February 13, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – Many people equate Haiti with poverty – with its reputation as the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. But Leigh Carter, who has worked with Haitians for nearly 20 years, sees signs of hope in the women who have climbed out of poverty and now provide a decent life for their families.
Leigh, founder and Board Member Emeritus of Fonkoze USA – the U.S. non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for Fonkoze – gave a special presentation on the work of Fonkoze February 6 in Weber Auditorium at the Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse. Her presentation, “The Adrian Dominican Sisters and Two Decades of Partnering with the Women of Haiti,” followed a meeting of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Portfolio Advisory Board (PAB).
Founded by the Adrian Dominican Sisters more than 40 years ago, the PAB helps the Congregation to use its resources to bring about economic justice through socially responsible investing in corporations and communities. The Adrian Dominican Sisters were among the first to grant low-interest loans to Fonkoze, and have been partners with the organization since 1997.
Leigh became director of Fonkoze USA at the invitation of Father Joseph Philippe, a Haitian priest who founded Fonkoze in 1994 to address poverty in Haiti. She attributed her connection to the Adrian Dominican Sisters to Sister Maureen Fenlon, OP, who encouraged Leigh to apply for a low-interest loan from the Congregation. Fonkoze USA received $200,000 in loans from other congregations of women religious after the Adrian Dominicans approved an initial loan.
In 20 years, Leigh said, Fonkoze has become “Haiti’s largest microfinance organization,” offering loans and other banking services to individuals – mostly women – in their efforts to become self-sufficient. Fonkoze now has 45 branches throughout Haiti, with $65,000 outstanding in loans to Haitian market women, and more than 200,000 people who are saving their money through Fonkoze.
Leigh spent much of her talk describing Fonkoze’s “staircase out of poverty” program. The first step, “Chemen Lavi Miyò,” focuses on the “ultra-poor,” women who “basically haven’t managed money ever or touched money – they’re basically begging at the marketplace.” The women receive $25 loans to help them get started in a business. In addition, Leigh said, their homes are upgraded to include a cement floor, a tin roof, a latrine, and a water filter. They are also expected to send their children to school.
After two years of group training, Leigh said, the women are “arguing over who’s going to speak at the graduation in front of 400 people” – a drastic change for women who, at the beginning of the program, “can’t look you in the eye” because they feel ashamed. Not all of the women who undergo the most basic training program move up the staircase, Leigh noted, but they have still found their lives to be “amazingly improved.
Higher up the staircase, Leigh said, women are organized into groups of five or six, forming “credit centers.” Currently, she said, some 65,000 women are organized into 2,000 credit centers. The women meet twice a month – once to meet with their credit agent or to repay their loan, and the second time to receive education on anything from cholera prevention to improving their businesses.
Leigh pointed to success stories of women who began as “ultra-poor” and became successful market women. One such woman, now in the business development stage of the program, works in wholesale, which loans in the thousands of dollars. “Instead of her husband sending her money from Miami, she sends money to him,” she noted.
Fonkoze thus focuses on “meeting women wherever they are in this journey out of poverty,” Leigh said. “Some people don’t make it,” often because of challenges such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Nine Fonkoze branches and about 14,000 clients were affected by the recent Hurricane Matthew. Fonkoze has been monitoring all of these clients to determine who has repaid their loans, who needs to restructure their loans, and whose loans need to be written off, she said.
Photos courtesy of Fonzoke, USA
In the question and answer session, Leigh noted that Fonkoze has been able to make a difference in the lives of individual Haitians – but that Haiti, as a whole, could be in “worse shape” than when she arrived 25 years ago.
“We’re dealing with the informal sector, and for Haiti to really, really succeed, there needs to be a thriving middle class and a thriving formal sector, and people who are creating jobs,” she said. In addition, she would like to see Haiti invest more in its infrastructure, such as roads. “That helps everybody.”
In the meantime, Leigh said, Fonkoze will continue to help individual women who are striving to climb out of poverty and into self-sufficiency. “We hope to have 100,000 loan clients in the next three or four years,” Leigh said. “We’ll just keep doing what we do.”
Feature photo at top: Leigh Carter, of Fonkoze USA, gives a talk on how her organization has helped women in Haiti on their journey out of poverty. Photo by Jessica Havens.
View "Saincia's Journey Out of Poverty" on YouTube: https://youtu.be/5mAa1x3QiQQ
February 14, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – Many people set aside Valentine’s Day to celebrate their own unique love story. The Adrian Dominican Sisters, Associates, Co-workers, and friends celebrated a unique love story this year: the 100th birthday of Sister Charles Christine Uhnavy, OP, who has been an Adrian Dominican Sister for nearly 80 years.
