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 their 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.
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. Its sole purpose is to raise money and support for Father Marc’s mission.
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 Villaj Espwa (Hope Village) began to develop and take shape.
At Hope Village, 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 450 children currently live at Hope Village and more than a thousand come to its schools each day from poor neighboring communities. Hope Village, 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 Hope Village, future leaders are being developed to help lift Haiti out of poverty and become the jewel of the Caribbean it once was.