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Haiti

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Tom Manuel, venue founder, shares firsthand account with TBR News Media

A teenager in Haiti learns how to play trombone from the Jazz Loft’s Tom Manuel. Photo by Leah Claire Borrie

By Tom Manuel

The Jazz Loft ambassadors’ annual mission to Haiti to teach children how to play instruments hit a blue note as the capital, Port-au-Prince, erupted with riots.

Elvoi, a music teacher that we had hired, shared words of wisdom with us after our trip. “Everything is OK thanks to God,” he said. “But in Haiti we live day by day, we live one day at a time.”

We had landed bright and early on a Wednesday morning, a six-person team consisting of music educators, professional musicians and an independent filmmaker from California. This was another regular trip under the banner of The Jazz Loft to continue building the music program in a school perched high atop a mountain that is making a difference in children’s lives one day at a time.

One part of The Jazz Loft’s trifecta mission is education, and we felt that our community outreach should stretch further than how we typically define community. Our definition includes thinking globally, and a partnership with True Love Missions, of Stony Brook, and their successful school in Haiti was a perfect match. Thanks to the philanthropic giving of Robert Lourie and Ivana Stolnik in addition to the generous giving which was the result of an annual fundraising concert, the Jazz Loft ambassadors embarked on their trip. Barrels of school supplies, instruments, clothing and food were shipped down in advance and the team packed as much as they could bring as well.

Tom Manuel. Photo by Leah Claire Borrie

Our days unfolded one after the next with early morning rises, hikes up and down the mountain to the school, and sometimes rides on motorbikes which rival any amusement park ride known to man. Relationships were begun or made stronger, and the universal language of music transcended that of English and native Creole. Teaching trombone was interrupted by giving out worm pills and conversations with the school principal and teachers regarding school-book needs were put on welcomed pause to feed quite hungry people. The confines of an article cannot contain nor explain the experience of a trip like this. The art of loving and being so genuinely loved in return can only be experienced by doing it.

Then 48 hours before our departure, a protest march against the Haitian government took place in Port-au-Prince. A day before our scheduled exit protests had turned to riots, and from the school high atop the mountain overlooking the city, we could see two fires that signaled something was wrong. We awoke early Monday morning, Nov. 19, ready for departure but as we assembled something was missing. The sound of Haiti had gone mute. There is an unmistakable sound of thousands of people, motorbikes, trucks and animals all joining chorus in organized chaos as the sun rises, and it had gone silent. In its stead, we heard a natural silence penetrated by the sound of vintage radios projecting singular voices speaking of riots throughout the night that had heightened. The city had been shut down. Schools and all businesses were closed. Our van was not coming, and all vehicles were banned from the roads. A call to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti signaled greater worry as it was closed.

Fearing escalation, being stuck beyond our planned time and worry over our general safety, we explored available options and were getting nowhere fast. Hours passed, our window of opportunity was quickly fading, and our final and only choices were to stay, or bribe the police to give us an armed escort to the airport. As if defying reality — because these things only happen in movies, right? — we were quickly packing ourselves into a civilian vehicle and a police truck. I wound up being the lone person in the police vehicle as there was no more room in the other vehicle. As we drove the final distance to the main drag, I thought to myself, “Am I blowing this out of proportion? Is this really necessary?”

As we hit the bottom of the street, there was an abrupt stop, and machine guns were locked and loaded, and handguns quickly appeared. We turned right, and I was amazed to see nothing but an empty street. Our speed was where the vehicle maxed out, and the sound of walkie-talkies, phones and borderline yelling filled the vehicle. The trip to the airport takes a solid hour and a half typically on a good day, and the main drag is marked by thousands of people trying to sell their wares to buyers that do not exist. Our trip that day lasted roughly 15 minutes.

Piles of debris and tires on fire occasionally blocked the road which we would veer around. Burned out vehicles and damaged abandoned police vehicles marked the journey. At one point we passed a black armored vehicle that moved down the street like a dinosaur.

