To Haiti, With Love: Annual fundraiser continues to support Haitian orphans

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The organizers of this year’s “Taste of Autumn” fundraiser have an admission.

“We’ve been doing this for so long, we’ve lost track of how many events we’ve put on,” smiles Hearthstone Village board member Serena Miller. “We’re nearing a couple of decades, and we’re thrilled we’re still here and that the community continues to support us,” Miller continues.

The Taste of Autumn takes place on Sunday, Oct. 7 at Frey Vineyards and will feature an afternoon of delicious local foods, a silent auction, lots of children’s activities and music by the best “newgrass” group in the county: the Back Porch Project. For the second year in a row, the event will also benefit the Ukiah Valley Trail Group.

The event will feature an afternoon of delicious local foods, a silent auction, lots of children’s activities and music by the best “newgrass” group in the county- the Back Porch Project. (

This year’s fundraiser supports the efforts of Hearthstone – a volunteer-based nonprofit organization founded by local residents. Specifically, this year’s event provides financial support for one of their signature projects: the Reveil Matinal Orphanage Foundation, or RMOF, located in Haiti. The mission of Hearthstone Village is to develop and maintain home-based intergenerational residential communities. Hearthstone Village is dedicated to giving service by creating a nurturing environment for individuals and families in need of care and support.

For the past eight years, volunteers have been continuously visiting the orphanage and supporting 31 girls – many of whom have been living at RMOF since the devastating 2010 earthquake changed their lives forever. Hearthstone board members, medical personnel and community volunteers visit Haiti nearly every month, bringing supplies, funds, education and life skills – but even more importantly, providing reassurance to the girls that they will never be forgotten.

Lynn Meadows, longtime Mendocino County resident, is a physician assistant at Ukiah Valley Medical Center and a founding board member of Hearthstone Village. Over the years, Meadows has visited the orphanage numerous times while building a strong network of board members and community sponsors who have brought hope and a promising future to the girls residing at RMOF.

It is difficult to fathom how a disaster of this magnitude affects a community, both in the short- and long-term. The 7.0 earthquake left 220,000 people dead and 300,000 injured.

“Initially we sent 60 volunteers to Port-au-Prince, with a mission to find an orphanage to sponsor,” Meadows explained. Dr. Laura Wedderburn, a practicing physician, and hospitalist at UVMC assisted in locating an orphanage. “We found an existing orphanage housing 20 girls that had been established for years prior to the earthquake. But the girls were not safe in that location. They needed immediate help,” says Meadows.

Since that time, the RMOF, originally founded by a Haitian couple located in New York, has blossomed through the support of a loving, committed group of volunteers, a skilled team of staff members, monthly donors and the supporters who attend Hearthstone’s fundraisers.

The most exciting news to date, according to educator and board member Nancy “Niv” McGivney, is the acquisition of health insurance for the girls, who range in age from 4 to 18, as well as the staff and their family members. The story of how the insurance was acquired is nothing short of serendipitous.

“Emily Frey is one of our board members. She was visiting the orphanage and took one of the girls on a field trip to the hospital in Port-au-Prince. They were sitting in a hallway when a physician introduced himself. Emily mentioned they were from RMOF, and the physician told her about a new program called Operation Sunshine, which provides subsidized health care for orphanages. We applied for the program and got accepted,” McGivney explains, adding that healthcare is rare for Haitians, and is prohibitively expensive. Operation Sunshine is funded through a collaborative effort between the Seventh Day Adventist community, a Florida hospital and My Neighbor’s Children – a global nonprofit.

McGivney is an educational consultant whose career allows her to travel to Haiti several times per year. In addition to providing continuity to the girls – many of whom are reaching their age of majority, McGivney coordinates the educational components for the girls, overseeing their education and assisting them with making plans for the future. Currently, there are several levels of matriculation available to the girls, based on their needs and their individual goals.

“All education in Haiti is private, and therefore, costs money,” says McGivney. “All schools follow Haiti’s government curriculum, and some are more advanced than others. Currently, we have 14 girls attending one of the advanced schools. When I visited the school, I was thrilled to discover a science lab, which is rare in Haiti,” she continues. “In addition to studying science, the girls are taking computer courses, and when they graduate, they will have their diplomas plus an additional certificate of competency in computer technology. They’re learning blogging, web design, PowerPoint, and more importantly, coding at an advanced level.”

Many of the girls were infants or very young when they arrived at the orphanage. Others who arrived following the earthquake had no prior education.

