HOPE VALLEY – Parishioners attending Mass at St. Joseph Church on Main Street in Hope Valley March 1 burst into spontaneous applause, and smiles spread across their faces.
Their response followed a brief announcement by their pastor, the Rev. Michael Leckie. “We did it,” he said. Translation: Project Starfish: Building a Village in Haiti had reached its fund-raising goal: $152,708.
The significance was not lost on those attending the two Sunday Masses either. The parish fund-raising project will result in a village of 28 homes in Haiti, complete with foundations and latrines, as well as a community center, a well and a water distribution system.
Fund-raising started last November, with St. Joseph parishioners Kiki Latimer and Maria O’Connor, both of Hope Valley, serving as co-chairs. The 4-month-old success story seems incredible, particularly considering the size of the St. Joseph’s community, Latimer said. (The 2008 edition of “The Official Catholic Directory” notes that there are 742 registered households in the parish.)
Latimer credits Fr. Leckie with jump-starting the project after a speaker from Food for the Poor told church-goers that they could make a difference in Haiti. Food for the Poor is a Florida-based organization that provides aid for some of the poorest of the poor in the Caribbean and Latin America.
“I guess Father prayed on [the idea of building a village] and then he called an open meeting,” Latimer said. About eight people went to the first meeting, she recalled. They got things started by doing some research into Food for the Poor, which would supervise the parish project. “Based on that, we voted to go forward,” she said. “In my mind from the beginning, the project was two-fold: to change the lives of people in Cap Haitien (Haiti) and to change the lives and hearts of people at St. Joseph’s.”
The fund-raising effort was far from smooth. Sometimes donations slowed to a trickle. On at least three occasions, Latimer spoke to her fellow parishioners during Mass, gently poking and prodding members to dig deep into their pockets and hearts. She used a basket at the entrance of the church in an effort to encourage people to give pocket change, anything.
In an interview, she described the United States as an example of material wealth and spiritual poverty – the opposite of Haiti, where there is material poverty and spiritual wealth.
Latimer said she was impressed with many of her fellow parishioners’ commitment to the village, including the youth group, which is made up of about 22 6th- through 9th-graders. Group leader Dana Habershaw said after Latimer talked to the group about Project Haiti, the young people were ready to help. And, according to Habershaw, it was a natural fit, because “we always say (to the kids), ‘What can we do if we put our heads and hearts together’?”
After the Masses on two weekends in January, group members collected medical supplies for a clinic located near the Project Starfish village. Latimer said the effort brought in about 100 pounds of Bacitracin, Tylenol, Neosporin, Band-Aids and multi-vitamins, plus a supply of crayons. The items will be carried to Haiti by Latimer, O’Connor and parishioner Bruce Olean when they fly there sometime in late June or early July to get a first-hand look at the village.
The young people also raised $613 with two bake sales in February at the Wyoming branch of The Washington Trust Company. One of the kids came up with the idea of handing out a kind of thank-you note during the bake sale, to let those who bought the goodies know where the money was going. Each note was in the shape of a house with the words “Houses for Haiti” printed on it, Habershaw said.
Latimer hopes another medicine collection can be held after the Masses on one weekend in May or June.
Although St. Joseph parish reached its goal for the village, both Latimer and Father Leckie continue to ask parishioners for donations. Some people had indicated a willingness to join the effort once they received their tax refund, according to Latimer.
She said Project Starfish is part of the $2.3 million Bord de Mer Community Development Project in Haiti. A parish in New York was also able to raise the money to build a Haitian village and is part of the development project. The remaining $2 million, according to Latimer, came from four private donors.
The Hope Valley resident is looking forward to seeing “our village” when she travels to Haiti, and she is willing to share that enthusiasm and the story of how a little parish raised a lot of money with anyone who wants to listen. “This can be done in other parishes,” she said. “I would be willing to travel anywhere in the state to get this started.”
Latimer can be contacted by e-mailing her at email@example.com or by calling at 539-8503.