PROVIDENCE — In Haiti, where gang violence has long plagued the impoverished island nation, an outbreak of cholera this fall has led to further instability as those in need of treatment often can’t get to the hospital safely.
For many young people, private Catholic schools are the only way for them to receive a quality education on which to build their futures. Most are run by members of various religious orders and supported financially by Catholic parishes or related organizations from abroad.
St. Dominique School, located in Marigot on the southern coast of Haiti, is one such school. Formed in Providence in 1992 as the product of mission retreats led by the late Father Francis Giudice in the 1980s, Providence Haiti Outreach provides much of the financial support the school needs to now educate and feed more than 700 students in grades K-12 each school day.
Due to rampant violence, St. Dominique School has been temporarily closed to keep students at home to avoid the violence in the streets. School officials hope to reopen by the end of the month.
“There is such an urgency right now,” Lynda Sprague, Providence Haiti Outreach’s development director told Rhode Island Catholic last week. “Because of the violence, school has not been able to open yet. Access to food has been worse than ever and people are starving.”
Sprague said that there are plans to build a second school building for grades 4 and 5 because the school is “bursting at the seams.” Providence Haiti Outreach has also purchased a bus that will be used by teachers to commute to the school from Jacmel.
“They spend hours a day and most of their meager salary on transportation while there is a bus waiting in Florida until Father can safely travel to Port au Prince to collect it,” Sprague said of Father André Léveillé, pastor of St. Dominique Parish and director of St. Dominique School.
At this time of Thanksgiving, Providence Haiti Outreach expresses its appreciation to Father Léveillé, who helped the organization celebrate its 30th anniversary by accepting an invitation to speak at its major annual fundraiser, a golf tournament held at Kirkbrae Country Club in Albion. His goal was to deliver a message of gratitude for the board’s longtime support of the school. He described the many challenges faced by the children and their families, and outlined his goals to improve the school.
Father Léveillé’s four-day visit was described as a whirlwind of activity.
Departing Haiti on a Friday, Father Léveillé travelled through roadblocks and gang violence to Port-au-Prince airport, where his flight was delayed numerous times. He finally arrived at Logan Airport that evening at midnight.
He was invited on Saturday by the pastor, Father Robert Forcier, to concelebrate Mass at St. Augustine Church in Providence. On Sunday, he attended Mass at St. Patrick Church, also in Providence, where he met with Assistant Pastor Father Joseph Brice, a native of Haiti. The next day, he addressed supporters of Providence Haiti Outreach during the dinner following the annual golf tournament. His interpreter for the evening was Bernard George, founder and executive director of New Bridges 4 Haitian Success, a non-profit organization in Providence.
On Tuesday, the final day of his visit, Father Léveillé (with Bernard George) visited St. Peter School in Warwick to speak to the entire student body. During a fundraiser held several months earlier during National Catholic Schools Week, the children of St. Peter raised $2,000 which they donated to Providence Haiti Outreach. Father Léveillé thanked them for their generosity and answered many questions about life for children in Haiti.
“Father’s visit fueled the passion we as a board have for this important work,” said Susan Whipple, president and director of Providence Haiti Outreach. Her father, Pat Pezzelli, was the organization’s co-founder.
“He cares so deeply for the children of Marigot. He shared his firsthand experience and the fear of his people who continue to struggle with unbelievable poverty and who are now threatened with rising gang violence that targets women and children,” Whipple said, expressing her thanks to Father Léveillé.
She said he told them that the education they provide is truly the only hope for the future of his students.
“For 30 years, Providence Haiti Outreach has been able to quickly respond to the needs of the school. Because of our loyal friends and supporters and because we remain completely volunteer-run with no ‘red tape,’ we are a little organization capable of accomplishing big things.”