Northborough woman’s passion for Haiti ignites Rotary Club support

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By Liz Nolan, Contributing Writer

Leslie Harrison stands with Peterson (bottom left), his family and other house- build volunteers. She sponsors the boy’s education and worked on the home recently built for his family after they lived in the earthquake rubble for 10 years.
Leslie Harrison stands with Peterson (bottom left), his family and other house- build volunteers. She sponsors the boy’s education and worked on the home recently built for his family after they lived in the rubble of the 2010 earthquake for a decade.

NORTHBOROUGH – The saying “home is where the heart is” takes on new meaning for Northborough resident Leslie Harrison. 

Her commitment to supporting orphaned children and families was ignited in 2014 on her first of twelve trips to Haiti to volunteer on a house build. 

She now sponsors a child’s education and coordinates various fundraising efforts to build new homes for families. Along the way, she is sharing her experiences to foster support among members of the Rotary Club of Northborough and other clubs.

Harrison became a natural advocate for Haiti after her first trip and after involvement with the non-profit organization Be Like Brit. That group was created in memory of Britney Gengel, who died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake while on a college mission trip. 

“When you visit Haiti, you become more invested; you become an ambassador for it,” Harrison said.

The Rotary Club of Northborough now sponsors a child’s education and has donated $500 toward the building of a new home for a family of 12 who lost everything in their two-room house to a fire. 

A new concrete block house was recently built by Tree of Hope Haiti and the progress was documented on the Club’s Facebook page

“The property is remote on a steep hill,” Harrison said. “Workers had to carry all the building materials from the road to the site–thousands of blocks, rebar, and roof materials.” 

Further, the Rotary Club has begun efforts to support Zamni Beni’s Education Center. 

Zamni Beni, meaning “Blessed Friends” in Haitian Creole, was created after the 2010 earthquake damaged a local children’s hospital ward. It currently houses 64 children and young adults, many of whom were abandoned and have emotional and physical disabilities. Some need 24-hour care. 

That non-profit is a sister organization of Boston-based Partners In Health (PIH) and provides housing, food, education, medical care and more. 

Zamni Beni representative Laurie Nuell and PIH representative Liz Campa held an informational presentation on June 15 for interested Rotary members. Any support would be a step towards a “nurturing environment for these kids to thrive, grow, learn and have healthy and happy lives…and to grow up to be loving, responsible adults,” they said.

Nuell said the building has been built and the next phase is funding the programmatic aspect.

Rotary Club President Pat Doyle is hoping other Rotary Clubs will collaborate to bring bigger support to Zamni Beni’s Campaign for Education. Her hope is to raise at least $10,000 between club and district matching grants and local donations.

“There are a lot of pieces that fit into the Rotary’s pillars,” said Doyle. “There is such amazing work that needs to be done there (Haiti). They live a lifestyle we can’t imagine.”

The education piece of this effort does not end in Haiti. 

The Rotary Club helped Algonquin Regional High School buy copies of the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. The book is the life story of infectious disease physician, Harvard Professor and co-founder of PIH, Dr. Paul Farmer. He is an icon in Haiti for the medical expertise he has brought there.

A screening of the documentary Bending the Arc, highlighting PIH’s work in Haiti and around the globe will be held in the spring. A discussion panel including Farmer will follow.

Harrison met Farmer by chance on a flight to Haiti and is coordinating that event as part of her continuing work to gather support for the people of Haiti.

“The beauty of Leslie’s story is that it just shows that everyone can bring ideas, thoughts and dreams to Rotary and let’s see if we can make them happen,” said Doyle.

Donations for Zamni Beni’s Education Center can be made by check (payable to Rotary Club of Northborough, P.O. Box 651, Northborough MA 01532), PayPal or Venmo @rotaryclubofnorthborough. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Haiti was struck by a deadly earthquake on Aug. 14. Several hundred people had been killed as of Aug. 15 according to multiple reports. A number of organizations are accepting donations to help earthquake victims.

While devastating, Harrison has confirmed to the Community Advocate that neither Zamni Beni’s Education Center nor the concrete block house discussed in this article were damaged by the shaking. 

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