Finding Faith: Churches’ Haiti outreach changing lives, opening eyes

Anita Thorstad, a deacon at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, has led

the church’s joint efforts with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach to open

and operate a K-6 school in Bondeau, Haiti, which now serves 275 students.

Photo provided

By Tim Pallesen

    The South Florida Haiti Project began 10 years ago when a then-interior decorator from Boca Raton went on a mission trip. Anita Thorstad — stunned by the poverty and need for education — alerted the Episcopalians back home.

    Today, their school in Bondeau, Haiti, has 275 students.

    St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach together pay for the teachers and for the food to nourish the students.

    Children being on the brink of starvation is hard for most Americans to imagine. Thorstad found families living in one-room shacks with dirt floors and no running water.

    “I thought it would be great for St. Gregory’s to have an overseas outreach to connect spiritually and learn about poverty in third-world countries,” she said. “Your spirituality grows if you can relate to the very, very poor.”

    Thorstad quit her interior decorating job, became a deacon and inspired other Episcopalians to open their hearts, too.

    Members of St. Gregory’s responded first by purchasing a truck so a Haitian priest could travel to Bondeau.

    Thorstad saw 100 children squeezed into a one-room school there and asked how they could learn when they were sleeping. The teacher explained that the children had no energy because they hadn’t eaten.

    St. Gregory’s contributed $50,000 to build a K-6 school with eight classrooms in 2009.

    “We’re there to help the children rise above the poverty of their parents,” Thorstad explained. “They needed to have a decent school, and kids need nutrition or else they can’t study.”

    St. Paul ’s Episcopal Church responded the next year by pledging to provide a nutritious meal every day for the schoolchildren.

    Word about Thorstad’s mission to save the children spread and a donor built a guest house for mission trips. Students at St. Andrew’s School donated used shoes.

    Donors responded even more after an earthquake killed 100,000 and left 1.5 million homeless in Haiti four years ago.

    “After the earthquake, people wanted to give generously,” said the Rev. Andrew Sherman, the pastor at St. Gregory’s. “But we see ourselves as a continuing partner whether there is an earthquake or not.”

    So the miracles in Bondeau continue. An anonymous donor has given $100,000 to build a church plus another $100,000 to start a village of new homes.

    Thorstad built a home for herself that she quickly filled with 13 children whose parents couldn’t support them. 

    “Her work is truly a calling from God,” Sherman said. “It’s a beautiful and inspiring thing.” 


    The Rev. Ken Roughton is retiring after 20 years as senior pastor at First Methodist Church in Boca Raton.

    “The thought of leaving this community is terrifying,” Roughton said. “This is a wonderful church filled with wonderful people.”

    Two decades is an unusually long stay for a Methodist pastor. Roughton’s tenure began with First Methodist turning down a Mizner Park developer’s offer to buy the church property on Mizner Boulevard.

    “We decided that God placed us in the heart of the city for a reason,” Roughton said.

    The congregation built a $4 million fellowship hall in 2000 that generated a surge of new members. An architect then designed plans for a new $10 million sanctuary.

    But church members decided against the expenditure after their pastor led them in six weeks of prayer. That was right before the housing market collapsed and the nation went into recession. 

    “We really believe God was in that. We could have been crippled,” their pastor reflected.

    Roughton, who leaves in June, will deliver his 12th and final Easter sermon at the Mizner Park Amphitheatre at 9 a.m. on April 20. First Methodist has sponsored the community worship service since 2003.


    Also retiring after a long ministry is the Rev. Randall Gill, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Boynton Beach for 25 years.

    “It’s so unique to be a pastor for 25 years in the same congregation,” said the Rev. Sam Rutland, his longtime friend and colleague. “He was an example of a pastor who was faithful.”

    Gill was the leader of Boynton Beach ’s community Easter sunrise service on the beach during that time. He also has been active in the Boynton Beach Historical Society, co-authoring the book Images of America: Boynton Beach.

    He oversaw 150 pastors in 47 churches from Fort Pierce to Key West as moderator of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida this past year.


    The Chabad of East Boca plans to build a synagogue and Jewish history museum at 770 E. Palmetto Park Road.

    The 18,000-square-foot Boca Beach Jewish Center-Chabad will include 7,000 square feet for the museum, which will focus on Israel from an historical and spiritual perspective with interactive exhibits and a three-dimensional model of the Jewish nation.

    The orthodox congregation has been renting space on Northeast First Avenue for the past 12 years.

    A permanent synagogue in downtown Boca Raton is expected to attract observant Jews who prefer to live close to their synagogues so they can walk to services on the Sabbath.

    Rabbi Ruvi New and his congregants hope the museum will attract Jews and non-Jews from throughout the country.

Tim Pallesen writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Email him at

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