ST. PETERSBURG — Four years after an earthquake devastated Haiti and destroyed a school and orphanage built by a St. Petersburg woman, the children still live and learn in a makeshift structure without running water.
Marlene Berthelot, a former Pinellas County teacher and assisted living facility owner, said she has been unable to raise the nearly $100,000 she needs to rebuild.
Now she's trying to sell her collection of Haitian art to raise matching funds required for a grant that will let her quadruple the number of children she can help. Her collection of Haitian Master Painters is being exhibited at First Unity Campus.
The Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church went with Berthelot to Haiti in February to see the needs firsthand.
"The conditions are deplorable," he said of the children's ramshackle shelter.
"This was a makeshift building, no running water. The structure was not sound, just boards put up for the most part, tin coverings for the roof … . One of the things that struck me was the children were preparing the food. They were cooking in this old steel pot outdoors, rice and beans. The sanitation was definitely questionable."
Murphy said his congregation had assisted shortly after the January 2010 earthquake, but the economy forced them to scale back.
Berthelot, 60, started her Haitian Mission Par La Foi — meaning mission by faith — in the town of Gressier in 2008. After leaving Haiti as a teenager with her family to settle in Massachusetts, she yearned to return to help. Her first visit back didn't happen until after she had put her two children through college. It was a difficult homecoming.
"I was just crying every day" from witnessing the grinding poverty, she said. The idea to open an orphanage and school in the struggling fishing village 30 miles south of Port-au-Prince was born.
"I found a building, a 36-bedroom, nine-bathroom hotel. It wasn't finished, so I finished it. It was something to be proud of and something that I felt I could raise them in …. We didn't even get to enjoy it. It was poorly built," she said, adding that the building crumbled in the earthquake.
"Right now we're just making do," Berthelot said of the 24 orphans and 44 more children whose parents cannot afford to send them to school.
First Unity has helped in the past, taking up extra collections, donating air miles and sending members with construction skills to Haiti, said the church's spiritual leader, the Rev. Temple Hayes. In 2013, the church sponsored 27 children for a year of school and next March, is planning to take its youth group on a mission trip.
"You are going to have people say, 'We have children who have needs here," Hayes said, "but I serve a global God."
And when Berthelot mentioned her stored Haitian art, Hayes thought of the exhibit.
"We've had some interest. A woman bought a piece a few weeks ago for $1,100," she said.
Berthelot's hope is to raise $97,500 to match a grant from Digicel Group, a telecommunications company that has rebuilt schools in Haiti.
Murphy, who said he was moved to tears during his visit, shared what he saw with his congregation.
"I said to them, 'We are blessed. With all of our challenges in America, we are blessed," he said. "That's why we have adopted the project of the orphanage and are trying to help raise funds."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.