Jamie Byrd, a special education teacher at Zachary High School, recently led a 10-day student mission trip to Respire Haiti in Gressier near Port-au-Prince in the Caribbean.
Respire, pronounced Res-per-AY, a Haitian Creole word that means breathe, was started in 2010 by Lafayette native Megan Boudreaux, who has said God called her to help the Gressier community and the children there, whom she found running around in search of food, wearing rags or clothes made of tarpaulins and bed sheets.
Many of them were restaveks — child servants given up by their parents who cannot afford to care for them, according to Boudreaux. The system has been called “modern-day slavery” by the United Nations.
Since then, Respire Haiti has prospered and grown to include several programs, including a school, medical clinic and community outreach program.
In 2012, Respire Haiti Christian School opened, and now educates and feeds about 500 children in prekindergarten through ninth grade, including a special-needs classroom started by Byrd.
The mission of Respire Haiti is to have every student at the school sponsored, which costs $25 a month or $300 a year per student. Donations cover books, uniforms, daily meals, basic medical needs and dental care.
Byrd, who visited Respire about five times before moving there over the summer to teach, has led three student trips to Respire that have included Zachary High and Silliman students. Many are members of either First Baptist Church in Zachary or Feliciana Baptist Church in Clinton.
“The thing about Respire is that we work to empower the children, as well as the other U.S. and Haitian volunteers and teachers there,” Byrd said. “We educate them on ways to do better for themselves.”
The most recent journey to Respire departed the U.S. on Nov. 21 and returned on Monday and included ZHS students Aldin Brady, Landry Baudoin, Emma Dry, Clayton Goss, Jaci Rasti, Jamie Stagg and Haley Sullivan.
Callie Venable, a senior at Silliman Institute in Clinton, went on the trip, as did Rollins Place Elementary teacher Lauren Baudoin, Feliciana Baptist Church Youth Minister Justin LeBlanc and parents Delaney Brady and Aimee Stagg.
“This was my second time going. It’s such an eye-opening experience,” said Aldin Brady, 17. “I’m more appreciative of what I have when I return, but I’m really happy when I’m there. I really feel like I’m making a difference and doing something that matters.”
Byrd and Brady said when the Zachary High group went to Respire last year, they held a field day for the students. It was the first time they had ever experienced games and activities like leap frog, tag or had run races for fun outdoors.
Zachary High Principal Joe LeBlanc became so motivated by Boudreaux’s story and Respire Haiti, he initiated several fundraisers at the high school recently to help raise enough money to sponsor Byrd’s special education class and to send much-needed supplies.
A Kiss the Pig contest was held, challenging students to donate change to the school administrator they’d most like to see kiss the ag-science pig on campus. Chris Carrier, dean of students, won the contest.
A free dress day was held Nov. 11, asking students to contribute $2 each to wear regular clothes, and a homeroom competition collected change from the high schoolers. The winning classroom was treated to doughnuts and juice.
In all, $3,865.06 was raised for the Respire Haiti trip. About 800 pounds of supplies were brought by Byrd and the students, who packed books, a box of pencils and pens donated by Stacey Hodges’ classroom at Rollins Place Elementary School, medical supplies, protein drinks and baby formula in backpacks they carried on the plane.
Byrd says she continues to return to Haiti because she feels, like Boudreaux, it’s a calling.
“These children come from nothing and have nothing,” said Byrd. “This makes such a difference in their lives.”