‘Hands for Haiti’ Is a Beacon of Hope
In country darkened by gang violence, Catholic nonprofit offers light, education and nutrition.
TREMESSEE, Haiti — There’s a beacon of hope shining through the darkness of violence-ridden Haiti — a Catholic nonprofit, “Hands for Haiti” and its St. Marc Tremessee School, which feeds and educates 380 Haitian children in this rural community 10 miles south of Cap-Haïtien.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti made headlines Sept. 25 as the United States and Kenya signed a U.N.-backed defense agreement allocating resources and support for a multinational peacekeeping mission in this nation of 12.2 million people that has been rocked by violence for decades.
On Sept. 26, armed men fired on Mirebalais Hospital north of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, occupying the perimeter from midnight until 5 a.m., splaying multiple buildings with bullet holes and damaging the intensive care unit for newborns during the siege. No injuries or deaths were reported but those on site were traumatized by the events.
Since Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021, armed gangs have occupied 80% of Port-au-Prince and great swaths of land in the country, creating a security and humanitarian crisis, as millions of Haitians are suffering from the violence as well as food insecurity due to gang checkpoints blocking supply routes.
Lifting Up the Poor
Hands for Haiti, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has been steadfast in coming alongside the people of Tremessee since 2009, assisting them with education, health care, safe drinking water, balanced nutrition, faith formation, and skills training to lift them out of extreme poverty in an area where there is no running water, no electricity and no jobs.
“We all have concerns about the violence, but most of the trouble is in the south part of the country, and we’re in the north, in a very rural area,” said Ernest Dwight, chairman of Hands for Haiti. “The gangs have a presence in Port-au-Prince, but the people in nearby Cap-Haïtien do not want that up in the north, so if gangs commit violence there the people are stepping in forcefully to stop it.”
Last fall, Hands for Haiti’s St. Marc School and all schools in the country were delayed in opening until November due to escalating gang violence.
Evolution of St. Marc School
Despite years of political upheaval, an earthquake in 2010 and the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Marc School continues to grow and thrive, now offering pre-kindergarten to grade 13, plus a new trade school, and employs 60 staff members.
Steven Favory, executive director of Hands for Haiti, together with the late Mark Creasser, first discovered the rural community in this impoverished area marked by dirt roads and dilapidated structures 14 years ago. The friends from St. Matthew Church in Charlotte were on a mission trip, looking into an appeal made by the local community to build a school.
“On that trip we visited a tent school [in Tremessee], made of four bamboo poles and a blue tarp for 30 children,” Favory recalled. “From that trip we decided to buy the land and send money down to build temporary classrooms.”
Over time the nonprofit funded a larger “tin-roof” school building with painted bamboo walls, then eventually facilitated the construction of modest permanent structures with professionally constructed tin roofs built to give the community confidence in the case of an earthquake.
“Our goal is to be the best school in the area,” Dwight said. “We have the lowest tuition of all the schools, and our teachers are the highest paid in that area. Our students are learning English and French now, in addition to their native language of Haitian Creole. By the time they are in ninth grade, we want them to be able to take the standardized exams, which are in French, with no issues.”
The school, run by Father Leon Sejour of the Archdiocese of Cap-Haïtien since 2017, graduated its first class of students last summer and has opened a new trade school this fall. Students are also receiving faith formation now, and families have been positively impacted by the celebration of sacraments such as first Holy Communion for their students.
Community Outreach in Tremessee
“The Haitians are incredible people and are surviving in the worst conditions. As Catholics, it’s our responsibility to help them,” Favory said. “We also provide critical needs such as nutrition through daily lunch and access to clean water.”
In 2015, Hands for Haiti partnered with Rise Against Hunger to provide a new food-sustainability project for the community of 5,000. Two solar-powered wells, three 1,000-gallon storage tanks and a 40-foot by 80-foot tilapia pond were installed.
In 2016, Hands for Haiti added more chickens and square footage to the chicken coups they had set up in 2014, for a total of 200 chickens producing fresh eggs each day.
Hands for Haiti also partners with Food for the Poor and receives funding and meals from the St. Matthew parish’s annual Monsignor McSweeney World Hunger Drive, which packed 340,000 ready-to-cook meals and raised more than $360,000 to fight hunger in nearby communities and around the world this summer.
Deacon Daren Bitter of St. Matthew parish is a repeat missionary to Haiti, lending assistance with computer-related projects in addition to providing moral support for the students and community.
“What I witness when I visit are a people who are materially poor but are spiritually rich and radiate a simple joy,” Deacon Bitter said. “In the communities of St. Marc School and the Missionaries of the Poor orphanage which we serve, the children look healthy, as they have access to food, shelter, education and medicine; outside of the communities we support, that’s not the case.”
Celebrating a Bright Future
On Sept. 15 hundreds of people from the Tremessee community, as well as Church and local officials, community partners, first responders, teachers, staff, students — and even a band and Haitian dancers — were all on hand to mark the dedication of St. Marc’s 10 new primary/secondary school classrooms and six new trade school classrooms that will eventually offer agriculture, carpentry/woodwork, welding and masonry programs, in addition to the current sewing program.
Dwight, Favory and Deacon Bitter all traveled to Haiti, despite current travel warnings, to attend the festivities.
“It was a moving experience for us.” Dwight said. “There was such an outpouring of appreciation and thanks for what we have been doing. It was a very happy occasion, with lots of smiles. In our meetings with the parents, we expressed our continued support for them, the school and the community.”
Francoise Kenol, director of housing and infrastructure for Food for the Poor, was also on hand for the dedication, as the nonprofit was instrumental in the construction of the new classrooms and helped install the wells, in addition to providing medical supplies and food assistance for the community year-round.
“Haitians are very shy and very humble, but you could tell that they were very happy,” Kenol said. “It was moving for the kids, especially those who had been attending school in a little shack. For their parents, you just felt the pride, that their children are able to go to this school.”
Sendia Clermont, 19, whose mother is a peasant trader, is a recent graduate of St. Marc School. “I want to be a nurse to help poor people and my family,” she said.
Archbishop Launay Saturné of Cap-Haïtien was unable to make the dedication due to a scheduling conflict but offered a statement of his appreciation. "I would like to thank Hands for Haiti for all their work aimed at helping to create a magnificent Catholic campus for primary, secondary and professional schools in Tremessee. The impact is very positive for the whole community.”
Deacon Bitter echoed that sentiment. “The long-term impacts will be massive. In the near term, it’s brought a greater sense of community and pride and has definitely deepened the roots of the Catholic faith in this area,” he said. “It’s not just about education and opportunity, but it’s about giving them hope. That’s ultimately what it’s about.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Hands for Haiti is a 501 c(3) nonprofit that uses 100% of the donations it receives to fund its work in Haiti. See more information on Hands for Haiti online at HandsforHaiti.org.