A young student takes a turn with the trombone. Photo from Leah Claire Borrie

Having made this trip many times, I noticed familiar landmarks. We were getting closer and closer to the airport. The cop to my right was clicking a clave rhythm on the barrel of his gun. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was nervous or if this habit was normal. Ahead, a human-made roadblock of boulders and debris appeared causing the driver to slam on the brakes, fly into reverse and head right, the only other option available, only to be met by another roadblock.

Two police officers got out and started moving the boulders. A deafening sound, unlike any other, crescendoed and two masses of people began to converge from behind from both sides of our vehicles. It’s apparent that fear set in as the cops jumped back into the car, and we rammed whatever was left of the roadblock that couldn’t be moved.

Distance was quickly gained and this all seemed to end in an instant as we arrived at the airport and made our entrance almost seemingly under normal circumstances. Our plane took off an hour early, and within a few short hours we were home. It’s a bizarre reality, to say the least, to go from such contrasting environments in such a short period. The next days in Haiti saw increasing violence. Innocent people died. The New York Times published an article Nov. 23, but little of the drama in Haiti made it to our mainstream news.

In Haiti they live day by day. They live one day at a time. When things settle down, which they will, I will return to Haiti. I will continue to love, because in the end, even if I could move those Haitian mountains, even if somehow I could magically fix their broken and corrupt government, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. Love doesn’t rejoice about injustice but rather it rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, it never loses faith, it’s always hopeful, and it endures through every circumstance. Love makes all the difference and there are many children in a little school atop a mountain in Haiti that I love very much, and they love me. And that my friend is always worth the journey.

Three-day free medical clinic to treat more than 1,000 residents in need

A doctor speaks with patients at the 2017 free medical clinic in Haiti. Photo from Ginette Rows.

It’s easy to be critical of the severe problems Haiti faces, but a group of Huntington residents are taking on the challenge of finding a solution to its health care problems.

Two Huntington residents have organized a group to fly to Haiti Feb. 16 to launch their second free mobile medical clinic to provide basic medical services to those in desperate need.

“Last year was the first time we did a clinic,” Pastor Georges Franck said. “It was so successful that we decided to do it again last year.”

Franck, leader of Huntington Station’s Church of God, is working in partnership with Yam Community Resource Inc., a Huntington Station-based nonprofit that offers quality-of-life services for the Haitian community, to assemble a team of medical professionals to run a three-day medical clinic in Aquin, a city on the southern coast of Haiti.

“We expected we will have maybe 100 people a day, and we ended up at least 300 a day,” said Ginette Rows, president of Yam Community Resource. “By the time we finished, we saw 1,079 people. This year, I expect more.”

Huntington resident Ginette Rows, far right, and Pastor Georges Franck, far leg, with volunteers at the 2017 medical clinic in Haiti. Photo from Ginette Rows.

Since Hurricane Matthew devastated the island in October 2016, Rows said it has been a struggle to rebuild as the hurricane was the first of a chain of natural disasters that has led to high unemployment rates. Word of the medical clinic is spread primarily via word of mouth, according to Rows. Locals from the surrounding villages will travel long distances — often walking for hours — in hopes of being seen by a physician.

“The people we are seeing do not have the financial means to pay for medical care,” she said. “If you have money, the priority is feeding the family, shelter and paying for school.”

Donations are collected from the approximately 120 members of the Huntington parish to purchase basic medical supplies, such as scales, and over-the-counter medication, according to its pastor. Franck said medications like Advil, which may cost $6 or $8 in the U.S., may wind up costing $12 to $13 in Haiti due to increased costs of shipping and accessibility. Each volunteer pays his or her own travel costs and expenses.

The hundreds who line up to visit the clinic each day are screened by a team of nurses, Rows said, who is a nurse herself. The nurses take their blood pressure, pulse, medical history and check blood sugar to screen for diabetes. Among the most common issues are malnutrition, maternal care, dental issues and high blood pressure.

“There are 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds that are severely underweight,” Rows said. “Last year we weren’t prepared to weigh them, so we’ve shipped down our own scales, so we can see how big of an issue it is.”

