STOW, Ohio – Rick Sands has always had a heart for feeding the hungry.

It’s something that has been with him since his childhood days, when he visited his grandmother in Ironton, Ohio, along the Ohio River.

“There would be a knock at the back door at all times of the day. My grandmother would go to the door, say ‘I’ll be right back’ and return with a plate of food,” Rick Sands said. “It wasn’t unusual to have strangers sitting at the dinner table.”

Sands and his wife, Debbi — owners of the Great Harvest Bread Co.’s Stow, Ohio, franchise — are now on a mission to help feed the hungry in Ouanaminthe, Haiti. Their project, Bread 4 Haiti, began more than a year ago with the goal of building a bakery in the city, which is near the Dominican Republic border.

The bakery is to be built on the property of Institution Univers, a Christian school that provides academic programs for 2,100 students ranging from pre-kindergarten through grade 13 (there are 13 grades in the French system) and a medical clinic. In addition to providing whole-grain bread for a breakfast program at the school, plans for the bakery include a place to train vocational students at Institution Univers and offer nutrition education.

Sands said that God gave him the vision to build a bakery in a Third World country while he was raking leaves in October 2010.

“I have always wanted to do something to feed the hungry, and God said it’s time,” said Sands, 55.

The plan began to unfold after Debbi Sands attended a meeting at their home church, Christ Community Chapel’s Hudson, Ohio, campus. There, she learned about the vocational school being opened at Institution Univers and found that their bakery plan might be a good fit.

“Rick and I both have a real heart for helping people and bringing God’s healing to those in need,” said Debbi Sands, who is also a Christian counselor. “We are vessels of God.”

The Sandses met with the director and founder of the school, Hugues Bastien, when he visited the area this year. In June, the Sandses spent five days touring Ouanaminthe, getting acquainted with the people and meeting with missionaries.

“We knew right away that this is where God wanted us,” Rick Sands said. “We got to see firsthand what the needs of the people are.”

The couple is now trying to raise the $150,000 needed to make the bakery in Haiti a reality and to stock it with a year’s supply of premium ingredients. To date, they’ve raised $60,000 toward the goal and received helpful nonmonetary donations, including a hammer mill from Great Harvest Bread’s parent company and an air conditioning unit from a business in Stow.

Rick Sands said that he expects the Haitian bakery to be self-sufficient after a year of operation. To help reduce the cost of running the bakery, he is working on sourcing some of the ingredients in Haiti to help support the local economy.

The bakery will produce bread that is more nutritious than the bread currently available in Ouanaminthe. It will also produce marketable products in the city of about 120,000 people, which has 90 percent unemployment and limited infrastructure, clean water and electricity.