HALES CORNERS — Caroline Rick took time to think about it when her parents asked her what she wanted for her 11th birthday.

Instead of asking for gifts for herself for her 11th birthday, Caroline Rick, a fifth grader at St. Mary School, Hales Corners, asked for money that she could donate to help rebuild the Haitian Latiboliere Village devastated by Hurricane Matthew last fall. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

Her reply, that she’d like money she could send to Haiti, to help rebuild the Latiboliere Village, an area devastated by Hurricane Matthew last fall, was a surprise to her friends and family.

On her birthday invitation, in lieu of gifts, she asked for checks made out to St. Mary with Haiti in the memo.

For Caroline, whose mother, Mary Pat, serves as a marketing volunteer for the school, it was a message from their pastor, Fr. Brian Mason, that touched her heart.

“He talked about the hurricane in Haiti and he talked about how we each could help,” she said. “Then the priest and head of the school from Haiti visited our classrooms and they told us how they lost everything. I decided that I didn’t need gifts as much as some of those people needed food.”

Caroline’s birthday was Nov. 21. She collected $125 for the village and delivered the checks to the parish and they in turn, sent the money to Haiti.

“They lost all they had in the hurricane,” she said. “They needed to buy food, medical supplies and tarps for shelter. Also, all of their animals died so they needed to replace them.”

Community service encouraged

Helping others is not new for Caroline or other students at St. Mary Parish School as teachers and staff regularly encourage community service. This year, each grade adopted an ongoing parish ministry partner to ensure that service is embedded in their academic program.

Some of the partnerships include Respect Life, Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative, St. Ben’s Community Meal Site, Pathfinders, Repairers of the Breach and the parish sister parish, Notre Dame du Perpetual Secours in Latiboliere, Haiti. Giving back is encouraged throughout the year, explained Caroline.

“During religion class, the teachers and our priest encourages us to help people in the community and do things for others. This was a small way I could give back,” she said. “After hearing they lost everything, it made me happy to be able to do something small. I have so much compared to the kids in Haiti and I’m glad I had the chance to make a difference.”

Because the devastation was so great in Haiti, already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, many students from the school committed to helping the small community with their rebuilding efforts.

Letter sent to families

Karen Parkinson, 4K teacher, sent a “Helping Hands for Haiti” letter to families and collected funds for the village’s greatest needs, tarps for shelter, money for goats and water.

“The 4K and 5K teachers, Mrs. (Deb) Johansen, Mrs. (Sue) Steward, Mrs. (Linda) Scharine and I partnered up with our sister parish in Haiti, said Parkinson. “It originally started that we were going to form some lesson plans to raise money to buy them more goats for the village. We thought that would be a good place to start; such as teaching the children what one goat can do for the village, such as food, a product to sell or trade, a pet and milk. We have parish members who have visited Haiti and who came in and gave a firsthand account and brought pictures to share.”

The teachers wanted to instill gratitude in the minds of the 4K and 5K students for all they have, as well as showing the children their differences and what they have in common with the children in Latiboliere.

Even young children encouraged to help

“Even as young as 4, 5 and 6 years old, we wanted to teach them that any amount helps the people of Haiti,” said Parkinson. “Our letter home, written by a 5K student, referenced the fact that the children could bring in coins of any amount from their own piggy banks. We also encouraged the children to earn the money that their parents donated to the helping Hands for Haiti Drive.”

The St. Mary’s social concerns chair, Pam Lownik has communicated regularly for the past 16 years, between the school and the parish’s Haiti partners.

“My favorite story while Per Dante (Daniel), our Haitian pastor was here, was him getting tears in his eyes while he listened to one of the St. Mary kindergarten students describe in detail the goat she wanted him to buy with the money they gave him,” she said, describing the young girl’s comments. “‘I would like it to be mostly white with some brown and black spots.’”

The Latiboliere group, consisting of the pastor, Jean Pierre Louis, director of the College of Alexander Dumas and Monseigneur Pierre-Andre Pierre, the Rector of Université Notre-Dame d’Haiti, visited the parish and classrooms a couple of weeks after Hurricane Matthew leveled the village.

