By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; 5:23 PM
Eleven years ago, the Rev. Richard Martin went to Haiti and couldn't forget the poverty he saw there, the stench of the slums. He watched a woman making the day's only meal for her children, cooking soup over charcoal with water and little disposable packets of ketchup. One little boy didn't have any, and when he asked the mother why not, she responded, "It's not his day."
He saw other women making biscuits out of clay, sifted into a fine powder and mixed with bouillon and water and left to harden in the sun, to fill their children's stomachs and stop them from crying. "We can't imagine that they have nothing to eat except for cookies made of dirt. . . . We just can't comprehend that, an hour-and-a-half plane ride from Disney World, there is this abject poverty, this destitution."
At his Catholic parish in Burke, he put a basket at the back of the church and asked the congregation, then about 2,500 people, to donate 50 cents a day during the 40 days of Lent. They raised $69,000, a sum he couldn't believe. And so began a series of projects: They built small homes for families. They bought boats for fishermen. They planted banana and breadfruit trees. They erected a two-story school.
They named it Operation Starfish, after a legend about a man walking on the beach after a bad storm: He began throwing starfish washed up on the beach back into the ocean to save them from the heat of the sun and the sand. A little boy told him it was useless, Martin said, because there were so many; he could never save them all. "The old man just picked up one, threw the starfish back in the water, turned to the boy and said, 'But I made a difference to that one.' "
They work with Florida-based Food for the Poor, and the Starfish model has now been followed at hundreds of churches, Martin said. The Church of the Nativity in Burke, now more than 5,000 families, has raised $2.2 million already. And now the phone keeps ringing, with parishioners asking about the people they have met on trips to Haiti, asking about the villages where they know the porches of the rickety shacks glow at night with candles as families sit outside in the warm air, talking.
Like so many congregations, community groups, extended families and small nonprofit groups, they wanted to find a way to respond quickly, in a heartfelt way, to the crisis. But with communications and transportation in Haiti snarled, it was difficult for many to know how best to help.
It's hard to bear the sadness of the earthquake, said Jim McDaniel, who coordinates their efforts. He set up a Facebook group and watched wrenching messages float in, as well as the occasional good news -- a missing boy found Wednesday afternoon. Volunteers will have a collection at the church Jan. 24 for food, bottled water and other emergency supplies (checks can be mailed to Church of the Nativity, 6400 Nativity Lane, Burke, Va. 22015), package 25,000 meals for families and send a shipment of building supplies.
They got an e-mail from priest Duken Augustin, whom they work with in Cap-Haitien, on the northern coast: "It is raining heavily. It is dark. The whole city is covered with water, the people of Prolonge swamp for instance dont know what to do. . . . [T]his is a very tragic situation. We already have so many problems that we are unable to resolve after the devastation brought by the four hurricanes of 2008, there are so much suffering waiting to be adressed that this earthquake is really too much. A total disaster.
"We hoped that we would be able to make it but no way. No brake. No chance. We will have to deal with new needs, new sufferings, new situation of hunger, new despair, new devastation."
"They say good comes of everything," Martin said. "I'm trying to think what good could come of this. So I'm questioning, too. I guess you're waiting for some pious words. But I'm just waiting -- just wondering."