Doctor continues to answer Haitians’ call for help

Dr. Tom Fame, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, leads a community meeting in Cabestor, Haiti, in 2014. He has made more than 50 trips to the country since 1995. (Photo/Hector Clervoi)

Salem parishioner’s outreach spans more than 25 years, includes 50 trips

 

For the people of Haiti, the “lambi,” or conch shell, is a symbol of hope and freedom whose call has brought them together for generations. Sometimes it echoes in the hearts of people far away, who are spiritually called to help.

One of those who heard that call is Tom Fame, a physician who has been helping the people of Central Haiti for more than 25 years.

A parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, Fame has written two books about his experiences in Haiti: “The Lambi’s Call: A Haitian Journey” (2008) and “The Lambi’s Call: Breaking the Chains” (2020).

In his books, Fame explains that the lambi was blown during the Haitian slave revolt by a freed man to announce his escape to freedom in the mountains. The lambi’s call, the sound of hope in the future, still brings Haitians together today.

Despite enduring a history of slavery, violent political regimes, oppression and extreme poverty – along with natural disasters and widespread disease – the people of Haiti often inspire others with their kindness, generosity and deep Catholic faith.

Life-changing improvements

Fame first visited Haiti in 1995 as part of a medical mission from Roanoke, never suspecting that the people he met would influence him so deeply and become such a big part of his life. He has traveled to Haiti more than 50 times and has led numerous groups to the remote areas of Lascahobas and mountainous Cabestor in the Petit Fond Valley of the Central Plateau. His wife, Leah, and daughters, Ryann, Rachel and Michelle, have accompanied him at various times.

In 1996, the Salem parish established a twinning relationship with the small rural parish of Sacre Coeur in Cabestor, part of St. Gabriel Parish in Lascahobas, and focused first on building a school there. Over time, everything grew.

Fame learned to speak Haitian Creole and went on to earn a master’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in order to better converse with and serve the Haitian people.

His commitment has resulted in life-changing improvements: three primary schools, a health clinic and birth center, a clean-water distribution system, job training and opportunities, and most of all, deep bonds of friendship and mutual respect.

The three schools, which offer an education for many families for the first time, are Sacre Coeur School in Cabestor, St. Joseph School in Roche-Milat, and St. Michael School in Mon Michel – all part of the Sacre Coeur Parish in the Petit Fond Valley. Fame also counts among his many Haitian friends the three pastors with whom he has worked in the Central Plateau: Fathers Polinice Daisma, Hermann Heriveaux and Rene Blot.

Learning to trust

Now, 25 years later, he reflects on his “Haitian journey” in his second book.

“The first book is a love story, and the second book is about teaching independence,” he said. “This book is written as an adventure story that doubles as a guide to community mission work in another culture.”

As a longtime allergy and immunology specialist, as well as a secular Franciscan, Fame knows the meaning of service.

“Having a Franciscan detachment from material goods helped me to trust that we would have what we needed to complete things – and we did,” Fame said. “Haitians live this way every day. They taught me to trust.”

He formed his own company, Trust Publisher, to produce the books. All proceeds from book sales are donated to The Haiti Project at his parish.

The late Bishop Walter F. Sullivan established Haiti as an official outreach ministry of the Diocese of Richmond in 1984. Since then, the ministry has grown to include twinning relationships, or partnerships, of diocesan parishes with Haitian entities. Today, more than 50 parishes in the diocese are twinned with parishes or organizations in Haiti.

“Tom has done so much for the people of Central Haiti and for the Haitian community in Roanoke,” said Adele DellaValle-Rauth, emeritus coordinator of the Haiti Twinning Ministry. She and her late husband, Bob, helped to establish the program; she also wrote the forewords to both of Fame’s books.

“Tom has chosen a twin that’s so hard to get to – he walks the mountains to get there,” she said. “You have to give yourself, and he’s done that. If you want to learn how to truly walk with a people, that book is a primer.”

