Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Nonprofit Receives Grant For Health Care In Haiti

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 22, 2007

Dr. Charmaine Lewis was completing a residency at Emory University in 2004 when she noticed a bulletin blurb at Sacred Heart Church about a mission trip to Haiti through the ServeHAITI nonprofit that grew out of the parish. The internist, who is from Louisiana, speaks French fluently and had always been interested in medical missions. She decided to sign up for what turned into a life-changing experience.

She and other team members flew to Port-au-Prince in February 2005 and traveled five hours to traverse only 50 miles of an extremely rough, rocky dirt road to the town of St. Pierre. They provided basic medical care to people previously receiving virtually none, who live with no plumbing in their homes or commercial electricity in the impoverished and mountainous region of Grand-Bois. They worked out of the back of St. Pierre Church, which the Atlanta parish had begun twinning with in 1997. In an age of multi-million dollar medical equipment, heavy lab testing and large physician teams, Lewis found herself revitalized as a physician by refocusing on the essence of health care.

“It’s going back to square one of the doctor-patient relationship,” she said. “I’m so glad I went that first time. It was the last medical mission that they did working out of the back of the church. It was very humbling for a physician in the U.S. You are used to millions of dollars in equipment. We did a lot of amazing things on that stone floor church with very limited equipment.”

Lewis began taking part in every trip, which raised many questions for her about public health. The nonprofit built a clinic for the isolated region that was dedicated in June 2005. The clinic uses a diesel generator for electricity. Then early last year fellow ServeHAITI volunteer leader Art Judy proposed that together they write and apply for the nonprofit’s first grant, to which she responded, “I’m not sure we’re ready for that yet.”

But swayed by Judy’s enthusiasm, Lewis reluctantly agreed to help write the grant, and within a month was “spending like 16 hours a day sitting at the dining room table on my laptop.”

Their first deadline was a budget proposal and concept paper by July 15. After that was approved they scrambled to pull together a 30-page technical application, 20-page financial application, and material verifying their legitimacy as a nonprofit by October.

On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2006, they were thrilled to learn that they had won a New Partner Initiative grant of a minimum of $250,000 per year for three years for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment from the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. NPI awards are specifically for faith-based and community-based organizations that already have grass-roots involvement in one of 15 focus countries. The volunteer organization was one of 23 recipients, including 11 in Africa, which also included the Catholic Medical Mission Board.

“We were such a long shot but got hints in the final cut. Art is fearless. He’s a wonderful partner. He does not take no for an answer. It was his idea originally to do the grant,” said Lewis. “This grant will allow us to implement the first large-scale community health program in this region, which will have an immensely positive impact on the local people.”

For Lewis, the process also involved letting go of and reshaping career goals. She stunned family, friends and colleagues during the grant application process when she decided two weeks into her critical care fellowship at Emory to leave in order to concentrate her energies on ServeHAITI and public health. Her decision was so surprising that the Emory physicians in the program made her work a while longer so she could be sure of her decision.

“It felt like the critical care fellowship was going to keep me from getting involved in ServeHAITI. I had my ‘eureka’ moment a couple weeks into the fellowship,” she recalled of that stressful period. “It was hard for me to convince myself that this was the right thing to do. It pretty much stunned the critical care department at Emory that I would give up this position so sought after to run a clinic in Haiti.”

But she felt a call to provide critical care to the desperately poor in the hemisphere’s poorest country, like a very sick girl she treated who simply needed penicillin to recover from her pneumonia.

“I knew in my heart God was telling me to get out of that, that it was never going to make me happy,” she reflected. “I’ve been extremely happy, knowing what it’s like to go to a place where penicillin is still life-changing and makes a profound difference in people’s lives.”

In addition to serving as medical director for ServeHAITI, she recently married a cardiologist at Sacred Heart and is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health in Tampa, Fla. She believes she would never have made this life change if she hadn’t taken that first mission trip and “fallen in love doing primary care in Haiti.”

