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Our History

It all started with Father Marc, an ordained Catholic priest with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who served his church and then as chaplain in the Marines, Coast Guard, and the Navy. In the 1990s, while he was stationed in Florida, Haitians were leaving from 2010-04-14 18.24.40their impoverished island by the thousands in an attempt to flee dreadful and desperate conditions. Father Marc watched the plight of these hundreds upon hundreds of frantic people who launched off Haitian shores on anything that would float. The U.S. Coast Guard routinely intercepted Haitian refugees and took them to the base at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. Father Marc, fluent in French from which Haitian Creole is derived, was assigned to provide religious and sacramental comfort for these refugees.

Those refugees’ stories of disease, oppression, poverty and slavery moved Father Marc deeply. After thinking about their suffering for some time, he took a leave from his post as base chaplain at Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, California, and traveled to Haiti to see what life was like first hand.

What he discovered was filth, poverty, putrid smells, and stifling heat. He observed families living in shacks that barely stood up; children playing in open sewers; kids in the street begging for money, food, and medicine—their eyes bloodshot and their future unknown. The degree of misery was unimaginable. But the most impressive thing about the Haitians was their ability to be joyful in the midst of overwhelming poverty. From that moment, Father Marc knew where he needed to be. It became clear that this was his calling—to help alleviate the effects of poverty on these children.IMG_7967

Upon returning home, Father Marc submitted his letter of resignation, sold most of his possessions, and decided that January 1, 1998, would begin a new chapter in his life. By September, with the help of a group of young adults, a soup kitchen, a small shelter and a school were in place. In October, an abandoned building became home for 15 kids. It was they..those first 15..who coined the name Pwoje Espwa, Creole for Project Hope.

That first building filled up quickly with homeless children. The local bishop offered the group an abandoned former seminary: A rat-infested structure with a caved-in roof called LaMadonne. The chapel was solid; the kids and Father Marc moved in. The project grew to 60 children and a staff of five. In the spring, help arrived to put a sturdy roof on the building and then a second floor—decent housing for the first time.

Children kept coming and soon LaMadonne was out of space and Father Marc was out of money. Father Marc approached his brother-in-law, Jack Reynolds, about raising funds and Jack accepted the challenge by starting a United States non-profit organization called Theo’s Work, which has since been renamed Free the Kids. 

Back in Haiti, the boys were attending various local schools, but harsh corporal punishment was practiced by the teachers. One day a boy returned to the orphanage after school with a blood-soaked shirt. He had been whipped with a cowhide switch for not paying attention. It was then that Father Marc and his staff decided to open their own school. It would provide a safer environment, a better education, and it would do it for much less money than the local schools charged. Thus, Ekol Espwa opened in September, 2000. The mission quickly grew to two schools, an orphanage, and a soup kitchen. The orphanage ballooned to 125 boys and another 250 children in the schools.

Space, again, became a problem. Father Marc’s dream was to have some place out of the city where the air is fresh and the colors vibrant. That dream became a reality in 2002 when benefactors made it possible to purchase 125 acres of fertile land, about 20 minutes from the city of Les Cayes. What would become Pwoje Espwa Sud (Project Hope) began to develop and take shape.

At Pwoje Espwa Sud, a farm was planted, dormitories built, schools and vocational training were established to teach the children viable trades to secure their future. Some are leaving to attend college. One has recently become a doctor.

Over 300 children are supported by Pwoje Espwa Sud and more than a thousand come to its schools each day from poor neighboring communities. Pwoje Espwa Sud, not only provides a healthy, safe environment for the children to live and learn, they have medical and dental facilities to take care of their inevitable physical needs as well. We believe that from Pwoje Espwa, future leaders are being developed to help lift Haiti out of poverty and become the jewel of the Caribbean it once was.

I fell in love with Espwa during my first visit last year. Hard to put into words, but there was a real "heart" connection with the kids and staff. It is a special place. My visit was focused primarily on the girls and the teachers. Relationships were initiated during that first visit that I treasure very much!

- Maria Simeone

There is hardly a more heartbreaking sight than seeing an orphan in Haiti--many of them who have families who simply cannot feed and clothe them. Of course there is the emotional response to their plight, but there is a more pragmatic hope--that given a chance in a loving, caring environment, these children can grow up to be leaders, people who can move their communities and the country itself in a positive, healthy direction.

- Jackie Wilson

This place is amazing! The kids and their caregivers will restore your faith in the human spirit. The magic of Espwa is that there is a childhood provided for the kids there that would not exist otherwise.Haiti has a very very long way to go, but this is a hopeful place with clean, well fed, happy children, teachers, house moms, and support staff. Fr Marc and all of the others should be very proud of their accomplishments. Help them in any way that you can!

- Kerri McDonough Croland
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