An encounter with an American nun 25 years ago changed his life, gave him a shot at life outside his native Haiti.
Sister Claire Daneau told Laude Saint-Preux he was special; he was smart enough to get an education in America. Later the Holy Cross nun helped him get into Saint Leo University in Pasco County.
He didn't have to, but in exchange for her generosity, Laude (pronounced Lode) promised Sister Claire he would come back and help those left behind. That's not uncommon. Many immigrants leave home vowing to return with their talent and expertise. But the everyday demands of American life make it easy to forget.
Saint-Preux never forgot.
"My calling is to go back and help kids," said Saint-Preux, 36, a married father of two who works nights at a water treatment plant in Brandon, then sleeps a few hours before heading into the Haitian Education Project, a nonprofit organization sponsored by St. Leo University. Established five years ago, the project, which is run by Saint-Preux and student volunteers, has been shipping English books to help poor, Creole-speaking Haitians learn English, the international language of business.
Now Saint-Preux has launched an even more audacious initiative. His organization is distributing empty jars to businesses, churches and schools throughout Tampa Bay in attempt to collect 1-million pennies by Dec. 6.
Folks are familiar with Penny for Pasco, the 1 cent sales tax hike that raised hundreds of millions for schools, roads and other badly needed projects in Pasco County. This is a similar concept with an international flavor: an American penny used wisely can go a long way in the Third World.
Money donated for the pennies for Haiti initiative will be used to start an agricultural project at the Marie Port du Ciel (Mary Door of Heaven) Orphanage and the surrounding community near Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city.
The plan is to plant bananas, plantains and other staples of the Haitian diet so the orphanage can feed the 60 orphans. Surplus produce could be sold to pay for other projects. Saint-Preux envisions that the agricultural project could be expanded to help the people in the area become self-supporting.
This is an idea born out of the frustration. Haiti continues to be strangled by poverty and political instability, despite repeated foreign military interventions and hundreds of millions in international aid. Each time Saint-Preux returns home to Haiti, he notices that all the outside help — from foreign governments, aid organizations and churches — seems to have left the Haitian people poorer and more dependent than ever.
"People are tired of promises, tired of people offering to do something for them," Saint-Preux said.
They want to be self-sufficient, to help themselves, he said.
It will take more than one man's promise to reverse more than 200 years of misfortune. But Saint-Preux wants to start with one orphanage, one penny at time.
Andrew Skerritt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.