The Buffalo-Haiti connection
Volunteers from Amherst's The Chapel pursue mission to improve lives in a poor region
If all goes according to plan, the village of Bercy along the coast of central Haiti will have a sustainable water source by 2020, thanks in part to a flexible and ever-evolving team of Western New Yorkers led by Leroy Wiggins.
Wiggins, 54, serves as Campus Pastor and Mens’ Ministry Leader for The Chapel in Amherst. For the past six years, he has marshaled men and women from Buffalo to volunteer their time and talents in a poor region of the hemisphere’s poorest nation.
In October, a local team of nineteen men and women returned from six days in Bercy. This was Wiggins’ seventeenth trip there since 2013, when The Chapel began partnering with an international organization, Mission of Hope, headquartered in Austin, Texas.
“It’s humanitarian work with an organization that really gets things done,” Wiggins said. “We dig water wells. We build houses and help with education and food.”
Mission of Hope, according to its website, exists to bring transformation to the people of Haiti. Their statistics are impressive: each day, the organization serves more than 90,000 meals; upwards of 11,500 students are impacted through educational programs, and volunteers have constructed or rebuilt more than 1,000 homes.
The goal is to undertake jobs that need to be done. Human connections, however, are the most important component.
“We do something called ‘strategic village time,’” Wiggins explained. “Basically, you spend time in the village with people. There is no agenda. We may sit down with a little old lady in her home and talk for two or three hours. Often, she is doing chores, so we say, do you mind if we help? She may show us how to wash clothes the right way. We may help her prepare dinner. We spend time with a family to help understand their lives, understand their hopes and dreams.”
Organizers believe these connections are vital.
Inroads to Haiti
Back in 2013, when church leaders suggested The Chapel should have a presence in Haiti, it was simply an opportunity to help others.
“Our executive pastors looked at what we did as a church internationally,” Wiggins said. “There are needs in Africa, India and China, but they’re hard to get to, and expensive. It costs $5,000 to go to Africa. The normal, average person who goes to church isn’t taking a trip like that. We’re not sending thirty people to China. It made sense to stay in this hemisphere because we can get people to do the work here. I can board a plane in Buffalo at 6 a.m. and be in Haiti by 1 p.m.”
Traveling to Haiti, including airfare, costs approximately $1,500, according to Wiggins — a manageable figure that most volunteers can raise.
Chris Falgiano, 44, an Amherst resident who works as a high school history teacher, worships at The Chapel. During a service last spring, an upcoming trip to Haiti was announced from the altar. Falgiano’s friends suggested he go. On a whim, he attended a planning meeting, and realized that from August 5 through 12 — the dates of the trip — his three kids would be away for the week. He had time.
Falgiano wanted to go, but couldn’t afford the expense out of pocket.
“My biggest problem was finances,” he admitted. “I talked to Leroy and he said if God wants you to go on this trip, the money will appear.”
After paying a $300 deposit, Falgiano reached out to friends on Facebook and sent letters soliciting donations.
“Graciously, that money appeared,” he said. “Thirty-seven groups of people donated to me. The most was $150. The least was $5 from a former student who is in college, a really great kid. The gesture was awesome.”
As the date neared, Falgiano grew excited. Twenty-one men from Buffalo, ranging in ages from 15 to 68, were scheduled for the men's-only construction trip. But political unrest threw everyone’s plans into uncertainty. As gas prices skyrocketed in Haiti, the U.S. State Department declared a travel ban for Americans. Haiti was off the table, at least temporarily.
Enter Plan B.
Diverting to Turks and Caicos
“There had been a hurricane last year that decimated Turks and Caicos,” Wiggins said. “Haiti is a poor country who had never helped anyone before. But Mission of Hope began working with politicians in Haiti, saying, this is an opportunity to help a neighbor.”
[SEE SIDEBAR: FROM ENGINEER TO PASTOR, ABOUT LEROY WIGGINS]
Mission of Hope had refitted a 110-foot fishing vessel, The True North, with the idea that the ship could service remote spots on the island that were not easily accessible by roads. Following the devastation in Turks and Caicos, Haitian volunteers loaded The True North with food and tarps, sending supplies to their neighbor.
“For the very first time, Haiti helped another nation,” Wiggins said proudly.
Those connections helped salvage the August trip. Traveling to Haiti wasn’t an option, but contacts had already been made in Turks and Caicos. What if volunteers slept on The True North at night and lent their time in Turks and Caicos during the day?
“Because we now had partners there, we wondered what we could do to help,” Wiggins said. “Initially, people hear Turks and Caicos and think it’s a super expensive resort island. It is, but if you go to the houses behind the resort, and then the houses behind those houses, you see poverty. That’s where we went. I wanted to go to Haiti, but there was work to be done, so let’s get it done. I can’t be too picky about who we help. When God places people in our path, that’s who we help.”
For some volunteers eager to make a difference within a six-day window, strategic village time is a challenge. Talking can feel like inactivity when construction work waits.
“Mission of Hope says people are more important than the job,” Falgiano reflected. “That was hard for me, because I love the idea of getting something done and having it finished. But then you realize, it’s not nearly as impactful as making the relationship.”
Wiggins explained the reasoning.
