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WALPOLE -- It was a priest in his hometown of Jacmel, Haiti, that enabled Father Jean Pierre Aubin, currently the pastor of the Walpole Catholic Collaborative, to leave a life of poverty and pursue his vocation. Now, he wants to give the youth in his community the kind of help he received.
Father Aubin spoke to The Pilot on Aug. 20, just a week after an earthquake struck southern Haiti, about the context of the earthquake; the work of his nonprofit, the Reverend Jean M. Parisot Foundation; and the school it supports, St. Claire School in Jacmel.
He started the foundation in honor of his pastor in Jacmel, the late Father Parisot, who sent him to study in the United States in 1995.
"I would love to do for these kids what my pastor did for me," Father Aubin said.
Upon arriving in the U.S., Father Aubin studied English at Boston University for a year before he entered St. John's Seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2001 and was initially assigned to St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Norwood.
He established the Parisot Foundation to raise money for building and operating a school in Jacmel. Additionally, before the coronavirus and recent political turmoil, he used to lead missionary trips to Haiti two or three times a year to bring supplies to the children.
"I know what it's like to grow up with nothing. I know what it's like to be hungry. I know what it's like to be needy. I know what it's like to go to school with no food in my stomach. That's the reason why I'm very excited and passionate about this project," Father Aubin said.
Carol Gerry, a member of the Plainville-Wrentham Catholic Collaborative and the treasurer of the Parisot Foundation, first met Father Aubin when he was visiting parishes to raise awareness of his project and ask for financial support. She joined the group of 10 people on his trip to Haiti in 2013.
"Once we went down there and saw in person what it's like in Jacmel, which is by no means one of the worst areas of Haiti. We knew we wanted to help get this program underway," Gerry said.
Father Aubin's family donated some land for the school, and his parishioners and missionaries in Massachusetts began fundraising. For the past seven years, except during the pandemic, the Parisot Foundation has held an annual dinner and dance at the Knights of Columbus hall in Norwood.
As a result of their efforts, St. Claire School officially opened in 2018. The administrator and teachers are all locals, and the students' families pay no tuition. The elementary school instead relies on donations, which go toward paying the teachers and feeding the students. The school provides them with two or three meals a day, since, as Father Aubin reasoned, children cannot be expected to learn when they are hungry, and they cannot be sent home hungry when they may not have food at home.
"We are humbled and grateful to God and those who make it happen. Our hearts are full of gratitude and praise. God knows how much these children need help now and all the time," Father Aubin said.
St. Claire School currently has 100 students in attendance and another 100 registered for next year. They cannot fit all the students in the classrooms, so the kindergarten class is held in the cafeteria.
The foundation is seeking donors to help them build more classrooms, a chapel for the celebration of Mass, and dormitories for students who live far away. Many are late or miss school because they cannot pay for bus transportation.
In time, Gerry said, they would like to build a vocational technical school and begin training young people in cooking, plumbing, and mechanics.
"It's a huge issue in Haiti that things don't get fixed right because people don't know how to fix them. The lack of education is a huge problem," she said.
Haiti has suffered from a series of different types of crises in recent weeks, months, and years, from a devastating earthquake in 2010 to the assassination of the president in July. According to Gerry, the school remained open "fairly consistently" during the coronavirus pandemic, but the political unrest from 2019 to 2021 was more of an issue, as it delayed travel and transportation of supplies to Jacmel.
The earthquake that took place in southern Haiti on Aug. 14 caused over 2,000 deaths, and left many people injured or homeless. Father Aubin said the school, its students, and his own relatives were alright, but in a national tragedy such as this, everyone is family.
"We are all in it together," he said.
Father Aubin explained that Haiti often has natural disasters because it lies in the path of tropical storms. But the real problem, he said, is the way people build their homes. Regulations are not enforced, so buildings are not designed to withstand extreme weather. That is why there are so many deaths and injuries when disasters occur.
Gerry echoed this, based on what she has heard from Haitians in the Boston area.
"What would be a disaster anywhere is amplified because there's no infrastructure to help the people when there is a disaster," she said.
Father Aubin bemoaned the fact that much of the money raised to help victims of the 2010 earthquake never made it to the people who needed aid but was instead appropriated by the Haitian government and others in power. Corruption is "the number one sin" in Haiti, he said.
He cautioned people who want to give aid, "be careful who you give your money to," because unfortunately, "some people can't wait for a moment like this, both in Haiti and around the world, to make money at the expense of the poor."
"If people want to give, you can give, but do your homework," he said.
He encouraged contributing to collections taken by the Church, such as those to be held in parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston in the coming weeks, because that money will go directly to the Church in Haiti.
"You can trust that 100 percent," Father Aubin said.
Gerry said the "only good thing" that could happen as a result of another disaster would be increased support and education about the situation in Haiti.
"If we can help them, then maybe they can help themselves," she said.
The Parisot Foundation is not conducting any additional campaigns, but they plan to hold their annual fundraiser in support of St. Claire School on Oct. 2.
"I hope and pray (the students) can come back to school in October," Father Aubin said.
Information about the Reverend Jean M. Parisot Foundation can be found at parisotfoundationhaiti.org and in the foundation's Facebook group.