It is a God story. It’s a story of how a little girl from Borger, Texas, now a successful stockbroker and wealth manager in The Woodlands, came to find her purpose in life in middle age in a chance conversation with a stranger.
It’s also story of how the elders in an impoverished little village in Haiti – a poor village in one of the poorest countries in the world – decided back in 2006 that they would somehow, in a country where education isn’t free, and without any resources of their own, build a school and teach their children in their isolated village – and give them a life the adults had been denied.
And it’s a story of how these two different worlds have been brought together to make those dreams a reality, assisted by a dedicated group of American business people.
The little girl was Cindy Tice. Born in Borger – one of the first oil boom-towns in the Panhandle, but still boasting only 13,000 residents in 2010 – the career choices for little girls back then were limited, she said in a recent interview.
“There were three occupational choices for girls when I was growing up,” Tice said. “Teacher, nurse, or housewife; so I became a teacher.”
She pursued that career and made it a success as a speech and hearing therapist, but longed to do something different. Eventually, she would train to become a stockbroker and wealth manager, and through hard work and determination turned that into a success as well, first with Paine Webber and then with Morgan Stanley, where she now is first vice president and wealth adviser in the national financial firm’s Woodlands Waterway office.
She’s long known that “to whom much is given, much is required,” and so Tice made sure to involve herself in charity in her community in The Woodlands Rotary Club and CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates.
But even then, her involvement often was simply limited to “just going to a black tie event, drinking too much wine and winning an auction trip and writing a check out.”
She wanted to do more. But what?
“I had always felt like God had a purpose for me,” she said, “but I just couldn’t find what it was.”
Then one day at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, she was listening to a sermon from Pastor Rob Renfroe.
“One day Rob Renfroe was giving a sermon about the epitaph people want to have when they die. I remember him asking the congregation, ‘Will it be – I just waited all of my life to find out what my purpose was?’
“I realized – Oh my gosh — I had done that my whole life.”
“And then he said ‘there are opportunities all around us all the time; you just need to stand up and start saying yes.’ “
Two weeks later, just before Christmas 2011, Tice found herself at P.F. Chang’s in The Woodlands after a day of shopping, taking a break to sip on a glass of wine at the bar and text with friends; she noticed a young man next to her doing the same and they struck up a conversation.
“Something just clicked, and we started talking about charities of our choice. I said mine was CASA. He said ‘mine was Haiti,’ and he told me about this group of people who go to Haiti twice a year. They had built a school for this little village, adding to the economy by hiring local people to do the work.
The young man was Jeff Hynes, Sr. Treasury Analyst (Financial Derivatives) at CB&I in The Woodlands. “He later sent me a couple of emails and invited me over with his family — and served me a little too much wine,” she joked.
“He said, ‘I’m going in March – would you like to go?’ “
It was an opportunity – and she said yes. And that’s how Tice would find herself one day surrounded by poor villagers in Haiti, helping them to furnish their new school with textbooks and a kitchen in which to cook the children one meal a day – a meal that for some was the only real meal of the day.
The group she joined is called “Hands for Haiti” and it serves the tiny village of Tremesse. The group’s Web site paints a picture of utter poverty: “There is no village center, pathways lead off into the jungle at every angle. There is no pavement in Tremesse, no electricity, no plumbing, no stores and until recently no real school.”
Hands for Haiti actually started with the dream of those villagers in Tremesse to offer a better future for their children. In fact, desperate to give the children whatever education they could, the villagers had picked volunteers and opened a fledgling school – nothing more than a tarp suspended by four poles, with no textbooks or learning equipment to speak of.
They had the will – but no way to achieve their dreams.
That would come in the form of Hands for Haiti, launched by a retired successful businessman in North Carolina, Mark Creasser, who discovered the villagers’ plight during his own work in Haiti to relieve hunger.
“My friends and I had been involved in shipping food containers to Haiti, and I had been going down there for six or seven years at that point,” Creasser said.
“There was a group of elders that were in Tremesse that had gone to a doctor friend of ours, Ray Ford, and had asked him if he could find someone who could help them. Ford and his staff had established a clinic and orphanage not too far from the village.
“Dr. Ford said ‘Why don’t just you just come out and see the situation and see what you can do?
“I went out there to the tent school, and they asked us what we could do for them, and I was honest. I didn’t know anything we could do, but I told them I’d look into it.
“Like so many things, the good Lord pushed us into this thing.”
Eventually, Creasser and a handful for other men, including Hynes, formed Hands for Haiti, a registered 501(c)3 non-profit incorporated in the State of New Hampshire.
The group, initially funded by the generosity of board members, and now supplemented in part by monthly sponsorships, already has done much for the children of Tremesse. The school now has 235 students and 12 teachers and administrators. The classes are pre-school to Grade 5 and began October 3. In addition, the group has improved the lot of the villagers in a number of other ways, including setting up an operational satellite and WIFI network at the school, providing 25 XO laptops and 10 regular laptops loaded with educational software, building a new kitchen, providing a solar-powered water system with generator backup, meals, and annual physicals for the children.
And yet there is much more to be done – such as providing a vehicle to give villagers a way to transport children or adults to the nearby clinic for emergencies and other needs. The tragic death of one of the school’s students demonstrates the tremendous need for a vehicle, Tice said.
“At least a third of the kids are malnourished,” Tice said. One 7-year-old boy, Ronaldo, had contracted cholera as a result of chronic malnutrition, and began having seizures.
“One day, his parents had to just pick him up and start walking/running toward the clinic,” Tice said.
He died along the way in their arms.
Creasser said the long-term goal is to continue building the school, adding grades through high school, and to raise a new generation of educated Haitians.
“Our goal is not just to have a school, but we want to have a school where we can provide or at least have a way of looking for the future leaders of Haiti and have them be created,” Creasser said. They hope to work with some of the companies moving into Haiti to develop vocational programs to train students for better jobs in factories or other corporate facilities – or to teach them better farming methods to improve agriculture.
For Tice, the work has been life-changing. She remembers one day visiting the village and being approached by one little girl eager to see her; she wanted to show off her new, bright red shoe.
“She was so happy; they were the first shoes she had ever had; she wore one of the shoes – and her sister wore the other.”
“Seeing how happy they can be with what they have….and how unhappy American kids can be when we don’t go out and buy them the latest toy; it’s just such a lesson for me.
“It’s just enriched my life.”
To learn more about Hands for Haiti, or to make a donation, go to the group’s Web site www.handsforhaiti.com.