Compassion without boundaries: The generosity of Howard countians in faraway places

Schools, homes, shoes and jobs. Love. Hope. As myriad as the needs of those swept up in poverty, abandonment and disaster are the people who pour out their time and treasure to help.

In Howard County, we have a commendable reputation for helping our own, but there are some whose hearts reach beyond our borders. Across the sea, in the mountains and valleys and deserts, they root their hearts in lives of strangers. What inspires them to use precious vacation time to bathe dirty orphans and erect shelters on the rubble of earthquakes? How do they keep going, when the need seems never to end, and their bank accounts bleed money like a hard punch in the nose? Here are three stories of local residents who are trying to make a difference in other lands. To learn more, visit the websites listed at the end of each story.

Beyond All Boundaries: Schools in Haiti

What inspires a woman making a six-figure salary to quit her job and move to Haiti to feed children and send them to school?

Peanut butter sandwiches.

It’s a story that Audrey Boatwright loves to tell.

On a mission trip a few years ago to Gonaives, Haiti, Boatwright had a jar of peanut butter with her. She bought some bread for $5 and, with the help of other volunteers, made sandwiches, cut them up and walked out into the street to give out the pieces to a few hungry children. The next thing they knew, those kids ran and got their friends.

“We fed 60 kids. I’ll never forget that,” says Boatwright.

While the decision to leave her job as a vice president for a local desktop publishing company to feed children in Haiti doesn’t solely rest on those sandwiches, her story certainly is a metaphor for what Boatwright hopes to accomplish in that Caribbean country with her charity, Beyond All Boundaries. With help from those who have much, combined with a few resources and the heart of the Haitian people, many lives can be made better.

To be completely truthful — before the peanut butter sandwiches — it was another woman, Vera “Ma” Boudreaux, who planted the needs of Haiti in Boatwright’s mind. The California missionary had been working in Haiti for 20 years when she came to speak at a prayer retreat in 1997 at the Long Reach Church of God, which Boatwright formerly attended. She was recruiting people to go to Haiti. Boatwright, a military brat who was 37 at the time she met Boudreaux, raised her hand and said, “I’ll go.”

“I was at a place in my life where I believed there was more,” says Boatwright. She went on her first mission trip to Haiti on Jan. 19, 1998.

“I hadn’t seen anything like the poverty there. But I saw hope. I kept seeing businesses, schools, opportunity,” remembers Boatwright about those two weeks helping at the schools in Gonaives, a city about 100 miles north of, and a two-and-a-half-hour drive from, Port-au-Prince.

“People were begging for money, work. They had no shoes. In ’98, kids were still naked,” she recalls.
When she returned to Columbia, she couldn’t get Haiti out of her mind. So she went back that June for three weeks to distribute food and clothing, teach English, and learn how to sew school uniforms on a pedal sewing machine.

“I took this one dress apart so many times,” says Boatwright, laughing. But she mastered it.

Haiti, with a population of 9 million, is one of the poorest countries in the world, as many people were reminded after last year’s earthquake. Most of the schools and orphanages are run by missionaries.

“There’s no government subsidizing, no welfare programs or soup kitchens,” says Boatwright, although she has hopes of a public education system coming soon.

In May 1999, she quit her job and moved to Gonaives to help “Ma” Boudreaux. She was supported by her church, family and friends. In 2003, she returned to the United States and worked for a high-tech company for a while, making occasional trips back to Haiti.

During that time, Boatwright’s doctor, Phyllis Campbell, accompanied the missionary to Haiti, along with two nurses. They held a medical clinic one day and saw more than 80 people.

“Haiti is a beautiful place, but the poverty you see is heartbreaking. It’s indescribable,” says Campbell, who practices in Columbia. “It humbles you about how you look at life and possessions.”

Campbell says she was impressed with Boatwright’s knowledge of the people and the country. “She knew the system,” explains the gynecologist. After that trip, Campbell says she was “catapulted” into medical missions and has gone to other countries since then.

“I want to go back to Haiti,” she says, then pauses. “I am going back.”

In 2008, Boatwright started Beyond All Boundaries, an organization dedicated to helping the Haitian people become self-sufficient.

“I didn’t just want to be a beans and rice program,” says Boatwright. “I wanted to holistically meet the needs of the total man. I wanted to teach people to fish, not hand them a fish.”

She taught herself to speak and read Creole and raised money for four schools, two in Gonaives and two in rural areas north of the city, including one mountain school. She helped build a seminary, and she also sends young adults to trade schools for nursing, construction, driving and sewing.

Currently she is building an orphanage to house 30 kids, many of them victims of last year’s earthquake.
The country already had been hit by two hurricanes in 2004 and 2008 and was trying to recover from those storms. Hurricane John in 2008 hit Gonaives directly, leaving mud 15 feet high in the city, according to Boatwright.

“A lot of people died,” she says. Boatwright had just purchased $10,000 in supplies to build a school when the hurricane hit.