The special celebration included Mass; a special lunch that Sister Charles Christine shared with nearly 20 family members who attended the event; and an afternoon reception and birthday party.
“While the whole country is celebrating Valentine’s Day, here we are celebrating this day like none other,” said Sister Patricia Dulka, OP, Co-Chapter Prioress of Holy Rosary Mission Chapter. “Sister Charles Christine, we come to celebrate you with hearts full of love and joy for your 100 years young, for your life full of blessings, and for your life among us. You are a gift to us.”
Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress, also spoke of the blessing of celebrating Sister Charles Christine’s 100th birthday. She introduced Jim Berryman, Mayor of Adrian, who brought birthday blessings from a number of sources. As a special surprise, he showed a short video of a group of students from all schools in Adrian, including Siena Heights University, Adrian College, Jackson College, and the Adrian public schools. The students kicked off a new program, Pay if Forward Tuesday, by singing “Happy Birthday” to Sister Charles Christine.
Among the surprises of the day were a framed Papal Blessing from Pope Francis; letters from Mayor Berryman, Archbishop of Detroit Allen H. Vigneron, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder; and a chest full of birthday cards from Adrian Dominican Sisters and Associates from throughout the country.
“I never thought I’d get to be 100 years old,” Sister Charles Christine said during an interview. She expressed her gratitude for the many people who organized her birthday celebration and for those who joined in the celebration.
Sister Charles Christine has led a quiet life, but one that has had a great impact on countless children who today remember her as their first-grade teacher. Although she had taught other grades over the years – third, fourth, and fifth – her specialty was teaching first grade.
“I liked being a first-grade teacher,” Sister Charles Christine said. She especially enjoyed watching the young students progress from knowing very little to learning to read and write.
Sister Charles Christine has also taught teachers, helping to develop a phonics system to teach reading. She recalled giving a phonics presentation in the 1960s at Our Lady Gate of Heaven in Detroit – in front of her own first-grade teacher Sister Patricia Downs, OP. “She was happy and surprised that one of her [former] pupils was able to give the demonstration,” Sister Charles Christine recalled.
Although she enjoyed every mission in which she served and appreciated all of her local Superiors, Sister Charles Christine spoke fondly of her time at Our Lady Gate of Heaven. “That was a brand new school,” she recalled, explaining that the pastor had asked the Adrian Dominican Congregation for 14 Sisters but received 12. Because the convent was not ready at the beginning of the school year, “we had to live with the Little Sisters of the Poor for a couple of months, and there we were, all in one big row, sleeping in cots.”
Born Eunice Uhnavy on February 14, 1917, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Sister Charles Christine was one of four children of Gerald and Olivia Uhnavy. Also in the family were her sisters Vivian and Arlene and a brother, Charles. Her father, a tailor, owned his own business.
When she was young, the family moved to Detroit and then to Royal Oak, Michigan, where Sister Charles Christine attended St. Mary School for grades one to 12. She entered the Congregation in 1938.
Sister Charles Christine’s first missions took her to Chicago, where she taught at St. Nicholas of Tolentine from 1939 to 1940 and at St. Philip Neri from 1940 to 1943. She returned to Michigan, teaching at St. Mary, New Baltimore, from 1943 to 1944; St. Alphonsus, Dearborn, 1944 to 1947; and Our Lady Gate of Heaven, Detroit, 1947 to 1957.
After teaching at St. Mary in Defiance, Ohio, from 1957 to 1962, Sister Charles Christine returned a final time to Michigan, to teach at Holy Name, Detroit, 1962 to 1967; St. Jude, Detroit, 1967 to 1967; Anchor Bay Catholic, Anchorville, 1969 to 1971; and her home parish, St. Mary, Royal Oak, 1971 to 1977.
Sister Charles Christine lived with her sister in the family home from 1977 to 2012, when she moved to the Dominican Life Center in Adrian.
Among the many blessings of her rich and full life, Sister Charles Christine counts her travels. She celebrated her Silver Jubilee at the Basilica of Sainte Anne De Beaupré in Quebec, and, to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, traveled to Germany on a group tour.
Sister Charles Christine is the first in her family to reach the age of 100. Her advice for anyone who wants to live such a long and healthy life?
“Live one day at a time. You never know if this will be your last.”