With the grant money Lewis, Judy, and other team members will implement care and prevention programs across the regions of Grand-Bois, which encompasses more than 50 square miles and 65,000 people. Programs will include funding community health workers and mobile prevention teams; offering widespread HIV counseling and testing; creating a region-wide prevention program; caring for orphans, vulnerable children and all others impacted by HIV/AIDS; and building a radio station for the community that is devoted to health care.

ServeHAITI began with the twinning partnership initiated by former Sacred Heart outreach director Tom Reichert in 1997, which provided basic mission support in the area. Reichert had previously been involved with the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas and when he took the position at Sacred Heart, he requested one of the poorest and most isolated parishes in Haiti and was connected with Father Boniface Senat and St. Pierre.

Reichert affirmed by e-mail the value of parish twinning. Christians are challenged to be “a leaven within our country and the world to defend human dignity and basic human rights,” he said, and caring for the poor and marginalized is constitutive to salvation.

“Outside our gates we find close to a billion people living in absolute poverty, a morally scandalous reality which is neither God-ordained nor inevitable but a reflection of human decisions and priorities. As Christians we are challenged to be like the Good Shepherd, to seek out those in greatest emotional, spiritual and material need, and be a source of faith and hope in love. Jesus embraced what’s sometimes called a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ … Twinning with another parish in a developing country is a tangible way to seek out the poorest of the poor and to develop relationships of friendship and solidarity.”

Sacred Heart’s partnership of solidarity steadily expanded. In 2001 volunteer doctors began limited medical care. They became a nonprofit in 2002. The nonprofit now partners in the United States with Our Lady of the Rivers Parish in Davenport, Iowa, and St. John Vianney Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., as well as Sacred Heart, and has members from around the country. Its first paid employee, Dawn Pinder, will oversee the grant and make sure the organization conforms to government regulations. The clinic has already been staffing a Haitian doctor, nurse, dentist and others, and leaders are planning to build a second floor onto the clinic. It has funded the installation and ongoing maintenance of “point of use” water purification units in hundreds of households in the region, and has installed an electric grain mill and satellite Internet service at the health center to further serve the region.

Judy said that the HIV prevention program will emphasize and promote abstinence and being faithful. While the program is under development, they likely will provide scientifically accurate information about condom use as needed, particularly to those with high-risk behavior, while noting that “if you engage in risky behavior nothing will make you safe.”

He said that the grant money can be used to treat secondary infections from HIV and affected family members and parent to child transmission, but that they will refer those needing anti-retroviral drugs to another organization operating in another region. They are now able to buy desperately needed vehicles and portable generators as well.

Father T.J. Meehan, pastor of Sacred Heart, has also traveled to St. Pierre and was impressed as he watched the health care providers with ServeHAITI treat hundreds of people through their clinic for a variety of conditions. He noted that “as far as their work in Haiti goes, the AIDS prevention is incidental to everything else we’re about there.”

“We’re proud of our ministry. It’s great work we’ve been able to do there and I’m very happy that ServeHAITI has received this grant,” he said, adding that “I trust we’d be supporting the church position in whatever approach we take in HIV prevention.”

Lewis said an estimated 2 percent in the area have HIV or AIDS, but as they educate people, particularly women of childbearing age who could pass the virus to children, “the impact we could have with even simple programs for prevention and treatments is huge.”

They will now monitor their work closely to measure outcomes and behavior changes, and also will train people to collect epidemiology data and to provide education and develop the plans and infrastructure for the outreach. Consequently, the physician said that this will enable them down the road to address other exigent medical issues such as parasite infections and nutritional deficiencies, such as of iodine, which is the number one preventable cause of mental retardation. “Now the money is with HIV. We’ll start with HIV” and move into other pressing, basic health issues, she affirmed. “It’s been really fun to see this grow so fast and be a part of that. After we get this NPI grant underway, we will be writing more grants.”

She hopes that as they study successful initiatives in other parts of the country they can develop more innovative and effective programs. She reported that one of the most powerful changes they have already made through primary care in the clinic is in maternal health and infant mortality.

“These sorts of changes are so important because young women especially are susceptible to all kinds of difficult afflictions or diseases when they are pregnant and after delivering a baby.”

