PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti – There are moments of clarity when Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Judy Vollbrecht knows exactly why she has spent the last 12 years in Haiti working with children who have experienced unspeakable horrors.
One such episode came a few years ago when Sister Vollbrecht, the former education coordinator of the Pontifical Mission Societies of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, met Olisthene, who was 7 when his father was killed in front of his eyes by an attacker who invaded the family home wielding a machete.
“It was horrible,” Sister Vollbrecht said. “Olisthene has a baby brother who was at his mother’s breast at that moment. I think the murder has affected the baby’s growth and development, even though he was just an infant at the time. Olisthene’s brother is now just kind of withdrawn and doesn’t talk much. He always looks afraid.”
Likewise, witnessing his father’s murder has been hard for Olisthene to erase. Now 14, Olisthene participates in a program run by Sister Vollbrecht and other Religious of the Sacred Heart sisters in the Diocese of Verrettes, about 35 miles north of Port-au-Prince, that focuses on helping children, many of whom do not attend school, by imparting values and nurturing self-esteem.
There through thick and thin
But it hasn’t been easy. Olisthene got a scholarship to attend school through a twinning program sponsored by a Michigan parish, but he constantly got into trouble and ran away whenever he was disciplined for bad behavior.
His classmate, Jacob, bore the brunt of Olisthene’ misbehavior, Sister Vollbrecht said, but felt compelled to give him another chance by accepting him back as a roommate.
“He told me, ‘I think God wants me to take Olisthene back,’” Sister Vollbrecht said. “I said, ‘That would be wonderful.’ Jacob has done that three or four times. And this year, Olisthene finally has turned over a new leaf. He’s decided he’s going to do things the right way. I told him he could be first in his class if he did his homework. God has given him those gifts for a reason, and he has a responsibility to use them.”
Sister Vollbrecht said education is the only thing that will lift Haiti from its generational poverty, which was exacerbated by the massive 2010 earthquake. After spending nine years with the Propagation of the Faith in New Orleans, where she could see the political shortcomings of local and state government, she believes a poorly educated populace encourages bad government.
“We’ve got to reach out somehow so that people are educated to know that they do have a voice – because the peasants have never had a voice,” she said. “There are no instruments for accountability (in Haiti). Politicians come around and give out money or seeds, and they get a promise to vote for them.”
Sister Vollbrecht was in an airport in the United States when she saw the television reports of the January 2010 earthquake. While she couldn’t get back into the country right away, she returned to New Orleans and took a training course from Catholic Charities on how to help teachers explain the earthquake to children. Verrettes was not badly affected by the quake.
“It’s better for Haitians to be working with Haitians, so you can give them the knowledge and they are working with facts,” Sister Vollbrecht said. “It’s amazing how many people didn’t know what an earthquake really was. They knew nothing about tectonic plates. There were all these stories going around that God was punishing Haiti because of its sins or that the United States had planted a bomb outside the waters of Haiti or that it was the end of the world.”
Sister Vollbrecht’s most searing memory upon her return to Haiti after the earthquake were the endless mounds of rubble. “It was hard to get your bearings,” she said. “It was like, ‘Am I really there or am I someplace else?’ And then to see the national palace and all those tents was really overwhelming.”
Despite some health concerns of her own, Sister Vollbrecht, 71, said she has not given up hope that she can make a difference. The education work in Haiti started in 2000 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart’s Puerto Rico province was the result of a discernment process that grew out of the congregation’s 200th anniversary.
“I think (foundress) St. Madeleine Sophie (Barat) would be very happy that we went to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” Sister Vollbrecht said. “There has to be hope. You can’t stay in a place and not have hope. If you don’t have hope, it’s better that you leave.”