“As Bishop Sullivan always said, we were simply to be partners with the people of Haiti, to have an equal relationship with them,” DellaValle-Rauth said.

Fame’s dedication has helped to raise awareness in the Roanoke Valley and beyond, DellaValle-Rauth said, “His work has helped open people’s eyes to another reality.”

Building relationships

Soon after Jean Denton and her family moved to the Roanoke Valley in 1998, she contacted Fame to support the Haiti Ministry. She had visited the country once before in her work as a Catholic journalist in Texas and was deeply moved by the experience and wanted to help. She joined Fame’s trip the next year.

“I had the same spiritual experience of meeting Jesus in the people of Haiti, people in great need and of great faith,” she said. Over the years, she returned with members of her family, including her husband, Tommy, and two of her children, Libby and Luke.

“The emphasis is on relationships, and has been from the beginning – with Bishop Sullivan, and Adele and Bob, and now Tom,” she said. “Change comes slowly, and it requires small steps at a time. Tom understood that when you minister to a country you look at both relationships and sustainability.”

The best way to get things built in Haiti is to provide resources for local people to build structures – such as schools – themselves, Denton noted. “Tom said, ‘They know how to build things in Haiti. They know how to make the cinder blocks and how to get the water from the river.’ He understood the terrain and the poverty, and also the great human power there.”

Providing financial support for local labor has enabled those builders to use their income to send their children to the very schools they created.

“They took enormous pride in what they had built with their partner in Salem, Virginia,” Denton said. “It’s about dignity.”

‘Faith in action’

Hector Clervoi, who moved to Roanoke from northern Haiti in 2004, met Fame soon after arriving and has since traveled back with him.

Going to the Central Plateau with Fame several times was a great experience, Clervoi said.

“It was my pleasure to go and help build a school there,” he explained. “A lot of people, and even the government in Haiti, they don’t always go all the way up in the mountains to see how the people live there. But Tom walks three hours to climb up there to make sure they have clean water, a school and a clinic.”

Clervoi added that Fame also knows well the Haitian community in Virginia and serves people in that way.

“Tom is always finding a way to help people from Haiti,” he said.

Father Ken Shuping, former pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, said it’s been exciting to see the work in Haiti grow.

“Tom has a gift for listening to the people of Haiti and finding what their concerns are,” he said. “And he has shown all of us how to care for our brothers and sisters all over the world.”

“Tom has really put his faith into action,” added Msgr. Tom Miller, former pastor of St. Andrew, Roanoke, calling Fame’s work “no small achievement.”

Continuing to answer the call

The lambi still calls Fame, as he works now to ensure sustainability. One development is that some of the students who attended the schools he helped build are now returning to serve their community in health care, education and businesses.

“Seeing the community grow has been inspiring,” he said.

Some of those he helped to train have become local experts in building, agriculture and education, and are working independently and teaching others.

There are still deep-rooted problems throughout Haiti that cannot easily be solved, Fame said, but these stories of independence and growth give him hope.

He explained that, as part of the universal Church, all Catholics can help impoverished countries like Haiti, even without visiting, simply by praying.

He quotes Brother Franklin Armand, founder of the Haitian order Little Brothers of the Incarnation: “Some foreigners wear themselves out working to free us from our poverty and hunger, so much so that they no longer have time for prayer. Now, as you know, it is precisely prayer and union with God which have kept us alive in the midst of all our poverty.”

Fame also writes that God can use everyone to help the world: “God chooses broken and flawed people like myself to carry out his work. In that way, He accomplishes two things – the poor are served, and the sinner is saved through conversion. Some people are just born with faith and a trust they possess without question. I had to go to Haiti. I had to learn that I could not proceed without relying on prayer and faith. Haiti teaches you to rely on faith.”

“This work has given me a bigger purpose,” he said. “It’s a calling.”

Editor’s note: For more information or to order books, email TLFame@comcast.net or visit haiti.olphsalem.org.

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