GREENSBORO, N.C. – The Rev. Marc Boisvert was serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy in 1991 when he got the phone call that would change his life.
Thousands of “boat people” were launching off the shores of Haiti on makeshift rafts to escape hunger, disease and political unrest in their home country.
The U.S. Coast Guard brought about 10,000 Haitian refugees to Guantanamo Bay, where they were held for processing. Boisvert, fluent in French, was called in to minister to the Creole-speaking refugees, says his brother-in-law, Jack Reynolds.
Shocked by the personal stories of famine and poverty the refugees shared with him, Boisvert realized where his help was needed most, Reynolds says.
Seven years later, Boisvert sold all his possessions, moved to Haiti and founded Hope Village (Vilaj Espwa), a housing complex for Haitian orphans outside Haiti’s third-largest city, Les Cayes.
The village, which originally housed 15 boys and consisted of a dormitory, school and soup kitchen, since has grown to a 100-acre complex that serves nearly 700 children.
The children range in age from two-and-a-half to early 20s, Reynolds says. Many of the older residents have been with Boisvert from the beginning.
“Today some of those original children are leaders of our organization,” Reynolds says.
The village receives all of its support from FreetheKids.org, a Greensboro, N.C.-based nonprofit founded in 2000 with the sole purpose of funding the Haiti project.
Reynolds, its president and only full-time staff member, has traveled to Haiti 40 times in the last 10 years.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with eight in 10 people living below the poverty line, says the World Factbook published by the CIA. Child slavery is rampant, and malnourished Haitians stave off hunger pangs by eating biscuits made with dirt.
By providing food, shelter and education, FreetheKids.org aims to give Haitian children the chance to build better lives in their native land.
Between 95 percent and 97 percent of its donations go directly to the Haiti project, Reynolds says.
Its nine-member board raises funds from supporters such as Cross International in Pompano Beach, Fla., the First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro, Gate City Rotary Club in Greensboro and Rotary International.
Though the organization aims to foster a sense of independence and self-sufficiency among Haitian children, it offers support to adults as well.
A quarter of the organization’s $1.6 million budget goes toward salaries for the Haitian employees at Hope Village.
With 180 Haitians on its payroll, the village is the largest employer in the southwest region of the country, Reynolds says.
The second-largest piece of the pie, 22 percent of the organization’s budget, goes toward food.
Though the organization built a farm where the children could cultivate corn, beans and papayas, four tropical storms destroyed the plot of land last year.
Reynolds currently is looking for funding to rebuild it, he says.
“Our first hurdle every day, every week, every month, is food,” he says.
Once the children are healthy and well-fed, the organization’s mission shifts to education.
FreetheKids.org funds the education of more than 2,300 students at its Hope Village school system, which consists of an elementary, secondary and vocational school, as well as other local schools.
Hope Village recruits certified teachers in Haiti and provides an extra three to four weeks of training.
“Our school system always ranks very high in the competitive tests required by the state,” Reynolds says.
Though Boisvert is a Catholic priest, Reynolds is quick to point out that FreetheKids.org is not a Catholic organization. Though church attendance and ethics classes are mandatory, the children are free to attend the church of their choice.
As part of its mission to create a self-sufficient community, FreetheKids.org also gives Haitians the freedom to make decisions about how Hope Village is run.
The village has a five-member board of local residents that approves new technology, methods and programs.
“Unless the Haitians take responsibility for their own projects, it’s really not effective,” Reynolds says.
The organization learned this the hard way when it installed a system for composting.
“They don’t use it, because it wasn’t their idea and they don’t get the concept,” he says. “You can’t go into the country and start forcing in modern stuff.”
Reynolds says the organization also has had to turn down well-meaning individuals interested in adopting the children.
“We feel it does a disservice to have a mass exodus of adoptions,” Reynolds says. “Our mission is to make future leaders in their own country.”
The organization’s help for the children has reached beyond the basics of food and shelter, Reynolds says.
The village offers the children confidence and hope, and Boisvert, who has lived in Haiti for a decade, serves as a role model as they build their futures.
“He’s had fifth- and sixth-grade boys tell him, ‘Father Marc, I want to be just like you when I grow up,'” Reynolds says. “He tells them, ‘When you discover girls, I think you’ll change your mind.'”