The late Rev. Bernard Reiser continues to be an inspiration for local folks looking to help the people of Haiti.
Reiser’s photo at every table and a recorded voice message gave the founder of Reiser Relief Inc. a presence at the seventh annual Keep the Wheel Turning fundraiser April 24 at Totino Grace High School in Fridley.
This was the second fundraiser since Reiser, the founding pastor of Church of Epiphany, Coon Rapids, died in December 2011 and about 300 people came out to support the mission that now includes Reiser’s nieces Ann Brau and Joyce Getchell and nephew Bernie Maciej as members of the board.
“It was like he was right here,” said Diane Ritter of Coon Rapids after hearing the voice message that musician Sherwin Linton played just after his band had performed.
“He had a big hand in this,” she said.
Brau, who now serves as the board’s president, happily reported that she will be able to show photos of the Father Reiser Memorial Elder Care Facility at next year’s event thanks to many generous donations. This facility, located in the village of Titanyen, will offer dignified end-of-life care for 12 Haitians.
Similar to hospice care facilities in the United States, the design of the rooms will be bright and cheerful to offer as positive an experience as possible. They will be served meals and have access to showers and bathrooms instead of spending their final days on the street.
“(Father Reiser) was a strong believer in cradle to grave care,” Brau said.
Ritter can attest to this. Reiser baptized and buried her daughter Angel Marie, who only weighed one pound, five ounces when born Feb. 10, 1980 and died after living for only nine months. When Ritter called him at 4 a.m. after she heard the bad news, he rushed to the hospital to be by the family’s side.
Reiser baptized Ritter’s son Charlie and daughter Danielle and was the pastor for Danielle’s wedding in 1998.
By Ritter’s side at the Keep the Wheel Turning fundraiser was Bernice Olson of Coon Rapids, who knew him for 41 years. He baptized three of her four children after they started going to Epiphany Catholic Church in 1969. When she was having surgery, he gave her a blessing, but was planning to be out of town when the procedure happened. A good friend died, so he stayed behind and found time to visit Olson in the hospital.
“You could call him and he would always answer the phone,” Olson said.
Reiser Relief Inc. has answered Haiti’s calls for help many times since Reiser first visited this country in 1996. He had said after that visit that he had seen slums in China, Egypt and Mexico City, but none of them compared with the slum outside Port au Prince, Haiti.
Since the founding of Reiser Relief Inc. in the mid-2000s, fresh water has been delivered six days a week to the people of Cite Soleil, food packets are delivered from Feed My Starving Children, about 1,000 children in the Terre Promise and Reiser Heights schools are supported, over 2,000 toys were donated by Mel Hartman and TLC Toys of Andover just in 2012, new mattresses were purchased for some of the elderly people in Titanyen who were sleeping on the ground, and the organization is now paying the tuition for a graduate of Terre Promise School who is attending a university in Haiti.
Another 2013 goal is to replace the roof at the Reiser Heights School’s Community Room, which is leaking badly and is also used for other community and church events, Brau said.
The classrooms had been displaced to what was once a pig pen, so they are anxious to get the new roof on and repaint the rooms so students can come back into the community room, she said.
Michael Stoebner of Stillwater had never been to Haiti unltil six months ago and he has gone three times since then as Reiser Relief’s photographer. Some of his images were on sale at the Haitian marketplace set up in a Totino Grace hallway as were bracelets, necklaces, metal artwork, wicker baskets and other artwork that the group bought from Haitian street vendors.
Stoebner got connected to this mission through Getchell. There are so many interesting and stories to tell through his pictures, but one image he was not comfortable capturing was of a Haitian woman who trudged waist deep through an above-ground sewage trench to get a plastic water bucket.
A contrasting image he captured was of five young boys sitting together with one of them being physically disabled. Parents are so busy working or trying to find work that the kids are often left on their own to watch out for each other, Stoebner has noticed. They make their own toys. A plastic bag with a string attached could be a kite, for instance.
Michelle Schroeder of Blaine went to Haiti in the summer of 2011 and a second time last October.
She saw the devastation left by the Jan. 12, 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake and its aftershocks and the scent in the air was not pleasant, but people who had nothing lit up when they saw others helping them out. On one of the trips, the group she was with was able to visit both schools Reiser Relief built and deliver food.
Stoebner vividly recalled how thankful the Haitians were when their water tanker pulled up. Instead of walking far to find water that is not always clean and instead of carrying a heavy bucket back to their home, they now have two trucks to deliver fresh water.
“We get as much out of it as they get out of it,” Stoebner said. “It’s transformative. It puts your life into perspective.”
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]