March 31, 2010

Heart and soul in Haiti

The Rev. Marc Boisvert went to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere 12 years ago, and knows he will spend his life – all of it – helping on this island.

By Bill Nemitz


click image to enlarge

Orphan boys pump water, left, to clean a washing tub at Hope Village in Les Cayes. Almost half of the relief supplies aboard the Maine ship Sea Hunter are being delivered this weekend to the orphanage and community. assistance program.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

click image to enlarge

Orphan boys greet visitors to their housing units at Hope Village in Les Cayes, where they maintain small gardens at the entrance to each dormitory. The village has recently added about 200 children, fleeing the aftermath of the Jan. 12 quake.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

Additional Photos Below

LES CAYES, Haiti - Saturday morning, as the Rev. Marc Boisvert rode in an SUV through the busy streets of downtown Les Cayes, a young man on a motorcycle pulled up alongside the open window.

"Respe, mon Pere!" the man shouted to Boisvert.

"Merci," replied Boisvert before the motorcyclist turned sharply and zoomed down a side street.

What had the man said?

"He said, 'Respect to you, Father,'" Boisvert said.

The compliment was well earned.

He was born and grew up in Lewiston. He went to a seminary high school in Bucksport.

He's served as pastor at Roman Catholic churches in Castine and Stonington, a chaplain at Maine Maritime Academy and as a Navy chaplain at, of all places, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

But that's all in his distant past. Twelve years, two months and six days ago -- he knows because it happened on Jan. 1, 1998 -- Boisvert left life as he knew it and came to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Not to visit. Not to burnish his ministerial resume with a year or two of missionary work. Not to turn himself into a local icon, although that clearly has happened whether he likes it or not.

"I still love Maine, but Haiti is my home now," Boisvert said. "I'll be buried here."

Much of Maine's attention has been focused these past several weeks on the Sea Hunter, the ship from Maine that surmounted obstacles both natural and man-made to deliver nearly 200 tons of relief supplies to this port on the south coast of Haiti.

By the time all of the cargo is offloaded in the next day or two, half of it will come here to Hope Village.

Known in Haiti as Pwoje Espwa (Project Hope), the orphanage and community assistance program founded by Boisvert sits on a sprawling 120-acre campus 20 minutes out of Les Cayes.

It is, especially by Haitian standards, a Herculean achievement.

The orphanage, normally home to about 600 boys, has swelled to almost 800 as refugees flow in daily from the Jan. 12 earthquake that ravaged the densely populated area around Port-au-Prince.

Hope Village's school, which Boisvert founded after he tried unsuccessfully to persuade teachers in town to stop beating his boys bloody for not finishing their homework, now educates close to 1,300 students. In addition to the orphans here, 500 pupils come from the surrounding community.

The program's prison outreach operation saved many a life after inmates at the Les Cayes prison rioted, unable to get information about their families, in the wake of the earthquake. Guards quelled the uprising by shooting several inmates in their tiny, overcrowded cells, Boisvert said.

"We were the only ones they allowed in," Boisvert recalled. "We fed the inmates for three weeks. We had guys with bullets still in their bodies the whole time. It was unbelievable."

The list goes on.

There's the home-building program that has provided shelter for more than 100 families in the Les Cayes area.

And the fledgling rehabilitation program aimed at providing prosthetics and vocational training for earthquake amputees.

All told, Hope Village's 250-person payroll makes it one of the largest employers in southern Haiti.

And its $1.8 million annual operating budget, funded almost entirely through donations from the United Sates and beyond, leaves a significant economic footprint on a region where a "steady income" can average as little as a dollar a day.

At the center of it all sits the 59-year-old Boisvert.

Bearded and blue-jeaned with a quick wit and penetrating eyes, he navigates Haiti's currents of corruption, inefficiency and political intrigue more like a savvy politician than an Oblate of the Immaculate Conception priest.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The Rev. Marc Boisvert holds Stanley Toussiant, one of almost 800 orphans who live at Hope Village in Haiti. Boisvert, a Lewiston native, founded and operates the orphanage and community assistance program on the outskirts of Les Cayes.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

click image to enlarge

Douyon Roberson, left, and Phillipe Juste are two of the almost 800 orphans living at Hope Village.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist


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