NEWTON — Small farms have given way to larger ones since Jim Fitzgerald started the predecessor of Soaring Eagle Dairy more than 50 years ago, but the tradition of neighbors helping neighbors hasn’t faded.
“If somebody in the community ends up with an injury or in the hospital, farmers still go and help out,” he said.
In that same spirit of neighborliness, Fitzgerald reaches out to needy residents — far beyond Wisconsin’s borders — in the impoverished countries of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
This is evidenced by a red, 40-foot-long shipping container on his farm that is filled with 37,000 pounds of goods headed for that area of the world this month.
With the help of his wife, Sandie, and other volunteers, he spent much of his spare time this past summer picking up donated and purchased items, sorting them, labeling boxes, loading the tractor-trailer shipping container and keeping accurate records for customs officials.
This is how Fitzgerald, a member of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Newton, transforms his faith into action. Appropriately, October is Extraordinary Missionary Month, designed to foster greater awareness and support of missionary activity. Sunday, Oct. 20, is set aside as World Mission Sunday.
Fitzgerald, 71, began joining missionary trips to the Dominican Republic and Haiti in 2011.
“That was a wake-up call for me,” he said of his first visit to Haiti, where many people were sick and dying following an earthquake, and as a result of outbreaks of cholera, malaria and other diseases. More than 200,000 people reportedly died in the earthquake and its aftermath.
“Some areas didn’t even have water,” Fitzgerald said. “These people live in mud huts with no furniture. They sleep on the dirt floor in unbelievably poor conditions. They have absolutely nothing. No doctor, no nurse, no dentist. Nothing. A lot of them eat one meal a day. They pretty much live on rice nine months out of the year.”
In March of this year, he took his 13th trip to the area and plans to return in December and February. The trips are organized by Fr. Bill Hoffman, pastor of St. Philip Parish in Green Bay.
Fitzgerald, who is semi-retired from the family farm, also is co-owner of Quality Roasting, a soybean processor with plants in Valders and Owen, and another plant being built in Michigan.
Fitzgerald realizes how lucky he is to have been born in this country. “We don’t have to worry about contaminated water or if we will have a meal today. We’ve really been blessed,” he said.
Because he feels so blessed, Fitzgerald channels his energy and resources helping to improve the lives of people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
“This is a way to live my faith. … I think of these people every day,” he said. “It’s a chance for me to give back. From the first year I went, it’s been a huge improvement. It’s really made a difference.”
During mission trips, Fitzgerald has helped build a school, a school addition, and open-air community centers, which are used for teaching adult literacy skills and holding community meetings, as well as medical and dental clinics.
The shipping container is filled with items to help furnish the school and community centers, including medical and dental equipment and supplies, hygiene products, 120 school desks, file cabinets, 20 office conference tables, tools, 150 stackable chairs, soccer balls and household items, to name a few.
Fitzgerald gives his wife credit for inspiring him. She was the one who began helping others while he was busy farming. “I could see how she felt blessed being able to do these things,” he said.
The shipping container project, which started in 2016, is sponsored by the Catholic Foundation of the Diocese of Green Bay. Items in the shipping container are being sent to Fr. Mike Seis, a diocesan priest serving in the Dominican Republic, and Sr. Maria Marciano in Haiti.
Anyone wishing to contribute to the project can contact Cindy St. Aubin, World Missions coordinator, [email protected] or (920) 272-8192.