FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — The earthquake that devastated Haiti this week has shaken the world. But for a small church community in this northern Maine town, the ruination left by Tuesday’s quake is a family affair.
For the past 10 years, the 150-member Celebration Center in Fort Fairfield has been providing vital support to the town of Vignier, Haiti, a community of about 6,000 people located approximately 35 miles from Port-au-Prince along the northern shoreline of Port-au-Prince Bay.
Over the years, members of the nondenominational Celebration Center have sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to Vignier, digging deep into their own modest budgets to help feed, clothe and shelter the Haitian residents.
Importantly, the funding from Fort Fairfield also has been used to erect a compound of modest cement-block buildings — a church, a home for its pastor, the Rev. Benite Jeune, and his family, a training center and guest house, a meal center and a four-story school with an enrollment this fall of 800 students.
The Rev. Mark Babin has visited at least twice a year to oversee the work on the ground, and teams from the Celebration Center have gone with him to help with the construction and other projects.
Two Vignier families have been “adopted” by Celebration Center families, designated to receive special support in the form of clothing and other necessities from Aroostook County. All told, the Celebration Center dedicates about 15 percent of its revenues to supporting the people of Vignier.
In 2000, Babin and his wife, Claudette, legally adopted a 2-year-old girl from the village. Gemimar Joseph Babin is now a seventh-grader at Fort Fairfield Middle School and will turn 13 this Tuesday. Another family, Stephen and Kristen Young, recently adopted a 4-year-old daughter, Sydney, from an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Sydney has been living with her new family for just four months.
On Tuesday afternoon, Babin got word of the quake that had demolished Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area. There was no information about Vignier.
At the Celebration Center’s regular Tuesday night service, Babin broke the news to his congregation. He led prayers for the safety of the people of Vignier and established a new fund for the immediate aid needed there.
On Wednesday evening, Babin received an e-mail from Benite Jeune’s brother in Montreal. Translated from the French, it read, in part:
“No loss of life in the Vignier compound, or surrounding area. Materially speaking, there is nothing left. The school has collapsed, the training center [and] guest house have collapsed, the cafeteria, Benite’s home as well as the front of the church have also collapsed. Nothing is salvageable or fit for occupation.”
It is “a miracle” that no one was injured when the buildings fell Tuesday afternoon, Babin said. Normally, children and teachers are present throughout the afternoon in the compound, in the buildings and in the play yard, he said.
“The hardest part is not being there,” Babin said Friday during an interview at the Celebration Center.
He has been exploring every avenue he can think of, he said — mission groups, the military, Maine’s congressional delegation — to try to get himself to Vignier.
He wants to hand-deliver cash to Jeune and others who need it, and assess what other needs are the greatest and most critical.
“Probably, they can live for a week and a half or two weeks on what they have, but it will get difficult soon,” Babin said. While fresh produce is available from local farmers, rice, dry beans and other staples must be purchased in Port-au-Prince and trucked across rough roads, he said. Because of the devastation in Haiti, he said, “there is no way to wire money, and we don’t dare to send cash.”
In time, he said, work will begin on rebuilding the school, the church and other structures that have been lost. Clearly, he said, stronger, safer construction techniques must be used.
For many youngsters in the town, the noon meal served at the school is the primary source of nourishment, said Claudette Babin. “Now, there’s no noon meal,” she said.
She stressed that the Celebration Center is “a hands-on mission” that personally oversees the use of all funds. “It is the right thing that when people give, they know where their money is going,” she said.
Despite the serious conversation, Sydney Grace Young moved happily from lap to lap at Friday’s small gathering in the Celebration Center, but she was too shy to offer much commentary. When asked her age, she promptly held up four waggling fingers.
She also spent time admiring her own shoes — a pair of sparkling red Mary Janes, “Those are her Ruby Slippers,” Kristen Young said. “They’re to remind her that there’s no place like home.”
For Gemimar Babin, the terrible news from her impoverished birthplace seems far away. She has made one visit, last April, to Vignier since leaving as a toddler. She found homes built of mud bricks and cinderblocks, roofed with palm fronds and sheet metal.
Water for drinking and cooking is drawn and carried from communal wells. Nearly everyone depends on the charity of church missions and other nonprofit groups for food, medical care and schooling.
Gemimar’s birth father died several years ago. Her birth mother, Alud Joseph, is now 41 and lives with several of her other children in a small stuccoed home built by the Celebration Center.
“They don’t have a lot, but they are still happy, and they are glad for every day,” Gemimar said Friday. The recent visit opened her eyes to the relative ease in which she now lives.
“You look at your life and say, ‘I am so fortunate,’” she said.
Those who want to contribute to the Celebration Center’s support of Vignier may make out a check to the Celebration Center with “Haiti” in the memo line.
Checks may be mailed to the Celebration Center, P.O. Box 738, Fort Fairfield 04742. The Rev. Mark Babin’s office number is 472-4100.