CARROLLWOOD — A chance meeting 12 years ago at a church men's club meeting with a young man from Haiti set Carrollwood resident Gil Bailie on a course that led him and his wife, Bonnie, to create schools in the poverty-stricken Caribbean country.
Now more than 1,000 children and youth from Pre-K to 11th grade attend the five schools with the young man, Daniel Michel, now 30, as the administrator. In addition, this year, young adults are learning skills needed to work in the hospitality industry and trades in evening programs.
"We are making a difference in these kids and they will make a difference in Haiti," said Gil Bailie, founder of Schools for Haiti, which has an auction and gala on Saturday (Oct. 22) to raise money for the schools.
A retired home furnishing manufacturer, Gil Bailie had never been to Haiti before they started the first school almost 11 years ago, with a kindergarten class of 12 students and one teacher.
He was preparing for his 39th visit — his wife's sixth — to the island nation, when Hurricane Matthew hit only hours before they and a group of high school students traveled there.
Gil Bailie's first trip was soon after the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 and devastated the already struggling country.
"I've never seen poverty and destruction like that; it was like a war zone, a disaster," Gil Bailie said.
For the October trip, the group planned to visit the schools, work with the children and bring school supplies. But that changed when Matthew roared in; it became a relief mission to feed hungry families.
"We have taken the bulk of our food supply that we had in our commissary for feeding the children, and Daniel (the schools' administrator) has started distributing it to 200 needy families. We will purchase more food this week to replenish our supply and feed many more families in need," Gil Bailie wrote in an email seeking donations last week to friends and supporters.
By late last week, about half of the $25,000 goal had been reached.
He reported that none of the school's children, teachers or staff suffered injuries and the school buildings were okay, save for a few leaks in the roof.
However, he wrote: "Many of the people depend on gardens and farming for food. Much of that was destroyed due to heavy rains, flooding, mud slides and wind. We need to provide this help immediately."
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Each mission trip, usually with about a dozen people, involves taking up to 26 suitcases filled with food, including cases of peanut butter and jelly, as well as school supplies.
"With 1,000 kids, you don't realize how many pencils, crayons and other items you can go through," said Bonnie Bailie, who fills two back bedrooms in the home where they have lived for 27 years with donations and purchases for the school.
For four years, the couple supported the schools themselves, but costs rose tremendously several years ago when they began supplying lunch for the students.
"These poor kids; sometimes it is the only meal they get. You can't expect these kids to sit through so many hours of school on an empty stomach," Bonnie Bailie said.
Then, in 2006, they started the fundraisers, which are open to the public.
"The first dinner we had 64 people at Gio's. I just send out an email to our friends," Gil Bailie recalled, adding they had seven auction items.
Now the events have grown to about 200 guests with more than 150 live and silent auction items.
They have taken 140 others on mission trips, and in August took a team to offer a dental clinic. They have partnered with a camp to allow their outstanding students to attend, and teachers have been trained to help motivate the students through a program called "Dare to Dream." English is taught as a second language to the students, whose native language is Creole.
"People get down there, they see the kids and realize what a different we can make," Gil Bailie said.
"If we can empower them, it's a great opportunity. And through our fundraisers, we have been able to share that opportunity."
Contact Lenora Lake at [email protected]