By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.
Mayor of Lewiston
Pwoje Espwa, an orphanage and school in Haiti, was founded by Father Marc Boisvert, a Lewiston native who became a priest in the order of the Oblates of Immaculate Mary. Formerly a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, he arrived in Haiti in 1998 and has been there ever since.
He first started by taking in six kids from the streets of Les Cayes, Haiti. The numbers grew immensely at his place, called La Madonne in downtown Les Cayes, to the point of where eight years ago he purchased some 140 acres of land on the outskirts of Les Cayes.
He then started building on the property. There are houses in which the 645 children live and a large Quonset hut, which serves as a workshop, dining hall and church. There are classroom buildings for children from pre-school to 12th grade. There is an outdoor kitchen where some 3,500 meals are served daily. There are several other vocational training buildings, storage buildings, a clinic building and a guest house with about a dozen rooms. Father Marc has his own residence.
Much of the food comes from the banana grove on the property, cows, goats and vegetable gardens, as well as nearby rice fields.
Aside from the children who live at Hope Village (Vilaj Espwa), children from the surrounding area go to school there. Father Marc runs three schools: the pre-school has 350 children; the primary school has 800 pupils; the secondary school has 400 students; and the vocational training school has 200 youths.
At Camp Perrin there is a primary school for 400 children, and at Tiburon there is a primary school for 200 students.
Aside from all of the schooling provided for the children, Father Marc provides outside scholarships for 100 students at the university level and at other schools.
All students at the Vilaj Espwa Campus receive a hot meal every day. Students in Camp Perrin and Tiburon receive from Pwoje Espwa enough dry rations of vitamin-enriched rice to last a month.
The monthly budget is $120,000, and most of that funding comes from an organization called FreetheKids, Inc. To view the web site go to www.FreetheKids.org. There is a wonderful video that truly explains life at Vilaj Espwa. My wife and I just viewed it here at home, and both of us were in tears. I highly recommend viewing it!
Father Boisvert has accomplished all of this with the help of donations in the last eight of his 12 years there. It is utterly amazing what he has accomplished. It truly is a village, and he is its mayor and council. A better description might be that he is the CEO.
There are building projects going on right now. One is a combination dining hall and church that will hold 1,000 kids. A large clinic is being built, and other projects are planned.
We have been donating to Theo’s Work, which has provided funding for Father Marc’s work, and this past summer we attended a fundraiser at the Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport. That is when we met Fr. Marc Boisvert for the first time. Also there was Dr. Cynthia DeSoi, who practices nephrology, internal medicine and pediatrics here in Lewiston.
She serves as the medical director at Pwoje Espwa and travels to Haiti several times a year to treat the children and adults. She also serves on the Board of Directors of FreetheKids, Inc. She has been traveling there for the past 12 years. I decided to take her up on an invitation to join her.
Four of us accompanied Dr. DeSoi. Claudette Reny has often accompanied Dr. DeSoi; this was her 19th trip there. Also traveling with us was John (Ralph) Robitaille, a local contractor, and Joe Makley, an information technology director for the Portland School Department.
Dr. DeSoi invited us to her home for a pizza and packing party. We loaded 10 large duffle bags with medical supplies, shoes from New Balance and uniforms from the former Trinity Catholic School here in Lewiston that Claudette Reny was able to secure from Bishop Malone.
On Sunday, February 27, we drove down to Boston and stayed overnight, as our flight was at 6 a.m. on Monday morning. There was a problem with the reservations. Claudette and John had to fly to Miami and on to Port au Prince. The three of us flew from Boston to JFK in New York, then on to Port au Prince. We arrived first and waited for John and Claudette.
We had a driver waiting for us. We loaded up the 12-passenger van, and our driver Jean Gary drove us through Port au Prince, where I saw virtually no change from when I was there last April. It was a four-hour drive at night through the mountains to arrive in Les Cayes. We had to call Village Espwa to send out another vehicle, as the ride from the main road to Vilaj Espwa is so bad that our vehicle couldn’t make it through.
We arrived at the guesthouse at Vilaj Espwa shortly after 10 p.m. There were sandwiches in the kitchen waiting for us. We doubled up in the rooms. We were dead tired, and it didn’t take long to fall asleep. We were awakened a couple of times during the night from the roosters crowing and the dogs fighting.