“It all just blew away.”

Somehow the school got built.

Even though Gonaives didn’t feel the physical effects of the 2010 earthquake, the homeless and orphaned of Port-au-Prince made their way north.

“People brought orphans to Gonaives and just left them,” says Boatwright.

“Life is hard in Haiti,” she says, and there really aren’t a lot of jobs.

“Unless we create them, the people won’t have them,” she says.

Their definition of success is different, too. Americans might think that Haitians are lazy and don’t want to get ahead when, in reality, the Haitian mindset is focused on the present, Boatwright explains.

“Haitians think, ‘I just want to survive today,’” says Boatwright, who was recently ordained as a chaplain. Boudreaux, now 88 and still working for Haiti, came to the ceremony at Cornerstone Community Church of God, in Kings Contrivance.

Boatwright travels to her adopted home every other month and plans to spend at least six consecutive months there in 2012. She always needs volunteers. Taking in clothes is also more expensive now. Her organization could use vehicles and would welcome funds to pay for shipping containers or airline costs.

While labor is cheap in Haiti, materials are not, she says. Land for the orphanage was donated by Boudreaux’s mission. The walls are up. She estimates the cost of finishing the orphanage at $50,000 and another $100 to $150 a month per child to run it. She also wants to add grades to her school in the mountains. Right now, the school serves kids age 3 to second grade.

“If I make life better for one child, that keeps me coming,” says Boatwright. “We don’t always get it right every time. Sometimes it’s just taking it one day at a time, or one grade at a time, in the case of a school.”

Global Vessels: Orphanage in Tanzania

Walk into the Columbia home of Virginia and Frazier Mathis and the first things you might see are bags of shoes — big bags, full of sneakers for their kids. Oh, the Mathises’ children are grown and have their own little ones, but they don’t need shoes, not like the orphans in Tanzania.

In this east African country, just south of Kenya, the Havilah Children’s Village in Arusha houses, feeds and educates 20 orphans, ages 3 to 11, because of the efforts of the Columbia couple.

Havilah children and staff wake up each morning to breathtaking views of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Neru. Tourism is the economic driver here. Many Europeans come to Tanzania to go on safari.

However, despite the infusion of outside dollars into the local economy, the number of orphans is rising.

Malaria is the No. 1 killer in the Arusha region, but HIV/AIDS may soon surpass it. Most reported cases are female. Orphaned children are left in the care of grandmothers or other relatives with few extra resources. According to the region’s government, Arushan women are underserved and undereducated.

Progress is slow and mostly focused on the next generation of Tanzanians. That’s why the couple started Global Vessels.

“There’s really no middle class there,” says Frazier Mathis. “You either have or you don’t.”

Frazier is a cabinet maker; Virginia teaches computer science at a private school in Takoma Park. They started the charity in 1998, after going on a mission trip with their church to Ghana. They spent one day bathing 28 orphaned babies being raised in a house the size of their Howard County living room.

Through Global Vessels, the couple provides for the basic needs of orphans while also contributing to Arusha’s local economy by employing teachers and laborers and buying local goods — except shoes and clothes, which are donated by Americans.

“We want to raise these children to be the very best Tanzanians they can be,” says Frazier. “We believe these children are one day going to be the leaders in their country.”

During the school year, Frazier flies to the African country once a quarter for 10 days to monitor Havilah’s operations. On a recent trip he went to the local market and bought bags of beans. Taking them back to Havilah, he had the children divide the beans into smaller bags and take them to the families in the town.

Later he did the same thing with sugar, then clothes. The children gathered the clothes that had been donated to them that they had outgrown, and took them to neighboring children. After all the clothes had been given out, the orphans hopped into their van to go home when a child came running out into the street crying that he didn’t get any clothes. A Havilah child, Simon, 5, jumped out of the van, pulled off his T-shirt and gave it to the boy, recounts Frazier.

“They’re orphans, but that doesn’t negate that you can go and help someone else,” he says.

Havilah was built concrete block by concrete block (the orphanage has its own block making machine) by the joint efforts of American volunteers and Arushans. Every summer, the Mathises take a team of volunteers, both teens and adults, to build and to work with the children. In July, the 32-member team had a goal of putting a second floor on the administration/school building.

One of the volunteers, Tom Gross, however, had a unique job. Gross, who owns Fireside Stone & Patio in Kendall’s Hardware in Clarksville, met Frazier Mathis in the store one day. After learning about Havilah, he asked if it got cold in Tanzania. Yes, replied Mathis. They deal with it by using small space heaters and lots of extra blankets. Gross offered to get two wood burning stoves donated to the orphanage. With the help of Jotul stoves and Simpson Duravent, two stoves and venting were shipped in a sea container, along with desks and chairs surplussed from a nearby school district. When Gross learned that there was no one to install the stoves and vents, he knew what he had to do.

“I’m blessed with so much. I just felt a call to go,” he says.

