Few people can understand the importance of the basic necessities of life better than those who so often go without them.
Reiser Relief, a nonprofit organization in Coon Rapids, is on a mission to make these necessities part of everyday life for the impoverished people of Haiti. Items like buckets of water and clean clothing are just a few of the things the organization is hoping to continue delivering to communities in Haiti through the proceeds of its upcoming fundraiser, Keep the Wheel Turning, on April 23.
Last January, Ann Brau, president of Reiser Relief, embarked on a journey with 12 other volunteers to bring buckets to Haiti. The buckets were auctioned off at last year’s fundraiser and several more will be auctioned off again this year.
Those who receive the buckets are given the chance to leave an inspiring message for the people of Haiti before the buckets are delivered to those in need. The volunteers who delivered the buckets, like Brau, were able to witness the true impact of their donations.
“It’s hard for Americans to imagine the joy a simple plastic bucket can bring to people living in total poverty,” Brau said. “It was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time to see the excitement of the crowd when we brought in those buckets filled with fresh water.”
The Eden Prairie resident gained a love of reaching out to those in Haiti from her late uncle, the Rev. Bernard Reiser, who founded and led the organization for many years in addition to starting Epiphany Church in Coon Rapids in 1964.
Reiser traveled to Haiti for the first time in 1996. After having traveled to many other impoverished areas, he felt compelled to make a difference in the country that he referred to as a “fourth-world country.”
“I had seen slums in China, Egypt and Mexico City,” he wrote after visiting Haiti. “None of them compare to the tragic realities of the slum outside Port au Prince.”
Since its inception, Reiser Relief has been on a mission to provide hope and dignity to the poor, elderly and homeless people of Haiti, and has had a vision to serve the most vulnerable and disadvantaged Haitians. The volunteer-run organization contributes nearly 100 percent of all donations directly toward the needs of the poor.
Volunteers make the trip to Haiti four times a year on behalf of Reiser Relief, giving local residents, like Mary McMahon, a chance to give back and better appreciate the comforts of their own lives. The Eden Prairie resident said that she was a bit apprehensive and nervous about the trip at first, but with the help of her daughter, Elizabeth, who joined her on the trip, and the graciousness of the people of Haiti, soon felt at ease.
“I had low expectations and was nervous, but I was so pleasantly surprised with where we stayed,” McMahon said. “It was clean and well cared for. The people there acted as translators and entertained us.”
For mother and daughter, the trip was filled with many memorable moments, but the most significant was the Haitians’ reactions to receiving one of the simplest gifts, so often taken for granted: water.
“When we pulled up with the water, moms would hand us little kids to hold,” McMahon said. “They were adorable. From that first time, I realized this is really great and I felt so happy to be a part of it.”
She shared the load of a bucket with a Haitian woman, who she later noticed only had one arm, helping her carry water to her tent home.
“I didn’t even realize it at first, but I thought how could she have ever carried water by herself with one arm?” McMahon said.
Other trip highlights for the Eden Prairie mother-daughter duo involved working with the elderly and playing soccer with children at the Reiser Heights School, which was founded by Reiser Relief. The organization supports two schools, supplies food to the schools and other areas, supports elder care and orphan care, has financed building projects and recently started a University Scholarship program.
The director of the new scholarship program picks Haitian students who show potential to excel in college and beyond. The ultimate goal of all the programs of Reiser Relief is the same: to help Haitians get back on their feet and provide for themselves.
“As much as we want to help them, we want them to become self-sufficient so they don’t need our help anymore,” Brau said.
Brau knew little of the organization and its efforts before Reiser died in 2011. When Reiser died, Brau and her sister, Joyce Getchell, of Forest Lake, were left in charge, and Brau has learned the ropes through many travels to the impoverished nation, something that leaves her feeling better after each visit.
“We always like to spend considerable time developing relationships with the people,” Brau said. “The rewards of doing something to help Haiti leaves me reinvigorated and re-energized to know we are making a difference.”
This year’s Keep the Wheel Turning fundraiser is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, at the Courtyards of Andover, 13545 Martin St. NW in Andover. The cost of admission is $5. The event includes an auction, marketplace, music, beverages and appetizers.
The event will give donors another opportunity to send messages of hope to Haiti via plastic buckets.
Donations will benefit a women’s shelter run by Haitian nuns that is in need of repairs and improvements, such as wheelchair accessibility and making the facility more user-friendly.
Reiser Relief raised $27,000 in donations at the event last year, and over $16,000 in mail-in donations. Other goals for this year’s event are to raise funds to replace the roof on the Community Building at Reiser Heights School in Lespinasse, Haiti, and for general monthly operating expenses in Haiti.
For more information, visit reiserrelief.org.
By Natalie Conrad, ECM Sun Newspapers