Talking with Joe Domand about the loss of his 22-year-old son Jeff to a car accident was difficult — what parent doesn’t have such fears? Still, Joe and wife Rita, originally from Haiti, decided to turn their grief into a memorial of life for the people of their homeland by sponsoring a school in a rural area. The best turn: the school is located in the house where Joe and his 16 siblings grew up in. Talk about giving folk the “shirt off your own back…”
Here’s the story:
In memory of Jeff
A parents’ grief turns into helping hands for their Haiti homeland
By Brenda Rees
Having your child die tragically at a young age is a defining moment for a parent. Anger, sorrow and fear mix together into a personal sense of loss that is permanent, unyielding. The strength and determination to go on with life after such an emotionally painful devastation can evade some parents for weeks, months and even years; some may never find their way.
Joe and Rita Domond, parishioners at Our Lady of Assumption in Claremont, know those murky waters of grief all too well, but they eventually found a way to honor the memory of their eldest son Jeff, a graduate from Damien High School and a senior at Cal State Fullerton, who was killed at the age of 22 in a car accident.
“He died on Labor Day weekend in 2004,” says Joe about those difficult days. “It was so hard for us to cope with the loss, and after a while, we realized that the best way to handle this was to keep his name alive. We needed to find a way to make that happen.”
It took about a year for the Domonds to come up with the right platform to honor Jeff, turning their attention back to their native Haiti and the many forgotten children and citizens who reside in the rural areas of that Caribbean country.
Both Joe and Rita immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, and both kept strong ties with their native land. As one of 17 children, Joe grew up in Marbial, an area in southeastern Haiti known for its many rivers and farms. Growing up, he remembers the poverty of the area, but says he was fortunate to have received schooling with help from the local parish priest. “The priest gave me opportunities and got me into the right schools,” he says. “He helped to change my life.”
Now, the Domonds are changing lives again in Joe’s old community. Organizing the Jeff Cherubin Domond Foundation as a non-profit in 2005, the Domonds have established and funded a parish school which originally welcomed 15 students, but now counts its enrollment at 84. They didn’t look too far to find the school building – they transformed Joe’s old house, the place he was born and raised, into classrooms that have been similarly transforming children into students of the world.
Every year since its inception, the school has added a new grade so students will progress together all the way through graduation. The Foundation pays for not only the teachers’ salaries, but also covers the cost of uniforms, books, papers and other necessities. In addition, the Foundation has built new classrooms to accommodate the growing numbers of students.
Establishing a school was only the first goal of the Foundation, says Joe. The Foundation also educates adults on basic life skills and four times a year brings doctors, nurses and dentists into the area. This June, Joe will return again to his homeland, accompanied by medical team. “There are no doctors in the area, and the only healthcare is done by the nuns, but they aren’t RNs,” explains Joe. Children and adults line up at the local church for routine physicals, dental work and simple medical supplies.
“I remember this one woman was so excited [about receiving treatment] she jumped up and gave me a big hug,” says Hugh Menton, a fellow parishioner who joined the Domands back to Haiti a few years ago as an assistant dental hygienist. “People were very pleasant to me and that even though they didn’t have much, they weren’t living in squalor or desperation. But you could tell they were living a hard life out there in the middle of nowhere.”
Indeed, one major problem living on the outskirts of civilization is the lack of potable water. And with last year’s earthquake nearly destroying Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince and the subsequent outbreak of cholera, Joe realized that Marbial needed a better supply of clean water. (That earthquake struck far enough away from Marbial so the community didn’t experience any destruction – but, like most rural areas, these communities are seeing more family members moving away from the rubble of the cities and back to reclaim their lives in a simpler locale.)
Now, the Foundation has another goal of clean water and Joe is working to bring sand water filters into every possible place in the Marbial area. He works collaboratively with the parish to install and maintain the filters which cost about $100 each. “We are first bringing them to the school, churches and then we will go to the family levels,” he says. “Everyone needs clean drinking water.”
When Joe is not in Haiti – he usually goes four times a year – he is back in Claremont as the only employee of the non-profit organization. He’s long retired from his previous life in finances and real estate, but today he works probably harder at this than any other endeavor.
“The Foundation has grown so fast and it takes so much time to put all of this together, especially the medical trips,” he says. (Medical personnel pay their own transportation.) “Our original idea was we would just start a kindergarten, but we have moved so far ahead of that in such a short time.”
Many fellow parishioners at OLA, like Menton, met Joe and learned about the Foundation through the “Just Faith” program. “It’s all about the church’s social teachings, especially about poverty in the world,” says Menton who recalls Joe talking about his work in Haiti, but in a very low-key manner. “He was very humble about it,” he says. After the 30-week program, many of the “Just Faith” participants decided to help Joe’s Foundation through contributions, hands-on assistance and fundraising. That continues to this day.
Once a year, a fellow parishioner opens up her home and has a fundraiser with dinner, dancing and a raffle. Joe shows slides and talks about the work that’s being done in Haiti. The faces of the people, his people, and the children give him hope for the future – and helps soothe the pain that still lives in his heart with his son’s early death.
“Jeff was a people person and he loved little children,” says Joe. “He loved it when nieces and nephews would come over to our house. They loved him, too. I know he would be pleased that his name is helping these children so far away.”
“I know Jeff is still with us and that his name is still alive to us,” he continues.” But the work we do is not about him, but it’s about how helping others achieve a better life is bringing Christ alive in the world. We are all called to this work every day of our lives.”
To find out more about the Jeff Cherubin Domond Foundation, visit www.jeffcdomondfoundation.org.