Her goal, as a Haitian immigrant whose father was among the first to come to Huntington in the 1960s, is to collect organized data on the specific medical issues treated to recruit specialists to join the team at future clinics to improve Haitians’ quality of life. She hopes to eventually build a permanent partnership with local hospitals and medical organizations to improve the standards of preventative health care for residents.

“I consider myself a member of the Haitian family,” Rows said. “Regardless of religion, I am there to assist them in some way.”

To learn more about Yam Community Resource, visit its website at www.yamcommunity.com.

Huntington resident Marie Destil is the owner of owner of Gingerbites Restaurant & Catering in Huntington Station. Photo from Marie Destil.

By Jill Webb

A Huntington resident with a passion for cooking opened her doors to help the people of her native Haiti, and in reaching out that helping hand, has made the world a bit smaller and better.

At 14 years old, Marie Michele Destil moved from her native island of Haiti to the United States. Now, 35 years later, Destil is the owner of Gingerbites Restaurant & Catering in Huntington Station.

At Gingerbites, along with serving authentic Haitian cuisine, Destil has used her business as a platform to help Haitian relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

Destil said she has always had a love for cooking and showed signs of being the entrepreneur she would become at a young age.

“I remember when I was maybe 10 or 11 my mother would have friends come over and I’d go make coffee and then serve it with bread and sell it to them,” she said. “If you don’t buy it, I’ll cry.”

After her 18-year-old twin girls and 22-year-old son went off to college, Destil wanted to focus on something more grounded and local. Destil decided to use her experience in catering to open up Gingerbites in late 2015. The restaurant aims at bringing the culture and cuisine of Haiti to Huntington Station.

“We’re from an island, so we’re very simple people with very distinct taste and a very distinct way of life,” Destil said.

Then when Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, more than 1,000 of Haiti’s citizens were killed according to Reuters. Destil said upon hearing the shocking news the first thing she thought about was the people.

“You have to remember not that long ago we came from the earthquake in Haiti, so that was the most devastating thing that ever happened to us there,” she said. “But when Matthew happened, you’re like ‘Oh, my God.’ But my thought is that no matter what happened, Haitian people are resilient people. They’ll survive. It’s hard, it’s difficult, but they’re not quitters.”

Destil had and continues to have a strong faith in her homeland, despite all it’s been through.

“That island [has] gone through a lot but with the help of God it’s still standing,” she said.

The restaurant owner recognized the importance of supporting her homeland and the residents struggling in Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath.

Town of Huntington Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) recalled when Haitian groups were starting to partner with the Town of Huntington’s relief efforts, Destil jumped at the chance to help.

“She’s a very bubbly and hardworking person,” Cuthbertson said.

Destil partnered with the town in November 2016 to raise donations for the charity, Meds & Food for Kids. The nonprofit organization focuses on the malnourished children of Haiti, providing them with ready-to-use therapeutic food. Their food is made in Haiti by Haitian workers, and they aim to use Haitian raw materials as much as possible.

One of the many reasons that charity was so important to Destil was her love for children.

“I love all kids, I’m a sucker for that,” Destil said.

Also important in narrowing down the search was to find a charity where most of the proceeds go directly to people in need. Finding out that the Meds & Food charity gives the majority of its proceeds to the children made it an easy choice.

“The children [are] our future, so invest in them,” she said.

Destil was honored Oct. 26 at the town’s 16th annual Women’s Networking Day luncheon for her charitable efforts.

As her business continues to grow, Destil hopes in the future to partner with more charities to help the Haitian community as much as she possibly can.

Students attending a school in Bizoton, Haiti will soon enjoy a visit from Tom Manuel of The Jazz Loft in Stony Book. Photo from Patty Smith

By Rita J. Egan

Local musicians plan to share the universal language of music with children in Haiti, and they’re asking for community help with their musical mission.

