Judy Fisher knows how to help Haiti.
One village, one orphanage, one school, sometimes just one child at a time. Her focus is small, but the results are impressive. She’s helped mountain villagers acquire acres of land and worked with them to develop vegetable gardens and farms. She’s helped them get streetlights and the generators to power them.
She provided solar-powered ovens and the training to use them so that residents could start a micro bakery. She even started an Internet cafe and developed an online educational program for young adults.
Fisher, 80, is the founder of a small nonprofit based in Southeast Washington called Mercy Outreach Ministry International, or “MOM,” as both she and the organization are known in Haiti. Her late husband, Edward G. Fisher, was a surgeon who headed the medical staff at the old Hadley Hospital in far Southwest. He served as president of MOM.
“We both believed that education and entrepreneurial skills were the way out of poverty,” she said.
Her husband grew up poor in Jamaica. Judy Fisher grew up in the Barry Farms public housing complex in Southeast Washington during the late 1940s and ’50s — low-income, if not poor by U.S. standards.
She attended Howard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology, a master’s in city planning, then another master’s and a doctorate from the School of Divinity. She began working in the most remote parts of Haiti in 1987, first as a visiting sex education teacher during the AIDS epidemic and later supporting an orphanage and village school.
Haiti’s history and potential had captured her imagination.
Haitians had been the only enslaved dark-skinned people in history to successfully revolt against their White owners, in 1791. And they were the first to establish an independent dark-skinned nation outside of Africa.
But a long history of foreign intervention and an entrenched caste system has proved difficult to dismantle. As a result, the principles of universal equality and freedom on which the French, American, and Haitian revolutions had been fought were never realized.
Fisher believed that she could use education to point the nation toward economic and spiritual health. One child at a time if need be.
“I thought if I could meld my sociology and city planning with divinity, I could get some things done in Haiti,” said Fisher, who serves as bishop of the Full Gospel Church of the Lord’s Missions International in the District.
And she did get plenty of things done. But she also saw how some things that can take years to get done can become undone in a heartbeat.
An earthquake shook Haiti on Aug. 14. More than 2,000 people were killed and more than 7,000 were injured. Hundreds more were left homeless. In a Caribbean nation of 11 million where 60 percent are poor and just as many go hungry, there would be even more suffering.
The earthquake had damaged a school that Fisher had recently helped renovate. Then a tropical storm hit a few days later. Many of the vegetable gardens that she’d help to plant were washed away by floodwaters from the tropical storm.
To make matters worse, armed gangs blocked a road to a hospital, demanding bribes in exchange for safe passage. Even ambulance drivers were turned back if they did not pay up. The road also led to the site where Fisher was setting up the micro bakery and kept the solar ovens. She had contemplated a trip to Haiti to check on them. But friends advised her not to go, saying she’d probably be kidnapped on the road and held for ransom.
What bothered her most was the brazen mistreatment of the children.
“Who turns away an ambulance taking an injured child to the hospital?” she asked. “That is incomprehensible to me.”
Fisher had spent more than 30 years raising money for Haiti, cajoling foundations for grants, bartering with businesses for services and equipment, seeking partnerships with universities. She made jewelry and other crafts, sewed shirts and jackets, and sold them, putting all the profits back into Haiti.
She had seen the payoff.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, some students are eager to have the Internet cafe reopen. While many were initially more interested in access to social media than learning, they now want the opportunity to be educated. And Fisher wants to give it to them.
“I’m not going to turn my back on the children, but I just may have to do the work from here for a while,” she said.
But the work will go on.
Two Haitian American women and Fisher’s sister, who helps out by tithing from her monthly Social Security check, are working with her to keep the orphanage going. The two women, along with some Haitian residents, continue to teach. One of their students is a young man who learned to sew so well that they helped him go into business making bags to carry schoolbooks. His business was growing so fast before the earthquake that he was considering buying more sewing machines and hiring people to help him.
“That’s the kind of results we’re looking for,” Fisher said. “We need people willing to take the bull by the horns. We are working with 25 kids and we know that by the time they leave the orphanage they will have skills.”
She’s also hoping they have resiliency. In the chaos that followed the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, she lost contact with a man she had hired to teach villagers how to use solar ovens. She had sent him money to purchase a computer and other teaching materials. But she learned that gang members had broken into the house next door to where the man lived, sexually assaulted his neighbor’s wife in front of him, and then killed the husband in front of her.
The man Fisher had hired grabbed his children and ran for his life. She thought she’d never see the man again.
But a few days ago, she got an email from the man, saying he had returned home. He had purchased a new computer and located the solar ovens, and he was ready to start teaching residents how to run a micro bakery.
“Sometimes, when you look at the big picture, there are so many desperate people that you can become discouraged and give up,” Fisher said. “When you look at it piece by piece, you still see the tragedies. But you also see enough of the small triumphs to keep you pressing on.”