When Kiki Latimer first visited a Haitian village four years ago, she quickly connected with the joyful yet hungry children as she recalled her own childhood experiences.
The Hope Valley, R.I., children’s book author and storyteller remembers once being homeless as a child. She also recalls living in an isolated cottage for more than three years in the mid-1970s, and traveling to a spring five miles away to carry water home so her mother could cook and Latimer and her siblings could bathe.
While she had firsthand experience with need, it wasn’t until a 2004 trip to India that she became more aware of the plight of those less fortunate.
“It was in India that I saw global poverty for the first time — people living on a square of dirt by the side of the road,” she told Our Sunday Visitor.
Those experiences, along with reading Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, the Man Who Would Cure the World,” inspired her in 2008 when Father Michael Leckie, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Hope Valley, asked parishioners to build a village in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, in cooperation with Food for the Poor, an international relief agency.
She volunteered to lead the appeal, which raised $152,000 to build St. Joseph’s Village, which consisted of 14 homes, a community center and a well system.
“Kiki has been the ‘spark plug’ that has ignited our parish to reach out to our sisters and brothers in Haiti,” Father Leckie said. “Her faith and enthusiasm has inspired all of us to share our bounty with the poor. Many families in St. Joseph’s Village now have safe, sturdy homes because of her untiring leadership.”
Giving voice to voiceless
Latimer said the project not only transformed the lives of many Haitian families, but also those of many parishioners, including her own, and led her to become a children’s author.
“I realized that the story of one small parish building a village was a story that needed to be told,” she told OSV.
The result was “Islands of Hope,” a children’s book that looks at how two groups are brought together through a mission of hope and love.
Readers meet Chanté, a fictional happy-go-lucky little girl who chronicles life in the village, where food was often scarce and families were sometimes forced to dwell outdoors hidden under large rocks before the project began. The young narrator emphasizes the importance of having clean water and a house that is “cozy and safe” — things that people living in the United States often take for granted.
“The people have no voice,” Latimer said. “I wanted to give them one. To be able to tell your story is a form of power.”
Before the book was published, Latimer visited St. Joseph’s Village in January 2009, and was moved by the prayerful hope and strong faith that she witnessed.
“I was overwhelmed by the difference we had made in the lives of the people,” she said. “The people were very happy, very grateful and very joyful despite their challenges.”
Stories of loss, hope
The success of the building project led to several other endeavors, including an agricultural project near St. Joseph Village that allows residents to grow food and sell produce, the construction of five new homes in another settlement and an educational project that provides school tuition for the children of St. Joseph’s Village.
The January 2010 earthquake inspired Latimer’s latest book, “Heal of the Hand,” which was released last fall. The book recaptures a dream Latimer had one night in which an angelic looking elderly storyteller enters a squalid camp in Port-au-Prince and invites the children to tell their stories of loss and suffering, as well as hope.
“I knew the importance of storytelling in times of tragedy,” she said. “When bad things happen to us, we have to tell our story, and keep repeating it until the story moves from your conscious mind to your subconscious, and you make peace with it.”
Brian J. Lowney writes from Rhode Island. For more information, visit www.kikilatimer.com.