As a result, Gross and his wife, Beth, joined the 2011 team in Tanzania.

It takes about $40,000 a year to run the orphanage. That includes paying the house mothers, the teachers for the preschoolers, parochial school tuition for the older kids, food and medical care. The directors, who are usually Americans supported by mission organizations or family and friends, get a very small stipend. “Enough to buy deodorant,” says Virginia Mathis.

There is a third house ready to house 10 more children, but the Mathises are resolved not to take any more in until they have a sponsor for each child.

While the Mathises are exploring opportunities to help in other countries, they’re not rushing ahead.
“An orphanage is a lifelong commitment,” says Virginia.

“It’s every day asking people, ‘Do you want to help us?’ ” says Frazier.

When he contemplates what’s been accomplished so far, and what lies ahead, he can only thank God.

“He places a desire in your heart, and then he puts people around you to help you. All we are is just willing. There’s no way we could’ve orchestrated this. No way.”

Worldwide Shelters: Shelter after the storm

Many have seen images of the tent cities that pop up so quickly after a devastating hurricane or earthquake. So often, they are slow to come down again, flapping in the wind with every successive storm, unless they are just blown away. Worldwide Shelters, a nonprofit in Glenwood, believes there’s a better way to provide shelter to people hit by natural disasters. It’s called transitional housing.

Made in the United States of galvanized steel, the frames interlock with minimal tools. No construction skills are required.

“It’s almost like a Tinkertoy thing,” describes Jeannie McMahon, executive director of Worldwide Shelters.
In the short term, a tarp can be thrown over it. In the long term, a metal roof and walls made of local resources can make the shelter more permanent.

Worldwide Shelters was started in Glenwood five years ago by five businessmen as a for-profit venture.

The men, who all wish to remain anonymous, moved on except one western Howard County resident who still believed that transitional housing was the answer to long-term disaster recovery and for poor countries with large groups of people who have no shelter, such as Indonesia and Haiti. The organization achieved nonprofit status in 2009.

Taking the helm of the organization last January, McMahon, who also lives in Glenwood, is tasked with finding partnering agencies and persuading them of the value of transitional shelters. She also needs to raise money for the shelter costs, about $1,000 each. Since Worldwide Shelters’ administrative costs are completely funded by the anonymous founder, McMahon says that 100 percent of donations and grant monies go to the shelters. Her strategy is to get them erected in needy countries where nongovernmental agencies are already at work so they will consider buying them instead of tents.

“The transitional shelter model is the next generation,” says McMahon. “Hopefully, the next time there’s a hurricane in Honduras, people won’t be sending tents.”

 She and her son, Danny, 23, joined a volunteer group from California-based Samaritan’s Feet in Harere, Zimbabwe, this summer to put up six shelters. Zimbabwe has the highest rate of hyper-inflation in the world, according to McMahon. By partnering with Samaritan’s Feet, which has relationships in the country, McMahon hopes to bypass the local red tape and any corruption that might exist.

The nonprofit could’ve used a partner like that in Haiti, where 12,000 transitional shelters were sent. “It was problematic. There was so much corruption,” she says.

 Three people can put up one shelter in less than a day. The Zimbabwe team hoped to have all six erected in the five days allotted to the project. Worldwide Shelters also will provide roofing material, one window and one door for each shelter. Later, local residents will build walls with bricks made in Zimbabwe to make the shelter permanent.

“With this concept you have a lot of buy-in from the end user,” says McMahon. She’s also looking for a partner in Indonesia, where the shelters will be finished off with bamboo walls.

That’s all part of being “culturally correct,” says McMahon.

She also is working on fundraising and is looking for platforms to share with others.

“This cause resonates with women,” she says. One of her ideas is to find women to host “Moms for Shelter” cocktail parties.

McMahon’s background is in sales, and she also made curtains for 20 years. As she became more involved in local fundraising activities at her kids’ schools, she remembered how energizing the work could be.

“I felt like I got my mojo back,” says McMahon. It was through her PTA and high school Booster activities that she was asked to join Worldwide Shelters.

One of her first jobs was to get the office out of her house and into a rented space at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Glenwood. A shelter will also be erected on church property, according to the church rector, Dina Els van Klaveren.

“It would be great for our parish community to see this homegrown nonprofit and to learn more about shelter,” says van Klaveren.

“It’s like pulling puppies out of the water. They shouldn’t be there. Someone’s got to go upstream and figure out why it’s happening, to change the system,” she says, likening McMahon to that person of change. “She’s working both ends of the stream: the immediate need and the long-term change of systems. She has a big task ahead of her.”

McMahon believes in her cause. Recently, postgrad Capstone Naval students have chosen to do their theses on Worldwide Shelters’ Series 1100 Transitional Shelter.

“This is great news from the advocacy perspective, since the U.S. Navy is the largest deployer of post-disaster aid,” she says. “I have the feeling that if we can get this going it could become the norm. It’s such a great idea.”

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