The Rev. Richard Martin had been to Haiti many times before the 2009 mission during which he saw families living in a garbage dump. Children were playing in the water, thick with rotting food, and mothers were cradling babies there in the swamp.
Martin, no stranger to Haiti’s persistent, desperate poverty, slipped away from his group for a moment. Overcome, the priest from Fairfax County sat on the ground and sobbed.
Even after years of working to provide aid to the impoverished Caribbean nation, volunteers could find the urgency and the scale of need overwhelming. Martin took it on child by child, house by house, telling others that even the tiniest contribution helped.
Martin died in May, but his parishioners at the Church of the Nativity in Burke, Va., have kept giving money for Haiti — and they now have donated enough to raise an entire village.
This month, workers will begin building houses in Good Shepherd Village, named in memory of Martin. The goal is to make the neighborhood a model for other aid efforts.
“We want to make this a showcase project,” said longtime parishioner Jim McDaniel, one that would inspire other groups and that will evolve as they find new, better ways to help.
Since 1998, the parish has raised more than $4 million for Haiti. The island nation is still struggling, in the midst of a deadly cholera outbreak, to rebuild from the 2010 earthquake, which left a million people homeless.
The church partnered with the international aid agency Food for the Poor in a project dubbed Operation Starfish. Martin had been inspired by the parable of a man coming across millions of starfish washed ashore and throwing them back in the ocean one by one. When someone told him that he could never make a difference given the giant size of the pile, the man tossed another starfish into the waves and said: It made a difference for that one.
The church raises money for Haiti through a Lenten appeal, asking people to make small sacrifices throughout the season before Easter and use that money to help others. Parishioners drop money into a basket in the front of the church. This year, the appeal brought in more than $380,000.
By mid-June, more than a month after Martin died of complications from diabetes, people had given more than $100,000 in his memory.
Bit by bit, Operation Starfish has had an impact, not only with direct aid, but also by providing an example for other community groups, said Delane Bailey-Herd, project manager for Haiti with Food for the Poor.
“Nativity really set the precedent. He has gone out and talked to other groups to say it’s possible. Something that started out so simple has really grown and picked up year after year,” she said. “We’re really going to miss Father Martin. He was such a great shepherd, such a great pastor.”
Aid officials chose the village site in the Dalon area of the town of Grand Boulage for three reasons: The need is enormous. There is a committed community group that will help propel the effort. And it is about an hour north of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, so international aid workers can easily come to assess the progress.
Families live in shelters pieced together from salvaged scraps of wood or metal and tarps without clean water. Children play on dirt floors that quickly turn to mud when it rains.
The new village will have 120 concrete-block two-room homes, each with a bathroom and solar lighting. Food for the Poor will build a market where farmers can sell their harvests and help more people grow food and raise animals. Operation Starfish will open a kindergarten, a community center and a health clinic. It will train people in sewing to help them get jobs.
“We wanted to make this something that would continue to live on,” McDaniel, the Operation Starfish coordinator, said. Operation Starfish volunteers hope it will be a place where Food for the Poor and its partners will experiment with new social programs, ways of building homes and ways to incubate small businesses — and continually track and evaluate successes and failures.
Martin kept going to Haiti because of the people he met there. “He really didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the economic consequences on a macro scale,” McDaniel said. “He looked into the eyes of a mom with five kids who didn’t have a place to stay, and he wanted to fix that. He did that over and over again.”