Church, community organizations rally to build school in Haiti

Sunday, November 4, 2012
Many Haitian children who want to attend the OPTE school posed for a photo with the Rev. Serdieu, who is from the area and is heading up the construction with the committee in Haiti, in late September. (Submitted photos)

Most people, and all Catholics, in this country know there is a shortage of priests to work in Catholic parishes. It is hard to believe that the U.S. is actually looked upon as missionary work for Catholic priests internationally.

In 2007, a young Haitian priest, the Rev. Rahab Isidor, came to serve the members of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Cape Girardeau. Bright eyes, big smile and even bigger "amens."

Although initially difficult to understand, Rahab would stand in front of the school every morning, waving and greeting students and parents. With persistence and humor, this gregarious priest soon won over the challenges of the language barrier and many people were drawn to him. One of those people was a parishioner, Skip Wrape.

Looking for an international project for the Cape Girardeau West Rotary Club, Skip traveled with Rahab to his hometown, Thomassique, Haiti. There a local man, Pierre Louis, had been operating an open air "school" for more than 175 orphaned and displaced children. They met under trees and tin roof shanties.

After seeing this great need, a project of building a school for the children was chosen.

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St. Vincent's Men's Association had previously donated funds for building houses in Haiti and members Glen Beussink and Lou Hagler were interested in joining the school building project. These initial members formed and named the organization Out of Poverty Thru Education (OPTE).

Around this time, a number of St. Vincent parishioners were participating in a program called "Why Catholic," a faith-based initiative encouraging members to put their faith into action. My husband and I invited Rahab and Skip to talk with this group about the great need in Haiti and the school project. Here was the opportunity to put faith into action.

We joined the OPTE board and under the guidance of board member, lawyer Mike Gardner, OPTE became a registered and recognized 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization in 2010.

Out of Poverty Thru Education (OPTE) began the task of obtaining property, raising funds and looking at potential plans for a school building. The support was growing with the addition of groups from St. Vincent and other Rotary Clubs in the area. There were schools, Girl Scout troops and individuals willing to help an orphan school they heard about.

OPTE was gaining momentum, and some land was donated by the diocese of Hinche to build the school.

A team from Cape Girardeau headed to Haiti to secure the property, but they were turned back at Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The devastating earthquake of 2010 had just crippled Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area.

The earthquake did bring awareness of the plight of the Haitian people. OPTE helped as it could in disaster relief and a number of private individuals from the Cape Girardeau area responded to a full-page ad placed in the Southeast Missourian. But progress toward building the school was greatly impeded.

Although the town of Thomassique did not incur any earthquake damage, it was strained even more as refugees moved back to their hometowns. This meant less food, less water and more orphaned children under the trees.

Months later, water testing resumed, and directed by Bill Propst of the Cape Girardeau Rotary Club, a 300-foot-deep well was dug.

Security walls were erected and building construction continued as funds were acquired from various groups and individuals.

Under the persistent leadership of OPTE board president Skip Wrape, many board members and supporters visited the orphaned children in Thomassique. After seeing the overwhelming poverty and living situation, everyone returned changed.

Today, six classrooms, a kitchen, storage room and sanitary bathroom facilities have been completed. This has been a successful collaborative project involving many in the Cape Girardeau area.

Funds are now being raised to furnish the school with desks and chalkboards and to purchase solar panels for night lighting and a water well pump.

Although OPTE was initially started under the auspices of a local Rotary Club and church, it has expanded to additional groups and individuals who just heard a calling and said "yes."

As Rahab emphatically shares, "The people of Thomassique say thank you. They are so appreciative for all that OPTE is doing in building the school for the poor orphaned children. You bring them a better future. You bring them hope."

If you would like to join this effort or learn more about Out of Poverty Thru Education (OPTE), the website is www.OPTE.us or contact OPTE, 2128 William St. No. 107, Cape Girardeau, MO 63701.

Bonnie Poythress is a resident of Jackson.

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