By Anne Marie Amacher
Several Catholics from the Davenport Diocese were among a group that spent a week in Gonaives, Haiti, building a home, sewing clothes, teaching about the Gospel and visiting with school children.
Ken Ruefer, Scott Bengfort and Aaron Gunnare of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, Mary Jo Messmer of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, Julie Smith of DeWitt and Brent and Dayon Kjellberg of Carroll, Iowa, spent Oct. 12-20 on the mission trip with Many Hands for Haiti. Ruefer, whose son-in-law Tim Brand is with Many Hands for Haiti based in Pella, has traveled to Haiti twice. The rest in the group had not been there before.
Silentor Esthil-Henderson, a native of Haiti who was adopted and grew up in Bettendorf, partners with Brand in Many Hands for Haiti ministry. Esthil-Henderson made presentations to the Quad City Morning Optimist and Quad City Noon Optimist clubs earlier this year and Ruefer, a member of the Noon Optimists, volunteered to head up a mission trip.
In an interview with The Catholic Messenger earlier this year, Brand and Esthil-Henderson had plans to build and open a new school in Gonaives. That dream came true earlier this fall.
The Quad-City delegation provided outreach that included work with the school. In addition, the group built a house, sewed with Haitian women and taught about the Bible, Messmer said.
The school currently educates children in preschool through third grade. The goal is to continue to add a grade level each year. Students are served a meal, which for some is their only meal of the day, she added. They also wear uniforms. People from the U.S., including Messmer, sponsor students to help pay for uniforms, teacher salaries and materials. Messmer was excited to meet the student she sponsors.
Ruefer said the main meal each day is rice, which the school receives through a grant. The Quad-City delegation brought along Kids Against Hunger ready-made meals, which were designated for Haiti.
The building of the church and school in Gonaives has reduced the level of malnutrition there, Ruefer noted.
The women from the delegation worked with the Women’s Empowerment Group. There the Haitian women learn how to sew and eventually will be able to go out on their own and earn a living through sewing while also supporting the school.
“We saw hope,” Smith said of the Haitian women’s enthusiasm.
Messmer carried a sewing machine in her carry-on to Haiti, and left the machine for the women to use.
“We thought we were there to teach them to sew,” Smith said. “When we got there they had no material, but had made skirts with paper — just waiting for materials.” Luckily the visitors from the Quad Cities had brought material. “All we had to do was trace the patterns and sew with them.”
The men put a corrugated metal roof on an 11 foot by 15 foot, 150- square-foot home, Bengfort said. A family of 12 was going to live in that home. “There was no plumbing or electricity. They slept on a concrete floor.”
The men said it was more or less a shelter.
Gunnare said a lumber yard nearby had wood available for trusses to support the roof. Bengfort said since there weren’t drill bits around, they improvised by cutting nails.
When Smith asked some of the women if they would rather have volunteers visit or send money, they responded that they want the visitors who show love and share the word of God.
Ruefer said, “They made quite the impression on us. It is part of our responsibility to tell people about it. Let others know there are organizations out there to help spread the word of God.”
Most of the group said they would be interested in going back in the future.
They are in the process of working on a project that has temporarily been named “Stuff the Bus.” A bus is being secured and will be used as a container for items to go to Haiti. As details get hammered out, the group hopes that schools, churches and the wider community will help fill the bus.
For more information on Many Hands for Haiti or to sponsor a student, visit www.mh4h.org or write to Many Hands for Haiti, P.O. Box 204, Pella, Iowa, 50219.