Tom Manuel, founder of The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook, said the venue is organizing a drive to bring instruments to schoolchildren during a trip to Haiti scheduled for Nov. 9. Manuel, his wife Laura Landor and five fellow musicians plan to teach the students how to play the instruments while they are there. The group also plans to return once a year to check in on students’ progress.

Patty Smith, a registered nurse from Commack, sponsors the school in Bizoton, as well as a church in the same village in Haiti. Smith was evangelizing in a Brentwood parking lot when she met Jean Bonte, who told her about the country. She said the meeting led to a visit to the mountain village. Moved by her trip, she decided to have the school and church built to help locals. There are now more than 100 registered students studying at the school.

Patty Smith with the children who attend the school she sponsors in Bizoton, Haiti. Photo from Patty Smith

The nurse said the people in the village are so poor that their homes have no electricity or running water, and they are barely clothed. She said she’s spent many nights crying after her visits to Bizoton because she feels guilty about what she has.

“I sit up in my bed and I feel guilty because I have air conditioning,” she said. “I think [this mission] is going to give them hope. I think it’s going to give them something to strive for so they could do good in school and really work hard so they can obtain and see that this is something that will make their lives better.”

Smith said Manuel traveled to the village with Landor two years ago. When he showed the schoolchildren how to play his trumpet, cleaning off the mouthpiece to allow each child to play it, the nurse said he mesmerized them.

“Everyone was laughing and clapping, and they were so proud of themselves,” Smith said.

Manuel said the children also laughed when he took out his trumpet and showed them how to warm up by making funny duck noises with his mouth.

The trumpet player said the first step of The Jazz Loft’s mission is collecting instruments. The musicians hope to receive at least 20 instruments, hoping to receive more brass ones because they hold up well in the Caribbean heat.

“Having been a teacher for so long, I know that there are a lot of people that either they played or they have a son or daughter [who did],” he said. “You know, they played through middle school or high school, and they have this instrument that’s sitting in their closet, or in their basement or attic. My hopes are that if people hear this story they’ll say, ‘Why should that sit in my closet for another five years? Let me bring that trombone down to the Loft and send it off for a good cause.’”

Tom Manuel, trombone player and owner of The Jazz Loft, shows Haitian students how to play the instrument during a previous trip to the country. Photo from Tom Manuel

Once the group arrives in Haiti, Manuel said they will teach students how to play, and culminate the trip with the students playing together as a band. The musicians will also perform for them.

“There’s nothing more inspiring for these kids — most of them have never seen these instruments or heard them,” Manuel said. “To see a band play for them is really intense.”

The Jazz Loft has also organized back-to-school and food drives to help the school.

Landor, a flute player who is the director of fine and performing arts in the Hauppauge school district, said she is looking forward to this year’s trip.

“I loved being with all the kids,” she said. “They’re incredible in their resilience and they’re so excited to learn; they’re excited to be with people who want to be with them. I would love for them to experience the joy of making music, and just have something they can be proud of in saying I did this, I learned this, I can practice this.”

Guitarist Steve Salerno, who performs at The Jazz Loft often, was touched by Manuel’s accounts of his trips to Haiti and is looking forward to traveling with him to the country this year.

“It just sounded like an amazing opportunity to maybe share in what he’s experienced,” Salerno said. “I hope that this will be kind of a wondrous experience for them to hear different types of music performed collectively.”

Manuel believes the musicians will gain a lot from the trip.

“I’ve always felt, personally, and I know everyone going on the trip feels this way —  we have all these different languages and all these differences that separate us, but in the end, we have more in common than we realize,” Manuel said. “That’s part of why I think trips like this, outreaches like this, travel in general, whether you’re doing a specific mission or not, is so important for people. The more you travel, the more you spend time with human beings, the more you realize we’re more like each other than we’re not and music is a universal language.”

A fundraising concert is planned at the venue at 275 Christian Ave. in Stony Brook Oct. 5 to offset the cost of the trip and used instruments can be dropped off at the location. The Jazz Loft is open Thursday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. and various evenings for performances. For more information call 631-751-1895.