“If we’re there to paint a house, Mission of Hope will tell you that if you never paint that house, but end up spending time with the whole family, that’s the biggest win. That house will get painted. We have volunteers coming all the time. Talking to people, you start to realize that other than perspective, our lives aren’t that different. They’ve got health issues; I’ve got health issues. They have educational concerns. There are political issues. The scale is different, but issues themselves are the same things.”
During his week in Turks and Caicos, Falgiano undertook a variety of jobs. He helped stabilize a fence that had been ravaged by Hurricane Irma the previous September. He helped remove fallen trees at a school. But the lasting memory will be a 15-year-old boy named Lawrence.
“He had anger issues,” Falgiano said. “You walk into his room, and you could see punch marks, so we were fixing his wall. He was there throughout the day. At first, he was skeptical. By the second day, he started talking a little.”
When the all-purpose spackle dried, the wall needed to be repainted. Falgiano asked the teen to select a color from the cans being used to paint a hallway nearby.
“I get to choose?” Lawrence wondered, then settled on a light blue.
“I told him, grab a brush,” Falgiano recalled. “I did the edging and he rolled the entire room to get it done. It was cool because he had chosen it and worked and now it was his.”
Follow the directive from Mission of Hope, Falgiano used the time to talk to the young man as they worked, imparting life lessons.
“We had a conversation about punching walls. When I was a kid, that’s how I vented too. I’d punch through drywall from one side and break the other. My parents hated when I did that. I told Lawrence, you can punch a wall, but sooner or later you’re going to punch somebody and they’re going to punch back.”
A core group of Western New Yorkers have found their calling, embarking on multiple mission trips.
Pendleton resident Linda Caffery, 69, recently returned from her sixteenth trip to Haiti. As a nurse, she is part of a medical team, assessing patients with problems like worms, abdominal pains or malaria.
“A lot of times we see general fatigue or back pain from working in the fields,” Caffery explained. “The people don’t have access to aspirin or Advil, so the problems are worse. But our ultimate goal is to bring the gospel there. We ask them about whether they know Jesus.”
A New York City native, Caffery moved to the area in 2004. She was on different a medical mission trip in the Dominican Republic in 2010 when an earthquake devastated Haiti. She was unable to reach the other side of the island because roads were impassable.
“I was frustrated to be so close to a disaster and not be able to help,” she lamented.
After returning home, Caffery saw a volunteer doctor on TV who was in Haiti treating sick and wounded. That doctor wondered what would happen to Haitians when volunteers went home. Who would care for people in need? Caffery immediately committed to go there. To fund the trip, she sold her jewelry.
“I came home on fire,” she said. “I’ve been going down ever since.”
Cheektowaga native Bruce MacQueen, 69, has made nine trips to Haiti. When he learned about the mission trips at the Chapel three years ago, he initially worried that he might be too old to participate.
“I prayed on it, and let God lead me,” MacQueen said, before deciding to go. In Haiti, he found value to painting homes and planting trees. Age was not a factor after all.
“It’s a life changing experience,” he said. “When you see God working in different ways, it’s hard to not want to continue. Our culture is based on what’s in it for us. Their culture is more about relationships. It’s not about an individual, it’s about a family. Even though they don’t have a lot, they have a lot more spirituality.”
McCaffery was so inspired by visits to Haiti that she learned to speak Creole so she could communicate more effectively. She celebrated her 69th birthday on a mission trip.
“I love the people of Haiti,” she said. “They are sweet and beautiful. Despite the devastating poverty, they have such joy of simple things in life. The people are so grateful that we come to their country. You get more out of it than you seem to give.”
For MacQueen, mission trips led him to expand his volunteer efforts. After retiring as a truck driver and warehouse worker, MacQueen is active with Eight Days of Hope, a disaster relief organization with a local office on Kensington Avenue in Buffalo.
“Everything I learned in Haiti transferred well to the work I do here,” MacQueen said. “For me, it was a training ground.”
Wiggins makes three trips to Haiti each year. He plans to keep returning to Bercy, the village that remains close to his heart.
“My goal by 2020 is to have water there. The issues are finding a source and dealing with reverse salination. Is there a team we can put in place in Haiti so it can be sustainable? Sustainability is huge.”
North American missionaries hope to transition leadership roles to Haitian citizens. Wiggins is constantly on the lookout for volunteers willing to travel.
“Anybody who wants to go, I could care less where you’re from,” he said. “Whenever we return to Bercy, villagers hug us and say ‘bon soir!’ I think there’s very little in this world we can’t solve if we learn to get along together. We have to find the will to do it. We all have answers to each other’s problems, but we don’t get along. That needs to change.”
© 2018 by Jeff Schober
The story behind
When he was young, Fred Rogers’ mother cautioned him not to get caught up in the negatives of a situation. Instead, she advised, he should “find the helpers.” Rogers, of course, went on to influence a generation of young people through his PBS show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“Find the helpers” is exactly what Leroy Wiggins’ team is doing with Mission of Hope. They are the helpers.
Chris Falgiano, a friend from work, explained last June that he was planning to spend a week in Haiti. He ended up in Turks and Caicos, where he immediately recognized the cultural differences. No longer could he run to a hardware store to pick up supplies. Instead, he and his partners used the name “MacGuyver” as a verb. They “MacGuyvered” it when they needed a taller ladder. They learned to make due with the supplies on hand.
This group of selfless Western New Yorkers reminds us that all humans are connected by love and kindness and spirituality.
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