While out walking his dog in 1998, Father Richard Martin (1939-2014), pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Burke, Virginia, realized that if his parishioners made small financial sacrifices each day and pooled their resources, they could make a large and crucial donation to the poor struggling to survive in other countries. Lent was beginning, and he thought that if 2,500 families saved just 50 cents a day for the 40 days of Lent, they could make a life-saving donation of $50,000.
He presented the idea to his parish and was heartened by the response. In its first year, the program, which would become known as Operation Starfish, raised nearly $67,000. He gave the money to Food for the Poor, a Florida-based nonprofit that assists the poor in developing nations in the Caribbean. The donations built 27 simple houses in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1999, Father Martin led a pilgrimage of a dozen parishioners to Haiti so they could see the results of their donations. By the time of his death in 2014, he had raised $4 million that was used for housing, health care, education and clean water.
“Father Martin was looking for a way to make the Lenten sacrifice more meaningful, in that it would do good for the poor,” said Jim McDaniel, a retired Food for the Poor staff member who today coordinates Nativity’s Operation Starfish program. “Here we are 20 years later, and the program is still going strong.”
In its first three years, Operation Starfish funded individual projects in Haiti, including the 27 houses, a medical facility and an orphanage. The program evolved to fund “Nativity villages,” self-sustaining communities in which villagers could live and provide for their own needs. Ten such villages have been established, with an 11th under construction. They provide housing and work for 1,400 families.
The villages are established in phases. First, basic needs such as housing, clean water and sanitation are provided. Next comes health care and education, followed by a business co-op, which provides a revenue stream for the village. Co-ops include fishing, agriculture and raising animals.
When construction is finished on the new Nativity village, it will include 80 homes (60 have been completed so far), a water system, a new school and community center and an animal husbandry program. The animal husbandry program will provide important commerce in a country that has high unemployment, as residents will be able to raise cows, goats and chickens so they can sell milk, cheese and eggs. Representatives from Food for the Poor will educate the populace in good business practices, including reinvesting in their businesses to make them more profitable.
Nativity is helping in other ways, too. A group of young businessmen from Nativity have flown to Haiti to establish three small businesses involving fresh water fish farming, with a fourth such business in the planning stages. Each farm yields revenue of $12,000-$20,000 annually.
Another group of Nativity parishioners noted in a visit to Haiti that the country had a high rate of death of both women and babies during childbirth. To alleviate the problem they launched a program to assemble birthing and newborn kits for Haitian women, and trained and equipped midwives in using the kits in their work in Haitian slums. The Nativity parishioners assemble the kits themselves that are sent to Haiti.
McDaniel estimates that in the 20 years Nativity has been funding projects in Haiti, 80,000 or more Haitians have received a wide range of services. Their efforts are hampered by the country’s poor infrastructure, unreliable electricity and lack of basic equipment. Much of the work done by machines in the United States must be done by hand in Haiti. The Haitian government is limited in its ability to help, since with such high unemployment tax revenue is scarce. Additionally, the January 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti was devastating to the region, killing at least 100,000 people and destroying many structures.
Working with an established nonprofit like Food for the Poor has allowed Nativity to make the most of the money it contributes, and navigate the challenges of doing good in a destitute country. Food for the Poor also helps Nativity donors overcome the corruption that is typical of governments in developing nations; the nonprofit has met with the president of Haiti and threatened to end its work in the country, McDaniel said, should government officials demand bribes from Food for the Poor to continue its work.
McDaniel believes that the benefit Operation Starfish offers is a “two-way street,” helping Nativity flourish as a parish as well. The parish has doubled in size, growth that Father Martin and Nativity’s current pastor, Father Bob Cilinski, attribute to its generosity to the poor.
“Operation Starfish has brought life and many younger families to our parish, which has helped us to grow,” added McDaniel.
Alison Fram, director of Nativity’s young adult and college ministry, believes Operation Starfish has a particularly positive effect on young people. She has led two trips of a dozen college students to Haiti to see Nativity Villages, and is planning a third for this coming July.
“When they go, our students realize how blessed they are, and that they shouldn’t use resources to excess,” Fram said. “It affects their daily choices.”
In 2016, Fram’s Haitian tour included a visit to Despuzeau, as Nativity funding was about to begin construction of a Nativity village there. Residents lived in shacks, with limited food and without running water; children slept on dirt floors. Fram returned the following year and was amazed by the improvement in Despuzeau’s living conditions.
“They were living in newly built houses, a school was being built and many of the residents were employed building the school,” she said. “We could see firsthand how our parish was making a difference.”
“Operation Starfish demonstrates that it is simple to make a difference in the lives of the poor, not necessarily in Haiti, but in your own neighborhood,” McDaniel said. “And, parishioners who serve others will find they become a happier church community.”
Jim Graves writes from California.