The next morning we were awakened by the beautiful sound of Haitian young men praying and singing. They are discerning whether they have a vocation to become priests. It was still dark, and they were in the chapel downstairs. Their chant made you feel like you were in a monastery. We hadn’t seen Father Marc yet, and as I lay in bed, I thought about how this man has dedicated his life to bring God’s word and love to these people in a foreign land. It is truly dedication beyond comprehension. There definitely is a place awaiting him in heaven, as there is for Dr. DeSoi and Claudette Reny.
Paige Orlowski, a young lady from Phoenix, Arizona who first started at Pwoje Espwa as a volunteer and speaks fluent Creole, is now employed there and is in charge of all facilities. She is a wonderful young woman who enjoys the respect of everyone she comes into contact with, and she is a person filled with love. She took us on a tour of the entire village with Father Marc. It was a wonderful experience, especially going into the classrooms. The kids would greet us with a song of welcome.
After lunch Joe Makley and I worked in the clinic doing data entry of polio immunization. Dr. DeSoi along with Dr. Lawrence Mutty and his wife Danielle of Castine, Maine, who had been there for two weeks, treated many patients all day long. John Robitaille went with Father Marc and Deacon Peter Faford to look at a couple of different models of homes.
At the end of each work day, Father Marc would join us at the guest house for the social hour. It included Haitian rum or Haitian beer; both were excellent. It was then that we could socialize before supper.
I had known Father Marc’s parents, as they were members of Holy Cross Parish here in Lewiston. His father was a retired postal worker. Father Marc said when he was young, his father would bring him to Simones Hot Dog restaurant. Before we left, Jimmy Simones gave Claudette Reny a T-shirt from Simones Hot Dogs to give to Father Marc. He was pleased and wanted a photo of me presenting it to him.
See the photo on Fr. Marc’s blog at www.FreetheKids.org. Keep clicking on older posts until you get to it.
All of our meals there were outstanding. A young Haitian lady named Sonia and a very pregnant woman named Carmel cooked for us. A 79-year-old Haitian woman named Odette cleaned the guesthouse and did laundry for us. All of them were very sweet. They would come and kiss us on the cheek when they reported for work.
Other than missing Mass the first day, we went to Mass daily at 6 a.m. While there, John Robitaille’s older sister passed away, and Father Marc offered his Mass for her. She had been suffering from cancer for a lengthy period.
On Wednesday, March 2, we loaded a vehicle with U.S. AID cases of food and brought them to the Les Cayes Prison. We had been told that the prison, which has over 450 prisoners, had only one day’s supply of food left. We unloaded many cases of food and placed them in the prison’s storage.
We were brought inside the prison’s open courtyard with cells all around it. It was clearly obvious that there was overcrowding, which is an understatement. In a cell that was 8 feet by 12 feet, there were 48 prisoners with only a bucket to serve as a toilet. One cell was loaded with cholera victims.
Other cells had 45, 46, 28 and so on prisoners in each cell. Some were doing their laundry with their legs and arms sticking out of the barred door and washing their clothes in five-gallon buckets. The prisoners have to sleep in shifts.
We had brought hundreds of rosaries, which we distributed to each of the prisoners. The vast majority took them. Dr. DeSoi saw many prisoners who were suffering from various illnesses and treated them. There were 13 who were suffering from hernias, and Dr. DeSoi is working on trying to get them the operations they need.
Paige Orlowski visits there often with Linda Faford, the wife of Deacon Peter Faford, who lives at Vilaj Espwa full time. They talk to them in Creole, and Paige’s mere presence lets them know that someone cares. They hold her with the highest respect. The conditions there are truly inhumane. I have never seen such conditions in my life.
We were told that at the time of the earthquake, the prisoners rioted and some broke out. They were all recaptured and placed in one cell—all 150 prisoners. They could only stand. Guards took all of their clothes and burned them in front of them, and they beat the prisoners with clubs. Prisoners simply get forgotten there. One young man that Dr. DeSoi treated has been there under these conditions for three years on a marijuana charge.
