How it all started…
I am Father Marc Boisvert, founder of Free the Kids (formerly Theo’s Work, Inc.) I was ordained a priest in 1984, and served the Church for 6 years before joining the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps. I served the Marines, the Coast Guard and the Navy in my seven years as a chaplain. While I was stationed in Florida, Haitians were fleeing their impoverished island by the thousands in an attempt to escape from dreadful and desperate conditions. Hundreds upon hundreds of frantic people were launching off the Haitian shores on anything that would float. The U.S. Coast Guard was routinely intercepting Haitian refugees and taking them to the base at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. Since I am fluent in French and Haitians Creole is, a language rooted in French, I was assigned to provide religious and sacramental comfort for these refugees.
It was through this pastoral work that I learned of the miserable conditions in Haiti. Here’s some background: Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere and the third poorest country in the world. Healthcare there is scarce at best. Of every 1,000 babies born, 72 will not live to see their first birthday. The average life expectancy of those that survive the first year is only 53. The malnutrition rate is 56%. Unfortunately, the Haitian government doesn’t do much to help its citizens and 45% of the country’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population.
As I listened to the Haitians’ stories of disease, oppression, poverty and slavery, I was deeply moved by their suffering. For quite some time after that experience, I couldn’t stop thinking about those Haitian refugees. In 1997 I took leave from my post as Catholic base chaplain at Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, CA and made a visit to Haiti to see what life was like there first-hand.
Never had I seen the likes of it: the filth, the poverty, the smells and the heat. 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. I was shocked. Even after listening to the refugees, I never imagined that it would be this bad. But the thing that impressed me the most about the Haitians was their ability to be joyful in the midst of overwhelming poverty. At that point I knew where I needed to be.
Upon my return home, I submitted my letter of resignation, sold most of my possessions and decided that Jan 1st of 1998 would be the day to start a new chapter in my life. Immediately after Christmas liturgy, I packed my few belongings and headed for the airport.
I arrived in Haiti in the late morning on New Year’s Day. While there, I was deeply touched by the hundreds of homeless children; and the children who spent their days in the streets because school was too expensive; and the sick children who had no hope of going to a clinic. It became clear to me that this was my calling – to help alleviate the effects of poverty on these children.
By September of ’98, with the help of a group of young adults, I started a soup kitchen, a small shelter, and a school. In October we transformed an abandoned building into a home for 15 kids. It was those first kids who coined the name Pwoje Espwa, Creole for Project Hope. That place filled up quickly with homeless children and we began to search for a larger home.
The local bishop offered us the abandoned former seminary, a rat-infested structure with a caved-in roof called LaMadonne. The chapel was solid and we moved in. There we grew to about 60 children and a staff of five. In the spring we received help putting a sturdy roof on the building, and then a second floor. We had decent housing for the first time. Children kept coming and soon LaMadonne was out of space.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the non-profit organization Theo’s Work, Inc. was busy with various local fundraising activities to help fund our progress in Haiti. My brother-in-law, Jack H. Reynolds, was at the helm. He was working with various local organizations such as The Rotary Club and the Knights of Columbus to raise money.
Back in Haiti, the boys were attending various local schools. This was not necessarily a good thing because of the harsh corporal punishment practiced by 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 the staff and I decided to open our own school. We could provide a safer environment, a better education and do it for much less money than the schools charged. In September of 2000 we opened the doors to Ekol Espwa. In due time we had two schools, an orphanage and a soup kitchen. There were 125 boys in our care and another 250 children in our schools.
Our dream was to have some place out of the city where the air is fresh and the colors vibrant. That dream came to reality in 2002 when certain benefactors made it possible to purchase 125 acres of fertile land, about 20 minutes from the city of Les Cayes. We immediately began shaping and developing what would become Villaj Espwa.
Over the past 9 years we have made significant progress. At Hope Village we have planted a farm, built dormitories and schools and begun vocational training to teach the children viable trades to secure their future. We have over 750 children living at Hope Village and over a thousand more coming to our schools each day from poor neighboring communities.
Thanks to God and to our generous donors, we’ve come a long way since 1998. At Hope Village much has been accomplished but there is still much more to be done. We have raised money for medical and dental clinics so that our children get the proper care they deserve. We built a vocational training center where we teach the boys and girls practical skills that some day will enable them to earn a living. We have added a pre-school so that the children can get an early start on education. The farm continues to evolve and provide more and more crops each year. There are always projects in the works and through this website, people like you can help us spread the word to make them come to fruition.
Hope Village provides hundreds of children with shelter, food, clothing, education, basic medical care and a family. But what we really offer the children of Southern Haiti is HOPE. Your generosity allows us to make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of poor children. In the name of the kids, thank you. In the name of the staff down in Haiti, thank you. In the name of all those involved and committed to help free the children from poverty, thank you. Bondye ap beni nou!!