school or college students to visit our Sister Parish in Boucan Carre. The experience is one of total immersion. They sleep and eat at the rectory, see firsthand the challenge of teaching and feeding more than 1,000 students at our elementary school, and attend services--often at 6:00 am--at the little church next door. The more ambitious make the six-hour trek to see our new clinic in Bouly. Along the way they are exposed to an extraordinary combination of sights, sounds and smells that together leave a lasting impression on young minds.
All the students are invariably affected by the trip, though in different ways. As we hope, some are drawn to return. Over the years four students returned to spend several weeks, and in some cases several months, living alone and learning Haiti’s Creole language. Even as they went through college and began careers, they have continued to assist us in translating contracts and negotiating things such as the purchase of land that require a working knowledge of Creole. Some have become adult members of our group. Their help has been invaluable.
The most recent example of our young people returning to Haiti is Alex Inman, a recent graduate of Catholic High School who will enter the University of Tennessee this fall. Alex spent the month of June living at the new rectory in Boucan Carre and assisting Father DuPortal and our Haitian staff, Julio Geffrard. Alex accompanied Julio to Port au Prince, where he spent the day moving from one part to another in one of the world’s most chaotic cities attempting to purchase medicines for our clinic.
In July we will take another group of high school students to Haiti, accompanied by Father Arthur Torres and Mimi Conners, a Catholic High senior who is returning to Haiti for her second trip. Our goal is to use the accommodations at the new rectory as an incentive for other youth groups from our partner parishes at St. Kateri in Tabb, Virginia, and St. Anselm parish in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, to visit Haiti and see the product of their work.
On another note, please mark your calendar for our annual Haiti Banquet that will be held on Saturday, October 7. The banquet is our most important fundraising event of the year and is critical to our efforts. We will provide more information in the weeks to come.
As the month came to a close, we had received most of the checks and pledges for our annual student sponsorship drive that raises funds for teacher salaries and student tuition at the primary and secondary schools in Boucan Carre, Haiti. Ecole De San Michel is the third largest school in Haiti, with more than 1,000 students in grades pre-school through six. The sponsorships also provide funds for teachers and 250 secondary students at College de San Michel and approximately 45 female students at St. Michel’s vocational school.
With most of the contributions in, it appears that the sponsorship effort exceeded our goals. Sponsorships from parishioners and friends of Sacred Heart totaled approximately $64,000. When added to the $57,000 contributed from our partner parish, St. Kateri, funds raised in the sponsorship drive will cover a large portion of the combined $128,000 budget needed to operate the three schools. Special thanks go to Sonya Mire and April Comerford of Sacred Heart, and to Judy Townsend and Virginia Cotter of St. Kateri, for their tremendous contributions of time and effort--including a trip to Haiti to take photos of the students--that produced such a successful sponsorship program. Anyone wishing to sponsor a student can donate through our website at www.haitioutreachprogram.com.
Partnerships with Sacred Heart parish are a critical aspect of our Haiti program. As evident by the school sponsorships, our partnership with St. Kateri Tekawitha parish in Tabb, Virginia, located near Newport News, is an excellent example of how parishes can leverage their resources to make a greater impact on our mission efforts. St. Kateri held their annual Haiti banquet on May 19. In addition to representatives from Sacred Heart, we hosted Father DuPortal from St. Michel’s parish in Boucan Carre. He was joined by Father Michael Brunner of St. Louis, Missouri, whose St. Anselm parish has taken the lead in constructing facilities at the primary school and the new rectory in Boucan Carre that was dedicated in March.
The dinner at St. Kateri was an opportunity to reinforce our partnership among the four parishes and to reflect upon the remarkable progress our mission has experienced over the last decade. The construction and operation of a primary and secondary school, the construction of a new rectory and repair of the existing church, and the construction of a remote medical clinic--are all testimony to the possibilities of our partnership and our mission.
Our work will continue this summer. Alex Iman, a recent graduate of Knoxville Catholic High School, will spend the summer in Boucan Carre with a goal of learning Creole and becoming a valuable long-term asset to our efforts. A new Haitian physician will begin work on July 1 at our clinic in Bouly. In July, a trip is planned that will include first-time visitors to Haiti.
Our next meeting of the Haiti Outreach Program will be on Thursday, June 1 in Room 103 of Sacred Heart School. This will be an important meeting at which we will discuss next year’s budget. Everyone is welcome to attend.
Much has happened since our last update. A group of students from Catholic High School spent a week in Haiti to experience first-hand our work in Boucan Carre and Bouly. Led by Cindy Mire, the trip included dedication ceremonies of the new rectory at St. Michel and the four new classrooms at the primary school in Boucan Carre. The rectory will be a tremendous asset to our efforts in Haiti, providing more beds and bathrooms for volunteer that want to conduct mission trips. Our group also had the opportunity to visit with students and teachers at the primary school, where in addition to supporting teacher salaries our outreach program funds approximately 22,000 meals each month for the school’s 1,000 students.
