By Louisa Smith
Rhode Islanders Travis and Barbara Fisher were in Haiti long before the January earthquake brought the small, impoverished country into the global eye. Today, the family assistance center which they founded in Cap-Haïtien, north of capital city Port-au-Prince, houses and feeds the poor and homeless, provides medical assistance to anyone who needs it, and holds classes for about 150 children.
On a mission trip to Haiti thirty years ago, Travis was struck by the country’s systemic poverty, and he quickly developed a passion for helping its citizens. In 2003, he returned on a medical mission and ended up staying in Cap-Haïtien as professor—and eventually president—of a local seminary.
“Something very strange happened, something very unique that eventually fashioned our ministry for the next few years,” Travis said, describing an experience that brought new meaning to his time at the seminary. One day a woman came by to ask for help. She had four kids, she said, and she couldn’t take care of them – could the Fishers? Travis and Barbara struck a deal with her. They didn’t want to separate her from her children, so they offered the whole family a place to stay. From then on, the Fishers’ project took on the form of a family assistance center.
The Fishers began to take in kids and adults, whole families – anyone who needed help. “The seminary kind of went by the wayside,” Travis said, as he and his wife started focusing on medical care and housing; they soon started giving away food, becoming a “quasi-food-bank.”
Not long afterwards, they started a school for the poor as well. “There are so many needs,” Barbara said, and the Fishers tried to address as many as they could. While they did receive some donations, most of the support for their center came from their own savings. Even today, as both Travis and Barbara are retired, they use their Social Security checks to support their project.
On January 12, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, its epicenter near the capital of Port-au-Prince. The earthquake was followed by dozens of aftershocks, and its effects are being felt at the Fishers’ center in Cap-Haïtien on the northern coast.
The earthquake killed over 200,000 people. Exact numbers are still not clear, as relief efforts were focused on survivors and many of the dead were buried in mass graves. Since homes and buildings in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas were destroyed by the quake, as many as a million people have been left homeless. While relief groups from around the world have done their best to provide food and medical help, other basic systems such as local schools and Haitian government agencies, are still struggling.
Travis and Barbara Fisher have witnessed an exodus of survivors out of the most affected areas toward Cap-Haïtien. While many people have found places to stay with family and friends, the Fishers have seen an increase in demand at their center. Currently, about 60 people come daily for meals, and their 150-student school is still running. They have no idea when and how far the demand will rise.
The Fishers count Rabbi Peter Oliveira and his congregation at the Mishkahn David Synagogue among their biggest supporters; after the earthquake, Rabbi Oliveira sponsored a trip to the center to support increased demand. Jenny DiTomasso, a Street Sights staff member, was among those who went to help. She was struck mostly by the children and by their strength and joy, even in the face of extreme poverty.
“They love the Fishers,” DiTomasso said. “It’s so hard for the children to see them go.”
The group is planning another trip in the spring, and they hope to buy land surrounding the center to provide more medical support and to expand its facilities and garden.
Whether it is food, shelter, education, or medicine, the Fishers and their supporters are providing what they can to address Haiti’s needs. They did so before the earthquake, and they will continue to do so long afterwards.
If you would like to help this cause, please send donations to Nancy St. Germain at 15 Newell Rd., Cranston, RI 02910.
There will also be a fundraiser on March 7 from 4-6pm at the First Baptist Church, 298 Blackstone St., Woonsocket.