VERO BEACH — When Adam Bolinger isn’t working as managing director at Northern Trust Bank and wife Suzanne isn’t juggling a myriad of tasks as office manager at Hale Construction in Vero Beach, the two have their sights set on the Republic of Haiti.
Both have been to the Caribbean nation, and each had a similar reaction: The abject poverty, the lack of infrastructure and government’s seemingly hands off approach to matters desperately needing attention, contrasts sharply with the overall vibe of people there.
“There is no road system, it’s rocky and the drive takes you far out in the countryside,” said Suzanne Bolinger. “There’s dirt and it’s kind of sad, and then there’s this little school that’s pink with children dressed in uniforms with red bows in their hair. They are smiling, eager and they have lunch boxes. They are learning.
“Out in the middle of nothing is this hope,” she added. “It’s the most amazing thing to see.”
That nothingness, that hope struck a chord with the couple during visits to Haiti with the Vero Beach-based non-profit Haiti Partners, a group the Bolingers have been involved with since its inception a few years ago.
Adam Bolinger is board chairman, and Suzanne Bolinger does marketing and event planning for the organization. Haiti Partners was founded by co-directors, Kent Annan and John Engle, both of whom live in Vero Beach.
It was granted 501(c)3 status in February 2010 and continues to grow. It grew out of Beyond Borders, a grassroots group that started in 1993 to help build movements toward liberation in Haiti.
The mission is to help Haitians change their country through education. churches, and organizations to transform communities.
For its schools, it offers innovative, quality education for over 1,000 students in seven schools. For its churches, it provides resources and training for thousands of Haitians and 25 scholarships for promising leaders. For various organizations, it trains hundreds of leaders in democratic decision-making.
Nearly 50 percent of school age children in Haiti don’t go to school. Ninety percent of schools must rely solely on enrollment fees to support their work.
However, 50 percent of Haitians live on less than a $1 a day and can’t afford to pay much and schools scrape by just to survive, according to the organization. Teachers regularly go unpaid, facilities are dreadfully inadequate, and students lack basic educational materials.
Still, what is so striking to the Bolingers is the Haitians' attitude toward their seemingly bleak circumstances.
“It’s a third-world country and their road systems are non-existent,” said Adam Bolinger. "It’s difficult to get around, the country is largely in a state of disrepair yet people take pride and no one there is feeling sorry for themselves. They have dignity.”
Ahead of visiting Haiti, his perception was that anyone who lived in such poverty would be sad and looking for a handout.
Not the case, he says.
“They are a grateful and a hard-working group of people. They don’t blame anybody or sit around saying, ‘Why me?’All they are looking for is a chance for their children to be educated and live a better life than they did.”
On a recent visit, Suzanne Bolinger was also stunned when she saw how joyful and kind the Haitians were despite the troubling conditions.
Their clothes are clean and pressed, and yet the streets are filthy.
“There is such a contrast of the physical aspect of the country with the people who live there.”
Haiti Partners helps Haitians find ways to pay for their children’s education, and offset the cost of the schools.
At one school, they are building a bakery next door to bake goods and sell them in the community. At two other schools, they plan to raise chickens and sell the eggs to raise money.
“Each school functions as its own profit center,” said Suzanne Bolinger. “Haiti Partners is kind of a consultant.”
Donations are critical for Haiti Partners to achieve its goals in Haiti.
On March 8, a food and wine pairing and auction to benefit Haiti Partners will take place at Northern Trust. Tickets are $100 and can be bought at the organization’s Miracle Mile office.
“My personal belief is that you are better off helping people help themselves rather than relying on government handouts,” said Adam Bolinger.
Reciting a quote that reflects the strategy of Haiti Partners, he said, “Don’t give a hungry man a fish. Teach him how to fish.”
With that approach, Haiti Partners supports training teachers how to more effectively run a classroom. Instead of writing information on a chalk board for students to memorize, the teachers have been shown how to inject critical thinking in the classroom and increase interaction and discussion on topics being covered in the curriculum.
Besides improving the education of primary school students, the organization also provides scholarships for several people whose ambition is to attend seminary.
“Faith plays a big part of it,” said Adam Bolinger. “Our faith is based on giving back and helping others who are less fortunate than us.”
Kent Annan, co-director of Haiti Partners, has worked with the Bolingers over the years. "Adam and Suzanne are two of the most hospitable, generous people I've ever known," he said. "They've been essential to launching Haiti Partners.
"They're loved by everyone on our team, both in the U.S. and in Haiti. I'm so grateful to get to do this work with them, as well as, really, just to be inspired personally by the faithful, serving, humble, good way that they lead their lives."
Adam Bolinger, 49, is from Illinois. Suzanne Bolinger, 51, is from New Hampshire. The two met at a Lutheran church in Stuart while working for separate banks.
In 1995, they moved to Vero Beach where they raised three children, now 21, 28 and 30.
When they aren’t working or volunteering in the community, the Bolingers enjoy traveling, especially in Europe, and sailing in the British Virgin Islands.
Suzanne Bolinger is office manager for Hale Construction, which builds high end custom residential homes.
She also teaches Sunday school at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Vero, and is the liaison between the Sunday school teachers and the church counsel.
Adam Bolinger manages a team of Northern Trust partners that provide wealth management solutions for clients.
He has been board chairman of Haiti Partners since 2009, and a member of the board for The Homeless Family Center since 2006.
“We feel compelled to do the little piece that we are able to do,” he said of community service. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh there’s no hope there so let’s not do anything.’ You have to have a goal and focus, and start small.”
To find out more about Haiti Partners, www.Haitipartners.org