How Nehemiah Vision Ministries is bringing life into lifeless places

by Brad Miller

Haiti. What words does that bring to mind?

Earthquake… poor… island… disaster… Caribbean…

Those are the words I would have thought of before my trip there. After all, most of my education about this tiny nation had come from Red Cross advertisements and UNICEF ads.

I had a lot of pre-formed ideas about Haiti, but one thing that did not pop into my mind when I thought about Haiti was desert.

That’s right. Desert.

A desert in the middle of an ocean.

Barren mountains surrounding a desert – this was NOT how I pictured Haiti

Barren mountains surrounding a desert – this was NOT how I pictured Haiti


To be fair, not all of Haiti is a literal desert. There are areas of jungle, and oasis, and fields of sugarcane, and beaches. There is variety.

But an increasing area of the country has been stripped bare by deforestation. Without tree roots to hold things together, all the topsoil has eroded away. These areas are hot, they are unforgiving, and nothing seems to grow.

In these physical deserts, these literal deserts, the poorest of Haiti live.

I was shocked to discover this. I had never pictured this Caribbean island as barren scrubland. But I was even more shocked as I discovered how the entire country is a humanitarian desert. A social and political desert where it seems no program, no movement, no development project, is able to take root and grow.

Looking around, even on my way in from the airport, I saw broken-down homes, abandoned churches, half-finished projects… What in the world was going on? With all this help, why were things not getting better?

After hearing from Gami Ortiz, Nehemiah Vision Ministries’ Staff and Outreach Pastor, about how so many well-meaning charities actually do more harm than good, I struggled to imagine how anything could succeed here.

It really felt like a desert, and in a desert, how can anything possibly grow?

Church on a Mountain

I got my first hint that there was something different about Nehemiah Vision Ministries on our trip to Onaville.

Onaville is named for the ONA program, a kind of government welfare. But it’s not a complimentary name. Like the Hoovervilles of the United States’ Great Depression, Onaville is a giant slum. In fact, it is the largest displaced person camp in the country, having over a quarter-million residents.

A sprawling maze of improvised and prefabricated homes, Onaville is home to over a quarter-million residents.

A sprawling maze of improvised and prefabricated homes, Onaville is home to over a quarter-million residents.

Spread across an abandoned mountainside, the endless maze of shacks and tin huts is understandably a major target for relief efforts. Throughout the area there are signs of multiple organizations that have all conducted their independent projects. Some, like public toilets, seem well-received. Others, such as a giant, elaborate, steel-and-glass church building towering over tin and mud hovels, are less welcome.

But most of these efforts are at the bottom of Onaville, near the flat ground by the main road. To get to NVM’s outreach center, we had to go up, past where the relief stops.

We turned off the steep dirt road and into the NVM church courtyard. I got out of the car and stretched.

The church was spacious and clean. In the yard was a large tent for classes and outdoor meetings. Across from the tent was what appeared to be a shipping container with pipes coming out of it.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That’s the well,” Gami replied.

“A well?”

A well in the middle of a desert and half-way up a mountain? What was a well doing here?

Water From a Rock

It turns out, clean water is rather scarce in Onaville. Most wells come up dry, and the few that do hit water find it contaminated with runoff and waste, too expensive to clean.

As a result, most of the water has to be delivered in giant trucks and loaded into miniature water towers. Everyone who wants water has to walk to these towers with a bucket, pay a fee, fill up, and walk back. Because it’s expensive and difficult to transport water by truck, all these water stations are at the bottom of the mountain.

Never intending to drill a well, Nehemiah Vision Ministries built a church at the top of Onaville to better love those most distant from help. But a volunteer engineering team came with a vision to help provide water. They asked if they could drill a well by the church.

No well this high had ever been successful in Onaville. No water had ever been found clean on this part of the mountain. But when the engineers drilled, they found fresh water. In fact, when they tested it they found it to be so clean that it was safe to use without additional purification.

When a team drilled for water on NVM church land, they found it to be fresh and clean. Now the community has a cheap and plentiful supply.

When a team drilled for water on NVM church land, they found it to be fresh and clean. Now the community has a cheap and plentiful supply.

