Food for children, jobs for mothers

In Haiti, Sister Rosemary Fry fills empty bellies and nourishes women's dreams of a better life.

The sounds and smells of food being prepared drift out of a small kitchen and into a crowded room where about 20 benches overflow with mothers holding small children dressed in their Sunday best. Earlier on this Thursday, the kids ate a free breakfast of milk and boiled eggs. Lunch will soon be served: rice with fish sauce.

The scene repeats itself every weekday - same mothers, same overdressed children - as part of Sr. Rosemary Fry's crusade against hunger in Cap Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city. Her program helps about 125 youngsters - a small dent in this poor nation where malnutrition is widespread.

"They live with a tremendous amount of courage," Sister Rosemary says. "Just to get a meal every day is a battle here, just to wash your clothes."

Toddlers rush to hug Sister Rosemary whenever she is near; adults look up to her with grateful eyes.

In a country this poor, there are degrees of poverty. With her small budget, Sister Rosemary chose to target her nutrition program for the most malnourished - children under age 5. UNICEF estimates that nearly 42 percent of Haitian children in this age group suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Before they are admitted into the program, infants are weighed and measured. Most children fall far below the normal height and weight for their ages. Their progress is assessed each month and an in-house nurse sees the children regularly to address the causes of malnutrition: worms, infection, poor hygiene, and a lack of proper food.

Nathan Nickerson is executive director of Konbit Sante, a nonprofit based in Portland, Maine, that is dedicated to supporting sustainable healthcare in Cap Haitien. He met Sister Rosemary three years ago and was impressed with her "quite comprehensive" effort to address not only the immediate needs in the community but also the long-term solutions to the problems it faces. To him, Sister Rosemary's example "gives us hope in what a person with perseverance, vision, and good humor can do in a situation like that."

As lunch is served, the women line up in an orderly fashion, collect a plastic bowl brimming with food, sit down, and concentrate on feeding their little ones. The mothers and children wear their best clothes to show respect to those helping them. If their clothes aren't clean, they believe they shouldn't come, Sister Rosemary says.

Occasionally the mothers sneak a bite themselves. Although Sister Rosemary insists that the food is strictly for the children, realistically, there is too much food in each bowl to fit inside one small child. The mothers are hungry, too.

While at Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, a Roman Catholic order, Sister Rosemary responded to her order's call to work in the third world. She'd planned to work in Nigeria. But, after hearing of problems in her own hemisphere, she visited Haiti in 1986. She fell in love with the people and their country, changed her plans, and dedicated her life to improving theirs.

The need is great in a country where most homes lack running water, only 10 percent have electricity, and seven of 10 working-age adults are jobless. Aid programs started by individuals, church groups, and nonprofit organizations are prevalent here. Foreigners from wealthier lands have stepped in to try to fill voids left by an ineffective, fiscally poor government. Sister Rosemary's work is largely supported by donations from her church and its congregation in Toronto as well as from Canadian schoolchildren who raise money for the effort.

Aside from helping babies and toddlers, some 166 kids who have "graduated" from the nutrition program have had their school tuition paid. In Haiti, "public" school costs $150 per year. With a median income of less than $400 a year, most families cannot afford it.

Inside the same modest, two-story building where the families gather, Sister Rosemary also offers a program that teaches these mothers how to run a business in order to support their families. They learn how to make a business plan, save money, and reinvest profits.

"The women don't realize they need money to buy goods again to sell," Sister Rosemary says. "They spend it all. We ask them to save 20 percent of their profit to put back into their businesses."

Most fledgling entrepreneurs in this program are traveling saleswomen, carrying goods on their heads as Haitian women so elegantly do. Throughout the day, they come to Sister Rosemary's small shop to stock up on goods to sell, including soap, hair products, peanut butter, and toys.

To buy new inventory and build savings, they carefully hand over a few dirty, wadded-up pieces of paper money from previous sales. The transactions are meticulously recorded in a logbook. Sister Rosemary's 12 employees, who run the nutrition program and a community bank, help the mothers save for rent, school fees, even a bed. For the most successful, the funds may go toward a home. Most of the women conduct their business in hushed, serious voices, as they work toward their goal of self-sufficiency.

The New York-based Trickle UP program grants these women $50, a micro-investment to help them get started. Participants are not expected to repay the initial investment, but after three months, they must report on their progress in order to receive another $50. In a year's time, they send a final report. Then they are on their own. One hundred and six women have succeeded; more are trying.

Jean Vernet is program associate for Haiti in the Trickle UP Program. He's never met Sister Rosemary, but he lauds the success she's had administering their microgrant program. He puts her success rate at 99 percent. A big reason for this is the fact that the community comes to her for a variety of reasons - food for their children, advice, help with school fees, and more. So by the time someone wants to enroll in Trickle UP, they have a well-established relationship with the nun. "The relationship is key," Mr. Vernet says. He also notes that while there are many charitable groups at work in Haiti, "very few work with the poorest of the poor." By starting with a feeding center for malnourished children, Sister Rosemary attracts the most impoverished.

Sister Rosemary works tirelessly to expand the services she offers. She has no plans to return to Canada, preferring to stay on here, her adopted home, where she can make such a difference.

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