It takes more than two bone-jarring hours on a rutted-out, dirt road to travel by bus from the closest city to the rural village of Fort Liberte, Haiti.
West Virginians have been making that trip for nearly 30 years. Before flight service to neighboring cities arrived, the bus trip was closer to 10 hours. The people from various towns around the Mountain State have come to work beside Haitians they know and call friends.
The first friendship was between an architect from St. Albans and the Haitian pastor of the Jerusalem Baptist Church. J.D. King designed a church for the Rev. Andre Jean, called him his friend and was moved by his struggle to help improve the lives and situations of the people he pastored.
King’s friends became Jean’s friends and friends of Jean’s friends. It’s a connection that has lasted. Those friendships have built the church where more than 1,200 people worship, the school that educates more than 2,000, the orphanage that is home to 31 children and several homes for people in the community.
It’s what mountain people do. They lend a hand to help their neighbors and share burdens, knowing that many hands make light work. Some of the people who go to Haiti each year are medical professionals, so free medical clinics have become a trip standard. Hundreds of Haitians come to a building with no electricity or running water to get the only medical care they may receive until the next clinic.
In 1993, the people who had been working in Haiti for years organized into the Friends of Fort Liberte, a non-profit organization. There are now about four planned trips each year to Fort Liberte, and the travelers include the friends of West Virginians from other places around the country.
Today, more than 300 Haitian children are sponsored by West Virginia families or their friends. The small amount of money these families send pays for school tuition and a little food where illiteracy is the dominant social condition and about half the children don’t live to kindergarten age.
Annette Crislip, chairwoman of the friends group, says when they picked the name they had no idea how perfect it was for the organization.
“It’s just a lot of people joining hands,” she says. She notices a natural kinship between the people of Haiti and the people of West Virginia. “West Virginians have always been on an upward pull to make it, and because of that, have great character. We see the same thing in the Haitians.”