By Celine Klosterman
It’s a cliché to say volunteers get more out of a mission trip than they put into it. But visiting Haiti does put your life in perspective, Sue Boyler said after returning home from the country last month.
The member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf and several other Catholics from the Diocese of Davenport visited the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation this winter through the organization ServeHAITI. In January, an economic development committee met with Haitians to develop business plans and check on recipients of donor-funded small-business loans. In February, volunteers offered dental services to Haitians, built chalkboards for teachers and added solar energy panels to the rectory of St. Pierre Catholic Church in Gran Bois. Many travelers also brought 50-pound bags of vitamins and over-the-counter pain relievers purchased at cost through Scott Drug in DeWitt.
After journeying to Haiti – where 80 percent of people live in poverty – “you walk away thinking, shame on me if I ever complain about my life again,” Boyler said.
During the February mission, she and several others from the United States visited Haitian schools to help apply fluoride to children’s teeth, pass out toothbrushes and toothpaste, and offer education on basic dental hygiene. Boyler, who works in a dental office in Moline, Ill., and fellow volunteers assisted two dentists – a Haitian and an American – as the dentists extracted 288 decayed teeth from Haitians over three days in Gran Bois. Many patients had endured months of pain from abscessed teeth, said Liz McDermott, a member of Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire and trip logistics coordinator with ServeHAITI. “One patient walked back to the dentists the day after getting five teeth removed — just to say thank you because he felt so much better.”
Deb Smith of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport helped with flouride treatments and chalkboard assembly, but found it especially rewarding to join her husband Chris in visiting two brothers the couple sponsors. “Our involvement helps make it possible for the boys to attend school, and helps their caregiver provide some essentials for them, as they are orphans,” she said. “I wish every child in Gran Bois could afford to go to school and always have enough to eat.”
ServeHAITI’s economic development committee (SHECON) is working to help Haitians feed themselves. Gary Froeschle of St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt joined fellow committee members, who include Haitian Americans, in traveling to the Gran Bois area in January to meet with entrepreneurs. He said the committee is lending funds at 9 percent interest — a low rate for Haiti — to a poultry production enterprise, bakery and businesses that sell beans for planting. Other enterprises, including a hog farm, agricultural supply store and coffee production, are in development.
A certified public accountant, Froeschle said that without jobs, fighting poverty will be a “never-ending battle.” He recalled that when SHECON offered its first small-business training in 2010, more than 100 Haitians attended — some after walking for hours through rain and mud.”I’ve been to a lot of places, but I’ve never met people so anxious to find opportunities to improve their lives.”
The committee has since returned to Haiti several times a year and made its first two business loans — to bakeries — in January 2013.
In between visits to Haiti, Froeschle said, “Someone asked me, ‘Do you preach there? Do you bring your faith to the people?’ I said it’s almost the other way around. People there have more faith in their little finger than I have in my whole body.” Haitians often walk hours from their rural homes to St. Pierre Church for a two-hour Mass filled with music and beautiful singing, he said.
Smith said her two trips to Haiti have strengthened her faith. “They reinforce to me that God has a plan, and we don’t have to understand it, or even see it come to fruition. We just need to trust in him, as the Haitian people do.”
ServeHAITI has started a new program inviting pregnant women to make three prenatal visits to St. Vincent de Paul Health Center in Gran Bois, receive an ultrasound, deliver their babies, get a postpartum checkup and receive baby supplies. The program is geared to rural women who might otherwise deliver babies at home, where unsanitary conditions or complications can lead to infant mortality and health problems for mothers, said Liz McDermott of ServeHAITI.
For information on leading a drive to assemble “welcome home baby kits” for the women, visit www.servehaiti.org.