Judy has witnessed all of this heartening progress in health care, as he’s been involved since the ministry’s inception. He recalled his first visit back in 1997 with Reichert and others, where he felt frustrated as an engineer that there was nothing to build within this community.

“(There was) no electricity anywhere in this province, night is pitch black, people haven’t seen phones, no post office,” he said. They brought in duffle bags of school supplies and over-the-counter medicines, and “all we could do (was) start” with a coat of yellow paint for the school, later helping to put a roof on the abandoned rectory and provide tuition scholarships. Eventually the rectory was completed, and they installed a solar power system in there and the church.

But the problems seemed overwhelming to the teams going down a couple of times a year. They also came to realize that the lack of medical care was acute, as there were a couple of government clinics, but they were rarely open. As a result in 2001 they brought down two doctors and made an announcement at the church for their three-day clinic to gauge needs.

“About 1,000 people showed up. Then we’d go back twice a year and repeat that. Every time we’d go, a big mob of people would show up.”

They began planning a permanent facility, and a voodoo priest gave them free land to build it. Hauling in materials for construction was quite an ordeal for the crew, as when it rains the road is extremely muddy.

“If it rains the whole village will come out and push and push you out of the mud and drag vehicles up the hill so you can get to the clinic,” he said. They also proudly say, “good morning” in the afternoons, he noted. “They’re in the caked mud, and the rest of the village is cheering.”

Asked about security in the region, Judy said they feel safest once they are out of the capital city, as in the mountains these simple country people “realize how essential the clinic is to the whole area. They wave and welcome you” and carry the duffle bags of medicine if the cars get stuck. With the clinic “we’ve been able to build around that” and have added other services such as the satellite Internet to allow the locals to communicate needs with them. They’re told that children are less malnourished now and ask to attend school.

“This whole area has been transformed and there is a sense of hope, and now we were told young people are moving back to the countryside.”

But he knows their needs remain massive, as there is still no commercial electricity or plumbing in the area, and being well-off means having a concrete floor and a tin roof and owning a cow. Many eke out a living with farming, mostly corn and beans, and others practice woodwork, where Judy finds they always seem to be making caskets.

He is grateful that the archbishop of Port-au-Prince dedicated their health clinic and is very supportive of their work.

“He’s hoping we’ll be successful there because there are other areas with a big AIDS problem” and the country has one of the highest infection rates in the hemisphere.

But Judy is undaunted in his work, and retired early to devote more time to it. He’s excited about using his engineering skills as they continue developing the community and said they are considering a well-digging project.

The organization continually seeks donations in between its biyearly auction. And with “zero overhead” and no offices, donors can be confident they are improving lives.

“When someone donates, the money is used to buy medicine or pay the doctor’s salary or build this church or a corn mill we just put in,” he said. “It seems the people have their lives together. There’s not a whole lot of crime, there’s no jails out there. … Kids all know each other in the village. It’s just that they have no resources. In some ways it’s very rewarding because you can make a lot of change without paying millions of dollars to do it.”

Reichert, who is now the pastoral associate at St. Joseph’s Church in Marietta, which twins with a Honduran church, found that most who have participated experience this deep satisfaction and have received much more than they’ve given.

“A twinning relationship involves mutual liberation as we are all one in Christ and have different gifts to give,” he said.

He is pleased with how ServeHAITI has drawn people of diverse backgrounds and faiths.

“ServeHAITI doesn’t replace the twinning relationship between Sacred Heart and St. Pierre, but it offers a way to broaden the scope to include funding and support from other people of good will who are not Catholic. It’s always a great hope to humanity to see people of good will unite in a common effort to help the poorest of the poor,” he said. “ServeHAITI is an example of gifted and talented parishioners taking the initiative, and by doing so, they have saved countless lives and have minimized untold suffering.”

Lewis is also hopeful about the possibilities for their Caribbean neighbors, and is finding she’s gradually becoming more of an optimist.

“It is amazing and it’s scary because we’re people without a lot of experience in doing this. It’s a huge step, a learning curve for us to bring this to them,” she said. But starting with the HIV initiative and building on that in other areas, “this is an opportunity to create our own public health system in a population that has very little in the way of institutional public health.”

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