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Marie Major: Founder of Grace House of Hope for Girls and loving "mother" to each of them.
Published: 12/3/2008, Patty Meyer writes about one of her most memorable experiences in Haiti:
During a visit to Haiti this spring, I met the two newest additions to the sisterhood of orphans. A few weeks before my arrival, their aged and blind grandmother had begged their acceptance to the orphanage on behalf of their mother, who had recently died. The oldest was 4, while the youngest was a few months away from being the tender age of 2. While the eldest, Charlanda, had moments when I saw her interacting with the other 30 girls, the youngest often sat alone or seemed to wander aimlessly about the dusty, graveled grounds. I must admit that I had exhausted my extensive repertoire of "silliness," which had never failed to evoke a smile on a child's face - until now. This dear child's expression of flatness never changed. She rejected all my efforts to hold her in my arms and seemed incapable of receiving human tenderness.
The last day of my stay, I arrived at the orphanage during a meal time. It was then I witnessed the most tender act of love. This dear child was seated before a dish piled high with rice and beans. Her arms hung at her sides as if weighted and her large, beautiful eyes stared straight ahead. But the beauty came when I saw her little mouth open, resembling that of a baby bird. There at her side was 3-year-old Cynthia. Cynthia had officially passed on her former title and the attention that one receives as the youngest, and assumed the role of an older sister. Cynthia presented a heaping spoon of rice to this open mouth. Carefully, Cynthia cupped her other tiny hand under the frail chin of her receiver, hoping to catch any grain that might fall. Then she stood and patiently waited and watched for the little mouth to open again to receive what she had to offer. As tears streamed down my cheeks, I witnessed firsthand what it means to "feed" someone with love. There are many times in life when we need to be fed and other times when, despite who we are and our capabilities, we are called to feed. May each of us respond should we find a person who represents the frailty of a baby bird by recalling what it felt like when we were fed.
Article appearing in the Daily Herald on12/3/2008, written by Susan Dibbl
It started with 30 pairs of shoes. That's what Patty Meyer of Naperville set out to collect for an orphanage of 30 girls in Haiti. But when she e-mailed friends and family about the need a little over a year ago, they wanted to know what else they could give. Meyer soon had clothes, dolls, purses, socks and underwear piled in her dining room. "It was just the most unbelievable response," Meyer said. It didn't stop there. Meyer estimated more than $75,000 has been given toward the orphanage in the past year. The donations include $20,000 from a member of Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church in Naperville, where Meyer is a member, to build new living quarters for the girls who had been crowded in one room. She's obtained sponsors who give $300 a year for each of the girls, raised funds to start a feeding program and collected more clothes and gifts for the children.
She returns to Haiti today to bring Christmas presents that include toiletries and other items donated by religious education students at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Naperville. It will be her ninth trip to Haiti in a little more than a year and a half. "Asking for a pair of shoes and this turning into this wasn't anywhere on my radar," Meyer said. "It's just so amazing how quickly your life can change." Meyer first became acquainted with Grace House of Hope for Girls in May 2007 during a mission trip with a group from Wheatland Salem. "I had a hunger to go back, but I didn't know how I was going to do that," Meyer said. She gave the orphanage director, Marie Major, a Haitian who had become an American citizen, her telephone number and told her to call if she were ever in the United States.
Unexpectedly, Major called in August 2007. She was in the States for a board meeting of Lazarus Project, the parent organization for the orphanage. Major, then 71, told Meyer that she planned to give up the orphanage - she was discouraged and didn't have finances to feed the children. Meyer found herself asking if it would be all right if she visited. "In two weeks, I flew by myself and went to Haiti," she said. "When I saw how they were living, I was just devastated." Major had moved the girls out of her own home so she could rent out her extra rooms to bring in money. The one-room brick building where the girls were staying had a leaky tin roof and puddles of water on the floor. The girls slept three to four to a bed. Meyer asked what she could do and Major asked for black shoes for the girls to wear to school. Before Meyer left, she drew around each girl's foot to estimate the size. "These girls were so precious, they already had stolen my heart," she said. Marie's story Meyer was touched by Major's story, as well.
