Only a dozen children showed up when a McHenry-based nonprofit first built a school in Haiti.
They couldn’t figure out why, said Justin Smith, the president of Catholic Assistance Missions since summer.
“Here we’re offering this free education and school uniforms and a hot meal a day, but down in Haiti, they use the children as a source of labor,” Smith said.
“The kids are working in fields, or the kids are carrying the goods to market, or the kids are making five trips down to the spring to gather water, 5-gallon buckets of water.”
The solution: For about $150, CAM buys a family a donkey, which can take over a lot of workload previously handled by the children.
Now, five years later, the school in Despinasse, Haiti, has 270 students.
Besides running the school and providing books and uniforms, Smith – an electrician by trade – and groups of volunteers build homes, provide water filtration, and distribute food.
“They’re poor people and they’re hungry people, but there’s a joy there,” Smith said.
Smith, 39, of McHenry, fell in love with Haiti about 11 years ago when he signed up to go on a mission trip to Haiti.
Just a few years before the trip, Smith had a very different life, he said. He was an alcoholic and drug addict.
“I got arrested a lot, got into a lot of fights,” he said. “I lied, cheated, stole to get what I wanted. I didn’t really care about anybody but myself. Then I started getting arrested more and realizing one of these times they’re not going to let me out of here.”
One time he woke up in the Cook County Jail covered in blood and thought he had killed somebody.
He had reached rock bottom. Not even his drinking buddies wanted to hang out with him anymore.
When he returned from rehab several months later, his sister, Michelle Smith, took him to Holy Apostles Church in McHenry.
“I volunteered for everything,” he said. “I volunteered for youth ministry and every service project they had, and that’s how I got on this Haiti trip. Anybody want to go to Haiti? Yeah, sure, I’ve got to do something with my life.”