La. woman builds ministry on impoverished island
Dreams drew Megan Boudreaux to Haiti.
After a pair of weeklong trips to the impoverished Caribbean nation, Boudreaux returned to her comfortable life and job in Baton Rouge, but for months, she woke regularly, haunted by images.
“I was having dreams, and there was this one tree on the mountain that I kept seeing,” Boudreaux, 27, said. “And I kept seeing the children on the mountain.”
She had visited Gressier, a town in the mountains away from the bustle of Port-au-Prince, during her second trip to Haiti in August 2010 and saw children running around in search of food, wearing rags or clothes made of tarpaulins and bed sheets.
Standing atop Bellevue mountain, she thought to herself, “This place is a mess. Someone needs to come and take care of this.”
“I didn’t think it was me,” she said.
From the dreams, Boudreaux believed God was telling her to move to Haiti to help the children. She did, and two years later the school she founded, Respire Haiti, feeds and educates 500 children and is expanding to create jobs throughout the community.
“The vast majority of us see this as divine,” said Bret Pinson, a Respire board member and business consultant who helped Boudreaux set up her nonprofit.
Raised in Lafayette, Boudreaux never thought about becoming a missionary or founding a nonprofit, she said, but she did devote time to mission trips in high school and college. She attended Tulane University in New Orleans, was a cheerleader and majored “in a million different things,” she said.
“I was a little lost and didn’t know what to do,” Boudreaux said.
After college she worked in marketing and event planning for the Our Lady of the Lake Foundation, a job she loved. In the spring of 2010, she went to Haiti for a week with Sister Martha Ann Abshire from Our Lady of the Lake. Boudreaux got sick and hated it.
But she returned with another aid group in August 2010, and one day left the earthquake-ravaged capital of Port-au-Prince to see the mountains. In Gressier, a town on the coast, they walked up Bellevue Mountain, which allowed a panoramic view of the poverty and devastation, she said.
After she returned home from the week-long trip, the dreams began. In November, she decided to move there permanently the next year and started a nonprofit organization with a simple mission statement: Help children in Haiti.
She named it Respire (pronounced Res-per-AY), a Haitian Creole word that meant “breathe.” Leaving the pollution and bustle of Port-au-Prince, she could breathe freely in Gressier.
Her first few days in a rented house there in January 2011 were miserable. She didn’t know what to do.
“I just kind of sat inside and cried and ate Clif (organic energy) bars and thought, ‘I should go home. I have made a terrible decision,’” she said.
On the third day, she went back to Bellevue Mountain and saw a little girl throwing rocks at birds, hoping for a meal. That Saturday she bought a $25 sack of rice and some beans and vegetables and cooked. She hired a local taxi to drive her up the mountain and handed meals to hungry children. Fifty kids showed up, she said. The next Saturday, 150 came.
Many of them were restaveks — child servants given up by their parents who cannot afford to care for them. Accepted by Haitian society, Boudreaux said, the system has been called “modern day slavery” by the United Nations.
Realizing the children did not attend school, Boudreaux rented a one-room church and began teaching first through fourth grades. Without speaking Creole, she relied on a Haitian pastor to help.
After just a few weeks of living among the people of Gressier and walking the same paths they did, Pinson said, the people there accepted her. The children called her “Sister Megan,” he said.
Running out of money after six weeks, Boudreaux flew home to raise funds. Then she decided to find a piece of land to build a small school. The one place she could afford was a small sliver of land on Bellevue Mountain, where she first saw the poverty of Gressier.
Under the tree on Bellevue, her pastor friend told her that the local church would often pray on the mountain for help to come.
“I was 24 at the time,” Boudreaux said. “They said they had been praying for me since I was 12.”
That summer, Boudreaux flew home to raise money. She spoke in Louisiana and Colorado at some churches and house parties. She only raised $1,000, nothing close to what it would take to build a school and buy uniforms.
Driving to the airport in Colorado feeling dejected, she received a call from a couple wanting to take her to dinner. She politely declined. Then the airline called. Her flight was cancelled, so she called the couple back and accepted their invitation. Her hosts were the owners of OtterBox, a cell phone accessories company. They told her to boldly ask for what she needed.
“I was four months, five months into my nonprofit, freaking out, and I said I need uniforms and books and the building,” she said.
She thought of a number. The man reached for his checkbook and said, “I’m going to write you a check for half of that because I want you to continue sharing the story,” according to Boudreaux.
That check paid for Respire’s first building and uniforms for all the students. They started construction in August and completed the first classrooms in January 2012, a year after Boudreaux took the leap and moved to Haiti.
In the past year, the Respire compound has grown through what Boudreaux calls a series of “awesome coincidences.”
Pinson said it is more than coincidence. Boudreaux’s presence has driven the movement.
“There is something about her,” Pinson said. “When she gets in front of an audience, it moves people.”
Respire acquired more land on the mountain and built a secondary school last year. Another organization asked to build a medical clinic there. It added a recycling program with a nonprofit called Executives Without Borders that allows residents to bring bottles and cans and earn a little money.
Recently, Respire also opened a small cafe that caters to American relief workers.
Six weeks ago it completed a safe house for children suffering abuse called Kay Libete A, The Freedom House.
One hundred Haitians work at Respire and educate 500 students in the first-through ninth-grades. Most have little formal schooling. The average age of first-and second-grade students is 13, Boudreaux said.
Hundreds of college students have worked at Respire for a few weeks or half a year, taking internships through South Louisiana churches.
“It’s hard. It’s really hard there, but God is doing amazing work through them in such a short period of time,” said Bonnie Kate Pourciau, of Baton Rouge, who worked at Respire for two months last year.
In June of 2011, Boudreaux adopted a Haitian girl, Micha, now 9. She was the little girl Boudreaux first encountered on Bellevue Mountain throwing rocks at birds.
After gaining custody, Boudreaux learned through her paperwork that Micha had a younger sister and both had lost their mother to illness a few years before. After six weeks of searching, Boudreaux found the sister, Jessica, now 6.
Earlier this year, Boudreaux married Josh Anderson, a man who had come to Haiti to work at Respire. She plans to legally change her last name when the adoption process finishes.
“I think we’ll probably end up adopting more kids,” Boudreaux said. “We feel like we’re there for the long haul and for the relationships we’ve started there.”
So much has happened in the three years since Boudreaux first visited Haiti. The journey has taken a great deal of courage and vision on her behalf, Pinson said.
“She stepped out in her faith, and it has been miraculous,” Pinson said.
From a series of dreams, she triggered a movement that affects the lives of hundreds of children. It was an audacious act.
“It’s one of those things where you take the first step and you don’t know what the next step is going to look like ...,” she said. “I never would have thought that two years later we would be doing this.”