The story of Operation Starfish® began in 1998 with a late evening stroll by a man and his dog. Father Dick Martin, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Burke, Virginia, and his pooch, “Pete,” were walking one night before Lent “chatting” about “what-ifs.” What if each family in the parish would forego one order of french fries? What if they would subtract one topping from their weekly pizza? How much money could they raise to help those who are less fortunate?
Fr. Martin couldn’t believe the numbers when he calculated them: 2,500 families saving just 50 cents a day for the 40 days of Lent could donate $50,000 to make a difference in the lives of the poor. What a significant result from such an insignificant sacrifice!
This simple program of sacrifice was far more successful than Fr. Martin predicted. The parish was enthusiastic when the idea was presented to them. That first year, Church of the Nativity raised over $67,000! They decided to use the funds to build 27 simple houses in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, working through the international Christian charity, Food For The Poor, Inc.
The name, “Operation Starfish®,” came in the second year. In February 1999, a dozen Nativity parishioners accompanied Fr. Martin on a mission trip to Haiti, sponsored by Food For The Poor. They wanted to see for themselves what had been done.
Bright smiles and beaming faces greeted the travelers as they reached the small enclave at Canapé-Vert, in the hills near Haiti’s capitol, Port-au-Prince. They had hiked from the end of the dirt road across the hillside to see the one-room wooden houses their parish had built, and to meet the families who were now living with real roofs over their heads and dry floors under their feet.
These families had barely survived the horror of Cité Soleil, a slum clutching 300,000 of the poorest of the world’s poor in its grasp. The Church of the Nativity members were overjoyed at what their compassion had accomplished for the new home owners, who welcomed the Americans with open arms and full hearts.
Despite the progress at Canapé Vert, the Church of the Nativity parishioners knew there was much more to be done. At a reflection meeting on the first night of that trip, the Virginians spoke of being overwhelmed with the scope of the problem. “How can we possibly make a difference?” one asked. Searching for an answer, Fr. Martin told his parishioners the story of the young boy and the starfish:
As a young boy walked the beach at dawn, he noticed an old man ahead of him picking up starfish and tossing them into the sea. Catching up with the man, the boy asked why he was doing this. The old man explained to the boy that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.“But the beach goes on for miles and there are millions of starfish,” exclaimed the boy. “How can your effort make any difference?” The old man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it safely into the waves. He turned to the boy and said, “It made a difference to that one.” (based on the writing of Loren Eiseley)
A parishioner spoke up after Fr. Martin finished the story. “Why don’t we call our work ‘Operation Starfish?’” he asked. Heartened by the Starfish story, and renewed by their mission trip, Church of the Nativity parishioners recommitted themselves to helping the poor, at home as well as in Haiti.
Each year, Church of the Nativity has taken on additional projects to ease the suffering in Haiti. By 2016, that first project at Canapé-Vert, with 27 houses, had grown into ten “Nativity Village” developments, with over 1,400 houses. Each of these “Nativity Villages,” located in different geographic areas of Haiti, starts with basic needs like shelter, sanitation and clean drinking water. Then education and health care are addressed with schools, clinics, and vocational training programs. Ultimately, each village includes a self-sustaining component such as sewing co-op’s, ocean fishing co-op’s, fish farming, agriculture or animal husbandry to generate a revenue stream.
In 2014, Fr. Richard Martin succumbed to complications of diabetes. His successor, Fr. Robert Cilinski, has continued the work of Operation Starfish at Church of the Nativity. Fr. Cilinski led a parish mission trip to Haiti in October, 2015 to dedicate Good Shepherd Village in memory of Fr. Martin. In 2016, Nativity’s first group of college and young adults had their own mission trip to Haiti, where they decided on the location of the next Nativity Village.
