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Charity making every dollar count

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The impoverished Caribbean island of Haiti is one of the most desperate countries in the world. Yet, many have been given hope by a group of Bermudians, led by Phillip Rego, going under the name of Feed my Lambs Ministry. M.J. HART visited Haiti to see for herself how those Bermudians are making positive changes.

Bermudians have long been supporters of the Feed my Lambs Ministry in Montrouis, Haiti.

The organisation is the result of an initiative by Bermudian Phillip Rego to help Haitian people. It survives entirely on donations, 90 per cent of which come from Bermudian generosity.

These days, however, it's hard to know who to trust with charity donations. Stories abound of aid sent to various countries that never reaches the people it was sent for.

I went to the FML Ministry to learn more about its founder, and where the donations end up.

'Who is Feed My Lambs?', I asked Mr Rego, echoing the question of many.

'We aren't a big organisation like the Red Cross or World Vision; we're small,' he said, conveying his appreciation for every dollar donated, knowing it could go elsewhere.

Haiti borders the Dominican Republic to the west and is well known for its poverty, corruption and natural disasters, with last October's Hurricane Matthew punishing the struggling country once again. Furthermore, poor infrastructure, sanitation and access to safe water contribute to disease.

Haiti contrasts markedly with its neighbour in many ways, including startling deforestation which adds erosion and mudslides to its list of problems.

Educational and economic differences are also drastic. According to the CIA factbook, the literacy rate is just 60.7 per cent compared of 92 per cent in the Dominican Republic. The Haitian unemployment rate is 40.6 per cent (2012 estimate) compared to 13.8 per cent just across the border.

To get an idea of the wages and prices in Haiti, the school principal's monthly salary is $US110 and the average price of gasoline is $15 per gallon.

To survive, Mr Rego tells of the cashless barter system in use and how they simply share what they have with each other.

Although the facts paint a bleak picture, there are rays of hope.

When we visited the compound, we were greeted by a dozen small children smiling and waving energetically. Many ran straight to Mr Rego calling 'Daddy.' They looked properly fed, dressed, and happy.

The FMLM compound sits in what, nine years ago, was a banana patch. First, the orphanage was constructed brick-by-handmade-brick — consisting of a kitchen and boys' and girls' dorm that houses roughly 26 children each, plus a room for the 'Mother'.

Now, there is a 17-room school, a garden with chickens, washing area, an outdoor multipurpose structure, medical clinic, storage in shipping containers, and rooms in the two-storey school for visiting groups. As of the end of my visit, there was a dental clinic and sewing room, added to this infrastructure.

The compound is completely self-sufficient when it comes to water, sewer, electricity and garbage disposal. Only propane for cooking is purchased. Solar panels provide electricity with a generator for back-up. Water comes from on-site wells, and on cloudy days a small wind-powered unit runs the purification system to ensure clean drinking water is always available.

All garbage generated at the facility is burnt, and the ashes taken periodically to a dumping area. Sewage is dealt with by three septic tanks that were hand dug to 15 feet deep.

For the general community's use, a Unicef water pump is accessible inside the gate.

'I remember Kelly and me standing side by side at that pump to wash ourselves' Mr Rego recalled. 'Now there is a gravity fed indoor plumbing system.'

I asked who was employed at the compound and Mr Rego answered briefly: 'Haitians, all Haitians. This belongs to them.'

Questioned about his motives for coming to Haiti, Mr Rego told of the turning point in his life. 'I was working up in Dockyard in landscaping at the time, and my architect called me over and said 'Phil, if you keep this up you'll be dead in four years'.'

Mr Rego's daughter, Ashley Radu, echoed the sentiment. 'Dad are you trying to be the richest dead man in the cemetery?' she asked.

'They got my attention, so I got on my knees to pray,' said Mr Rego. 'After that I knew I had to go to Haiti. Haiti was a place I knew nothing about. I didn't know anyone there, and if I wasn't involved in this ministry, I wouldn't know anything about Haiti. Nothing adds up in Haiti: 2+2=9.'

John Hardin, a repeat volunteer from Colorado agreed. Mr Hardin told of going every day to the same little store to buy water, and every day the price would change. Mr Rego's sister, Linda Adderley, revealed that Phillip had spent many nights in tears out of frustration.

'How can they charge $50 to take the ferry to the island and $500 to come back?'