Another highlight of the trip for the students was the six-hour trek over the mountains to Bouly, the small village where we have built and operate a medical clinic for some 30,000 residents in the surrounding mountains who previously had no access to medical care. The extent of poverty in rural Haiti is something none of the students have ever experienced, making the trip both a physical and emotional challenge. The students stayed overnight in our clinic and assisted the Haitian nurse who sees dozens of patients three days each week.
Organizing student trips is a priority of the Haiti Outreach Program. Over the years more than 100 students have made the trip. All were profoundly affected by becoming immersed in a world that is impossible to understand from the comfort of their homes and community. Some returned to learn the Creole language and as they grew older have made lasting contributions to our work in Haiti. We are indebted to all the volunteers and teachers who helped make these trips possible.
As we began operation of the Bouly clinic last summer, one of our greatest challenges has been the need to provide regular oversight by a Haitian physician. Our medical missions staffed by American doctors two or three times each year do not satisfy the requirements by the Haitian government to have a physician present on a more regular basis o supervise medical care at the clinic. Such supervision is needed, among things, for us to obtain approval from the government to bring medicines into Haiti.
We have succeeded in addressing this need by hiring a Haitian physician, Dr. Olgen Octave, to work directly with the Haiti Outreach Program and supervise medical services at the Bouly clinic. Dr. Octave will visit the clinic at least twice each month to supervise and assist our nurse, Wilmot Jean Baptiste. We are fortunate that both Octave and Jean Baptiste are Haitians from the local community who have a special commitment to the people we serve. Dr. Octave has already met with the Haitian Ministry of Health to seek a certificate that will enable us to purchase medicines in the US and bring them into Haiti.
A final note. Through the leadership of Sonya Mire and April Comerford, our annual School Sponsorship was a great success. We will have final totals in our next update.
One of the most significant days in the seventeen-year history of our Haiti Outreach program took place this month in Boucan Carre with two dedication ceremonies, one for the new rectory at St. Michel's parish; the other for the opening of four new classrooms for St. Michel's primary school. The rectory and the adjacent chapel are in many ways the center of spiritual life and social services for a large portion of Haiti's Central Plateau. The former rectory served not only as the home of Father DuPortal, but for more than a decade was a safe "hostel" for our group when we visited Haiti. The older building certainly had its challenges, with leaking roofs, temperamental toilets, and the infamous "hot box" that no one who stayed there in August will ever forget.
On March 15, a group representing three parishes from Sacred Heart, St. Kateri Tekawitha, and St. Anselm joined Father DuPortal in dedication ceremonies for a new rectory that will be a tremendous asset to our outreach efforts in the Boucan Carre region. The new rectory will be able to accommodate approximately 30 visitors, with a common dining room, two large dormitory rooms, a few individual bedrooms and--perhaps the most dramatic change--several restrooms.
The rectory was dedicated in a ceremony led by Father DuPortal, Bishop Laveq of Hinche, and Father Michael Brunner of St. Anselm. Our St. Kateri Tekawitha partner was represented by Bill McDonald. Sacred Heart was represented by Cindy Mire and by five students from Knoxville Catholic High School who signify the future of our efforts in Haiti. Two plaques were presented that will hang in the rectory. The first, in English, thanked St. Anselm for funding the rectory project. The second, in Creole, reads, "This House is Dedicated to the Lasting Friendship Between the People of Haiti and their Brothers and Sisters in Christ in the United States." After blessing the facility, the ceremony concluded with the formal presentation of keys to the rectory from the contractor to Father DuPortal.
A day earlier, the group enjoyed a different kind of ceremony to celebrate the opening of four new classrooms at St. Michel's primary school, also made possible through the generous contribution from the parishioners at St. Anselm in St. Louis. The new classrooms are badly needed to relieve overcrowding in a school that has grown from about 350 students in 2006 to more than 1,000 today. Sacred Heart, in partnership with St. Kateri Tekawitha, provides funds for student tuition, teachers' salaries, and approximately 22,000 meals each month for the children.
In America we often provide a proclamation at such events. In Haiti, several hundred children sing to you as a sign of their appreciation. The singing at St. Michel's is something that no one there will ever forget.
We are indebted to the folks at St. Anselm Parish for the time and money they contributed to make the project possible. Big projects are hard, and big projects in Haiti are especially hard. Bob Kelly of St. Anselm and Ben Johnston of Sacred Heart did a masterful job of keeping all of us focused and turning an idea into reality.
