Before the earthquake hit, Raymonde Jacques already knew the hardships of poverty.
She grew up in a small village in the mountains of Haiti without the privilege of nearby schools and medical care. She says she “got just enough education to survive.”
And a 64–year-old survivor she is, including a narrow escape from the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that’s killed more than 200,000 in Haiti.
Since her childhood she’s worked at whatever jobs she could find or create to support herself – “anything to survive with integrity.”
She says she would pick up trash for a penny.
“When I was a little kid, I would go early in the morning from mountain to mountain to get avocados to take to the supermarket to sell,” Raymonde says.
Later she worked 40 hours a week in a toy factory for $5 a month and in a gift shop where she made hats. She sold fabrics and saved enough money to buy a sewing machine and start making underwear.
She was also employed in a doctor’s office before getting the opportunity to move to America.
Through her church in Haiti, she met Frankfort’s Doug Riddell. A missionary from Capital City Christian Church, Doug was looking for a caregiver for his young daughter, Beth, who had cerebral palsy.
He found a jewel in Raymonde, an honest, hard-working woman with a compassionate heart and a perpetual laugh. It took 2 ½ years of immigration paperwork to get her to the U.S., but it was worth it, Doug says.
Raymonde couldn’t speak English when she arrived in Frankfort in 1987, and Doug and his wife, Connie, couldn’t speak Haitian Creole – a blend of French, Spanish, Portuguese, English and some African languages.
But there was an immediate bonding between Beth and Raymonde.
“That was the key point,” Doug recalls. “Beth loved her. She would light up when Raymonde was with her.”
In Haiti, Raymonde had adopted a brother’s infant son, Johnny, whose mother had died, and Johnny soon joined Raymonde in Frankfort.
Beth died at 25 and was buried on Christmas Eve 1999.
But the Riddells still consider Raymonde and Johnny, 25, family.
“Johnny is like a son to me,” says Doug. “He’s super. He’s a fine citizen and I’m really proud of him. And Raymonde, she’s a bundle of energy.”
The Riddells helped Raymonde get a Habitat for Humanity house on East Main near Kentucky State University, “and working three jobs she paid it off in record time,” Doug says.
She had a 30-year loan and paid it off in 15.
Doug was the leader of a 14-member Capital City Christian Church mission team that was in Haiti when the magnitude-7 earthquake struck.
Raymonde left Kentucky for Haiti on Dec. 27, and the rest of the CCCC group arrived there Jan. 7.
The team was stranded in Raymonde’s home nation for about a week after the quake. Twelve of the team members arrived home safely Jan. 20, and Raymonde and Doug returned home one night later because there weren’t enough seats on the first flight.
At the airport in the Dominican Republican, Doug says he didn’t see Raymonde until just before takeoff.
“She was the last person to board the plane, and she was smiling when I first saw her. She’s always smiling.”
When the plane stopped in Miami, Doug said he was anxious to read a newspaper. And while waiting for the flight to continue, Raymonde brought him a “big box of rice, beans and chicken,” he said. “Bless her heart, that’s just the way she is, always thinking of others.
“She’s a good Christian woman who truly lives her faith. If somebody has a need, she’s willing to do whatever it takes, even if it means giving away her last dollar.”
Raymonde says, “I wanted to be the last one (from the mission team) to come back. I’m Haitian. I wanted everybody else out first.”
In Frankfort, Raymonde is a teacher’s aide in the preschool program at Second Street School.
“They call me a jack-of-all-trades,” Raymonde says. “I change diapers and make the children laugh. No matter the situation, laughter is the best medicine. I always believe tomorrow will be better. That keeps me happy.”
She also does house cleaning and has a full-time weekend job as a caregiver for several disabled people.
Raymonde says she never married “because I don’t have time. And men are a little intimidated by my generosity.”
She laughs, saying she also doesn’t have time to feel old.
Sunny Hardin, preschool teacher at Second Street, says Raymonde, or Miss Mondy as she is affectionately known, is selfless and full of life.