“He (Per Dante) was so touched by the concern of the whole community and amazed at the depth of our 16-year relationship with them,” said Lownik. “The students demonstrated knowledge about and a love for Latiboliere. This gave witness too, how much we care as a community about the people of our sister parish. As our pastor, Fr. Brian Mason said, ‘we are united. They are our parishioners as much as we are theirs.’”

Parish raises more than $90K

According to Mary Pat Rick, in addition to the 4K and 5K students raising funds, the Boy Scouts hosted a bake sale that raised more than $2,000 for Latiboliere.

“The parish as a whole, raised over $90,000 in relief efforts,” she said. “The priority for the monetary donations are for food; with $19 buying 50 pounds of rice, housing; $50 buys a tin roof and repairs, goats; $75 will purchase a pregnant goat, medical and midwife supplies. The parish decorated a Christmas tree during Advent with envelopes attached, where students could pick an envelope to support the Haiti efforts.”

Haitian committee member, Jean Pierre Louis, translates communication between Per Dante and St. Mary Parish and School, explained Lownik. Via email, he wrote to Lownik last week, expressing gratitude for the recent assistance to their village.

“I already told you what you’ve done so far after the hurrican (sic) is more that (sic) helpful. Everyone here knows that St. Mary is the one helping us truly. We told people here even the little kids of St. Mary feel very concern (sic) about us,” he wrote.

Kindergartener proposes way to raise money

With her grade involved in the Haiti partnership, 5K student, Madeline Lesperance brought a letter home from school proposing her parents pay her to do little chores around the house for money that she could donate to the Latiboliere efforts.

After learning about the devastation caused in Haiti by Hurricane Matthew last fall, Madeline Lesperance, center, proposed her parents pay her to do chores around the house so she could donate to relief efforts. Madeline and her brothers, Elijah, left, and Samuel, students at St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners, also wrote a letter to their neighbors, asking them to contribute to earthquake relief efforts. They raised more than $150. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

“I loved the idea,” said her mother, Jackie. “I thought we could get more people involved, so the kids and I wrote a letter to our neighbors explaining the project. We printed a bunch of copies, the kids each signed them all and then walked door to door to pass them out and describe in person what they were trying to do.”

Elijah, fourth grade, Sam, third grade and Madeline raked leaves for some of their neighbors in exchange for a donation. Other neighbors simply gave the children money.

“They made over $150, which to them is a small fortune,” said Jackie. “We even got a letter back from someone who had been moved by their in-person appeal and really encouraged the kids. What’s so cool is that there were multiple positive consequences – the people of Haiti were helped, my children got to experience loving sacrificially by giving away the fruits of their labor, and it contributed to a greater sense of community in our neighborhood.”

Elijah said he was grateful that St. Mary School asked for help, because it gave them the idea to take their efforts a step further and branch out to the neighborhood. Helping Haiti helped him deal tangibly with the impact of the devastation.

“When the priests from Haiti came, and spoke to our class, they showed us before and after pictures of the village,” he said. “I was expecting a lot of damage, but that they would still be able to live. But, everything was just destroyed. Everything was gone. I couldn’t believe people were still living there. It was really shocking.”

From homeschool to St. Mary

The Lesperance children transitioned to St. Mary School after three years of homeschooling. In addition to Elijah, Sam and Madeline, 2-year-old Gabe is a future St. Mary student.

“My husband and I felt strongly that we wanted our children to be in an environment that supported and encouraged their relationship with God,” said Jackie. “It means the world to us that what we’re trying to teach them at home about faith and life is being affirmed and added to every day. I think having that kind of integration is helping them develop a firm foundation for the future. We are so, so pleased.”

Sam and Elijah enjoy attending St. Mary Parish School, going to Mass and learning about God.

“We pray there, just like we do at home,” said Sam, adding, “It would feel weird not to.”