At a casual lunch, Rabbi Tuffs of Temple Beth El and Rev. Kennedy McGowan of First Presbyterian Church, both in Hollywood, Florida, found they had a mutual interest in the AIDS crisis in Haiti.
Inspired by a series of articles that appeared in a South Florida newspaper in November and December of 2006, we held our first meeting in December – a few from the temple and a few from the church, with Rabbi Tuffs and Rev. McGowan. A local young man, Aaron Jackson -- the founder of Planting Peace, one of CNN's Heroes, and one the people featured in the newspaper series -- was invited to be part of our discussion, both for his knowledge and the potential that his might be the group we would work with in Haiti. It was at that meeting that we agreed to pursue this joint project, named it Hollywood CARES (Caribbean AIDS Relief, Education, and Support) and made plans for our first trip to Haiti, with Aaron as our "tour guide," to see for ourselves some of the things we had read and heard about. That first trip was in March, 2007.
Aaron Jackson’s partner in Haiti is John Dieubon, the Director of Project Papillon, their project there. When we began Hollywood CARES, Project Papillon had three rented houses in Port-au-Prince, in which groups of 8-10 children lived with paid staff in each house – a “mother” and a “father.” The children all came from the streets or were referred by the hospital where they got their medical treatment. Most were orphaned because of AIDS or had family too ill to care for them any longer. Some were HIV-positive themselves. We found these Project Papillon children very well cared for, going to school, and enjoying a stable and loving environment.
We decided that the first goal for Hollywood CARES would be to raise money to establish, furnish, and give full financial support to a fourth house, specifically for children with HIV/AIDS. On our second trip in January, 2008, we had a dedication ceremony that included the hanging of a mezuzah on the doorpost. Rabbi Tuffs explained the significance of the mezuzah to the children, with John Dieubon translating to Creole.
Since that time, we have returned to Haiti twice a year, usually in January and July (interrupted in 2010 by the earthquake in January). We continue to support House #4 fully, with support for the children in Houses #1, 2, and 3, as well. We paid school tuition for the children until fall, 2008, when Project Papillon opened its own school, and now we give support to that. Also, we are actively participating in getting a new Project Papillon Community Youth Center open in 2010, which will not only be for the children who live in the Project Papillon houses, but for any young people who would like to attend, free of charge.
In addition to our work with Project Papillon, we’ve come to know others in Haiti who needed help. We’ve donated food and clothing, and given money to purchase bunk beds for the children of one orphanage and to partially fund the purchase of solar panels for another, which is off the electrical grid and has no electricity.
Parasites and malnutrition are a tremendous problem for the children in Haiti. One of Aaron Jackson’s projects through Planting Peace is to give de-worming medication to as many of the children as he can and to educate them and the adults in their lives about how to prevent the worms from recurring. We have paid for this medication and gone with him to schools and homes to help distribute the de-worming pills to each child and have helped distribute supplemental nutrition drinks, as well.
Everyone who participates in Hollywood CARES is a volunteer. We’ve developed warm relationships with the children and adults we work with in Haiti. Our congregations are invested in the well-being of our children and relationships between members of the church and the temple have developed too.
Hollywood CARES has had enthusiastic response from our community and beyond. We have received financial donations from people who are not connected with either congregation but have read about us in the newspapers or heard about us in some other way. Others have contacted us to ask how they can help, as well, and we always say the same thing…all offers of help, big or small, are welcome.