Jim Fitzgerald, a dairy farmer from Newton and a 2015 Master Agriculturist, went on his first trip to Haiti in 2011 to help build schools and houses for the poor.
"It was life changing for my wife Sandie and me," Jim says. "As Americans, we are spoiled. We have everything we could want. The vast majority of people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic have very little. I believe we should all live by the following words – At the end of our lives all that is important is what we have done for God and our brothers and sisters."
VOLUNTEER LABOR: Volunteers work with locals to build schools and other buildings in Haiti.
On a mission
Jim has gone to Haiti and the Dominican Republic every winter for the past six years.
"We go with members of the Green Bay Diocese to build. Generally there are about 40 of us," he explains. "We don't all go at the same time. We stagger our visits and go in smaller groups. I've met a lot of very caring and giving people."
Haiti is the poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere. Volunteers from the Diocese of Green Bay who travel to Haiti work with Sister Maria Marciano, a native of Brazil who previously worked for 22 years as a missionary in the Dominican Republic. She now focuses her work in Haiti. According to Jim, Sister Maria has six college degrees including one in civil engineering and one in hydrology. She works to construct roads and schools and provide fresh water to the people of Haiti.
CRAMMED SCHOOL: These 120 Haitian children were being taught in a school the size of a three-car garage. Notice how dilapidated the old school is. You can see right through the walls.
"She teaches the people of Haiti about agriculture and reforestation," Jim adds. "Her work impacts the lives of 160,000 people in Haiti by providing clean water, food, health, wellness, education and flood and erosion prevention. Her key projects are an agricultural training center, schools and a clinic."
NEW SCHOOL: Many of the schools volunteers are building are simple like this one built in 2013 in the remote, mountainous region of Haiti.
In addition to volunteers, she also has help from locals.
"Sister Maria has three skilled workers who do carpentry and concrete work. A group of unskilled Haitians work with them," Jim adds. "They are able to do things like dig trenches and mix concrete."
For more than 50 years, the Diocese of Green Bay has provided financial support and priests to staff a parish in the Dominican Republic. For the past 20 years, Father Mike Seis has ministered to about 90,000 people in two parishes and about 1,000 students in Catholic schools.
Jim says they visited a dilapidated Haitian school three years ago that was the size of a three-car garage and it had 120 kids crammed in it.
COLLECTING SUPPLIES: Dairy farmer Jim Fltzgerald of Newton is collecting supplies to fill a shipping container that will be sent to Haiti in September.
Haitians offer the majority of the labor to get building projects done in their communities, Jim says.
"We started building a school and the Haitian people weren't showing up to help and Sister Maria decided we would build somewhere else," Jim recalls. "The people came to her and asked 'why aren't you building our school' and she said, 'Well, nobody was showing up.' It's important for the people to take ownership of a project."
Jim says in most cases the Haitians work hard.
"Sister Maria is building a school in Tiroly. There are about 20,000 people in that community. Originally, there was one two-room school for these people," Jim says. "She was planning to build a four-room school. We asked if that was big enough and she said, 'No, but that's all the funds that I have for it.'
GROWING VEGETABLES: Although the land is less than ideal in Haiti, thanks to irrigation Sister Maria is able to grow a lot of vegetables.
"So we went back there in February and they were pouring the footings for the school and she had expanded it to a six-room school that could be three floors high. When we were there, there were 60 Haitian men and women helping pour the concrete,' Jim says. "An annonymous donor provided the funds for six rooms on the second floor.The Jesuit Relief Services Organization donated the money to build six more rooms on a third floor. So while we were there, the school went from six rooms to 18 rooms. I'll be excited to see all of this when we go back next February."
More on Sister Maria’s work can be found at www.sistermariahaiti.com.
Jim says he has no illusions about Haiti.
"I know that things are never going to be great in Haiti," he says. "My hope for the people of Haiti is they will get two nutritious meals a day. During the growing season, they get fruits and vegetables. Eight months of the year they are eating mostly rice. So they are getting a lot of carbs but they don't get protein."
Improving nutrition and getting doctors and clinics built are top priorities in Haiti.
"There are 1 million people in the area where we work and there are no doctors," he says. "Sister Maria is working on getting a doctor and building clinics."
Education continues to be another top priority.
"We want all of the children to get an education," Jim says. "Right now only between 30% and 40% of the children go to school."
Jim says the progress is slow in Haiti. "But you can see improvement," he says. "Every year I go back and things are a little better."
Jim is often invited to speak about the work that is being done in Haiti. He is available to speak to groups that want to help.
"We're always looking for additional people who want to go through a mission experience."
Shipping container project
Currently, Jim is helping collect enough donated items to fill a shipping container to send to the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic the end of September.
"Our wish list includes items of hygiene, medicine, hand tools and housewares. They also need hand hoes, metal rakes and hand sickles.
"We're also in need of generators, since there is no electricity in these remote areas, and building and construction tools," Jim says.
"We're buying two 13,000 surge watt generators to be used for various building projects. They will cost about $2,500 each. We also need several smaller generators ."
For a complete list of items that are needed for donation, go to www.catholicfoundationgb.org/container. We are looking for churches, civic groups and families to donate things like power saws, electric drills, hammer drills, water pumps, etc. You can reach Jim at 920-726-4753 or [email protected] for more information or to have your donations picked up.Jim estimates about 20% of the items they need to fill the container have already been collected.
"It's a 40-foot shipping container 8-feet 9-inches high by 8-feet 6 inches wide, so it will hold a lot of stuff," he says.
They are also accepting monetary donations.
"The cost to send the container over there is about $6,000, so we can use cash donations to help with that and buy supplies," Jim says. "If we get more supplies than the container will hold, we will set it aside and send another container in two years."
The deadline for donations is Sept. 1.