The water, beaches and all-around beauty of Haiti is breathtaking. But the picturesque landscape is sharply contrasted by the desperate living conditions of so many who call the island home. Extreme poverty and natural disasters have made daily life a challenge there.
It’s something that Mary Lynch has witnessed with her own eyes. The St. Simons Island resident has traveled to the county a number of times as part of a local program, Helping Hugs for Haiti.
The organization operates through St. William Catholic Church on St. Simons Island and it helps to support a congregation in the island nation — St. Joseph Church. The parish, located in in Côtes-de-Fer, Haiti, includes 10 chapels in the surrounding areas. All together, the priest ministers to 38,000 people.
Lynch says that visiting is a complete culture shock.
“To travel to St. Joseph parish in Côes-de-Fer from the capital city, Port-au-Prince, it is a five-hour drive. The city is congested and dirty. Driving through village after village can be chaotic with people, buses, motorcycles and cars,” she said.
“Most of the roads are paved, the last hour is not. It is a bumpy ride along the beautiful southern coastline of the island. Staying at the rectory is primitive by our standards.”
But Helping Hugs and its dedicated group of volunteers like Lynch have been working hard to lend a hand. The relationship was established in 2008 and is known as “parish twinning.” St. William works to generate funds to help support the church and provides aid in a variety of ways.
“It’s actually the 10th anniversary of our ‘twinning’ relationship. St. Joseph is located in the northern part of the country and their priest is Father Islaire,” she said. “Our relationship has really evolved and flowed well. We work in four areas — education, our medical mission, water and infastructure.”
Their educational efforts include funding for three schools and supporting teachers there in a number of ways, including helping provide salaries. This year, the organization has also worked to open a computer center for the students of St. Joseph parish school.
“We provide operating funds like salaries for teachers, materials such as book bags and food for the children,” Lynch said.
Like education, the medical mission is equally important, filling a critical void. Since 2009, donors have provided medical supplies, hygienic items, clothing, shoes and even eye glasses. A team of medical professionals also travels to Haiti to treat patients.
“We have a very close relationship with the Southeast Georgia Health System and the doctors on staff there. The Links Inc. has helped us a lot with the medical mission too,” Lynch said.
“The Baptist church, First Baptist on St. Simons, has helped us a lot with clothing items through its sewing group. We have Facebook contributions ... really a lot of community organizations have stepped up to help us.”
The third part of the equation is clean water. Haiti’s water supply is dangerously inadequate.
To offer aid, Helping Hugs has teamed up with World Water Relief, an organization with local ties that offers pathways to purer water.
Helping Hugs and World Water Relief installed the first purification system at St. Joseph’s church, the school and rectory in 2016. Two years later, the partnership installed a new system at Mayette. They are currently working to provide systems to the other schools associated with the parish.
“Dr. Kevin Fussel and his wife locally have helped us with the water,” Lynch said.
The final piece of the puzzle is infrastructure. Repeated earthquakes have devastated the rudimentary system that was previously in place. Helping Hugs has taken that on as another element of its mission.
A major fundraiser for that effort began in 2013 to reconstruct buildings damaged by the 2010 earthquake.
Donors have also provided funds to refurbish homes, chapels and the church impacted by Hurricane Matthew.
“They needed a new building because the one that was damaged was used for quite a bit for education,” Lynch noted.
All together, the programs spearheaded by Helping Hugs have gone a long way toward changing the lives of so many who live in Côtes-de-Fer. That, Lynch adds, is important. While the people there may not have many material possessions, they are filled with faith and determination to live their best lives.
“I have a direct relationship with the priest there and the medical mission is really the one that interacts with the most people. But every time I have been I have noticed that when they come to church, they are immaculately dressed. They have beautiful clothing,” she said. “And when you see where they live ... the conditions they live in, you really wonder how they do it.”
While the members of Helping Hugs and their partner organizations are dedicated to offering aid to the people of St. Joseph’s Church, it is an enormous undertaking. Fundraising is critical.
To that end, the group holds one major event throughout the year, coupled with ongoing drives for its various missions.
But their major soiree, an evening out for the cause called the Fete for Haiti, will be held at 6 p.m. Nov. 9 at Bennie’s Red Barn on St. Simons Island.
Tickets are $60 and include dinner and a beverage. A cash bar will be available. For more information or to order tickets, visit http://www.helpinghugsinc.org.
“We also will have a silent and live auction,” Lynch added.
“All of the proceeds will go directly to the projects that we work on. We’re helping the poor with their most basic needs ... in order to improve their lives.”