RIVER FALLS -- For 18 years, River Falls has had a hand in funding the construction of a small village in Ganthier, Haiti, just 25 miles from the capital Port au Prince where political unrest has made international headlines.
In the underdeveloped country suffering from high unemployment rates with nearly 60% of the population living below the poverty line according to the CIA World Factbook, Haitians are looking for wages and development opportunities.
The River Falls nonprofit Haitian Relief Services and local faith teams led by Ezekiel Lutheran Church have played the major part in bringing local jobs and infrastructure to Ganthier.
The nonprofit is headed up by two volunteers: retired University of Wisconsin-River Falls physics professor Curtiss Larson and Capt. Pat O’Malley, a retired American Airlines pilot.
Larson said while worldwide poverty is an overwhelmingly difficult issue, individuals can make a difference through opportunities such as Ezekiel Lutheran Church’s “Starfish Program” run every Lenten season as a fundraiser for Haiti projects.
“With all the poverty in the world, you can’t possibly fix it all, but you don’t have to do nothing. You can do something. You can make a difference to a person or a family,” Larson said.
Over $650,000, all raised since the early 2000s, has provided Ganthier with 25 small houses, some bathrooms, a water cistern, Hurricane Matthew relief, and a school staffed with local teachers.
Most recently, a Catholic Haitian priest working closely with the nonprofit has seen a personal dream come true in Ganthier. A decade after Haiti experienced a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, a newly built orphanage for those affected by the natural disaster is furnished and functioning as of 2019.
“After the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, many children have become orphans. So my dream was to build an orphanage to save a few. From there comes the idea of building the orphanage,” Father Emmanuel Sainteliat wrote in an email to the Star Observer.
The $36,000 orphanage houses about 20 children, with separate furnished rooms for boys and girls, a chapel, kitchen and living area.
Though a specially supported grant from the Servants of Mary in Shoreview, Minn. provided $30,000 toward construction, the institution needs of further funding to provide food, clothing and healthcare.
The school also has seen hard times in the recent widespread trouble.
“The classes were closed as all the other schools of the country," Father Antoine Rene wrote in an email translated from French. Father Rene runs the school. "Currently, all students return to school, the number is 511 students the first year of kindergarten through the ninth fundamental year. Teachers and other staff are in number 36. They always ask for salary adjustments to deal with their economic problems.”
To continue supporting Ganthier, Ezekiel Lutheran Church is hosting its annual “It Takes a Village” concert at 4 p.m. Feb. 16 over Valentine's Day weekend. A free-will offering will be taken and local singing groups will perform.
Attendees can expect to hear the River Falls Ecumenical Choir, the United Church of Christ Choir, the River Falls Community Choir, the Pierce County Ecumenical Choir and the Croix Chordsmen Barbershop Chorus.
Donations go directly to Haitian projects, with none going toward volunteer travel to or from Haiti.
Those interested in donating through Haitian Relief Services may visit haitianrelief.org.