Updated 2 pm May 17
It all started with a friendly meeting at church in 1997. Margaret Pénicaud, a woman who had grown up in Chilmark, was introduced to Mother Monique, a Catholic nun from Haiti, at St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven.
Mother Monique was the founder of a religious order called the Daughters of Mary Queen Immaculate of Haiti. The Daughters are a group of teachers that run several schools in the south of Haiti, presiding over 5,000 students and individuals.
Mother Monique was resting on the Island after receiving medical care in Boston, and after getting to know Pénicaud, she invited her to come to Haiti and see the work she was doing with the Daughters. After talking with her family, Pénicaud decided she had to go. “I knew I was going, I just knew it,” she said.
Pénicaud’s family bought her a round-trip ticket to Haiti and she was set to leave in January 1998. Unfortunately, in November 1997, Mother Monique died, but her work would live on with the Daughters and people like Pénicaud.
More than half of Haiti’s population lives below the poverty level, and 40 percent of the population is unemployed, according to the World Factbook. The Daughters help battle this poverty through education and professional development in their schools.
Not too long into her visit to Haiti, Pénicaud was introduced to Valentin Abe. Abe is an agronomist from the Ivory Coast who earned a doctorate in aquaculture from Auburn University, and has been helping revive Haiti’s fishing industry by building fish ponds. These ponds, powered by solar energy, create food and jobs for impoverished villages.
Former President Bill Clinton wrote about Abe in the 2010 issue of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Abe told Pénicaud he was trying to get communities to build fish ponds, and would donate the Egyptian tilapia, a small pink fish, to get them started. One of the nuns told Pénicaud the Daughters had five hectares of land in Lilavois, a town outside Port-au-Prince, where they were trying to build a school. Once onsite, Abe told them they had room to build five ponds next to their school.
The plan: Abe would build the ponds, supply the fish, and install solar panels for electricity, the nuns would build the school, and Pénicaud would help raise the money to get the project started.
Pénicaud returned home to the Island and started the Martha’s Vineyard Fish Farm Haiti Project, making sure 100 percent of the money she received through fundraising and donations was brought back and put in the hands of the Daughters. From then on, Pénicaud traveled to Haiti up to three times a year, paying for her transportation out of her own pocket.
Donations came in many forms. A woman gave the project $10,000 at one of their Christmas craft fairs, and a Rotary club donated solar panels to provide electricity to water pumps at the school. Last year, Pénicaud held a raffle for a motorized fishing kayak she won during the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. “It was such a miracle for me to catch that fish,” she said. Pénicaud raised $10,000 in the kayak raffle, giving every penny to the project.
Things didn’t always go well for the project. Tragedy struck over the years, in the form of hurricanes and the 2010 earthquake that caused massive damage to Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas, including the school.
The Daughters had members in Port-au-Prince, where they were living with a group of students. Two of the sisters and 15 of the students died when their building collapsed. Cinder blocks, purchased to build a second story with living quarters for the school, were also destroyed. A wall that had been built around the project was ravaged and had to be completely rebuilt.
Pénicaud was on the Vineyard when the earthquake struck, and flew down with other volunteers to help. She also had money wired to the Daughters, and purchased satellite phones and tents.
One promising donation was a bus from the Vineyard Transit Authority. The bus was painted by Island students and filled with donations. Pénicaud organized the bus’s shipment to Haiti from Boston, and flew to meet it in Port-au-Prince. The bus made it to Haiti, but Pénicaud would never see it again.
For two years, Pénicaud battled with customs agents in Haiti, being sent on a Kafkaesque quest to different towns and customs departments. In the end, Pénicaud offered customs agents money. After they took her money, Pénicaud was told her bus was gone, along with everything in it.
Despite setbacks, Pénicaud has continued to bring family and friends with her to volunteer in Haiti.
“Haiti is a very difficult place. Corruption, earthquakes, and hurricanes. The effort that it takes for her to do what she does is just really huge, it’s a lot of effort,” Johanne Joseph, a woman who grew up in Haiti, but now lives and works on the Vineyard, said.
Joseph went to Haiti with Pénicaud to see the school and the fish farm. “Going to see what she had going on, it’s pretty amazing; it’s really cool to see,” Joseph said, “Haiti is beautiful. I cry every time I leave.”
Jeanne Staples, an artist on the Vineyard, traveled to Haiti with Pénicaud and worked with her and the fish farm project. Staples also helps run Haiti PeaceQuilts, a nonprofit organization that establishes and supports sewing cooperatives in Haiti.
“It was great working under the umbrella of the fish farm, but it was a different kind of project,” Staples said of the PeaceQuilts project, “You all share this common heart connection to the place. You want to be helpful to each other. We’re very supportive of each other’s work and helpful with each other.”
Louisa Gould, a photographer and owner of the Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven, traveled to Haiti with Pénicaud in 2003 to take photographs for her and the project.
Pénicaud “is absolutely, completely dedicated to this. She is passionate, determined, dedicated. Her perseverance has kept this going. I admire her, I respect her; she’s got a lot of faith,” Gould said.
Pénicaud said she doesn’t know when her next visit to Haiti will be, but wants a definitive reason to go. Possibly next month, for the Lilavois school welcoming its first graduating class.
“We are all volunteers,” Pénicaud wrote in a March 2018 newsletter for the project, “not only are there no salaries in our nonprofit, but we pay our own transportation to and from Haiti. We do not use the money we have raised for our personal travel expenses. We want every penny to go to Haiti. Our work is our gift from the heart.”
For more information on the Martha’s Vineyard Fish Farm Haiti Project, visit http://fishfarmhaiti.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org
updated to add contact info.