Joanna Baumgartner is surrounded by Haitian school children outside the school in Ouanaminthe. Courtesy of B The Hope for Haiti

From Burlington to Haiti, a ray of Hope

By  Dennis Gibbons, Catholic Register Special
  • December 19, 2019

BURLINGTON, Ont. -- Before Joanna Baumgartner showed up, some children in the Amor et Gratia (Love and Grace) school in Ouanaminthe, Haiti had to make their own fun. An empty motor oil can tied to a string served as a toy car. 

Now thanks to a program called B The Hope for Haiti, children receive a new toy at Christmas from across the border in the Dominican Republic. 

“It’s amazing when you spend time in Haiti how much you can appreciate the small things in life,” said Baumgartner of Burlington, just across the bay from Hamilton. “They’re so excited to get just one toy.”

Baumgartner and her volunteers also go into the streets to find kids who do not go to school. They are given a meal and presented with used Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars donated by Canadians. 

When Baumgartner first visited Haiti in 2011, the school in Ouanaminthe had four very rough concrete classrooms with no running water and no electricity. Families were bathing in and drinking water from the polluted Massacre River, which forms Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic. 

“It was very hot, and very dirty,” she said. 

Later she and Dedra Key Chavez, of the American group Present Hope Ministry, rented out buildings in other parts of the city, brought children in off the streets and registered them for school. The schools are Christian-based and include Bible time in the morning. 

But Baumgartner and Key Chavez weren’t satisfied with just that. In the summer of 2018 they purchased a large piece of land in the south end of Ouanaminthe, a town of 100,000, and construction started on a new school, which will be called Present Hope Institute. 

The long-term goal is to accommodate 450 students from pre-kindergarten to Grade 9, as well as some students training in the trades. Three classrooms and a kitchen have been completed and by September of 2020 there should be room for children up to Grade 6. 

Only 50 per cent of children go to school in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Some people earn less than $2 a day. Baumgartner says she will need to raise $100,000 to finish the school. (B The Hope for Haiti operates under the registered Canadian charity, Empower Global Inc.)

“Without these schools and our nutritious feeding program most children in this area would go without education, proper food or safe drinking water,” she said. 

“With education, a handout can become a hand up. To truly make a difference we must empower the next generation toward self-sustainability.” 

Some day she will turn the reins of the organization over to her daughter Caroline, 24. Caroline accompanies her mother on twice yearly trips to the island in between classes at Hamilton’s McMaster University which will lead her to a job as a speech therapist. 

Helping others is nothing new to the Baumgartners. For more than 15 years, she and her husband Joe, who works at McMaster University, served as foster parents for children whose mothers suffered from addiction.

The Baumgartners also are in charge of arranging accommodation for newcomers to Canada through the resettlement committee at Holy Rosary Parish in Burlington.

In her spare time Baumgartner has volunteered for the Diocese of Hamilton’s One Heart, One Soul Campaign that surpassed the Holy Rosary parish goal of $440,000 in just two months. When she has a minute, she also tends the gardens at Holy Rosary. 

Fr. Martin Vallely, pastor of Holy Rosary, is one of Baumgartner’s biggest admirers. 

“Joanna has long been a shining model for us here at Holy Rosary Parish,” he said. “Her extraordinary, passionate and tireless outreach to those most in need, near and far, never ceases to both amaze and inspire us. 

“She lives fully the mandate of the Lord, ‘Whatsoever you did for the least of these, you did it for me.’ Joanna is a priceless treasure to us in the daily living out of our parish’s mission to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

The Catholic Women’s League of Holy Rosary and the parish’s branch of the Knights of Columbus have been big supporters, along with Lancaster Technology. 

It costs $5,000 to sponsor a classroom or $10,000 for crucial support buildings. Donations will include the donor’s plaque being displayed and tax receipting through Empower Global. One hundred per cent of every donation goes directly to the needs of the children. 

Donations can be done through the B The Hope for Haiti website at bthehopeforhaiti.com or contact Baumgartner at bthehopeforhaiti@gmail.com.

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