Father Rick Lesser and five parishioners from Corpus Christi, Round Lake, spent five days serving in Haiti last month.
Father Rick Lesser and five parishioners from Corpus Christi, Round Lake, spent five days serving in Haiti last month.
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A popular verse from Hebrews 3:15 says, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” 

For many, the verse serves as a reminder to listen to God’s call. For Stella Ritter, a parishioner at Corpus Christi in Round Lake, it was this verse that called her to go to Haiti.

“It was a life-changing experience,” she said. “Especially at Christmas time, you see everything we take for granted.”

Her travels were apart of Corpus Christi’s trip to St. Gabriel’s Secondary School in Fontaine, Haiti. Mrs. Ritter was joined by four other parishioners, all of whom taught in the school for five days, and their pastor, Rev. Richard “Rick” Lesser, who had the chance to volunteer in the local veterinary tech school and clinic in Fontaine for the duration of the trip, dusting off the hat he wore before he put on the collar of priesthood.

The trip gave parishioners a chance to experience Haitian culture while in a world much unlike their own. “They’re just a joyful society,” said Father Lesser. “These people have such great dignity and selfless care for one another.”

Parishioner Greg Stasik attended the trip with his wife, Denise, who helped coordinate the trip with Father Lesser: “I really had a lot of fun with [the students],” he said. “They were very well-dressed, happy children, and they were riveted by the [classroom] experiments.”

St. Gabriel’s school was founded by Pierre-Louis Joizil, a graduate of Siena College in Loudon­ville and native of Haiti. Mr. Joizil came to Siena in 2010 with a vision of one day building a school in his hometown of Fontaine. 

Through his efforts, Mr. Joizil was connected with Rev. David Noone, former pastor at Christ Our Light parish in Loudonville, where monthly collections aided the Haitian school. In 2013, parishioners of Christ Our Light helped establish “Friends of Fontaine,” a non-profit organization working to support to the local Haitian community through St. Gabriel’s School.

Corpus Christi had been sponsoring students at St. Gabriel’s School for the past year, said Father Lesser, and it had been on his mind to visit the school one day. Corpus Christi ended up being the first teaching team of parishioners to visit the school: “I’m still in the process of digesting it all,” said the pastor. 

A special education teacher, Mrs. Ritter was curious to see how a classroom in Haiti compared to those in the United States. On reflection, she said the students’ work ethic and intelligence was exceptional, even without the resources normally provided in an American classroom: “They were very nice students, and they were very interested because we were the first teachers to visit the school.”

The group departed early from John F. Kennedy (JKF) airport on Nov. 26 and arrived in Fontaine later that day. Mrs. Ritter observed that the road leading to St. Gabriel’s was extremely rough, and that locals used donkeys and animals to transport items or to travel.

The Corpus Christi group was housed in St. Gabriel’s spare rooms. Mrs. Ritter recalled the mosquito nets draped over the beds where they slept at night. In the classrooms, a single light bulb served as the main source of illumination. 

Every school day began with morning prayer before students broke off into their classrooms. As a secondary school, St. Gabriel’s taught grades seven to 13. Because many local residents begin school only after they can afford it, the age of attending students ranged from teens to young adults in their mid-20s. 

Most of the students spoke either Creole or French, and a translator assisted each of the Corpus Christi teachers. Many of the older students who spoke English helped other classmates communicate throughout the day.

Mr. Stasik taught science courses throughout the week. Many of his lesson plans included a number of hands-on experiments, such as designing circuits, or silly lessons on how to use air pressure to pull an egg into a bottle. 

“The kids were mesmerized by the simplest experiments because they don’t get many hands-on experiments,” said Mr. Stasik. “I wanted to give science lessons that would stick.”

When not in class, many of the boys played soccer — a sport that women were not socially allowed to participate in. Mrs. Stasik heard about this rule and brought down a volleyball net and equipment to teach the girls how to play. 

Mrs. Ritter was nicknamed “the volleyball police” by Father Lesser for often turning the boys away from taking over the game: “I wanted to make sure the girls had their own thing,” she said. “The pecking order here is that males are first. I’m hoping the net is still up.”

Father Lesser went to the veterinary tech school each morning, where he taught lessons or helped treat animals at the town veterinary clinic. The pastor was able to bring with him more than $1,200 of veterinary drugs and supplies to donate to the students, and he said he hopes that’s only the beginning: “My plan is to go back and expand the veterinary team,” he explained. 

Mrs. Ritter taught English class, and religion classes with Father Lesser when he wasn’t serving at the veterinary school. The student population is split evenly between Protestants and Catholics, but many students had questions about Catholic saints, confession, who is saved when they die, and what heaven is like. “It blew Father Rick and I away,” said Mrs. Ritter.

Father Lesser said the hope is that the parish can plan another trip down to the school sometime in the near future. “They would like us to come back and we would like to go,” he said.

“I think it’s important not to look at other people, like, ‘Oh those poor things,’” said Mr. Stasik. “I look at [the students] and think they have something I don’t have: they have a stronger faith than me, and I think how could I get that?” 

For more information on St. Gabriel’s Secondary School, visit the Friends of Fountain website.