“One of our board members is a retired special education instructor. She conducted assessments on several girls. It turned out they were very challenged. Our girls are very sheltered. We knew they wouldn’t fit into the special education programs in Haiti. We found a kindergarten teacher and were able to adapt an on-site curriculum for the girls. One of them can read now, which is a tremendous success,” McGivney continues.

The education of the girls is dependent on sponsors, who pay for the majority of the expenses associated with their schooling.

“We currently have a cadre of about 65 sponsors – roughly three per student, who pay about $650 per year for the girl’s education,” says Miller. Sponsorship money pays for tuition, transportation, tutoring, uniforms, supplies and even food for school lunches. “There’s no free lunch in Haiti,” Miller smiles. Students must even bring their own water to school. “We provide water bottles because you can’t drink the water in Haiti. Our entire education budget is about $45,000 per year. And now we have five new girls. Some of our sponsors have passed away, and others have had changes in their finances. Frankly, we need 25 new sponsors,” Miller explains.

McGivney’s approach to their education has focused on reading.

“Recently there was some civil unrest in Haiti. We were on a field trip with the girls, and because the unrest was transportation-related, we sheltered in place. There wasn’t a lot to do, but the girls read a lot of books,” McGivney says. “We received a grant from Kodak for books in French and Creole. When the girls finish 100 books, we take them to the only bookstore in Port-au-Prince where they get to purchase a book of their choice.”

School has been a struggle for one of the girls, who came to RMOF after being identified as a house slave. “This is not uncommon. Her family needed money so they sold her. Because of this background, she’d never been to school. In Haiti, students are tested at the sixth and ninth grades. She came to us when she was 16 and had to go back to the sixth grade. We had her work with an after-school tutor, and now she’s passed her ninth-grade exams,” says McGivney.

But like many of the older girls, this young woman will soon have new challenges, as they are required by the government to exit the orphanage system – similar to foster care guidelines in the U.S. “We are exploring the equivalent of transitional housing which will be paid for by a separate funding stream,” says Miller. In the meantime, the girls are being trained in life skills, with the hope that they will transition to a dorm-like situation with continued support from RMOF staff.

The upcoming fundraiser helps to address general budgetary concerns, according to Miller. “We use the proceeds to maintain the household, to pay our amazing staff, for food, water deliveries, transportation and things like rechargeable solar lights for when the electricity goes out, which is common,” Miller explains.

Attendees will enjoy delicious wood-fired flatbreads with several topping options, salads created by local farmers, barbecue chicken and sausage, wine and desserts. “Lisa Pedroni was one of our board members who recently passed away. We’re having a memorial bar in her memory, and funds raised from the bar will be used for special interests that were dear to Lisa,” says Miller.

The silent auction is not to be missed, and the bulk of the funds raised at the event comes from the auction. “There will be Baja and Tahoe getaways, jewelry, wine, art and so much more, and plenty of things for kids to do all afternoon, including hay rides and lots of crafts,” says Miller.

The fundraiser is the second event held at the Frey ranch since last year’s fires. “We’re holding the event in the buildings that remained standing following the fires – the exact locations that we’ve used in past years. We’re so happy the Freys can continue this long-standing tradition,” says Miller, adding that 100 percent of the fundraiser’s proceeds go to the orphanage. “Not one penny goes into administration,” says Miller.

An information table will be available for those interested in becoming sponsors or to volunteer at the orphanage. “Volunteers generally spend a week or more at the orphanage, living there, teaching or helping with art classes, educational activities, dance projects, field trips – any kind of educational engagement,” said Meadows. “Almost all of our volunteers go back again. They have an amazing time.”

Discounted advance tickets for the fundraiser are available online through Eventbrite or Brown Paper Tickets, at the Mendocino Book Company and the Westside Renaissance Market in Ukiah, and at the Cat’s Meow in Willits. Tickets for kids ages 5-12 are $5, and children under 5 are admitted free. The event will be held rain or shine, as it will be staged in the Freys’ large warehouse.

The event takes place from 1 to 5 p.m. Frey Vineyards is located at 14000 Tomki Road in Redwood Valley.

For more information about all Hearthstone Village activities, for volunteer or sponsorship information or to sign up for the Hearthstone newsletter visit http://hearthstonevillageukiah.org or phone (707) 462-2439. Donations may be mailed to Hearthstone Village, PO Box 933, Ukiah, CA 95482.

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