Only a dozen children showed up when a McHenry-based nonprofit first built a school in Haiti.
They couldn’t figure out why, said Justin Smith, the president of Catholic Assistance Missions since summer.
“Here we’re offering this free education and school uniforms and a hot meal a day, but down in Haiti, they use the children as a source of labor,” Smith said.
“The kids are working in fields, or the kids are carrying the goods to market, or the kids are making five trips down to the spring to gather water, 5-gallon buckets of water.”
The solution: For about $150, CAM buys a family a donkey, which can take over a lot of workload previously handled by the children.
Now, five years later, the school in Despinasse, Haiti, has 270 students.
Besides running the school and providing books and uniforms, Smith – an electrician by trade – and groups of volunteers build homes, provide water filtration, and distribute food.
“They’re poor people and they’re hungry people, but there’s a joy there,” Smith said.
Smith, 39, of McHenry, fell in love with Haiti about 11 years ago when he signed up to go on a mission trip to Haiti.
Just a few years before the trip, Smith had a very different life, he said. He was an alcoholic and drug addict.
“I got arrested a lot, got into a lot of fights,” he said. “I lied, cheated, stole to get what I wanted. I didn’t really care about anybody but myself. Then I started getting arrested more and realizing one of these times they’re not going to let me out of here.”
One time he woke up in the Cook County Jail covered in blood and thought he had killed somebody.
He had reached rock bottom. Not even his drinking buddies wanted to hang out with him anymore.
When he returned from rehab several months later, his sister, Michelle Smith, took him to Holy Apostles Church in McHenry.
“I volunteered for everything,” he said. “I volunteered for youth ministry and every service project they had, and that’s how I got on this Haiti trip. Anybody want to go to Haiti? Yeah, sure, I’ve got to do something with my life.”
The church also was where Smith met his future wife, Mary. He got confirmed the same year they married. They now have five children, ranging from 10 weeks to 8 years old.
Also on that first trip was Doug McDougall, and his wife, Melissa. McDougall ended up starting CAM and served as its president until he died unexpectedly in June from cancer that spread rapid-fire through his system.
“It was big shoes to fill, but it’s a great mission,” Smith said.
Smith serves a spokesman for the organization and handles a lot of the overarching organization. Each group usually handles its own logistics.
He also works with people of all ages who are going through some of the troubles he went through.
“I can only keep what I’ve got by giving it away,” Smith said.
The Smith lowdown
Why he was nominated: Justin Smith is the president of Catholic Assistance Missions, a McHenry-based nonprofit that coordinates mission trips to Haiti and operates a school in Despinasse, Haiti.
Where he goes to church? St. Patrick’s Church in McHenry.
A time he felt he was making a difference: Smith, an electrician by trade, and some other volunteers installed electricity in the school. There was no electricity anywhere else in the village.
When the lights were turned on, it was like a party: “Kids are running around, flicking on light switches like its magic, and it’s turning into this big celebration.”
But there were some old men crying. Smith asked why, and he was told that these men work all day and that in the evening the children will come back and teach the adults how to read.
“I’ve put in a lot of lights in my life, and I’ve never gotten that reaction,” he said.
Family: Smith and his wife, Mary, have five children, Anastacia, 8, Andrew, 6, Elaina, 5, Lucia, 2, and Joseph, 10 weeks.