I was floored, flabbergasted. I knew there were only two possibilities. Either the church had been planted in the one spot where there was fresh water, or (as many whispered) the church itself had sanctified the ground and made that water fresh.

I didn’t know how or why they found fresh water; all I knew was that I was looking at a well in a place that was supposed to be dry. I watched as a young woman came, knelt, and filled up her bucket. She balanced it on her head and, barefoot, set off for home.

“Water…” I thought.

“…water from a rock.”

Gami smiled and said, “Come around back; you’ll want to see this.”

Desert Gardens

I walked around the back of the church, and had my second heart attack of the day.

There, in the barren, rocky soil, was a garden! No, not a garden. A small farm!

There was an irrigation tower and corn and vegetables and fruit trees planted in  rows. Neat rows, carefully cultivated, plants blossoming up in recycled soil. I couldn’t believe it.

I learned this was a test plot. Along with a much larger version at NVM’s campus, this was being used to experiment and find the best growing methods for the climate. It was also a living classroom to train new farmers.

Many locals had ceased farming, believing it to be impossible. They had given up all hope in the land. But here was living proof that it was still possible, and NVM offered the training to do it freely.

In a land believed to be barren, NVM is starting a farm.

In a land believed to be barren, NVM is starting a farm.

Brain held up a handful of loamy soil.

“See this? It’s dried donkey manure. It’s free – they pile it up and no one wants it. But it has the potential to grow all the vegetables the villages need.”

He eagerly pointed to a pile of fibrous, leafy scrap – sugarcane husk, virtually free as well and a form of natural mulching. It’s used to discourage weeds and minimize water loss by preventing evaporation.

Walking acre by acre through the farmland, seeing the vegetables that would be eaten and sold and used to encourage healthy diets, seeing the jobs that would be created as new farmers were trained and empowered, I could only marvel at what the desert was secretly holding. All this potential, just waiting to be unlocked.

This recycled soil has the potential to grow all the vegetables the villages need.

This recycled soil has the potential to grow all the vegetables the villages need.

But I didn’t know anything about potential until I visited the school.

A Crop of Coincidence

Having seen so much of NVM’s external projects, the church plants, the economic empowerment and training, I was ready to see what they were doing on the inside. I was ready to see the school.

The school is the heart and soul of NVM. It was the very first thing they built almost ten years ago. It’s been their greatest area of growth, and as I was about to see, their greatest area of success.

I had already seen the slums of Onaville. I had visited the nearby village of Chambrun, just a few miles away, where many of the students are from.

I had seen the conditions they were living in – mud and tin homes, no power or water, sanitation little more than a hole in the ground. Goats and small children wandering free and equally unclothed.

Skin infections showed the most obvious forms of malnutrition and poor health. A scratch or cut could quickly turn into an ugly open sore. Washing with contaminated water only compounded the problem.

Without clean water, simple scrapes can quickly become infected.

Without clean water, simple scrapes can quickly become infected.

With homes like this, what could I expect in the schools? What could I expect the students to be or become?

I never would have expected what I found: uniformed students sitting in neat rows, reciting their lessons in Creole and French.

The children here seemed transformed compared to their unschooled fellows in other villages. In fact, I learned that was one of the big draws for parents. Some parents were skeptical of the value of an education, but when they saw how NVM students carried themselves – with confidence, respect for others, and even a little bit of pride in who they were – parents quickly changed their minds.

But the greatest difference I could see, and the number one reason everyone wanted their child at NVM’s school, was their health.

These children were healthy. In every sense of the word.

Their faces were more full, their eyes brighter. They smiled more easily and more often. Their movements where quicker and their jokes (often at my expense) were much faster. These children were a harsh contrast to the drawn, shallow-eyed and hesitant kids so common to impoverished areas. These children were, well… children.

The children that go to NVM’s school stand out – they’re healthier, brighter, and livelier

The children that go to NVM’s school stand out – they’re healthier, brighter, and livelier

And there were two simple reasons for that.

Sitting next the large schoolhouse is a small building, squat and with a flat roof perfect for stargazing. This building is NVM’s clinic.