Major had moved to the United States when she was in her 20s, attended Bible college and became a citizen. She eventually became the caregiver for a wealthy doctor and his wife from Evanston, who retired in Florida. "He was so devoted to her (Major), he bought her a Jaguar," Meyer said. "She was living the life of the American dream." The doctor died and Major continued to care for his wife. But on a return visit to Haiti, Major was so disturbed at how her country had regressed, she called the doctor's wife and told her she felt she needed to stay. The wife told Major that would violate their contract. "She stayed in Haiti and she lost everything she had," Meyer said. Leaving her own adult children behind in Florida and not sure what she would do in her home country, Major built a house that was down the street from an orphanage. The owner was corrupt and left 60 children to fend for themselves. Major, who was then 54, took them all into her home. "God, what are you doing? I don't even like children," Major told Meyer of her reaction. Hundreds of girls have come through Major's home, Meyer said. Major, now 72, runs a school as well as the orphanage. A donation from a church in Florida allowed the chicken coup where the school was being held to be renovated. Donations Meyer raised enabled the school to begin a feeding program this October, "Her attendance has gone up over 35 percent," Meyer said. "Some 5- and 6-year-olds walk several miles to school every day." More than 200 children now attend the school. The 30 girls in the orphanage, ranging in ages from 2 to 15, moved to their new living quarters in February, Meyer said. They live in a second floor addition that was built over an existing church, and now sleep four to five to a room.
Meyer's husband, Jim, who has made three trips to Haiti, painted the rooms on a trip to Haiti this year. As gifts have come in from the United States, Major has insisted the girls share their wealth, Meyer said. During one visit, the girls all piled into two pickup trucks to present items from what they had been given to other children. "I've learned a lot and they've taught me more and given me more than I possibly could give to them," Meyer said. Generous givers The Naperville woman said she has been impressed with the generosity of people here as well. Meyer, a resident of the Asbury subdivision, wrote an article for the subdivision's newsletter and attended a women's luncheon that brought in more donations from her neighbors. One Asbury couple recently gave Meyer $5,000 so she could fly to Haiti this December and take Christmas gifts. "You can't ship to Haiti," Meyer said. "It never gets where it's supposed to go." After Meyer was invited to speak at Alsip Junior High School, the school sponsored three of the girls. Meyer recalls another 15-year-old girl from Naperville who had been saving her baby-sitting money to buy an iPod and decided to donate it instead. "She gave me $105 and some change and I just thought that was an amazing thing for a child in Naperville to do," she said. "If people know where to give it, people are very generous." Even the senior citizens at ManorCare Health Services where Meyer volunteers have made barrettes for the girls. "They love hearing all my Haiti stories," Meyer said. Jim Meyer said his wife's passion for Haiti does not surprise him.
But the Meyers developed an interest in missions several years ago and are sponsoring four children in different countries. Jim Meyer said their visits to developing countries have been life-changing. "You always wonder why them and not me," he said. "It certainly causes you to evaluate your own country and upbringing. It brings you down to the nitty-gritty of what's going on in the world." Like his wife, Jim Meyer said he was particularly impressed with Major's story. "She a great woman," he said. Patty Meyer said she is sometimes asked why she directs her energy to Haiti when many needy people live in the United States. The difference is that the Haitians have no safety net of government assistance or other programs to help, she said. "There, people are helpless," she said.
A nonprofit organization called Impact for Jesus that Wheatland Salem originally formed for other purposes now is devoted to handling donations for the Haitian orphanage. Meyer, who has a daughter in high school and son in college, said children in Haiti are not highly valued. She wants them to know differently. She has obtained sponsors for all but four of the girls for next year and is working on the rest. "My main goal is that these children realize they are worth it and put some hope in their lives," she said. The woman who once wondered what she - as one person - could do to help now knows she can make a difference. "It just takes one person to make that first step and then we don't know where it will lead," she said. Anyone interested in helping may contact Patty Meyer at email@example.com.