August 17, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – “We came to a family – a home. I didn’t feel like an orphan.”
That was the sentiment of Alfredo Benitez and other former residents of an orphanage in Haiti during a recent visit with Sister Philomena Perreault, OP, at the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse. Sister Philomena, Father Richard Leo Frechette, and other staff members of the Nos Petit Frères et Soeurs (NPFS) “My Little Brothers and Sisters” orphanage in Haiti accepted the 500 young residents as part of a large family.
Sister Philomena was among the group that founded NPFS in 1988; she ministered there for about 15 years, taking special care of the babies, serving as nurse for all of the children, and training the older children to take care of the babies. She then felt called to make use of her training as a licensed practical nurse to serve in the mobile medical clinic in Haiti.
NPFS is one of the orphanages established by Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) International, a Christian organization that founded and runs orphanages in Latin America and the Caribbean. Founded in 1954 by Father William B. Wasson, NPH strives to provide a permanent family and home for children who are orphaned, abandoned, or suffering the effects of living in extreme poverty.
Ten former residents, staff members, and volunteers came to Adrian August 14-15 to visit Sister Philomena and to express their gratitude for the positive influence she made on their lives.
“The house was a love house, and when you come, you really feel the love,” said Nadine Dédé, who, as a resident, was trained to care for the babies and returned after attending secretarial school. She recalled the framed plaque in the orphanage: “Love is an action word.”
“We were big girls taking care of the little ones,” Nadine recalled. “She taught us how to love them, how to carry them, how to feed them and change them. We learned a lot from her.”
Roseline Paul began at the age of 10 to help Sister Philomena take care of the babies. “I was very happy to be with Sister and learn a lot, because she loved our little babies and took care of them.” She recalled that Sister Philomena slept with babies who were crying the hardest to give them comfort and a sense of security.
“She was giving 24 hours a day,” recalled Mary Reed, a U.S. volunteer who had served with Sister Philomena. “She took care of the sickest of the sick. I’d be sleeping-walking and Sister – who was a few years older than me – would be up all night with crying, screaming babies.”
Father Rick, who worked with Sister Philomena in Haiti for years – and who still serves in Haiti – recalled the sacrifice that Sister Philomena made when she switched ministries from the orphanage to medical work. The orphanage was high in the mountains – about 1,300 meters – and Sister Philomena moved to the hot climate of the slums of Port au Prince to work in the medical field.
“We worked off the back of a truck, in very poor areas, bringing X-rays and medicines and taking care of people with tuberculosis, malaria, and diabetes – and so many people with AIDS,” Father Rick said. Because of the political turmoil in Haiti at the time, the medical team also healed people who had been shot or beaten.
Perhaps most heart-breaking of all, Father Rick said, was the number of children who died every day – often five to 10 children -- whose bodies Sister Philomena washed and buried after morning Mass. “They die from malnutrition, lack of medicine for the simplest illnesses, pneumonia, gastroenteritis, malaria, dengue, cholera, tuberculosis – infectious diseases.”
Raphael Louigéne, who worked with her on the medical team, recalled Sister Philomena’s precision in caring for sick children. When she gave out medicine for the children, “she wanted to be sure that the mothers mixed the medicine with clean water so that the medicine wouldn’t be ruined by something that would cause another sickness. Sister was very precise and disciplined in making sure that the children were cared for.”
Sister Philomena’s love for children and diligence in caring for them had a profound influence on those she had served in the orphanage. Many, in turn, have become involved in various NPH programs.
“I gave my service in Haiti, Mexico, and Honduras,” Alfredo Benitez said. “To me, Sister Philomena speaks of kindness and compassion toward human life, as well as simplicity of life.”
For her part, Sister Philomena enjoyed the gathering of people she once had served or served with in her beloved Haiti – in spite of the hardships involved in her ministry there. “I would go back in a minute,” she said. “My heart is still there.”
Read more about Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos and ways in which you can become more involved.
February 13, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – Many people equate Haiti with poverty – with its reputation as the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. But Leigh Carter, who has worked with Haitians for nearly 20 years, sees signs of hope in the women who have climbed out of poverty and now provide a decent life for their families.
