Haitian orphanage has roots in Suffolk

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 9, 2002

The Christmas season is upon us and thoughts of sharing and giving gifts are prominent in our minds. There are many children Santa will visit through organizations thanks to the News-Herald’s &uot;Cheer Fund&uot; and &uot;Toys for Tots&uot; campaigns, but also there are others in the world that will be left out.

Through the efforts of a Nansemond-Suffolk Academy (NSA) student, an NSA teacher and her daughter, and one dedicated Haitian gentleman, at least one group of 60 orphaned youths may soon have not only a small Christmas gift, but also clean water to drink and a decent place to sleep.

This laudable mission began three years ago when LaFort Jean-Louis rescued one tiny little boy from certain death by starvation and an impossible future. Now, Jean-Louis has brought 60 boys and quite a number of little girls into an orphanage in Hinche, Haiti, where they not only receive nourishing hot meals, but also an education and medical care.

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Jean-Louis recently visited Suffolk, staying with his good friend and supporter, Joe DiRenzo, the former NSA freshman; now a senior. He was in Suffolk to promote interest in the plight of the Haitian orphans, and to talk about the orphanage and the goals of Maison Fortune Orphanage. Jean-Louis spent eight days during which he completed 28 speaking and fund-raising engagements, including one at NSA’s Upper and Lower schools. He was accompanied by Chris Roberson, who helps with the orphanage responsibilities.

DiRenzo began assisting the Haitian orphanage’s benefactor in January 2001. He needed a project with which to complete requirements to earn the rank of Eagle Scout, and he certainly earned the right to soar with eagles. Working throughout the News-Herald’s readership area, DiRenzo was instrumental in providing more than 2,250 pounds of school supplies and a brand new computer to the orphanage. From that time, DiRenzo and Jean-Louis have worked together to help the Haitian children.

Once Jean-Louis’ efforts for the orphans were known in Suffolk, word of his mission spread across Hampton Roads. Through DiRenzo’s initial effort, four churches have come together with one goal: establish the Maison Fortune Orphanage to help the children.

Those churches include Prince of Peace in Virginia Beach, St. Stephen Martyr, St. Mark’s, and St. Matthew’s, all of Chesapeake. Together, these churches formed the Maison Fortune Foundation, which was granted 501.3 (C) status by the IRS in spring 2002. Since then, it has raised $80,000 of its $100,000 goal that will allow Jean-Louis to purchase the land and structures currently being used to house and educate the orphans.

Besides the fund-raising project, the foundation has accomplished other goals including sending medical supplies, clothing, toys and other much needed items to the orphanage in Hinche. Under the leadership of DiRenzo, four drives were successful in accumulating more than 200 pounds of non-prescription medications for the children and Tylenol and an estimated 7,500 children’s vitamins and iron supplements.

He credits many others including Collette Hillard, an instructor at NSA, and her daughter Emily, a senior at the academy. Together, they initiated a &uot;Haiti Awareness Club,&uot; with the Hillard family serving as hostesses to Jean-Louis during his eight day stay in Suffolk.

&uot;They have all been instrumental in letting people know what we are trying to do in Hinche,&uot; said Jean-Louis. &uot;They are helping me tell people about the culture, and our great need for a proper water treatment system at the orphanage. We do have a well in the ground, but it is unclean with all kinds of nasty things getting into it and we need a treatment system to make it clean and healthy to drink as well as to use for bathing. I could not have done any of this without the generous help of Joe, Emily, and Collette and all the people who have opened their hearts to help us. Joe will be coming back to Hinche this summer to continue to work at the orphanage and he is hoping to bring classmates to help the children.&uot;

DiRenzo, the Hillards, and Jean-Louis are continuing their efforts to help the children of Hinche, and they continue in their mission to further develop the school by adding on a dormitory for girls and classrooms for education. According to Jean-Louis, the orphanage doesn’t really have a proper facility for girls since it mainly consists of boys.

&uot;The boys sleep two or three to one bed and it would not be proper to place the girls in such a situation,&uot; said Jean-Louis. &uot;We basically feed the girls and take care of their needs throughout the day but when it comes time to sleep, they must find other places. It is not a good situation. Some of them are homeless and I would like to be able to provide them with refuge and a place to sleep at night.&uot;

Jean-Louis is a newlywed and never had a child of his own, and the question of why such a talented, Virginia Tech educated young man, 36, would give so much of himself to children no one else wants always comes up.

&uot;I simply saw one little boy one day, Claudinel… he was only two, and he was staying with seven other children in what was nothing more than a shack, and it broke my heart,&uot; said Jean-Louis. &uot;He was dying from malnutrition and it broke my heart. I grew up in the same situation in Haiti, and we were three children. One of us died because we were sick and there was no money to take care of us. I lived and I went to school without books or any decent clothing. I was in 10th-grade and about to quit, but then God stepped in and I met Brother Cosmos of the Ruben Camp C.F.X., a religious organization in Richmond, Va.&uot;

Brother Cosmos became instrumental in helping Jean-Louis to remain in school, eventually introducing him to a Catholic sister who also helped keep the youth in school. He eventually earned a scholarship, came to the U.S. and graduated from Tech.

&uot;Now, I have these children who are in the same situation as I have been in and I had these people who gave to me,&uot; said Jean-Louis. &uot;Now, I believe it is only right that I give something back and helping these desperately needy children is my way of doing that. They need all the help we can give and I do hope that people in Suffolk and Hampton Roads will open their hearts to them.&uot;