LES CALLES, Haiti — Father Marc Boisvert looks like some novel sea captain as he sits outside and smokes. The 58-year-old’s bearded face is red and tan with sun, his head is shaved and he looks at people askance when he speaks to them. He answers questions with such a wry sense of humor one wonders whether to laugh or wince.
Then, three little girls with green ribbons in their hair run up to him and clamor. He doesn’t seem to notice their presence yet speaks to them flatly in Creole as if he has spoken it all his life. This results in laughter, hugs and respectful kisses on the cheek, and then they stand too close to him as children do. Father Marc’s eyes crinkle at the corner and a great smile breaks across his face and the true emotion is out.
He is their father, as he is to several hundred children.
This Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate is the unassuming founder of Proje Espwa, an orphanage and farming village located in southern Haiti. It is one of the many recipients of community-sustaining aid provided by the charitable organization, Cross International.
Father Marc is a former U.S. Navy chaplain originally from Maine. With French-Canadian ancestry, the transition to speaking Creole was natural for him. During his military career he was assigned to Guantanamo Bay because of his language ability. It was there he met Haitian refugees and learned about their impoverished land.
“They told me stories I could not believe,” Father Marc told a group of Catholic journalists in an interview. “I decided to check it out for myself. Once I got here I realized I had to stay.”
He returned to the United States from his assignment and founded Theo’s Work, Inc., a non-profit organization, and resigned from the chaplaincy. He packed his bags and moved to Haiti in 1998.
Father Marc fell into the care of orphans because of their sheer numbers in Haiti. Most end up living on the street.
“Children kept coming to my attention so I decided to dedicate myself to them and give them another chance,” he said.
At first the priest started with a soup kitchen out of a church, then a shelter and a school. He found an abandoned building and with the help of the youths, turned it into a home for 15 children.
But more street children came. He asked the local bishop for some space to house children and was given a former minor seminary. Though it was a rat infested wreck, they fixed it up and soon 250 children were living in a place designed to hold 75.
But with a shrug of his shoulders, Father Marc will say that’s just how things work.
Eventually, with the help of donors, Father Marc was able to purchase 125 acres of farmland on which he and his youths have built housing, a medical clinic and school buildings.
Now over 700 people live on the Proje Espwa property and 637 of those are children. The youngest is two and a half years old. The compound has electricity and a well, and they grow much of their own food.
Father Marc also has seen to it that the people who live in the village have electricity and clean water.
The meat that the children eat comes from raising their own animals. They built solar ovens to make their own bread and started a guava plantation thanks to the help of agronomists on a mission.
It is easy to see that Father Marc is a planner.
“I work for the future by working with children,” he said. “A lot of orphanages in Haiti keep children to a certain age and let them go. That’s not fair; they need to give them something to earn a living.”
Proje Espwa has a vocations training program that gives young men marketable skills such as carpentry, mechanics and tailoring. When they turn 16 they must determine what they want to do.
“We can teach them how to make something but now he needs a business, management and marketing,” Father Marc said. “I hire some of my own graduates. We have several at university level. One is now in massage therapy and is used as a physical therapist at Mother Teresa’s hospital. These are kids who had nothing. I really like the idea of having a long-term impact. It’s an ongoing investment.”
Local boys and girls can attend the school at Proje Espwa, but Father Marc can only allow boys into the orphanage.
“We can’t have girls at the orphanage because of the sexuality problems,” he said. “We do training about sexuality but it falls on deaf ears. We keep some of the boys with families here because when they go home everything we have done gets undone.”
The kindhearted priest has, however, had to break his own rule and allow seven girls.
“I couldn’t refuse them because their circumstances were so dire,” he said.
Indeed, one girl was kidnapped and used as a sex slave, while another was found living like an animal with no clothes or food, sleeping under a bridge with her two brothers.
“Boys are more on the street and it’s more of a problem,” Father Marc said. “Girls find shelter as servants and restaveks.”
Restavek is the Creole word for a child from a poor family who is sent to “stay with” (from the French “rester avec”) a wealthier relative or neighbor. The child becomes a slave. They are often fed only scraps and sleep on cardboard. Girls are frequently raped and used as sex slaves to “train” young men.
Cross International is working to break the cycle of child slavery. Christian churches have supported the building of special schools for these abused children. The education will provide them with opportunities for work. It may not seem like enough considering the children are abused, but it is the first step that outsiders can take in a country so rife with corrupting desperation.
At the orphanage, the boys are separated by age into the concrete bungalows where they live. They have a housemother who keeps the living quarters clean and oversees her group.
“The housemothers are not naturally nurturing,” Father Marc said. “You can’t give what you weren’t given. We have to train them. The women work hard, seven days a week to take care of every aspect of the boys. They have 25 or more children. She stays with them, makes sure they bathe, eat, does their laundry and cleans up.”
He would like to help whole families but said it is unrealistic. He just can’t afford it.
But he can’t keep the children away.
“The children find us,” Father Marc said. “They are brought to us, left at our doorstep, the kids will bring kids.”
Including those from the community, the school has 800 students attending the primary grades and 150 in the secondary school, which goes up to ninth grade. They serve 3,000 meals a day.
It’s an overwhelming task to run any kind of operation in Haiti, let alone to feed the poor. This multi-faceted program is supported by private donations and fund-raising efforts. Sometimes that effort gets the better of the priest.
Once, Father Marc said the burden was too much for him and he was ready to quit. He sat down with his head in his hands and one of the children asked him what was wrong. He told the child he was tired and worried. The little boy said, “It will be all right, Daddy.”
“I realized then that I was their dad,” Father Marc said. “I had been ready to pack it in.”
So this father keeps looking forward, helping to save the world one child at a time.
For more information about the HHF, visit www.haitianhealthfoundation.org.
For information about Cross International, visit www.crosscatholic.org or call 800-391-8545.