Steve Kramer raising money to bring Berlinda to U.S. to undergo surgery on her two clubbed feet

By Desirée Keegan

Through the efforts of a retired physicist, an orthopedic surgeon from Stony Brook University and a dedicated Haitian who has since moved to Long Island, a 16-year-old from Haiti is on a path with more open doors than ever.

Berlinda was born with two clubbed feet, though she is motivated to better herself, with the dream of one day walking on her own two feet. Steve Kramer, a retired Brookhaven National Lab accelerator physicist met the student in Haiti through Life & Hope Haiti, a nonprofit founded by Haitian-American Lucia Anglade, who built the Eben Ezer School in her hometown of Milot, Haiti.

Berlinda practices arithmetic. Photo from Steve Kramer

“She had only been at the school for a few months and she was already learning basic arithmetic,” Kramer said of seeing Berlinda back in March, after meeting her during her introduction to the school in December. “I gave her two columns of work and she handed it back to me with a big smile and said, ‘more.’”

Berlinda has spirit, according to many who have met her, and Kramer was so moved by the story that he reached out to Dr. Wesley Carrion at Stony Brook University School of Medicine’s orthopedics department about performing surgery to fix the girl’s feet. He agreed to do it free of charge.

When he contacted Carrion, Kramer said his secretary Joan mentioned he was deployed in Afghanistan and she didn’t know when he would return. Within a day or two she called to tell him she’d heard from the doctor, who said he’d return by April. In May, the two met.

“I sent him copies of Berlinda’s X-rays and the video and he said he felt he could treat her and rotate the feet, and he would donate his time and get the equipment donated,” Kramer said. “That was a big relief. I felt it might become a reality.”

Carrion had informed Kramer that he would need to get the hospital to donate some of the costs, so Kramer reached out to the Department of Medicine’s Dr. L. Reuven Pasternak, who serves as vice president for health systems and chief executive officer of Stony Brook University Hospital.

What the external cages look like that will be used to repair Berlinda’s clubbed feet. Photo from Steve Kramer

“He said they would cover her hospital costs,” Kramer said after his meeting with Pasternak in July. “This was a bigger relief since beside rotating the club feet we need to check out the status of the hole her spinal column might still have from the spinal bifida she was diagnosed as having. Everyone told me the hole doesn’t close up on its own, but she is doing so well that it may have, but it needs to be checked and closed if it is still open.”

To help bring Berlinda to the United States, Kramer set up a GoFundMe to raise money for her flight cost and other post-operation expenses.

“The fundraising has been going slower than I had hoped, even though everyone I contact is verbally supportive,” he said. “As a physicist my human appeal needs a lot of improvement to really move people to give. But then I look at the video and see the determination she has and feel she will deal with it as she has the tragic events she has already endured and I know she will persevere and will learn to walk.”

Following the surgery, Berlinda will be in the hospital for four months, getting her feet rotated to stretch the tendons as part of the healing process. Her legs will be in cages called external frames that will be attached by pins drilled into her leg bones. Because these create open wounds, it’s best for her to stay the hospital instead of returning to Haiti, to keep the wounds sterile. While recovering, she will continue to go through schooling, which will be one-on-one instead of in a larger classroom back in Haiti.

Without the construction of The Eben Ezer School, Berlinda’s struggles might never have come to light for Kramer. What began as a 10-child school back in 2001 has grown to population over 400, according to Anglade.

“I took the $7,000 I received from my tax return and decided I wanted to build a school in my home country — that had been my motivation,” said Anglade, who now lives in West Babylon. “I’m so blessed. I thank God for that, say thank you all the time. It’s a big school now, and we’re still helping.”

Berlinda crawls on her hands and knees because she cannot walk with her two clubbed feet. Photo from Steve Kramer

Anglade first visited Berlinda at her house, and heard from the 16-year-old how her brothers and sisters attended school, and she wished she could join them. Because the school is far from her house, she couldn’t walk there.

