Haiti near NSA students’ hearts

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 13, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

When he first approached the local bishop back in early 2000 to rent some land from the Diocese so that he could open an orphanage in Hinche, Haiti, Lefort Jean-Louis couldn’t have guessed that he would eventually form the Maison Fortun\u00E9 (House of Good Fortune) Orphanage.

He didn’t know that more than 75 children would take up room and board at the home, with another 75 coming each day for schooling at the only orphanage in Haiti. He had no idea that word would travel so quickly that he’d eventually construct a new dorm, or find the funding to do so.

Email newsletter signup

When Nansemond-Suffolk Academy launched its Haiti Awareness Club nearly three years ago, Joe DiRenzo IV and advisor Kollette Hillard couldn’t have guessed that the club would grow to dozens of members today. They didn’t know that the club would end up raising thousands of dollars for the small Caribbean nation, just slightly larger than the state of Maryland. DiRenzo had no idea that he and his fellow students would eventually help provide more than 100 of Jean-Louis’ orphans with a lifestyle that they and few of the countrymen could ever have imagined.

But on Wednesday afternoon, everything came true for the two men. DiRenzo’s club, of which his sister Lauren is the vice president, presented Jean-Louis a $1,000 check, money that the NSA community raised by selling Haitian coffee and frapaccinos. The funding will help with the building of the new dorm, and a septic tank at the orphanage.

Before he even set foot in NSA, DiRenzo spent four years in Puerto Rico, where his interest in Haiti first came about. Back in the summer of 2001, the Saint was looking for an Eagle Scout project, and read about Maison Fortun\u00E9 on a Catholic Web site. He took the proposal to scout leaders, who gave their approval, and DiRenzo spent nearly three weeks in the country on the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic.

Though DiRenzo had raised $500 for school supplies for Haiti and gotten a church in Richmond to donate a laptop computer, a virtually unknown opulence in the country, he wasn’t satisfied when he returned to America. So in early 2002, he and Hillard kicked off NSA’s newest club. Since then, about 50 students have joined, and more than $2,000 has been raised. It works in conjunction with the non-profit Maison Fortun\u00E9 foundation, which encompasses four Hampton Roads churches and St. Matthew’s Catholic school in Virginia Beach. In just over two years, the foundation has pulled in roughly $200,000.

&uot;I wanted to stay involved,&uot; DiRenzo said, &uot;and I was very surpris\ed with the way people from the community reacted. I had a lot of support at NSA.&uot;

Hillard made her own trip to Haiti in 2002.

&uot;I had no idea how much it would affect me,&uot; said the NSA English teacher. &uot;I was so touched by what I saw. The children were interested in relationships with us, learning about who we were, rather than us just giving them clothes and things.

&uot;The NSA students wanted to establish a connection with the children (in Haiti) too. I think they realized how blessed they were, and they really are interested in giving to other communities. They’re very giving of their time. We’ve done a good job of bringing (Haitian) pictures to the students, and they felt a connection.&uot; The class plans to send letters and photos of themselves to Haitian kids soon, Hillard said.

Roughly one out of every four Haitian children will die before the age of five, as poor hygiene, malnutrition, neglect, and abuse run rampant among the nation’s near-two million orphaned children.

It’s a situation that Jean-Louis knows all too well; he grew up in a poor family before the Catholic Diocese of Richmond helped him travel to America and attend school at Virginia Tech, where he earned an Associates Degree in Agricultural Technology in 1994. After a year of working for a year as a translator for the United Nations, he became concerned with the orphaned children of his native land.

With the help of the NSA club and other organizations, Jean-Louis was able to purchase the Fortune’s land in January 2003. But that’s far from all.

Whereas his group was once able to provide one or two meals a day, it now safely affords three to many children who have never experienced such a luxury before. Once, the children were forced to crowd a bed with four occupants; now, nearly every child has an individual place to sleep. There’s a security fence, electricity and an outdoor bathroom. Up until six months ago, children were getting dangerously ill from dysentery and malaria. The orphanage installed a water purification system, and there have been no ill effects since. Back in March, construction began on a new dorm.

Last spring, there was an extreme uprising in the country

against then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. During the riots, a group of rebels charged through Hinche and stole the orphanage’s 1996 Toyota pickup truck, which helped them transport sick children to the hospital and other errands. After 10 days, the dissenters, feeling sorry for the children, brought the vehicle back.

&uot;Things have dramatically changed,&uot; Jean-Louis told the group of Saint students. &uot;We’re now thinking about building another school for the girls in the area.

&uot;Dreams are coming true because of Joe’s Eagle project and the work of your club.&uot;