Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


ServeHAITI’s 10-Year Anniversary A Time To Jump In

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 27, 2011
Set in Grand-Bois, Haiti, where green mountains and lush valleys are dotted with huts, the St. Vincent de Paul Health Center established by ServeHAITI shook for weeks from tremors following the 2010 earthquake. But with its quakeproof design, the region’s primary clinic withstood the stress and still treats some 1,000 people a month, while also controlling spread of the cholera epidemic.

The faith-based nonprofit, which originated at Atlanta’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, set up tents outside the health center and at two outposts and has treated some 2,500 cholera patients. Only 75 have died. Amidst the fear and despair, the health center taught people how to prevent and treat cholera from its education-oriented radio station reaching across the isolated region where most of the 65,000 residents lack electricity and indoor plumbing. Grand-Bois is only about 60 miles from Port-au-Prince but linked to it by a rocky dirt road ridden with potholes.

“The people in Grand-Bois see our commitment. We have been there,” said Joanne McGriff, a physician and public health specialist, who is ServeHAITI’s executive director.

“We were able to use our staff and field workers to battle in prevention and treatment of cholera,” she said. “That really had an impact in not seeing as many deaths as some other areas because of community health workers and all the community education efforts.”

ServeHAITI will celebrate the 10th anniversary of such critical work to improve the health and quality of life of the people of Grand-Bois at its biennial Atlanta fundraiser on Nov. 5.

The benefit will be held at the law offices of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, which donates office space. The medical director of the clinic and the pastor of St. Pierre Church in Haiti, which twins with Sacred Heart in Atlanta, will come from Haiti to speak at the event. There will be a silent auction and artisans market featuring Haitian arts and crafts.

“ServeHAITI’s 10-year anniversary is really only a partial celebration when we consider the nearly 15 years of work that volunteers from Sacred Heart Church have put in as the Haiti Missions Ministry. This year we celebrate our continued commitment for progress in Haiti, the priceless relationships we’ve formed over the years and the enormous impact that our collaborative efforts with our Haitian counterparts have had on the Grand-Bois community,” said McGriff.

Progress In Making Health A Priority

While this impoverished region was less directly impacted by the quake that has left over a half million Haitians still homeless, the needs remain immense. Most families struggle to feed themselves and their families in a country where the median household income for rural areas is $300 per year, said the Creole-speaking physician, whose mother is from Haiti. She recalled a man who carried his weak and swollen 5-year-old daughter, Sofia, several miles to the health center to get malnutrition treatment last year. After completing their program, the girl can now walk alongside her dad back to the center.

McGriff is encouraged to see many patients returning regularly for treatment of chronic conditions to the health center that she called a “pink palace.” It welcomes people with a mural out front of Haitians walking in the mountains beneath a beaming sun. Inside there’s another mural painted by schoolchildren in partnership with the staff and patients with rainbow horses, vibrant flowers and happy children. Haitians come there regularly for help with illnesses like hypertension, diarrheal disease, pulmonary infections, anemia and malnutrition. Pregnant women come for prenatal care and childbirth. As most people work in subsistence farming, they pack the clinic during harvest season when they can better afford extra diagnostics and treatment for the whole family.

“For them to see health as a priority, we see that as a great success. Before we treated them, there were no facilities,” said McGriff. “There is a government-operated facility in the city of Cornillon, but it is inconsistently managed and operated. … We often send our residents there to help with staffing, and they refer patients to us.”

Mission teams from the Atlanta Archdiocese and across the country, including many families, travel bimonthly to volunteer with ServeHAITI. The nonprofit holds two larger mission trips twice a year geared for newcomers. Building on core medical services with a Haitian staff of over 25, they are also providing water purification systems to some 1,600 households to treat the region’s contaminated water and have built four 200-foot-deep community wells, with plans for six more en route to Port-au-Prince. They’ve launched an initiative to train farmers and entrepreneurs in better business practices and regularly hold meetings with community leaders to work respectfully in partnership to create sustainable projects. Additionally, last year they trained about 70 teachers.

“If we want the country to be different, we need to look at investing in children,” said McGriff.

Board Members Blessed Personally

Board member Wendy Strassner recalled how Sacred Heart members first raised money to fund a generator and solar panels for St. Pierre Church and then started fundraising to build the health center—which required a lot more money than they realized.

It was “a few very committed individuals who didn’t let huge challenges stand in the way of accomplishing quite a bit. In the early years we realized there was no health care out here and the water was contaminated. We decided to change that,” Strassner said.

She’s encouraged to see markets open around the health clinic. And she has been blessed one hundred-fold in adopting two Haitian sisters who were patients at the health center. As a single mother managing a business and home, she now keeps extremely busy.

“I’m even more passionate about it than ever as assistant treasurer and bookkeeper. It’s been important to stay involved in the organization and keep us true to our mission to operate very carefully and cautiously, carefully in how our money is spent for betterment of the people of Grand-Bois,” said Strassner, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

Having been on nearly 20 Haiti trips, “I’m very eager to get back as soon as I can,” she said.

Peter Anderson, a board member and Sutherland attorney, felt called after participating in Sacred Heart’s first Haiti trip to focus his volunteer time there, having previously chaired boards of the Paideia School and the Childhood Autism Foundation. He now spends five to six weeks a year in Haiti to help with building projects and in administration and is inspired by the steadfastness of the Haitians.

“I’ve seen children grow up. I’ve deepened friendships down there, and it’s a second community for me. If Haitians don’t have bad luck, they’ve had no luck at all, if you look at the problems with their government and their earthquakes and torrential rainstorms and now the cholera epidemic,” he reflected. “They deal with hardships every day. We can go through a day without having to face life and death situations. That makes them more resolute people, constitutionally stronger.”

Anderson is pleased that his youngest daughter, now in college, who has traveled on Haiti mission trips intends to become a nurse in international public health. He encourages parents to take their children on humanitarian missions.

“If we can make the lives of Haitians a little better, easier for one person at a time, we’re accomplishing a great deal. And I think we’re doing God’s work. It’s a good investment in my faith,” he said. “They appreciate the work we do and want to make sure that we feel welcomed and they go out of their way. It’s a great experience. I encourage anybody who is interested to please contact us and get involved—and please join us for the 10th anniversary Nov. 5.”

At the fundraiser McGriff looks forward to celebrating the work of all the passionate volunteers and welcoming new supporters.

“We’re really excited. We see growth. We see lots of new people coming on, young people coming on. Sacred Heart has just been a tremendous support for us,” she said. “I see the generosity of the human spirit. I have never been around a group so highly engaged and motivated to do for others. It gives me energy to be around people who really care and do something. And the people in Grand-Bois, to see their resilience, to see the hope they have encourages me—the hope in them that things can get better.”

For tickets and information, visit or call (404) 407-5023. Tickets are $50 for individuals and $75 for a couple.