“I went to her house and she was quiet, said she can’t go to school,” Anglade said. “I told her I was going to help her, and I took her to the school. I pay someone to stay with her at the school. Her dream is to walk, to learn, to be someone. She wants to be happy.”

Kramer and Stony Brook University Hospital are making her dream a reality.

“Thank God for Steve — he has a good heart and I can’t do it by myself,” Anglade said. “With all my heart, I am so happy. Steve has put in a lot of effort to helping Berlinda make her dream come true.”

Kramer first visited the Eben Ezer School through Wading River’s North Shore United Methodist Church in 2015. He joined a group visiting Haiti in February, and has since visited three more times by himself and with Anglade. They are working toward improving the facilities at the school through solar power and updating the water system.

Kramer also provided economic opportunities for students and natives of the town. He cultivated a group of farmers that grow ancient Egyptian wheat, kumat, which is exported to the U.S.

Now, he’s trying to help provide a future for Berlinda.

“She’s very positive, she’s a sponge for learning,” he said. “I just want to help this Haitian girl who has had a tragic life story so far, but has kept her joy of life and has determination to improve herself.”

Sixteen-year-old Berlinda from Haiti will be receiving surgery on her two clubbed feet at Stony Brook University Hospital. Photo from Steve Kramer

Amy Miller, of Maine, who has helped Anglade since 2007, said she finds what Kramer is doing admirable.

“I met Berlinda and I really respect his desire to help her move forward,” she said. “You meet someone and they kind of capture your heart, and I think you have to follow your heart. That’s what he’s doing.”

Both said they are also moved by Anglade’s motivation.

“I am tremendously inspired by Lucia,” Miller said. “She’s a force. Lucia is a person that astounds most people that meet her — her energy and her commitment. She loves the kids and it’s wonderful to watch. The community once said she should be their mayor after she brought water to the school she also to the community. She’s quite something.”

Anglade said she’s just doing what she thinks is right, in giving back to her hometown.

“My four kids here go to school, they’re in college, they eat every day, but in Haiti, we don’t have enough to feed over 400 kids, so sometimes when we’re down there for a week or two, we can only feed them for one week,” Anglade said. “I can’t go every week, but if I could go every week, every month, I’d go, just to help them. For me to be able to go down there to help those students, my community, I’m so happy to do it. I really feel good about it.”

To donate to help get Berlinda to the United States and to receive the care and post-treatment she will need, visit www.gofundme.com/BerlindasMiracle. To find out more about Life and Hope Haiti, or to get involved, visit www.lifeandhopehaiti.org.

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Diane Burkhardt, a member of the North Shore United Methodist Church for the last 11 years, is seen below smiling with children she helps through the organization Life and Hop Haiti. Photo from Hal Low

Don’t let its size fool you — the North Shore United Methodist Church in Wading River may be small, but the variety of outreach and support programs it has reaches across the Island.

“Sometimes there are certain people who are going through a difficult time and I think extending a hand and caring helps restore some hope that things are going to be okay,” said Diane Burkhardt, a member of the church for 11 years who is a retired Shoreham-Wading River middle school teacher. “People are so appreciative and thankful, which makes the whole experience gratifying and fulfilling. It makes you really appreciate what you have, which is humbling.”

Burkhardt said she is fortunate enough to be the team leader for the church’s outreach program, working on volunteer efforts like the Helping Hands Fund, which includes a food pantry that assists about 50 families in the Shoreham-Wading River area on a regular basis, and its back-to-school project, which provided school supplies to 30 children in need this past September.

Volunteers also deliver food to people’s homes, drive those in need to doctor’s appointments, help out with the church’s thrift shop, and deliver meals to and spend time with residents of Maureen’s Haven, a shelter service for homeless adults on the East End.

The North Shore United Methodist Church in Wading River is involved in a myriad of projects from helping its church members to the needy across Long Island. Photo by Giselle Barkley
The North Shore United Methodist Church in Wading River is involved in a myriad of projects from helping its church members to the needy across Long Island. Photo by Giselle Barkley

“Food is tangible, but what comes with it is the intangible quality of hope,” Burkhardt said. “I’m one of a dozen or so active members that are retired and put in a lot of hours because we feel we were all given gifts and skills that can be put to good use helping people.”