Mr Rego, however, gives God the credit and refers to himself as the postman. 'I just deliver whatever is given to me for the Haitian people. Each month I have to raise $11,500 to keep this thing going. The money goes for wages, the feeding programme, and supplies. 'I have 700 children in school and 54 at the orphanage who need food, school uniforms, clothing and medical care.'

He sounds like a father with a massive family to care for.

Apparently, this is how others see him as well. I spoke to his administrator, Kelly Guillame: 'He doesn't look at us like workers, but like family.'

Mr Guillame, who was a young man living in a different orphanage nine years ago, tells of meeting Mr Rego and how he was received there. 'When he came to help, no one believed him or that he could do anything because of the way he came. He was wearing short pants, work boots, a backpack and had nothing else.

'While he was there he talked to us. Many people gave attention to the little children but not us older boys. Phillip was interested in us. He said he wanted to make a transition home and he wanted us to go to university.'

Mr Guillame went on to recount that after nine of the older boys plus two younger ones were told they had to leave the orphanage, it was Mr Rego they called. 'We didn't even know how to buy a bag of rice, and Phillip came down and fixed things for us.'

That was the beginning of Feed My Lambs Ministry. My own observation of Mr Rego was of a man with the focus of an arrow. The target — helping Haitians. He has learnt how to navigate the often complex way of doing business in Haiti. He knows what has to be done and works from early until late to do it.

During my time at FMLM, food and clothing was also taken out to the community. I'll never forget handing a small bag of rice to a young boy dressed only in a girl's hoodie. He ran back excitedly to deliver it to his mother, who was tending to a crying baby. His surprised parents waved their gratitude enthusiastically as I peeked around a bush to see that they got it.

Mr Guillame also told me of taking a mobile clinic to the island of La Gonave twice, resulting in the distribution of free medicine and food to a total of 620 people.

Not only did I find clear evidence of donations reaching those it was intended for and sound financial stewardship at Feed My Lambs Ministry, I found so much more. The donations have transformed into infrastructure, employment, education, food, clothing, housing and basic medical and dental care.

But equally important is that the individuals have transformed into a family and a community. It was as noisy and vibrant as one would expect a family with 54 children to be.

The younger children played in the yard like siblings, while the older boys battled for football goals in the school grounds. Those that have gone on to university return home on weekends and holidays.

Mr Rego adds: 'If it wasn't for the financial generosity of Bermudians, FMLM wouldn't exist. Now, we finally have a positive cash flow at the ministry but still couldn't make it without donations.'

Asked what else was needed, Mr Rego responded emphatically: 'Time! If I could just get someone to give me a couple hours a week to help connect donors with children, I could get all the children sponsored and a regular and reliable cash flow, so some of the big donors who have helped us so much can help others that need it.'

Looking to the future, Mr Rego hopes to see the ministry able to sustain itself without him. 'I would love to see the children who came with nothing and are successful now, come back through the gate and tell the children 'Look, I know it's hard in here, but stick with it because the results will come; to show the children 'look, here's a wall I helped build,' tell them their story, and to give back to FMLM.'

After all these years, I wondered why the now-grown-up-men from the orphanage still stick with Phillip.

'Because he loved us,' Mr Guillame said simply. Then the phone rang: 'OK, gotta go, Dad (Rego) is calling me.'

It appears that God sent the right man to Haiti.

For more information or to help, contact: feedmylambsministry.org/contact

Phillip Rego hanging out during downtime with a couple of the local children (Photograph by M.J. Hart)
Phillip Rego, right, and Jean-Michel Charles mix cement for a Feed My Lambs Ministry building project (Photograph by M.J. Hart)
Hard graft: this is how the Feed My Lambs Ministry complex was built; by hand.  This shows the Haitians employed to cement a roof for a project (Photograph by M.J. Hart)
Children at the orphanage as friends 'feeling the love' (Photograph by M.J. Hart)
Ready for class: Monday morning school assembly at the Feed My Lambs Ministry complex
American seamstress Tina Hardin, Jean-Michel Charles, the Feed My Lambs project co-ordinator in Haiti, Kelly Guillame, Feed My Lambs administrator, Phillip Rego, the organisation's Bermudian founder, and Bermudian electrician Nathan Ming discuss how to set up the sewing room (Photograph by M.J. Hart)
Phillip Rego is grateful for every dollar in donation that reaches waiting hands at Feed My Lambs Ministry (Photograph by M.J. Hart)
Sewing lessons begin on donated machines (Photograph by M.J. Hart)
A local woman making food for the school feeding programme (Photograph by M.J. Hart)