Ann Brau and Joyce Getchell have "big shoes to fill" with the relief work begun by their late uncle, the Rev. Bernard Reiser.
For Reiser, already in his 70s when he first visited the impoverished country in 1996, it probably would have been hard to navigate the uneven dirt roads. But seeing the same living conditions that he did, “I could see why his heart was so broken,” she said.
Reiser died in December 2011. Several months later, Brau, an Eden Prairie resident, stepped in as president of Reiser Relief, a Coon Rapids nonprofit organization that Reiser founded to provide for basic needs in Haiti.
This was unfamiliar territory for Brau. But like her uncle, after going to Haiti, “I knew I wanted to continue to go to bat there,” she said.
At the same time, her sister, Joyce Getchell, and their cousin, Bernie Maciej, also joined the board. Since then, Brau and Getchell have both returned to Haiti, where Reiser’s impact is evident.
“Joyce and I get this undeserved recognition for being related to him,” Brau said. “We have big shoes to fill.”
Reiser was instrumental in setting up an orphanage, a shelter for abandoned women and a couple of schools. Through the organization, he delivered food to children on the streets and the “forgotten elderly,” plus fresh water to people living in the slums of Cite Soleil, she said.
The organization also provided aid after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the country Jan. 12, 2010.
‘Still going strong’
At first, Brau wondered whether they’d be able to sustain the organization without her uncle. However, having hit the one-year mark, “We’re still going strong. I’m confident we can keep it going and successful,” Brau said.
To help fulfill his vision, she and other volunteers are gearing up for the organization’s seventh annual fundraiser, “Keep the Wheel Turning,” which will be held April 24 at 6:30 p.m. at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley.
The event will feature a live auction, music from Sherwin Linton, a marketplace of handmade Haitian goods, refreshments and a chance to win a trip to the island nation.
One focus of the event is to raise money for Reiser Heights, a school located in a remote area of the mountains outside the city of Lespinasse. It badly needs a new roof, she said, and some students attend classes in a shoddy outbuilding.
Another priority is an elder-care facility that Reiser Relief plans to build. Brau said this type of facility is sorely needed in Haiti, where the elderly are “left to live in dark huts with filthy mattresses, bugs, and no one to take care of them, no place to go to the bathroom,” she said.
Though the needs are great, Brau said she is encouraged by how “the people there are so incredibly spiritual. It’s hard to imagine amongst the poverty. I was so touched by that. They have so little, and they turn to God for everything.”
Reiser was a big dreamer, she said. The Church of the Epiphany in Coon Rapids, which he started in 1964, turned into one of the largest Catholic communities in the state, according to Reiser Relief information.
Reiser was a beloved, larger-than-life figure, with a big handshake, colorful sermons and an “incredible lead foot” on the gas pedal — something the police department was all too familiar with, Brau said. That heavy foot was because he was always running late or leaving early to attend to some sort of urgent matter, she said.
Letters, cards and donations continue to arrive in his behalf from all over the country, she said.
Brau recalled a story about a family’s house burning down on Christmas. Reiser was the first one on the scene, and by that afternoon, he was able to get the family into a house, with clothing and shoes and a visit from Santa.
Getchell, who lives in Forest Lake, serves as the board secretary for Reiser Relief.
Over the past year, she has learned all kinds of new skills related to everything from video production to website design. In some ways, she’s getting to use degrees in communications and business. “It’s been rewarding for me personally, to bring out some of those things that had been dormant in my life,” she said.
These days, “I’m keenly interested in all things Haiti,” she said.
She says she’s struck by the fact that many of the people, the poorest of the poor, are “so joyful. It brought to light for me what’s important in life. Stuff doesn’t equal joy. It’s relationships and culture and faith.”
Coon Rapids resident Doris Schulte, a board member and chairman of the fundraiser who was a close friend of Reiser, agreed.
When Reiser’s Haiti ministry got started, “I knew this was what God wanted me to do. I needed to promote it and keep his legacy alive,” she said. “He was an amazing man. I miss him. But I truly believe that he impacts my life even today.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.