Volunteers cheered as they learned the first of two buses organized by volunteers had left the port of Gonaives, Haiti, and headed up the mountainous road to Bayonnais in mid-March.
Bayonnais is a refuge for many Haitian earthquake victims departing the capital, using one-way tickets provided by the Haitian government. Those victims are moving in with already poor and crowded friends and relatives, all hoping to find the bare essentials..
South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church (SMPC) has been dedicated to assisting this Haitian community since long before the devastating earthquake in January: It has been involved since the early 1990s, when SMPC had just been formed.
Nearly 10 years earlier, one of SMPC's charter members - Helen Hunter, a Charlotte schoolteacher - went to Haiti to visit her daughter, Heather, who was volunteering at the EbenEzer Mission near Gonaives. Hunter saw such a need that she returned with 45 volunteers the following summer. Every member of her group was approached to sponsor a student, as the Haitian families had little money for school or other needs.
Actionnel Fleurisma, then 18, was standing beside American missionary Tama Corby when Corby asked Hunter to sponsor a student.
"Is he taken?" Hunter asked, referring to Fleurisma: "I'll take him." Hunter had no idea where those words came from but later said, "The Lord knew what he was doing."
Hunter and her husband, Ernest, provided for Fleurisma's education through his schooling in Haiti, a year of accounting in Gonaives, and then invited him home to Charlotte to live with them and attend Central Piedmont Community College. It was during his years in Charlotte that Fleurisma and the Hunters became charter members of South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church.
After completing his studies, Fleurisma returned to Haiti to become part of a group to co-found a school. There were 105 students, three teachers and no building.
For the first year, they used a vacant Roman Catholic building; the second year, a makeshift school of banana-leaf mats. Many classes were held under the shade of mango trees.
Attendance continued to grow, and eventually a five-room classroom took shape with financial support from a Canadian organization in Port-au-Prince.
Hunter, now 77, says one of the most treasured aspirations of the Haitian people is to obtain an education. She tells of her first time walking into a classroom. Every student rose to greet her.
Fleurisma continued his studies and attended seminary in Limbé and was ordained as a minister. His first church was built with cinder blocks from the school construction.
Word spread, and Fleurisma received help from more Charlotte area churches. In 2001, ground was broken for a new and much larger church. Major support for this project was provided by SMPC, along with First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and First Baptist Church of Huntersville.
South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church is an integral part of the Operation Force for Christ in Bayonnais (OFCB). OFCB is a ministry dedicated to spreading the gospel by feeding and educating the children and youths of Bayonnais while developing the community around them.
Today, Bayonnais Christian School student body has grown to more than 1,800 for 2009-10, including a number of students from Port au Prince. High school student enrollment is at 668.
The kindergarten through grade 13 school has more than 50 teachers and 10 additional staff members. Graduating students have gone on to become doctors, teachers, engineers and agronomists, and many return to Bayonnais to help the community grow.
Future plans for Bayonnais include building and staffing a much-needed medical clinic, reaching more children with education and expanding college enrollment.
Many of the SMPC families have pitched in to sponsor Haitian students. David Nichols, who also serves on the board of World of God, and his wife, Judy, have sponsored two students. David, 69, has visited Haiti 11 times since 2005.
"One of the reasons I've gone back so much is because I believe and understand we're all equal people under God. We're all brothers and sisters," David said. More buses filled with food and clothing have arrived or are on the way to Bayonnais from Union County employees, Inman Baptist Church, First Baptist Huntersville, First Presbyterian Church in Florence, S.C., First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and Myers Park United Methodist Church.