By Warren P. Russo
---- — At a time in life when most empty-nesters are busy enjoying the fruits of their labors, Kevin and Tammy Groder of Merrimac are packing up their lives and moving to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti.
The 50-year-old former pastor of the North Shore Christian Fellowship in Salisbury is giving up his pastoral post, selling his truck, his pristine Yamaha V-Star motorcycle and the possessions he’s collected over the course of a lifetime in preparation for a permanent move to a country that is synonymous with abject poverty.
Why would the couple want to leave behind all the comforts of home to live amid the filth, squalor and institutionalized corruption in the Third World country? Only Kevin Groder and God know for sure.
“We’ve been to Haiti two or three times a year, for the last three or four years, coordinating with medical professionals since the 2010 earthquake,” Groder said. Although he is not a medical professional, Groder is trained in a number of procedures, including inserting intravenous lines and pulling rotten teeth, a popular form of dental work in Haiti.
Although never a healthy place even in the best of times, the tiny Caribbean nation of 10 million people lost 2 percent of its entire population — 200,000 people — in just 30 seconds, when a massive earthquake devastated its capital and largest city, Port-au-Prince, on Jan. 12, 2010.
“Internationally, Haiti has received quite a bit of aid, primarily through larger non-governmental organizations — NGOs — like the World Food Program, as well as through small NGOs and Christian ministries like ours,” Groder said. “Most of the real work is being done by small organizations, rather than through the large international programs.
“Thanks to rampant government corruption, whatever money comes into the country through the hands of the politicians doesn’t make it down to the people, which is why our organizations are so important,” he added. “Everything donated to our mission gets to the people. Sure, you can give your $10 to the Red Cross, but that money ultimately seems to disappear.”
The U.S. has been Haiti’s largest donor for the last 40 years, contributing some $460 million of the $2.4 billion in foreign aid provided annually by the international community. That funding is primarily used to fund school lunches for 500,000 children per day, agricultural development to revitalize Haiti’s coffee crop, introduce sustainable agriculture and protect the environment, teacher training programs, family planning practices in rural areas and child immunizations and primary care for half the population.
Many private U.S. citizens regularly travel to Haiti at their own expense, living there for extended periods to work in humanitarian projects. Groder supports himself as a professional graphic designer and database developer because, as he said, “being a missionary is not a money-earning proposition.”
Born in Bangor, Maine, Groder grew up in the Newburyport area. Today, he and his wife live in Merrimac. He started the North Shore Christian Fellowship 15 years ago. However, after the earthquake hit, members agreed to dissolve the church in order to focus all its attention on its missions in Haiti.
The Groders’ original plan was to purchase a van, pack it with their remaining belongings, drive it to Miami and ship it all to Haiti. That move would cost about $15,000, he said.
“Instead, we may just get rid of everything and use the money from the sale of our house to buy a used vehicle after we get to Haiti,” Groder added.
Once they arrive in Haiti, they will live in a dormitory-type room equipped with a small bath with a spigot. The water supply will be gravity-fed from a 200-gallon plastic reservoir. The Groders view their accommodations as something of a luxury.
“On our earlier visits to Haiti, we used to sleep outside on a mattress on the ground,” he said.
Groder’s wife, Tammy, 52, grew up as the daughter of missionaries. Born in Boston, she spent her first six years in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Zambia. She is a graduate of Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.
“Fortunately, my wife is 100 percent on board with the decision to pack up and move to Haiti,” Groder said. “This is a permanent move, with no fixed time frame, so we expect to go down and stay there until we feel we should leave, and our stay will be measured in years, not months. The hardest part is getting rid of all our stuff.”
They plan to list their Merrimac house for sale very shortly and hope to be in Haiti by June.
To prepare for the move, Groder has been learning to speak the French-Haitian Creole language he described as “ghetto French,” noting that he has picked up a lot of the language over the years, and also has access to translators if he needs them.
While in Haiti, he plans to continue working for his stateside graphic arts and database clients, as only rudimentary room and board will be provided for the couple while they’re in Haiti. The versatile missionary is also a former martial arts instructor, specializing in Shaolin Kempo at Tokyo Joe’s in Salisbury.
While deeply committed to their mission and well aware that they may be spending the rest of their lives in Haiti, the Groders are also leaving the door open for a possible return.
“If we’re there for a year, and things don’t work out, we’ll come back to the States,” he said. “We need to come back to see our kids and grandkids anyway.”