Catholic Free Press

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  • May
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Berlin Catholics meet friends in Haiti

Posted By May 9, 2013 | 12:38 pm | Lead Story #2
BERLIN – Olivia Willis, a sixth-grader from St. Joseph the Good Provider Parish, didn’t know what to expect. She was headed for Haiti to meet Sterline Michel, a fifth-grader sponsored in her name through the Worcester Diocese’s Haitian Apostolate. She had 13 boxes of supplies and 39 backpacks she’d collected to give Sterline’s schoolmates and school, St. Anne’s in Chardonnieres, and the dispensary operated by the Sisters of St. Anne who staff the school. Olivia encountered the unexpected – and left expectations behind her – on the April 10-17 trip.

By Tanya Connor

BERLIN – Olivia Willis, a sixth-grader from St. Joseph the Good Provider Parish, didn’t know what to expect.
She was headed for Haiti to meet Sterline Michel, a fifth-grader sponsored in her name through the Worcester Diocese’s Haitian Apostolate.
She had 13 boxes of supplies and 39 backpacks she’d collected to give Sterline’s schoolmates and school, St. Anne’s in Chardonnieres, and the dispensary operated by the Sisters of St. Anne who staff the school.
Olivia encountered the unexpected – and left expectations behind her – on the April 10-17 trip.
So did her 15-year-old sister, Rebecca, and their mother, Julie, who went with her and Sister Marie-Judith Dupuy, a Sister of St. Anne and Apostolate director. Sister Judith’s brother Jean Dupuy and his son, Martin, 13, of Pawtucket, R.I., accompanied them.
Sister Judith said this was the first time she took a sponsor to meet her sponsored student. Now she wants to take sponsors from the Apostolate’s Adopt-a-Student program annually.
She’d been wanting to take Olivia, who started raising money for Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, through a project at her former school, St. Bernadette’s in Northborough. Olivia then asked for donations for Haiti instead of Christmas presents.
“Rather than just giving her money, we decided to sponsor a child for her,” her mother said.
Olivia also raised money and collected backpacks and supplies for the Apostolate to give other students, with help from her family, parish and fellow students and adults at St. Bernadette’s and her present school, Florence Sawyer in Bolton.
In Haiti the Willis family played with children, helped register them for school and held competitions to determine recipients of Olivia’s latest stash of backpacks.
“One time I saw them playing on the ground barefoot,” Sister Judith said of the Willis trio.
“Well, the shoes were getting in the way,” Olivia defended herself. “They were having me jump rope,” which she’s not good at, and they were taking their shoes off, she said.
In Sterline’s math class, Olivia said, she needed a translator for word problems and had to remember when she’d learned those things, and do them without the paper she’s used to.
She said the classrooms were crowded, but her mother said they were nice and the children well behaved.
“I didn’t expect the kids would be so happy for us to be there,” Olivia said. “Some of them were crying when we had to leave – actually most of them were. I told a lot of them I was definitely going to come back.”
Mrs. Willis said Sterline’s tears made her cry.
Sister Judith said the visitors didn’t want to leave, and the principal asked if they could stay a month.
“I was definitely nervous going down there,” Rebecca said. “It was kind of scary going into Port-au-Prince. First of all, everyone is staring at you. They would turn around their cars to point at us.” She figured they figured if you have enough money to fly there, you could save their families, and that there was a lot of anger.
Chardonnieres was very different, she said.
“It was very welcoming, and it was much more about the kids,” she said. She thought they had never seen white people and were nervous.
“Once they realized we were the same as they were, they welcomed us into their homes and showed us their games,” she said. “It was amazing. It just reminded you why it was so important to help as much as you can.”
Asked if the trip changed her, at first Rebecca was quiet, then said simply, “I’m sponsoring four kids now.”
One day she took Nash Josil aside after he was hit by a ball, she said. When other children pointed at him, she thought they meant he was mute.
“Finally he said something to me,” she said.
That did it, she said. She took him right inside the school and registered him. She would pay for his education.
Rebecca’s other boys are Chery Pierre-Cardin, Kenson Jean-Francois and Jaris Lubin, Sister Judith said.
She’s not alone in this endeavor – in more ways than one.
“My brother, Adam, gave me $125 … for the kids I’m sponsoring,” she said. He too seemed interested in going to Haiti.
Their father, Michael Willis, said he’d like to go, but this time he wanted Olivia to be on her own more than with her parents. For now, his wife chose a girl for them to sponsor: Elliane Esperance.
“How impressed I was by what Sister Judith does there,” Mrs. Willis said. “I have such great admiration for her after seeing how much work it is to do things there. There are so many challenges.
“She stays so focused on the people, the kids, helping them get an education, having the joy in their lives school brings. … It makes me feel very confident in telling people what a great program she runs,” and telling them they should sponsor a child or support the Apostolate somehow. “The school is sort of the light in the life of these kids. They want to be there so badly.”
Sister Judith said the Willis family took photos of 141 children who need sponsors, and they’re helping her recruit them. The Sisters of St. Anne have them in school, but neither they nor the children can afford to pay for it, she said.
When the Willis family visited Sterline’s home, Sister Judith said, Sterline’s mother asked her to tell Mrs. Willis that her house was not too nice, with its dirt floor. But Sister Judith explained that some Haitians use sand from the sea, which they replace for the new year, for their floors.
“It was so nice for them to invite us in,” Mrs. Willis said. “They just were welcoming us, even though it must have been so strange to have us there.”
Sister Judith said Sterline’s mother appreciated the visit; others saw that, poor as she is, she has value – she has friends coming from overseas. She gave her visitors coffee, cashews and mangos.
Now they’re trying to help her. They said she cooks lunch at Sterline’s school – over an open fire that produces so much smoke it is blinding her and causing students to cough. Her doctor told her to stop working there, but it’s her only job and she has 12 children, including two with Down Syndrome, they said.
So they plan to buy the school a gas stove for $1300.
Sister Judith said she wants students to help renovate the kitchen for the new stove this summer. She’d like the whole Willis family to join them.