Linda McCall, of Center Moriches, has been attending North Shore United Methodist for four years and said she most enjoys spending her time helping those at Maureen’s Haven in Riverhead, while also volunteering through Helping Hands to provide gifts to children and meals to families around Christmas.

“It’s a very small church, and for such a small church we have so many outreach programs going that I found it almost impossible not to get involved,” she said. “It’s one of the things that keep me happy to be here on the Island. I moved here from Las Vegas, so I don’t have any family here, and the church has become my family. Volunteering fills my days with joy and happiness.”

Priscilla Hartman, a Shoreham resident who has been attending services for the last 35 years, said that as the church’s team leader for its membership care program, she finds it rewarding when she can help someone.

The program helps church members get to the pharmacy when they are temporarily ill, don’t have transportation or otherwise can’t leave the house. Volunteers also cook for them or clean their houses.

“It’s a great feeling when we’re helping a homeless person or someone who is down on their luck and seeing them get back on their feet,” she said. “I’m glad that my church is very ministry-oriented. I think it’s a good way for us to act. We’re a small church, but there’s nothing too large for us to take on.”

One example is the church’s partnering with Life and Hope Haiti, an organization founded by Lucia Anglade of West Babylon, who formed the Eben Ezer School in her hometown of Milot, Haiti.

Donna Eddy, who runs a craft group and is also involved with Maureen’s Haven and the thrift shop, said it’s these relationships people make with other community members and those they help that count in life and define who they are.

“I think we are all wired to need and to learn from each other,” she said. “You can’t love, have forgiveness, experience kindness, faithfulness and unselfishness unless you’re involved in the community. People need other people.”

And one person everyone at North Shore United Methodist agreed they need, is Burkhardt.

The North Shore United Methodist Church in Wading River gets together food for the less fortunate during the holidays. Photo from Hal Low
The North Shore United Methodist Church in Wading River gets together food for the less fortunate during the holidays. Photo from Hal Low

“She has an incredible amount of energy and her enthusiasm is infectious,” Pastor Hal Low said. “Nothing ever seems to daunt her. She’s an inspiration to others, including myself.”

Eddy agrees.

“She’s focused, driven and she makes you want to be the best that you can be and give all that you can, because that’s what she does,” she said. “She’s a wonderful model She gives selflessly her time, her energy. If you need something, Diane will be there. You can count on her.”

But Burkhardt doesn’t want to take any of the credit, because she said without the rest of the organization, there would be no outreach ministry.

“I’m part of a whole congregation and I couldn’t do anything alone,” she said, adding that other churchgoers also help by recycling cans and bottles to raise money for lunches for the children in Haiti for instance. Members are also currently providing dinner to children whose parents are both in the hospital while the father is ill, and have been helping transport a man in Bellport, previously of Maureen’s Haven and a home in Middle Island, to and from Sunday services since 2011.

Burkhardt said that she frequently recalls things Shoreham resident and longtime churchgoer Doris Olson used to tell her when she was heavily involved in outreach in her younger years.

“Whenever I’m dealing with someone that can maybe be hard to deal with, she always said, ‘God made that person, too,’ and that brings me right back in touch with what I’m really doing and why I’m going it,” Burkhardt said. “Every day, try to be a blessing to someone else.”

A scene from last year’s art sale at the St. James R.C. Church in E. Setauket. Photo from Andrew Meade

By Melissa Arnold

For many people in Haiti, financial stability has always been out of reach. The country ranks among the poorest in the world, and the economy there only suffered further following a major earthquake in 2010, which killed hundreds and left even more without homes.

Despite all the setbacks, Haitians are still known for their joy and perseverance. They’ll do whatever they can to make a living.

This weekend, St. James Catholic Church in Setauket will host a sale of handmade artwork and craft jewelry created by talented Haitians. A portion of the proceeds from the sale will be poured into bettering a Haitian community.