Leigh, founder and Board Member Emeritus of Fonkoze USA – the U.S. non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for Fonkoze – gave a special presentation on the work of Fonkoze February 6 in Weber Auditorium at the Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse. Her presentation, “The Adrian Dominican Sisters and Two Decades of Partnering with the Women of Haiti,” followed a meeting of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Portfolio Advisory Board (PAB).
Founded by the Adrian Dominican Sisters more than 40 years ago, the PAB helps the Congregation to use its resources to bring about economic justice through socially responsible investing in corporations and communities. The Adrian Dominican Sisters were among the first to grant low-interest loans to Fonkoze, and have been partners with the organization since 1997.
Leigh became director of Fonkoze USA at the invitation of Father Joseph Philippe, a Haitian priest who founded Fonkoze in 1994 to address poverty in Haiti. She attributed her connection to the Adrian Dominican Sisters to Sister Maureen Fenlon, OP, who encouraged Leigh to apply for a low-interest loan from the Congregation. Fonkoze USA received $200,000 in loans from other congregations of women religious after the Adrian Dominicans approved an initial loan.
In 20 years, Leigh said, Fonkoze has become “Haiti’s largest microfinance organization,” offering loans and other banking services to individuals – mostly women – in their efforts to become self-sufficient. Fonkoze now has 45 branches throughout Haiti, with $65,000 outstanding in loans to Haitian market women, and more than 200,000 people who are saving their money through Fonkoze.
Leigh spent much of her talk describing Fonkoze’s “staircase out of poverty” program. The first step, “Chemen Lavi Miyò,” focuses on the “ultra-poor,” women who “basically haven’t managed money ever or touched money – they’re basically begging at the marketplace.” The women receive $25 loans to help them get started in a business. In addition, Leigh said, their homes are upgraded to include a cement floor, a tin roof, a latrine, and a water filter. They are also expected to send their children to school.
After two years of group training, Leigh said, the women are “arguing over who’s going to speak at the graduation in front of 400 people” – a drastic change for women who, at the beginning of the program, “can’t look you in the eye” because they feel ashamed. Not all of the women who undergo the most basic training program move up the staircase, Leigh noted, but they have still found their lives to be “amazingly improved.
Higher up the staircase, Leigh said, women are organized into groups of five or six, forming “credit centers.” Currently, she said, some 65,000 women are organized into 2,000 credit centers. The women meet twice a month – once to meet with their credit agent or to repay their loan, and the second time to receive education on anything from cholera prevention to improving their businesses.
Leigh pointed to success stories of women who began as “ultra-poor” and became successful market women. One such woman, now in the business development stage of the program, works in wholesale, which loans in the thousands of dollars. “Instead of her husband sending her money from Miami, she sends money to him,” she noted.
Fonkoze thus focuses on “meeting women wherever they are in this journey out of poverty,” Leigh said. “Some people don’t make it,” often because of challenges such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Nine Fonkoze branches and about 14,000 clients were affected by the recent Hurricane Matthew. Fonkoze has been monitoring all of these clients to determine who has repaid their loans, who needs to restructure their loans, and whose loans need to be written off, she said.
Photos courtesy of Fonzoke, USA
In the question and answer session, Leigh noted that Fonkoze has been able to make a difference in the lives of individual Haitians – but that Haiti, as a whole, could be in “worse shape” than when she arrived 25 years ago.
“We’re dealing with the informal sector, and for Haiti to really, really succeed, there needs to be a thriving middle class and a thriving formal sector, and people who are creating jobs,” she said. In addition, she would like to see Haiti invest more in its infrastructure, such as roads. “That helps everybody.”
In the meantime, Leigh said, Fonkoze will continue to help individual women who are striving to climb out of poverty and into self-sufficiency. “We hope to have 100,000 loan clients in the next three or four years,” Leigh said. “We’ll just keep doing what we do.”
Feature photo at top: Leigh Carter, of Fonkoze USA, gives a talk on how her organization has helped women in Haiti on their journey out of poverty. Photo by Jessica Havens.
View "Saincia's Journey Out of Poverty" on YouTube: https://youtu.be/5mAa1x3QiQQ