(MissionNewswire) On Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, exactly eight years after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, Salesian missionaries held Catholic Mass and a ceremony at the Salesian-run National School of Arts and Crafts (ENAM) in Port-au-Prince. The ceremony, presided by Father Morachel Bonhomme, vicar of the vice province of Haiti, drew a large number of Salesian missionaries, post-novices, aspirants, pre-novices, staff and teachers from ENAM and the Little Schools of Father Bohnen (OPEPB).
The celebration recalled stories from the many people who still remember the painful events of the earthquake and its aftermath. They prayed for the more than 200 Salesian students who perished that day and for others they lost like Salesian Coadjutor Brother Hubert Sanon, the first Haitian Salesian, and for three other Salesian youth who were in formation at that time; Wilfrid Atismé, Valsaint Vilbrun and Pierre-Richard René.
In the afternoon, Salesian missionaries headed to the University of Quisqueya where two of the young Salesians were killed by the earthquake. In a room built for the occasion, the Salesians prayed for all the students who died at the site. The whole day was spent in an atmosphere of profound meditation and reflection on the fragility of human life.
In the initial aftermath of the earthquake, the Salesians were instrumental in emergency response and relief efforts. An integral part of the infrastructure in Haiti prior to the earthquake, they were among the first responders—providing shelter and medical aid; means to securely transport, store and distribute relief supplies and clean drinking water; and, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of how to get things done in Haiti. Having served Haiti for nearly 75 years, the Salesians were not outsiders rushing in to help—they were already beloved members of the community.
Since then, Salesian missionaries have been focused on rebuilding community structures like schools, as well as helping residents rebuild their homes and their livelihoods. In 2015, through funding provided by donors to Salesian Missions, the U.S. development arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco, reconstruction was finished on the Salesian Youth Center in Fort Liberté. First opened in 2002, the youth center in Fort Liberté offers a broad range of formal and informal educational programs for local youth. It houses an elementary school, technical school, vocational training center, teacher-training program and one of the country’s only nursing schools.
Salesian missionaries were also a vital source of support and humanitarian aid following Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 hurricane that pummeled Haiti on Oct. 4, 2016. Missionaries used the same local connections and channels to provide much needed immediate aid and ongoing relief and reconstruction efforts as they did after the earthquake. A warehouse that was built using funds from Salesian Missions, made possible by donations from donors who responded after the earthquake, was utilized during the hurricane response. The warehouse was used for not only storage but also as the staging ground where missionaries and other volunteers assembled the initial 400 survival kits. A delivery truck also funded by Salesian Missions made the transport to Les Cayes possible.
Most recently, Salesian students at six Salesian centers in Haiti are receiving access to better nutrition thanks to a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Salesian Missions secured the grant for its Hunger for Education USAID International Food Relief Partnership project in Haiti. The project aims to increase the health and learning capacity of students by implementing school feeding programs in Salesian centers within the country.
The project is helping to support the shipment of 20 40-foot shipping containers of meals—eight from Breedlove, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping eradicate world hunger; eight containers from Rise Against Hunger, an international relief organization that provides food and life-changing aid to the world’s most vulnerable; and four from Feed My Starving Children, a nonprofit Christian organization committed to “feeding God’s children hungry in body and spirit.”
The rice-meals that are being provided cover meals five days a week during the school term for eight months. The donation is shared among Salesian centers in the cities of Port-au-Prince, Fort-Liberté, Cap-Haïtien, Les Cayes, Gressier and Gonaïves. As a result, 12,733 Salesian students are receiving access to a hot meal each day at school. The feeding programs also covers two months of summer programming at Les Cayes, Gressier, Fort-Liberté, Cap-Haïtien, Gonaives, Thorland, Petionville, Drouillard and the post-novitiate.
“Salesian missionaries strive to reach the poorest students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to receive an education. Many of the students come from families where food is not readily available and a large percentage of these students come to class on an empty stomach,” says Jessica O’Connor, senior international development officer at Salesian Missions. “The project has already had a great impact on students. Children who once arrived at school hungry and had to struggle through classes without food are now provided with a meal during the day, and as a result, students have shown improvements in health, happiness and capacity to learn.”
Despite the ongoing reconstruction and infrastructure improvements that are helping to rebuild Haiti, the county remains the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world. According to the World Bank, over half of the country’s population of 10 million lives on less than $1 per day and approximately 80 percent live on less than $2 per day. The majority of Haitians lack adequate access to education, healthcare and nutritious food.
For Salesian missionaries in Haiti, schools and youth programs fulfill an important socio-economic mission by providing poor youth a foundation for lifelong learning through education and training in skills and trades to help them escape poverty and establish a sustainable livelihood.