The church is partnering with The Vassar Haiti Project, a not-for-profit, nonsectarian grass-roots organization based at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. The program’s founders, Andrew and Lila Meade, both have personal connections to the country — Lila’s mother grew up there, and Andrew graduated from high school in the country while his father was involved with the international diplomatic service.

The couple met in 1985 and quickly bonded over their shared background. They married not long after. The Meades were frequent participants in Haitian fundraisers, but it wasn’t until 9/11 that they felt prompted to take a more active role. “I think it was a time when we really wanted to think about what our purpose was,” Lila Meade recalls. “Haiti was always on our radar, so it seemed a natural choice to help them. We started to buy pieces of Haitian art here and there and then began to wonder what it would be like if we held an art show to benefit villages there.”

Andrew Meade is the director of the Office of International Studies at Vassar and thought the college would make a great host site for the sale. Using their own savings to purchase artwork and family and friends as volunteers, the Meades held their first art sale at Vassar in February of 2012. They raised $14,000 that year.

The Meades felt strongly about putting the money toward education and developing personal relationships with the people they assisted. With the help of existing Haitian relief programs, they connected with the mountain village of Chermaitre to provide hot meals for students and salaries for teachers.

“In the developing world, it’s typical for children to help the family make additional money by staying home and working. Families usually won’t send their children to school without incentives,” Andrew explains. “Offering a hot meal at school was a huge draw. For many of these kids, it’s the only hot meal they’ll have for the day.”

The Vassar Haiti Project continued to grow each year following their first sale. In the past 15 years they’ve completed a seven-room school for kindergarten through sixth grade; built a medical clinic with a doctor and nurse on staff; and developed a system for easier water access and purification, among other projects. So far, they’ve raised more than $500,000 for the artists and villagers of Chermaitre.

The project is currently working on a reforestation effort, which includes planting 100,000 trees, and building a women’s cooperative. “A lot of the women in the village do not have husbands and are raising five to 12 children in a very rural area,” Lila says. At the women’s cooperative, “they learn to make things like jewelry or napkins, or use other skills they’ve learned previously to work. Right now they are growing incredible coffee. We’re then able to sell those goods and pour the profits back into the community.”

The project is also supported by a passionate group of Vassar student volunteers who facilitate art sales and brainstorm new ideas. They also travel to Haiti each year to meet face to face with village leaders to discuss their needs and next steps.

“The program is about more than helping the Haitian communities. It’s also about mentoring the students — encouraging them to develop and implement their own ideas,” Lila says. “We encourage global citizenship — not just considering the world from an American perspective but from other cultures as well.”

The art sales have expanded beyond Vassar, too, with individuals and groups hosting their own sales in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut, among other places.

Setauket’s Jeanine Morelli, coordinator of the upcoming sale, fell in love with the project while attending her 30th class reunion at Vassar two years ago. Morelli says she admired the artwork and purchased a few pieces that weekend, but meeting Andrew and Lila encouraged her to bring a sale to Long Island.

“With this project, you’re supporting the livelihood of the Haitians rather than just supplying handouts, and the leadership education for the students is wonderful,” she says.

The first Setauket art sale was held last February at St. James Catholic Church, where Morelli is a member. It was a huge success, raising more than $25,000. While Morelli admits she had to get out of her comfort zone to plan the sale, supporting Haiti was worth it.

The upcoming sale will feature more than 250 paintings and crafts at a variety of price points, with crafts beginning at $5 and most paintings starting around $50. Sixty percent of the proceeds will go toward paying the Haitian artists and purchasing supplies for the sales, while the other 40 percent directly benefits the initiatives in Haiti. All purchases are 50 percent tax-deductible.

The Long Island Vassar Haiti Project art sale will be held from Nov. 20 to 22 at St. James Catholic Church, 429 Route 25A, E. Setauket. The sale will begin with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, and will continue Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information about the sale, contact Andrew Meade at 845-797-2123. To learn more about the Vassar Haiti Project, visit www.thehaitiproject.org.