Church volunteers help in Haitian sewing project


April 25, 2001|By Donna Koros Stramella | Donna Koros Stramella,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"GIVE A MAN a fish," the saying goes, "he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime." That was the idea behind a recent outreach project sponsored by Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Glen Burnie - one involving sewing machines rather than fishing poles.

Late last month, four volunteers traveled from Maryland to Haiti. In earlier trips there, parish members had worked with Holy Trinity's sister parish, St. George in the community of Basin Bleu. With each trip, the overwhelming needs of the community continued to inspire volunteers to do more, according to the coordinator of the project, David E. Smith, who has made six trips to Haiti.

"One never seems to become accustomed to the critical poverty conditions which exist in Haiti," he says. "The stench of open sewers floats through the cities and towns. Open markets are invitations to serious diseases. Animals roam freely, which adds to the pollution in the streets and gardens. Nothing improves; everything remains the status quo."

Smith, who remains highly motivated in his desire to improve conditions, found his latest inspiration in an unexpected phone call 14 months ago.

John Valenti, a Holy Trinity parishioner, read about the Haitian trips in the church bulletin. As chief operating officer of the Franklin Clothing Co. in Shippensburg, Pa., he had some sewing machines that were collecting dust.

After Valenti donated 20 sewing machines from the company, the project's mission became clear - create a sewing factory. Before the trip, Smith and other volunteers refurbished the machines, ordered spare parts and gathered tools.

The machines and other necessary items were shipped to Haiti. After clearing customs, the equipment was transported to a cinder-block building measuring 62 feet by 37 feet, that is owned by an order of Catholic priests and once housed a community center.

The volunteers began work immediately. Smith and his wife, Marsha, former members of Holy Trinity who moved to Eldersburg, were joined by Patrick O'Dowd of Holy Trinity and William Courtney of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Elkridge.

In Haiti, the four installed electrical wiring, with power from a 15,000-watt diesel generator near the factory, and set up the sewing machines. Sixteen machines are fully operational. The others need spare parts installed before they can be used. The volunteers also spent time training the work force.

"We have trained two men to repair the machines and about a dozen men and women to operate them," Smith said. "It was satisfying to see how quickly the people adapted to the machines."

The first planned products will be blouses and aprons. After the sewing is complete, women with embroidery experience will put on the finishing touches.

"It is just the beginning," Smith said. "We hope to see this grow into a communitywide effort with many opportunities for jobs."

The factory is in the village of Lavaud, on the north coast of Haiti, where the unemployment rate is said to be 95 percent.

"This will be a community project and the workers will be paid on a profit-sharing basis," Smith said.

Another trip is planned for October, to bring spare parts to repair the four machines and provide additional maintenance training. Plans are being made to concentrate on establishing and improving medical clinics in the rural areas in the mountains of northwest Haiti, Smith said.

No overhead expenses are involved in the Haiti mission, because volunteers pay for travel.

The Smiths' new parish, St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Eldersburg, also provided funds. Money raised by the churches was used for supplies to complete the factory. Past donations have been given to religious orders to support Catholic education in Haiti, since public education is nonexistent in some parts of the country.

If you would like to get involved in the Haiti project, contact Smith through e-mail at SmithDesmls or call 410-549-1802.

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