Here they can treat coughs and colds, injuries and infections, parasites and malnutrition, etc. Almost anything short of hospitalization can be taken care of. People come from miles and miles around to be treated here, the only reliable medical center for these outlying villages.

But here’s the kicker: every one of NVM’s students gets treated absolutely free.

I couldn’t believe it. These kids got free healthcare! In fact, because their education was so important, children were moved to the front of the line each day so that simple cases could be sent right back to school and not miss a single day of learning.

But NVM doesn’t want to just treat diseases. They want to prevent them. One of the simplest ways to do that is also the reason the children looked so different: each child received one full meal every day at school. For many children, this would be their only meal. This was the difference between going hungry and being provided for.

As I looked around and watched the children swinging on play sets and hanging from monkey bars, all I could think was,

“These children are thriving. They are living and laughing and growing into something more. This isn’t supposed to be possible, not in a desert.”

Not long after my visit to the school, a young man stopped me in the village. He recognized me as the storyteller from America. He didn’t speak much English, but he was very excited. He asked me to “Wait, please wait,” while he went and fetched something from his home.

I was happy to do so, and waited patiently while he ran back to his mud plaster dwelling and emerged with a certificate and giant smile.

He held it up, and asked me to take a picture. He wanted everyone to know what he’d earned, and how he was going to use it to get a better job, to provide for his family, to really change things.

His certificate?

Certificate of Completion – Nehemiah English Camp, Summer 2013

The first thing he wanted show me – Certificate of Completion, Nehemiah English Camp, Summer 2013

The first thing he wanted show me – Certificate of Completion, Nehemiah English Camp, Summer 2013


In the proud smile of that young man, a child of poverty ready to take on the world, I realized that NVM’s school was doing a lot more than growing healthy children in a land of poverty. They were growing respect and dignity and pride. They were creating value in a land where people were told over and over they had none.

Nehemiah Vision Ministries was creating leaders. Men and women with the heart and spirit and mind to change not simply their hometown, but all of Haiti. I found out at a school celebration that a number of their older students had recently gotten their test scores back – these young men from NVM had scored highest in the entire nation!

Some of NVM’s students have gone on to score highest in the country on standardized tests.

Some of NVM’s students have gone on to score highest in the country on standardized tests.

I was baffled.

“How is this possible?” I wondered.

“How can they transform children of poverty to not only rise above their own situation, but the rest of the nation as well?”

I knew if I wanted answers about the school program, there was only one person to ask.

A Small Sacrifice

Cathi Ortiz is the Child Sponsorship Manager for Nehemiah Vision Ministries. She and her husband Gami live on-site at the NVM campus with their three children. Having come from a background with Compassion International, I knew Cathi would have just the answers I was looking for.

More than anything else, I wanted to know how this transformation happens. What is really going on in these schools?

It turns out, the model here for schooling is entirely different than most places. For one thing, it’s not free. The parents pay a very small fee, and this keeps the kids in school. If the parents are paying for it, they’re not going to let their child skip!

They also value education more, and take pride in it as something they’ve earned, not been given out of pity.

“It’s not us providing something that the parents are supposed to provide… They understand it’s a partnership,“ Cathi explained.

And who are their partners? The child sponsors. Child sponsors are the crux of the school program. But when Cathi spoke about sponsors, she barely mentioned money.

“The sponsorship is completely designed to be a relationship.”

She began to describe the power of sponsor’s letters. I had heard of children writing their sponsors before, but I didn’t know that sponsors could write letters back. And I had no idea how important those letters could be.

“Coming from Compassion International… we know stories of kids who survive a mudslide and the last things they go back to grab are their sponsor’s letters. They leave everything else behind, but when they realize they left those they go back to get their letters and then they run. Incredible stories. We think of a letter like no big deal. In the states you get mail all the time. You don’t get mail in Haiti. Let alone something from another country.”

Her eyes sparkled as she continued, caught up the story.

“The idea of a small child getting a letter from someone in another country, who speaks in love and speaks scripture over them and prays for them… these kids don’t get stuff like that.”

