River Falls connection is making a difference for hundreds of Haitian children
On that upcoming February evening when he stands before hundreds of people at a fund-raising concert in the Ezekiel Lutheran Church sanctuary, Curt Larson wants contributors to know he's telling the truth.
Last year's concert netted more than $9,000 cash and thousands more in pledges by individuals, families and members of seven River Falls-area church congregations.
"We tell the person it’s for the teachers and that’s what we spend it on," said Larson, who each month, stops by the First National Bank of River Falls-Prescott and wires $2,500 to a beat-up concrete building about 25 miles outside the din and squalor of Port au Prince, Haiti.
Larson was visibly excited Wednesday when he jumped out of Pat O'Malley's rusty Toyota SUV in Ganthier, Haiti, to snap a photo of the barbed-wire encircled two-story block and stucco building along the graveled highway in the village. "I can't wait to show this to the people at First National!"
Larson, chairman of the Service & Missions Committee at Ezekiel for more than 30 years, first got to know O'Malley sitting in the bleachers together as their sons wrestled in high school.
O'Malley, a devout Catholic, first fell in love with the Haitian people when he was an American Airlines captain, ferrying tourists to the Dominican Republic -- Haiti's rich, lush sister nation situated on the east end of the same Caribbean island.
Larson and O'Malley, both 76, make the rugged journey to Haiti three to four times each year to deliver cash and other aid and verify that the money gifted by contributors is being properly spent. The two are treasurer and president, respectively, of Haitian Relief Services, a non-profit charity they formed some 10 years ago.
During a recent three-day trip, the pair visited two Catholic priests who minister parishes and lead schools on opposite sides of Port au Prince. While both schools can accommodate 500-plus students each, one complex goes virtually unused because there is no money to pay teachers. Conversely, the one supported by River Falls residents and churches in Ganthier -- St. Peter School -- is alive and thriving.
The larger St. Vincent de Paul school was constructed by Caritas Italiana Order for the Diocese of Port au Prince, but there wasn't money for ongoing operations.
That clearly bothers Larson -- a retired professor and former chairman of the UW-River Falls Physics Department.
During a visit to Ganthier a day later, Larson’s eyes sparkled when he learned from rector Fr. Rene that all 22 ninth-graders who completed studies at the school had all earned passing grades on a recent national exam.
In a culture with 70 percent unemployment, 50 percent literacy and the greatest abject poverty in the Western Hemisphere, that's no small achievement.
The school sits in foothills that is also home to an enclave of 25 houses that wouldn't exist where it not for the River Falls men and hundreds of supporters here.
Their agenda this trip was to deliver some cash, a box of 65 calculators donated by Congregational Church parishioners and to verify, first-hand, whether the money Larson wires each month is winding up in educator's pockets.
Through interpreter and driver Francois Sincere, a native Haitian who speaks fluent French, Creole and some English, they were able to verify that indeed, instructors were receiving their wages -- a sum that equated to about $85 a month, or less than $1,000 per year.
Along with the $30,000 a year from River Falls area supporters, the school gets about $8,000 a year from parishioners at a Connecticut parish. Collectively, the gifts support about 34 full-time employees, plus provide many of the children with required uniforms and shoes and some basic school supplies. Fr. Rene said Wednesday he divides whatever money he receives monthly between all.
That said, Fr. Rene sheepishly told the men that his teachers regularly ask for more money.
The entourage visited each of 10 classrooms, greeting the uniformed children cheerfully. The kids in turn, prompted by Fr. Rene, sang a simple greeting to the men in either French or English.
The classrooms were sparse. The only learning materials visible were a blackboard -- a plastered area coated with paint -- and paperback books purchased with funds provided by the River Falls Rotary Club, six other area clubs and Rotary International.
The men also visited a small development of homes they'd raised money to have built a decade ago.
Although primitive by American standards, the 12- by 24-foot, two-bedroom shelters are sturdy and functional, made of plastered concrete block with steel sheeting roofs and barred window openings. Most have an electrical connection when it’s flowing and one had a TV antenna.
Wednesday’s mission was to try and win a commitment from one of the villagers to repair the leaking central cistern and pipe from a nearby artesian water supply that feeds it. The pipe was vandalized upstream at least two years ago and no one had repaired it.
After a 30-minute discussion with several men, O’Malley and Larson won a promise that the feeder pipe would be fixed and cistern sealed if Larson wired the necessary $460 for supplies and labor. He immediately did so upon his return to River Falls on Friday.
O’Malley and Larson try to travel as cheaply as possible, always flying stand-by and refusing to pay more than $100/night for the hotel rooms they share.
Both Larson and O’Malley abhor the six- and seven-figure salaries pulled by the executives of some international charities. They appreciate the fact partners like Detroit-based Food for the Poor, with whom they cooperated on building 25 houses and shipping more than a million meals of rice and beans -- contributed by Twin Cities-based Feed My Starving Children -- to Port au Prince, operates with administrative costs of 3 percent or less.
"They're the best out there," said Larson.
Both men readily admit their efforts barely make a dent in the astounding poverty that can be seen immediately upon arrival to Port au Prince.
“The upside is, we’ve succeeded in building a school for 650 kids that will be here long after we’re gone,” said Larson. “All we do is beg for the poor.”
For additional coverage on O’Malley and Larson’s recent visit to Haiti, see the Oct. 24th print edition of the River Falls Journal.
Next year’s concert to benefit Haitian Relief Services is tentatively planned for 7 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 16, at Ezekiel Lutheran Church in River Falls. Choirs representing Ezekiel, St. Bridgets, Congregational Church, United Methodist and Luther Memorial churches as well as the Community Gospel Choir are expected to participate.