A 10-year-old Vineyard project to raise money for disadvantaged in Haiti reached a milestone this year. The locally funded Haiti Fish Farm Project has raised more than $100,000.
Haiti is the poorest country in this hemisphere. Margaret Penicaud of Vineyard Haven and her close friend Jeanne Staples of Edgartown have been working closely with others to bring changes to the lives of some residents of that distant Caribbean country.
Two weeks ago, on Jan. 20, they and their friends hosted a spaghetti dinner at the Federated Church Parish House for the benefit of PeaceQuilts Cooperative. More than 80 people attended the event and helped raise approximately $1,900.
Funds raised over the years have mostly helped the College Marie Reine Immaculée, a Christian school for girls, in the town of Lilavois, just outside of Port-au-Prince. There are approximately 140 young people in the school and they range in age from 3 to 20.
The Vineyard effort has helped fund the construction of buildings and helped in setting up a fish farm for the raising of tilapia, a freshwater fish.
Mrs. Staples returned from a trip to Haiti last month further inspired by their work. Mrs. Penicaud visited the school back in November. The two pay for their trips out of their own pocket.
“I think now of Nadege Florian, 29. She leads a women’s quilt cooperative. She lives in the worst slum in Haiti,” Mrs. Staples said.
“Yet despite her hardship, despite her poverty, she has a positive attitude. Her spirit is so uplifting,” she said, adding that the women do wonderful and beautiful work.
Mrs. Staples brought back a large decorative quilt made by Ms. Florian and six others over the last month and a half. The quilt is called Pathway to Peace. The quilt was shown at the spaghetti dinner and it stands as a symbol of what fellowship between distant friends can create in cloth.
A key part of helping the school isn’t just sending Vineyard funds. It is about providing the necessary tools so the school can add infrastructure and grow and take care of its own.
“It began with a project of providing fish ponds and has expanded to include building a school on the same property,” Mrs. Penicaud said. “Our efforts have helped them run a vegetable garden and raise poultry.”
The two Vineyard women and their supporters have marketed Haitian artwork through events.
Last Christmas there was PeaceCraft, a holiday benefit in a store in Vineyard Haven. Back in August, they and Featherstone Center for the Arts hosted the 5th annual Haitian Arts Benefit raised $9,000. Last July, they held a treasure sale on South Summer street in Edgartown that brought in $3,000.
The journey to help Haitians began more than 10 years ago when Mrs. Penicaud, a French teacher at the regional high school, met Jeanne Gaudet, an active member of the Catholic Church and a resident of the Island. It started with Ms. Gaudet’s bringing Mother Monique, a Haitian religious sister and founder of the Sisters of Mary Queen Immaculate, to the Vineyard.
“I went to Haiti in January of 1998. That is when the inspiration came to me. The poverty was overwhelming,” Mrs. Penicaud said.
Over the years, many Vineyarders have come forward and supported the mission work. Island churches have contributed. Help has come from the Vineyard Committee on Hunger and the Second Chance Foundation, along with others.
The value of the effort is exponential. Mrs. Penicaud said one U.S. dollar in Haiti increases in value seven times. When spent by the Sisters, she said, the value increases 10 times to $10. Even the smallest contribution can have a big impact.
Last month, the Associated Press sent out a story about how bad the poverty in Haiti has gotten. The reporter said that with the price of food rising across the Caribbean, Haitians are desperate. The story focused on some women marketing cheap edible cookies made from dirt.
The growth in support for their project continues to amaze the two ladies. Contributions have been as little as pennies to as big as a check for $10,000. They even received a donation of land in Connecticut.
In 2004, they incorporated and formed a nonprofit tax exempt organization called Little Children of Mary.
“This has been like a treasure hunt. We are searching for clues,” Mrs. Staples said of the surprises that have come their way as their little organization has grown.
The rewards have brought many gifts back to the Vineyard. “You work and do a lot for your family and friends. But life would not be complete if I didn’t feel connected to a larger world. I feel this project enlarges me,” Mrs. Staples said.
“I think it is important for us as a church and as a community to reach out beyond ourselves,” said Dr. Gerald (Jerry) R. Fritz, minister of the Federated Church in Edgartown. “We sometimes in this Vineyard setting, are so close-contained. We can tend to be a little parochial. This effort brings us out of ourselves to look at a world away from our own. We can make a difference not only on Martha’s Vineyard but we can make a difference to the people of Haiti.”
Tax-exempt contributions can be made out to Little Children of Mary, or Fish Farm for Haiti Project and sent to P.O. Box 1803, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.