An image of severely malnourished children is seared in Francine Hintz's mind.
"The most striking, heart-wrenching thing to see is children suffering from malnutrition. After seeing this, my next question was, 'What do we do to fix it?,' " says Hintz, the assistant director of the Heartland Center of the Diocese of Gary, Indiana.
Before her first trip to Haiti, Hintz says she needed to be convinced that the diocese should help people overseas when members of its own community needed help. But Haiti's troubles offered a compelling argument.
Not only do children and their families go without food each day, homes are made of flimsy tin, cardboard or wood and leave families vulnerable to disasters—which at times have struck in succession. Large swaths of brown, parched land dominate the landscape.
"You don't realize what it means to be poor until you experience Haiti," says Hintz. "Haiti is broke from the bottom up."
The Heartland Center, established in 1987, serves as the diocese's peace and social justice division. Comprising clergy and laypeople, the center is committed to "solidarity with all segments of society, especially the poor, to construct a more just and humane society."
With guidance from Catholic Relief Services, members of the diocese set out to establish a long-term overseas mission in 1998. "CRS has a reputation within the diocese and the skill level. We knew nothing about working in an impoverished country," Hintz says.
In the early phase of this partnership, CRS helped the diocese examine outreach opportunities in five prospective countries.
Father Thomas Gannon, who served as the Heartland Center's director when the diocese partnership was being developed, says the mission had to be economically feasible, as "the Diocese of Gary isn't exactly wealthy." He explains that the area's economy was shaky due to a decline in the steel industry.
"We couldn't do mission trips to Kenya. We had to do something in Latin America or the Caribbean," says Gannon. It was also important that the diocese connect with a country that shared ethnic ties with its large African-American and West Indian population. "We came to the conclusion that Haiti fit the bill better than anywhere else," he says.
Growing Compassion for Haiti
After visiting Haiti in 1999, the diocese kicked off a diocesan-wide collection to benefit the Maison Arc en Ciel (Rainbow House) AIDS orphanage in Port-au-Prince and education and agriculture projects in the Diocese of Fort-Liberté in Haiti's Northeast Department.
With a population of about 300,500, Fort-Liberté is surrounded by turquoise water and treasured historic sites. But like much of Haiti, residents live in dire poverty. While the area is located near main commerce points, only recently was a highway erected for better travel. Residents are stifled by unemployment. There's very little access to electricity, running water or even a gas station, says Farid Moise, who coordinates of a number of cross-border diocesan projects for CRS Haiti.
"The needs are so great, there are so many things that need to be done," Moise says. "Even the smallest bit of help is very significant for a Haitian."
On several trips to northeast Haiti, members of the Gary diocese met with families who welcomed them into their homes and guided them through their communities. On a visit to the orphanage, visitors from Gary held infants with HIV.
"I was amazed at how happy everyone was," says Hintz. "They still laugh and play, even though they are poor."
The collection in the Gary diocese has since evolved into a formal appeal, which takes place each June.
"We don't look at it as just another donation," says Hintz. "You can tell people felt a spiritual connection to Haiti."
The collection pays for tuition and school materials for an estimated 240 students each year and training workshops for about 100 teachers.
"Enabling more children to get an education ensures a clearer path for their future," Hintz says. "It allows them to be like a kid in the United States, with the same goals and aspirations and opportunities."
As part of an agricultural project, the diocese has provided CRS with funds to purchase and distribute seeds and 1,200 small banana trees, which helps about 250 farmers. Another 16,300 small trees were distributed for reforestation. Both projects also created jobs for Haitian planters.
"These projects have a positive impact on the communities, particularly on the planters," says Moise. "They have learned new ways of working the land and making it more productive, which has increased their incomes."
Visiting farm projects a few years back allowed Father Gannon to see both dioceses' progress "beyond the money," he says.
"People came from miles away to meet us and say 'thank you.' That was very touching."
Kai T. Hill is an associate web producer. She works at CRS headquarters in Baltimore.