The Herald, Sharon, Pa.


November 6, 2012

Church event continues outreach to Haiti village

HERMITAGE — The relationship between Pelerin, Haiti, and Grace Chapel Community Church in Hermitage is storied.

It will continue this Saturday with the inaugural Crafts for a Cause event at the church, but it began two years ago at Case Avenue Elementary School in Sharon.

Back then, Joseph Altenor, a native Haitian, heard Case Avenue students were raising money to send to his home country.

His daughter’s godmother works at the school, and she invited him to come and watch the students present a $10,000 check to the American Red Cross. The students raised the money to help relief efforts after an earthquake hit Latin America, and Altenor would be welcome as a native Haitian to speak to the students.

“I went and thought there would be a few people,” Altenor said. “The whole school was there. I was in tears.

“I went back to every single classroom and thanked them. And at the time, something woke me up and said, if these children can do this, I can.”

Unemployed at the time, he thought perhaps he’d start a nonprofit, and someone suggested he meet with Larry Haynes, the executive director of the Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania & Eastern Ohio.

Altenor went to the organization’s Sharon office, and Haynes met with him on the spot. The two had never met, and Altenor had never attended Grace Chapel Church, where Haynes is the pastor, but Haynes told him he too had wanted to do something for a place like Haiti. He had hoped one day his church would aid a third world country, perhaps by adopting a village.

Altenor took an exploratory trip to his home village to assess needs and noticed the villagers were using a well where water barely trickled out. People would line up to fill their water jugs from the slow drip, but the untreated water often left them ill.

He came back and started working with people within the church, particularly associate pastor Dominic Verdell, on a plan to work with the Haitian people and offer whatever support they could.

Enter Marsha Bucciarelli, who has attended Grace Chapel Church since its inception 15 years ago. Bucciarelli said she felt God put the country of Haiti on her heart decades ago, but she never knew why.

When Altenor returned from his trip, he gave a presentation at the church, and a picture of the trickle of water touched Bucciarelli. She asked Verdell for a copy of the photo and put it on her fridge.

“That picture did something to me when I saw people having to wait for water,” she said. “I believe God used that picture to speak to me.”

She shared it with her life group, a group of six couples, who had just finished studying “Outlive Your Life” by Max Lucado.

“I just thought we ought to look into doing something for Haiti,” she said. “At the end of the study, we talked about how to outlive your life, how to do something bigger.”

She and her husband, Mike, who owns the Buzzard Box, and the rest of their group had two rotisserie fundraisers to raise money for a well for Pelerin. The church’s vacation Bible school students brought their change in during the week’s sessions and raised another $1,200. The well was ready.

Today, the people of Pelerin have a gushing, purified water system with eight spigots where one used to be. The villagers waited for Altenor and Verdell to visit to turn on the spigots, and it was a huge event.

“The people in that village are so grateful,” Altenor said. “Pastor Dom was in tears.”

In June, along with 14 others, Bucciarelli traveled to Haiti to see it herself.

“It was really exciting,” she said. “We really believe that’s just the beginning, because we have a lot of projects” on the drawing board.

She and Altenor have begun to work together with the core team which traveled to the country in June and hope to build a fence around Pelerin’s school as their next project. About 250 students attend the school, and there are about 2,000 people in the village.

Another project will be sending school supplies and money for uniforms for the children. Many children in the village either can’t afford the required uniform or the supplies.

“They might spend two to two-and-a-half years in one grade because they couldn’t go to school,” Altenor said.

Bucciarelli said people in Pelerin also need medical supplies in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and she hopes there’s a way to get them some quickly. One of Grace Chapel’s goals is setting up a presence there, perhaps in the form of an office and medical center next to the existing church building once it’s renovated.

“It makes such a difference,” she said of the church’s efforts. “They couldn’t even dream of these things on their own.”

Bucciarelli and Altenor also hope to help the people of Pelerin harvest their natural resources like cashews, coffee and cocoa so they can work and improve their economic situation.

Grace Chapel sells Haitian coffee and will at the Crafts for a Cause benefit as well.

Bucciarelli said she and Altenor want the event Saturday to bring awareness to what church members are trying to do. All of the proceeds from the church’s fundraising events for Pelerin go toward the cause; all food and time is donated.

The event will feature Haitian cuisine – chicken, rice and beans – made by Altenor, as well as other food, more than 35 vendors, a Chinese auction and more. A $1 admission fee goes to the Mercer County Backpack Program that began as a partnership between the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County, Grace Chapel, and Hermitage School District that feeds hungry school children on the weekends.

Altenor said in the midst of this sometimes he wonders why he ended up in the Shenango Valley – his family came to the United States in the 1980s – all the way from Haiti.

“Why?” he said. “Why am I here?”

He answers his own question in the same breath: “To see what people have come together to see what they can do.

“To walk into the village where you were born and see them there to welcome people they don’t even know – strangers – you can see it; they have that hope: somebody’s here to help.”

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