As we prepared to leave, we saw family members outside the walls in line with food and notes for their loved ones, which they would pass through a small opening for the guards to deliver to the prisoners. We were there for a couple of hours.
The following day, we returned to downtown Les Cayes, Haiti’s second largest city, to purchase paint and supplies. We were going to paint classrooms at the end of the school week. We also did some other shopping. We then returned to work in the afternoon. The doctors continued treating patients at Pwoje Espwa.
On Friday, March 4, we visited the pre-school children and had our pictures taken with them. They are all so cute in their uniforms. We also visited the women who cook the meals on charcoal grills. Then we went into downtown Les Cayes and dropped off some things at the hospital. It was crowded there with many suffering from cholera.
We also visited a hospital/residence called La Charité, which is run by the Daughters of Charity (Mother Theresa’s Order). This is a beautiful hospital that is immaculately clean in the midst of a very poor city. There, we saw patients dying from AIDS, as well as infirmed children of all ages.
We went to one area where the children were about three- or four-years-old. As soon as we walked in that area they lifted their arms for us to pick them up. We each had a couple of children in our arms. When we had to leave, we had to put them down. They began to cry as they desperately seek affection.
I talked to a couple of Mother Theresa’s sisters. They radiate love, peace and joy. They were from India, and they spoke English. I asked them to pray for the people of Lewiston. They promised me they would and they had me write down my name and the City of Lewiston. I told them I would pray for them also. They truly are saintly women.
When we returned to Vilaj Espwa, there was a young mother and three little girls who had been abused by their stepfather. She had no money and no place to live with her children. John Robitalle committed to sponsoring this family so they could rent a room near Vilaj Espwa and be together.
In the afternoon, we started painting classrooms, which never had any paint on the dark cement-block walls. The following day, which was Saturday, March 5, we continued painting. We had young Haitian boys helping us. They worked hard. We completed painting five classrooms. It truly lightened up these classrooms, which still have no electricity.
Late Saturday evening, a group of three adult men and four college girls arrived to work there for the following week. They are from North Carolina. They brought all kinds of toys, and they cut out masks from construction paper for the children to celebrate “kanaval” for Mardi-Gras.
On Sunday morning, March 6, we went to Mass in the Quonset hut with all the children in attendance. A couple of bongo players accompanied the choir. Father Marc celebrated the Mass with Deacon Peter Faford assisting him. It was very warm in the Quonset hut, and some children were falling asleep. There were adults who made them stand and maintain the discipline that is necessary in such a heavily populated group.
The Mass was all in Creole. A dog wondered in and laid down under the altar. It is nothing for chickens, goats or dogs to wander in anywhere. It never fazed Father Marc.
In the afternoon we all drove over some mountains and on to a private beach. We paid an entrance fee. The beach was beautiful, and the water was nice and warm here at Port Salut. I had fun in the water with Haitians trying to teach me Creole and me teaching them English. We ate supper there, which included baked lobster, chicken, rice and beans and a salad of onions and tomatoes. It was delicious. Of course, they also served us rum and beer.
While there, a large stage was set up on the beach with music to entertain the large Haitian audience. It was all sponsored by Presidential candidate Michel Martelly, who is a local singing star. It was obvious that the large crowd was having a good time.
As we started to leave around sunset, a parade similar to what you would see for Mardi Gras in New Orleans paraded from the stage area. People were dressed in costumes, and it was wonderful to see. We then drove back to Vilaj Espwa.
We got up early Monday morning, March 7, to travel to the airport in Les Cayes to fly on Tortug Air. Father Marc was at the guesthouse at 5:30 a.m. to see us off. It was obvious that he enjoyed a visit from people of his hometown. He will be in Maine sometime this summer.
At the airport we took off in a two-engine propeller airplane and flew 140 miles over the mountains to Port au Prince. From there we flew to Maimi on a large American Airlines jet and then from Miami on to Boston. From there we drove home, arriving late in the evening.
Although we were tired upon our return, we were pleased with our visit there and saddened that we couldn’t stay longer to serve the wonderful people of Haiti who are beyond resiliency and full of faith and love. Vive Haiti!
See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com and www.freethekids.org. Your donations will help the poor children of Haiti. Thank You!