I felt myself getting more and more excited. Could it really be that simple? The pride on that boy’s face, the excitement in the village over a visit, the transformation in the students at school – it wasn’t because of the money or the resources or the program design, it was because Chambrun had encountered a ministry that cared about them.

A ministry that spoke in love and scripture and deed and didn’t try to fix them as much as it tried to love them. I’d never heard of a ministry more interested in sponsor relationships than sponsor donations. But then again, I’d never seen a ministry as powerful and effective as NVM either.

But what did it cost? What was the price of all of this, the healthcare and the meals and the transformative education? How much was the price for the chance to be that kind of influence in a child’s life?

Forty dollars.

Only forty dollars can launch a relationship and transform lives.

Only forty dollars can launch a relationship and transform lives.

Forty dollars a month. One nice dinner out, or ten cups of coffee, or a couple of cases of pop.

“That forty dollars provides education, all their medical treatment and their meals. To think that something so small can provide so much, that a relationship could provide so much, and that you have the capacity to change a child’s life and have your life changed, that the dollar amount could keep someone from doing it seems absurd.”

A small sacrifice to change the life of a child.

Farmers of Faith

After hearing about the sponsorship program, after seeing the school and the passion and ambition in students, I knew that each sponsor’s involvement would be multiplied. Because each of these children’s lives would go on to affect so many more.

And after weeks of touring NVM, of seeing miraculous wells and impossible farms and unstoppable children, I had caught the vision of Nehemiah Vision Ministries.

The vision is to take young Haitian children and give them an education, guard their health so they are able to grow into strong adults spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially, and then they can turn around and help rebuild Haiti.

And in that vision, I realized what made NVM so different. What gave them the power to grow gardens in a desert and blessing to bring water out of rocks. What made them so different than every other charity and relief effort and social program:

NVM wasn’t giving something away. They were creating something new. NVM wasn’t running programs to save people, but to grow them.

All over the country, for years, people had been pouring money and time and talent and energy into Haiti, only to watch it be swallowed up. They had been pouring water into a desert only to watch it dry up, and it seemed no amount would ever satisfy.

But while so much of the world is pouring water out into the desert, NVM stops, sits down and begins to plant a garden.

NVM stops, sits down, and begins to plant a garden.

NVM stops, sits down, and begins to plant a garden.

While the world is dumping resources, NVM is planting relationships.

While the world is tending to their theories and solutions, NVM is tending to the broken and the alone.

While the world grows impatient and bored with a country “that can’t learn its lessons”, NVM is growing leaders that will become teachers of us all.

Haiti is a desert, but I now know that God did not ask us to bring rain to the desert – that’s His job. He asked us to plant, and trust Him that the rain will come.

That’s exactly what NVM is doing.

That’s what we can do, too.

 Joining the Harvest

After hearing this, I had no other response – I knew I was going to be sponsoring a child from Nehemiah Vision Ministries.

And I know part of the reason I’m sponsoring them is because I’ve seen the desert in Haiti, I’ve seen the loss and the lack and I want to help.

And part of the reason is that I’ve met the children and I want them to grow and prosper and be well. I want my sponsored child to have medical care and food and good education for their and their family’s future.

But most of all, I want to sponsor because I believe that the relationship NVM has planted, the relationship that I get to help water and care for, the relationship bound up in the spirit of Christ and fed with prayers from all over the world, this relationship will bear fruit.

Within Haiti, it will produce new servant leaders to bring the nation out of darkness.

It will produce loving mothers and fathers in a harsh and unloving land.

It will produce a generation no longer afflicted by the fear of infection or hunger or death.

And if that were all it produced, that would be more than enough. But the fruits of this relationship will not stop at the border of Haiti.

I will now have the wonder of knowing someone is depending on me. The excitement of watching them grow and succeed, the beautiful pain of praying for them when they struggle, and the exquisite joy of witnessing their healing and growth and knowing in some small way I am a part of it.

And no matter where I go in the world there will be one praying for me. There will be one of the poor and the marginalized – God’s children, praying for me.

I will have a new friend, and in some small way be helping Nehemiah Vision Ministries as they tend to God’s miraculous garden.

His garden in the desert.

Next Steps
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