OPERATION STARFISH PROJECTS
• CANAPE VERT HOUSING, 27 homes, sanitation, drinking water, soccer field – dedicated 1999
• MOBILE MEDICAL VAN, clinic on wheels for the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, providing health care to remote areas – dedicated 2000
• LITTLE CHILDREN OF JESUS HOME, rebuilt an orphanage for handicapped children after a fire – dedicated 2001
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT MERGER, near Port-au-Prince, with 250 homes, sanitation blocks, water wells, primary school with scholarship program, community center, vocational training, clinic access, and chicken farm – dedicated 2004
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT PROLONGE, near Cap-Haitien, with 400 homes, individual latrines, central water distribution system, primary school with scholarship program, community center, vocational training, and sewing co-op – dedicated 2006
• NATIVITY FISHING VILLAGE AT PETIT-ANSE, near Cap-Haitien, was the first fishing village project in Haiti (there are now 30), with 12 families operating four deep-sea fishing boats, with housing, sanitation, water wells and solar street lighting. In addition, Nativity funded the “John B,” a larger boat used to map fishing grounds and train fishermen. – dedicated 2006
• NATIVITY TILAPIA AND AGRICULTURE CENTER, near Cap-Haitien, with five tilapia ponds, wells and pumps, fruit tree nursery and chicken and duck production – dedicated 2006
• ST. ANTHONY HEALTH CENTER, located within Nativity Village at Prolongé, this facility provides health education, first aid, immunizations and ongoing treatment of illness, including cholera, for a population of 10,000 – dedicated 2008
• NATIVITY FISHING VILLAGE AT MADRAS, near Cap-Haitien, with 12 families operating another four deep-sea fishing boats, with housing, sanitation, water wells and solar street lighting – dedicated 2008
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT EL CORTÉ, in a remote mountain region near the Dominican Republic border, with 50 homes, individual latrines, water wells and pipe distribution system, community center, chicken farm, goats, cows and fruit tree nursery – dedicated 2008
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT LOZANDIER, near Jacmel on Haiti’s south coast, this project includes 52 homes, sanitation, water wells, fishing village and animal husbandry – completed 2009
• HAITI HURRICANE RELIEF, following four major hurricanes in Haiti in 2008, Nativity parishioners raised over $100,000 in one weekend for emergency relief funding for Food For The Poor.
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT DEMIER, in a rural area along the Atlantic coast, between Cap-Haitien and Fort Liberté, this new project includes 100 homes, water wells, the first indoor toilets in a Nativity Village project, and a large lake for aquaculture – completed 2009
• NATIVITY GREEN TREE PROJECT, funded by the Matthew 25 Foundation, planted 5,000 fruit trees and installed two water wells in Cap-Haitien in 2008
• NATIVITY AGRICULTURAL FARM, a 100-acre, pump-irrigated vegetable farm that is producing commercially marketed crops and providing employment for the local population east of Cap-Haitien, near Caracol – completed 2010
• HAITI EARTHQUAKE RELIEF, after a major earthquake in Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, Nativity raised $300,000, filled two sea containers with relief supplies, worked with other churches to pack 144,000 meals, and supported a medical mission to Haiti – completed 2010
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT CHASTENOYE, in 2010 began a major relocation effort to move hundreds of families out of the tidal canal area in downtown Cap-Haitien. Nativity built 50 homes with sanitation and a community water chlorination system; other organizations, including the Florida Marlins baseball team, and a group of churches in Rockford, Illinois, built more houses in Chastenoye.
• HAITI CHOLERA RELIEF, In 2010 a sea container of medical supplies from Nativity was shipped to Haiti; One container of oral rehydration salts was sent from a manufacturer in Kansas City; in February, 2010, a second sea container from Nativity and a second container of rehydration salts shipped from Kansas City.
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT MAZERE, this seventh “Nativity Village” moved another 100 families from the Shada Slum in Cap-Haitien into decent shelter. Construction was completed in 2012 and included housing, sanitation, water chlorination systems, community center, school scholarships and an agricultural farm.
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT MADRAS, with 47 homes added to the original 12, has an agricultural component and a large sewing vocational training center to prepare residents for work in the Caracol Industrial Park with its garment manufacturing facilities. Clean water, sanitation, and other services were also provided, along with a six-room primary school. The village was dedicated in 2013
• NATIVITY FISH 4 HOPE VILLAGE, was dedicated in 2014. Four tilapia ponds and 15 homes were built by Fish4Hope Foundation; 40 additional homes were built by others.
• NATIVITY GREENHOUSE AT PEDRO SANTANA, a 10,000 sq. ft. structure with irrigation that produces approximately 9,600 pounds of vegetables in four crops each year. A portion of the profits are used to replicate greenhouses in additional locations. This is our first Operation Starfish project in the Dominican Republic and was dedicated in 2013. A second greenhouse was built in 2014.
• GOOD SHEPHERD VILLAGE (IN MEMORY OF FR. RICHARD MARTIN), was completed in 2016, with 120 homes, a new primary school serving 900 children, and community social development programs. The project also includes a 150-stall regional market, community center, drinking water distribution system, pre-school program, health clinic and agricultural assistance program.
• NATIVITY VILLAGE AT DESPUZEAU, is being started in 2017 and will include 80 homes, community center, primary school, vocational training school and animal husbandry business co-op.