The celebration at St. Michel's was a reminder of the importance of our School Sponsorship effort at Sacred Heart. Volunteers will be outside the church at Mass on April 1 and 2, and on April 8 and 9, to speak with persons wishing to sponsor primary or secondary students. Sponsorships are $150 for primary students and $250 for high school students, with special categories of $500 for Friends and $1,000 for Champions. Contributions can be made by check and credit card with a volunteer or through our website. One hundred percent of all donations go to fund food and teacher's salaries for our education outreach program. Please keep in mind that the sponsorships are critical to our education efforts in Boucan Carre.
Our Haiti mission is guided by the principles of Spirit, Mind and Body. Translated, this means our outreach efforts are directed to providing support for spiritual, educational and health care projects in the Boucan Carre region of Haiti's Central Plateau. This month we achieved a major milestone with the completion of a much-needed addition to the St. Michel Primary School. Funded by St. Anselm parish in St. Louis, the $275,000 concrete structure includes four classrooms that will relieve serious overcrowding in the current facility, which since 2006 has grown from about 300 students to more than 1,000 in grades pre-K through 6. In fact, St. Michel Primary School is now the third largest school in Haiti. The new classrooms will make it possible to reduce class sizes that currently average 60 students in some grades.
The new classrooms were made possible through a close partnership between St. Anselm and our group at Sacred Heart parish in Knoxville. An enormous amount of volunteer effort was expended on plans for the project, including architectural services, fundraising, and coordination with St. Michel parish in Boucan Carre. A number of folks participated in the project, but we owe a special debt of gratitude to Ben Johnston for pushing the idea and seeing it through.
On a related topic, St. Kateri Tekawitha, our partner parish in Tabb, Virginia, is helping start a new Haiti program at Saint Mary Star of the Sea, a local middle school. Judy Townsend, who has made multiple trips to Boucan Carre, spoke earlier this month to more than 50 students, encouraging them to become involved in support of our education outreach activities. In Knoxville, Cindy Mire is finalizing plans to take a high school group to Haiti in March. Cindy has taken dozens of students to Haiti to experience first-hand both the needs and the opportunities of a struggling third-world nation. These trips are among the priorities of the Haiti Outreach program.
Many of you have probably received a postcard with information about the upcoming Student Sponsorship drive on the first and second weekends of April. This effort is critical to the financial support of our two schools in Haiti. We will provide more information about the Sponsorship Drive in the next few weeks.
The next meeting of the Haiti Outreach group will be Thursday, March 2, at 6:30 pm in room 103 of Sacred Heart School. Everyone is welcome to join us.
The new year began with some great news. We received the final totals from our partner parish, St. Kateri Tekawitha in Tabb, Virginia, for their annual Run with the Son 5K fundraiser. The event attracted 300 runners and walkers, a remarkable number for a December morning. Even more impressive was the number of sponsors, who together generated $14,500 toward support of the two schools operated by St. Michel, our twin parish in Boucan Carre, Haiti. The donations translate to 140 children from St. Michel who will go to school, all expenses paid, plus a daily hot meal, for one year. St. Kateri has been an invaluable partner since 1999. Kudos to all the folks at St. Kateri for once again hosting such a successful event for Haiti.
The new year also brought another major contribution to our work in Haiti. StrataG, an environmental engineering company in Knoxville, donated $7,500 to support our efforts at the Bouly Clinic. At the very time we were running low on medicines, the funds were donated for the specific purpose of purchasing medicines for the clinic. All of us are grateful to StrataG for their very generous gift.
On January 14 the Maryville Times published a lengthy Sunday feature story on Dr. Drew Dirmeyer and our group's recent medical mission to Bouly. Entitled "A Call to Mercy," the article noted that the December trip, which included Drew's son Steven, represented three generations of his family that had performed medical mission work in Haiti. In one of the article's more poignant segments, Drew said on the last day of his first mission trip to Haiti he made a phone call to his wife. "It was emotional," he recalled. "I told her about what we'd been doing, and I said, 'I'm not finished yet. I'm going to come back,' and she said, 'I know.' I think I'll keep going back for many years to come."
The complete article is available at http://www.thedailytimes.com/community/a-call-to-mercy-dirmeyers-participate-in-medical-mission-to/article_9bb9776c-baba-5561-9d66-20df76d7b931.html
A couple of reminders:
Dr. Dean Mire is planning another medical mission to Haiti in February. Anyone interested may contact Dean at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cindy Mire is also planning to take a high school group to Haiti in March. Anyone interested may contact Cindy at email@example.com
Our next meeting will be on a new night-- THURSDAY February 2 at 6:30 pm in Sacred Heart School. Enter under the awning on the right side of the sanctuary.