TARPON SPRINGS — Jared Brown served five years in the Air Force and his wife, Annie, is a former emergency room nurse.
The Tarpon Springs couple has seen suffering, but nothing like they've seen at a small village in Haiti called "81."
Named for its distance, 81 miles from Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, Village 81 is a community of poor families who typically get one meal a day: rice.
To ease aching bellies, children pack dirt into patties and eat them like cookies. The dirt contains intestinal parasites that enter the digestive tract and devour 35 percent of the child's nutritional intake, leading to brittle bones and eventually starvation. And all this happens 700 miles from South Beach.
"My wife, Annie, and I have traveled extensively, but never saw poverty like that in Haiti," said Jared Brown, 31. "We founded Project 81 to help people change their own lives."
The Browns and Annie's brother, Clay Nylund, 25, founded Project 81 in 2007 using as its guiding principle Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological theory that says the basic requirements of food and shelter must be met before people can reach a higher potential.
Meeting those basic needs is a major task in Haiti, a country with the third-highest rate of hunger in the world
Since 2007, Project 81 has tested water in a newly drilled well and purchased rice, bread and peanut butter with one $1,000 donation and the founders' own money.
It has also provided medicine to kill intestinal parasites. At a cost of $20 for 1,000 pills, Project 81 has delivered 150,000 pills to schools and clinics in seven areas throughout northwest Haiti. The founders personally dispense 1,000 every six months, along with peanut butter and bread to mothers with babies, and rice to adults.
Project 81 and Destiny Village, an orphanage 3 miles from Village 81, are fundraising to reach the projected $80,000 needed to build a tuition-free school. Land has already been donated. Once completed, the school will feed and educate 250 children.
"Haitian schools cost about $80 a month per child. An average family with three children makes $1.50 a day," Jared Brown said. "Naked, hungry children peer through those school windows wishing they could get in."
The Browns had their own child three months ago and plan to someday involve her in Project 81 and helping others.
"We want our daughter to be a part of what we're doing and to grow up proud of her parents," said Annie Brown, 30. "We didn't want to be people who said they wanted to change things, then stayed home and did nothing. Still, we know everyone cannot travel to Haiti."
For that reason, Project 81 isn't simply about helping Haitians. It is about helping those in need.
The Project 81 founders will partner with any charitable group. They currently are working with the APEX youth group of LifePoint Church, Wesley Chapel, to give food baskets to the homeless in the Tampa area.
Although 18- to 30-year-olds mostly volunteer for Project 81, having the founders speak to churches and community groups, like Rotary Clubs in Tampa, has garnered new supporters.
This October, two new volunteer groups will travel to Haiti, one from Tampa, and a group of doctors and nurses, plus a builder, from Missouri.
"We're passionate … but to accomplish goals at the level we want to, we'll need partnerships, others who believe and want to fund Project 81," Jared Brown said. "Our slogan is 'You are the Project.' We want it to change you as much as it changes the people of Haiti."