“I’ve worked my whole adult life with children and families and others who work with children, and Miss Mondy is the most giving, caring person I’ve ever worked with.”
Raymonde says she loves working with the children.
“Oh my goodness, they’re my life,” she says. “When I’m home I’m dreaming about them.”
Around 5 p.m. Jan. 12, Raymonde wondered if she would ever see son Johnny and her Second Street children again.
She had gone to visit a friend in Jacmel. Before eating dinner, she showered and changed clothes in a bedroom. About a minute after she entered the kitchen and sat down at the table, “everything started shaking,” she recalls.
“Everything was flying around the room, the china. I never felt anything like it in my life.”
Everybody lay down on the floor momentarily before running outside.
“The bedroom where I had just been collapsed. It was gone. If I had not moved into the kitchen, I would be dead.”
That night Raymonde and 12 others slept on the street. The ground shook and a car and motorcycle would go by “and you’re afraid they’re going to run over you.
“It was a very scary feeling. Sometimes you think the ground is just going to open up and you go in it. I was scared to death, for myself and for protecting the people with me.”
In Frankfort, Johnny didn’t sleep or eat for two days after the earthquake until he found out his mother and the CCCC mission team were safe.
Raymonde says the earthquake changed her life and makes her want to work harder to help the needy in Haiti.
“God saved me for a reason,” she says. “I don’t know why I survived. I’m glad I was there to know what the people are going through.”
She says her stepmother lost 14 family members.
“Everybody in Haiti lost somebody, in one way or the other,” she says, and because so many are missing it will take a year to determine how many died.
Although she’s a U.S. citizen now, she loves her native country.
“I had to leave Haiti to help the people there,” she says.
She wanted to build a small home for her mother, “but she passed away before I could do it.”
In 1995 after visiting her sick mother in Haiti, she prayed for God’s help and promised to save $1 a day from her jobs to help the needy in the small Caribbean nation.
“Haitians have a lot of courage and they’re proud people,” Raymonde says. “They are less fortunate but they’re not poor because they try hard. One is poor if you don’t try.”
With the help of CCCC and several other churches in and around Frankfort, Raymonde organized the Haitian Needy Children Foundation and built three schools in the villages of Samadek, Segain and Tourette.
She thought the earthquake had destroyed one of the schools, but after recently talking to a nephew in Haiti, she learned it’s damaged “but not completely gone. That’s good news.
“We have bunches of children and we need everything from A to Z. The schools are unfinished.”
She also wants to build a medical clinic in the mountains. She says she’s lost many family members and friends over the years because they didn’t have medical care in the area.
“The need is humongous,” she says. “But we have property. A good Samaritan from Frankfort gave us a $10,000 donation.”
The medical clinic will cost $2 million to build.
“It’s a lot of money, but if we have 2 million people contribute it won’t be a problem,” Raymonde says. “I know if I can meet President Clinton, he will help me get to the Haitian government and get some help.
“I don’t know how to get to him, but one day I might.”
She says Frankfort and American people have been generous and Farmers Bank has helped her through loans.
“They always give me loan,” she says. “When I pay off loan, I take another loan. I depend on them.
“Right now I’m begging every church in town and every corporation if they can help me build clinic. My goal is not to take care of people in Haiti. It’s to help them so they can help themselves.”
Raymonde says she believes in faith, determination, hard work and integrity.
“If you have those goals, you will succeed one day,” she says. “I’m not afraid to fail. I’m just afraid to not try. The time will come when I have to slow down. When I establish the clinic, I will slow down.”
Raymonde plans to return to Haiti this summer to continue her charitable work for the children.
The address for the Haitian Needy Children Foundation is 306 W. Main St., Box HNCF, Frankfort, KY 40601. The office is on the third floor of the McClure Building next to the Frankfort Yoga Studio. The office phone number is (502) 352-2971.
“Frankfort Faces” is a series that highlights people from within the Frankfort and Franklin County community. Each feature follows one of the city’s most unique personalities and includes a story, photos and video, which can be found by clicking the TV icon attached to the story online at state-journal.com