EAU CLAIRE: Motorcyclists take to the road to raise money for Haiti

July 26, 2010

John Meacham and about a dozen motorcyclists are set to take to the open Wisconsin roads, traveling nearly 800 miles in four days to help benefit residents in Jeannette, a small mountaintop community in Haiti.

The bikers will begin July 29 at St. Alban the Martyr Church in Superior, in the northwestern tip of the state and "we will stop at each Episcopal church. This is our first attempt to get the word out to all 22 parishes," about the Haiti Project, a joint ministry of the dioceses of Eau Claire and Milwaukee, Meacham says.

He also aims to spread the good news that already 160 students are enrolled in electrical, plumbing, tiling, agriculture and other classes at a trade school initiative supported by the Haiti Project. Tuition costs the equivalent of $100 per student for the three-month intensive training, which began June 1 at St. Marc's Episcopal School in the Diocese of Haiti, he said.

The students—more than half of them women—are learning skills to aid recovery efforts. Reconstruction after a Jan. 12 magnitude-7 earthquake that killed 300,000 and left 1.5 million homeless in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, is expected to be lengthy and extensive.

The Haiti Project has had a 23-year partnership with Jeannette, a rural community of some 15,000, mainly subsistence farmers, in Haiti's southern peninsula, about 70 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

Currently, a major challenge in Jeannette is "the influx of refugees since the earthquake. The population has increased by at least 5,000," Meacham said.

During the fundraiser, Meacham, a parishioner at St. Alban's Church in Spooner, will present to each church a gift of Haitian coffee and ask for prayers and sponsorship of a child at St. Marc's school through the Haiti Project.

"If they can't sponsor a child individually, perhaps the whole church can; we want to make them aware of what's going on in the Jeannette area," he said.

"Our basic fundraiser is for sponsoring children to go to school. About $200 a year will sponsor a child, and that goes for supplies, teacher salaries, administration of the school."

He said that the Eau Claire diocese sponsors some 50 students at St. Marc's Episcopal preschool and K-8 school. The Haiti Project sponsors about half of the school's 650 students, he estimated.

The "Singing Rooster" Blue Mountain coffee sells for ten dollars, and more than half the proceeds is used to help build sustainable communities in Haiti. The coffee beans, which are shipped to Madison where they are air-roasted, ground and sold in 12-ounce bags, represent just one fundraiser organized by the Haiti Project, said Dianne Dawson.

In addition to the coffee and trade school initiatives, the Haiti Project, in collaboration with others, has helped to support building St. Marc's school, a medical clinic, a rectory at St. Marc's Episcopal Church, latrines, a water purification system, and to establish agricultural, maternal and child health programs, she said.

When Dawson moved to Eau Claire she spread the word about Jeannette, and the diocese promptly got on board, she recalled during a recent telephone interview from her home.

"The people of the Diocese of Eau Claire have come through wonderfully on this," Dawson said. "It's an incredible mission, a wonderful three-way partnership," with the Diocese of Milwaukee taking the lead, she said.

"When we went [to Jeannette] for the very first time we just listened to the people, and what their hopes and dreams were," Dawson recalled. "They want what everyone wants, education for their children, medical help and help with agriculture. So we partnered with them, building St. Marc's school and helping them establish a medical clinic. They are the most hope-filled, spirited people I've ever met in my life."

Dr. Jan Byrd until recently served as coordinator of the Haiti Project for the Milwaukee diocese. After the earthquake, she was one of a group of seven who traveled to Haiti.

"We each had one hundred pounds of supplies," she said. They went to the Episcopal Hospital and Nursing School in Léogâne, where "it was terrible," she said. "There were hundreds of thousands of people without permanent housing. There were tarps full of holes; emergency food supplies hadn't reached many, many people. It just breaks my heart."

The group sent a shipment of food and medical supplies and clothing "which arrived there by ship in May," said Byrd. "All the tents we could gather we sent. They won't be enough."

Treasurer Chris Nicaise said that the Haiti Project has raised about $53,000 in relief funds since the earthquake, not including money sent through Episcopal Relief & Development.

"These donations have come from parishes within the diocese (in addition to their donations to ERD), fundraiser events, as well as friends of the Haiti Project in the US and abroad," he said.

"The fund has allowed us to quickly support and coordinate three medical trips, in January, February and March, in the most affected areas, the shipment of relief supplies (medicine, medical equipment, food, clothes, etc.) via boat, as well as support our partner community, Jeannette, and its school institution, St. Marc's, in their response to the earthquake (temporary shelter/classrooms, food purchase, building repairs, etc.)," said Nicaise.

"At the request of our partner community, the fund is also having a long term impact toward reconstruction by supporting a three-month trade school session at St. Marc's in electricity, plumbing and tiling for 160 adult students," he added.

The Very Rev. Scott Kirby said his congregation, Grace Episcopal Church in Rice Lake, is poised to provide lunch and noonday prayers for Meacham and then they'll be on their way to the Cathedral.

"The Cathedral will give them dinner and members of the congregation will open their homes for them to spend the night. They'll come back to the cathedral and head off to another congregation."

Meacham said he visited Jeannette about two years ago because he thought "it's time we give back. We've given to our local community, but to give back means to give back to the world.

"Plus, we wanted personal connections," he said. "We thought it's time to get up front and personal. We sponsored a child and then the next year we sponsored two, and the next, three. We have three children and we gave the sponsorship of the children to our own kids" to raise their awareness."

The motorcyclists will conclude the fundraiser at Christ Church in LaCrosse, with numerous churches offering meals and sleeping quarters on the way. "Everyone's been very receptive so far," he said, adding, "This is the first time we're tried a fundraiser of this magnitude. We hope to raise some money but we also hope to raise awareness."