When members of the Burke Nativity Church arrived in Haiti for the first time, the living conditions and an appalling stench convinced them they were doing the right thing.
Even though they didn’t need convincing, being there touched them in ways that pictures and statistics could not really illustrate.
Father Dick Martin, pastor at the Nativity Church, realized the mission as he was walking his dog on a cold night in 1998. Lent was approaching, he said, and he did some math in his head and could not believe the numbers he came up with.
He thought every family at the church could likely afford to save $0.50 per day during the 40 days of Lent. And since there were about 2,500 families, he calculated that the church could raise $50,000.
"I couldn’t believe that was right," he said. "I kept going over it again and again in my head."
It was right and the church raised $17,000 more than what he calculated, for a total of $67,000. It decided to give the money to Food for the Poor, an international Christian charity, since it had the means to implement the building and outreach in Haiti.
But it didn’t stop at Lent. The giving kept on and what was initially supposed to be a one-time mission turned into an ongoing one — something the church’s volunteers are thankful for, since the aid needed in Haiti is also ongoing. In the nine years since the project began, Nativity Church has collected more than $1.6 million for the project, according to Food for the Poor records, all without setting fundraising goals.
"It’s a steady stream, but the focus is the 40 days of Lent," said Jim McDaniel, project director for Food for the Poor.
Martin chose Haiti as the recipient of the giving because he knew it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and he had been there before and seen how desperate things are there.
"To think, Haiti is just an hour and a quarter [by plane] from Disney World," said Martin.
ABOUT ONCE a year, a group of roughly 15 volunteers heads down to Haiti to asses the work that needs to be done and also to see what is being done. Together they have provided the resources for food, shelter and clean drinking water for about 600 people, said Martin, spread over three villages in different parts of the country.
"This shows people can make a promise and can keep it," said Martin. "Let’s follow through."
Martin said 100 percent of the money raised at Nativity Church goes to Haiti. There is no bureaucracy involved and there is no overhead through the program. The church chose Food for the Poor for that reason as well. The charity generally has about a 4 percent administrative overhead, which is extremely low for a charity, said McDaniel.
"If you give a donation to Food for the Poor, 96 percent goes to a project, but if you give through a program like this, 100 percent goes," said McDaniel.
The reward is the smiles on the faces in Haiti. And while they know they cannot help every face, each one they can help is extraordinarily important.
That’s exactly how the name Operation Starfish came into play.
Martin told the parish a story about a young boy and a starfish, adapted from a Loren Eiseley book. The boy saw a man picking up stranded starfish on a beach, one by one, and throwing them back into the sea. The man told the boy he was doing it because they would die if left stranded on the beach. The boy said there are thousands of starfish along miles and miles of beach and asked how the man could make a difference all by himself. The man picked up another starfish and tossed it into the sea and told the boy he had made a difference to that one.
So the church, and Food for the Poor, named the project Operation Starfish. They know the scope of the problem in Haiti, and throughout the world, but making a difference to one person is still worth it, said Hollis Hunter, a parishioner and Operation Starfish volunteer who has been on three Haiti trips with the church to date.
THE MEMORIES NEVER leave the volunteers, both the good and the bad. The walls inside Nativity Catholic Church are lined with photographs of the Haitian villages and the terrible conditions in which the residents live. There are many photographs of thankful faces, some smiling and some crying. There are also photographs that remind the church volunteers of the darker side.
McDaniel remembers seeing starving little boys in Haiti and that’s when the tears began to flow for him, he said. Their bellies were distended and their hair was orange because of malnutrition, and they would stand there, just staring at the volunteers.
"It reminds me of my grandson," McDaniel said. "It’s just a matter of chance that he was born there and my grandson was born in the U.S."
One woman pictured on a Nativity Church wall, remembers McDaniel, had just given birth. She laid in filth with her baby and both became ill. The group mobilized to get a home built for them, but by the time the mother and daughter could move in, it was too late — they had already died. A picture of the mother embracing her baby is on the wall in a hallway at Nativity Church. A plaque next to it tells the woman’s story. It reminds the church that there is always more work to be done.
"There is a series of very intense realizations and overwhelming experiences [in Haiti]," said Hunter.
The memories that the Haitian children carry with them also stay for life, said Martin. "If you move children, they’ll carry that with them."
Martin remembers a time when he took photographs of some of the children with a digital camera and then immediately showed them the image. The children had never seen themselves before, because they don’t have mirrors or cameras — something he said Americans take for granted.
"We’ve become their hope," said Martin. "I call it, ‘hope realized.'"
Martin and the parish want the message to be to help others. Their starfish mission is in Haiti, but the church does mission work and outreach throughout the local community, the country and the world. The message is about humanity and helping one another. Helping the poor applies to the poor "everywhere," said McDaniel.
"If people aren’t concerned about Haiti, be concerned about something," said Martin. "Do something for your fellow person."
And while the church and Food for the Poor are Christian-based missions, helping people doesn’t have to be about religion, he said. Hunter said that in Haiti, it doesn’t matter what religion you are.
"What religion is God? God is love," said Martin. "You can be against God, but be pro-goodness, pro-creation, pro-humanity."