A lesson in joy for the new year

by | Jan 6, 2013 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

What are you doing New Year’s Eve? It’s an invitation. A famous song. And last week, for me, it was actually an issue.

For the first time, I was not in the U.S. on Dec. 31. I had gone by myself to Haiti to be with the children of an orphanage our charity operates, because illness and vacation had depleted the staff.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a hardship assignment. The kids are delightful, a joy to be with. But New Year’s Eve in America sort of lays itself out. You’re either going to a restaurant (get there early), going to a club (stay there late), going to a party (get a designated driver) or staying home and saying, “I’ll watch the ball drop and go to bed.”

None of those was an option in Haiti. For the kids at the orphanage – particularly the nearly two dozen recent arrivals between ages 3 and 8 – there was no tradition. I found this out during breakfast, when I yelled out, “Good morning! Who knows what today is?”

“Monday!” they yelled back.

“OK. Yes. Monday. But what else?”

Blank stares.

“New Year’s Eve!” I gushed. “The last day of the year! And who knows what tomorrow is?”

“Tuesday!” they yelled.

So this was going to be a challenge.

Planning the perfect party

Now, planning New Year’s Eve for the 10-and-younger crowd requires originality. First, I had to tell what the holiday meant. I explained the calendar. I explained that “today will be 2012, but tomorrow will be 2013.”

Not sure that one got through.

Then I spoke about New York City, Times Square, the midnight tradition of watching the ball drop down a pole. “And do you know what happens when the ball reaches the bottom?” I asked.

“It explodes!” one boy yelled.

“No. People hug and sing.”

“And then it explodes?”

“No. It never explodes.”

“Oh.” He seemed disappointed.

Still, it gave me an idea. I asked one of the older kids whether there was someplace we could buy sparklers.

“Yes. A man up the street sells them.”

Great. You can’t get your water turned on in Haiti, but there’s a man up the street selling sparklers.

“How much will 25 cost?” I asked.

“Maybe $2.”

Done. And to make dinner special, we found a place that made pizza and chocolate cake. This constitutes a major indulgence at the orphanage, and once the kids found out, they were bouncing off their feet.

Singing, smiling, celebrating

Remember, most of these children had been living in tents since the 2010 earthquake. Their floors had been mud; their food, a cup of rice or beans. Coming from that, eating at a table outside with dozens of other kids – pizza and cake, no less – was a major celebration. The sun went down; the chairs were arranged; we picked up the food. Never mind that we had ordered 10 cheese pizzas, and when we opened them, not a single one was a cheese pizza. It’s Haiti. You take what you get.

Prayers were sung. The chocolate cake was cut and distributed, with the kids smearing frosting on their fingers. You could have pointed a camera anywhere and gotten a shot to make you melt.

Then, finally, we lined everyone up near a flower bed, where we’d placed the 25 sparklers, and told them to close their eyes. When their eyes opened, they had mini fireworks at knee level. When the last sparkler went out, it would be the new year. (OK. So it was only 8:15p.m. Time moves differently in the islands.)

I had an iPad and played “Auld Lang Syne,” and I began to sing it, and some of the kids, who adore singing, started to “la-la-la” the melody, until it sounded like: “Should auld, la-la-la, be forgot, la!”

The final sparkler extinguished, the kids jumped up and down, we all yelled, “Happy New Year!” and everyone hugged.

A few minutes later, the kids were in bed. And if you’ve ever seen a child fall asleep smiling, you know how it makes you feel. To see poor children do so is almost indescribable.

I spent the next few hours pretty much alone. The Haitian skies were lit by stars. Our whole celebration had cost what one ticket to a New Year’s Eve bash costs at home. But I’ll remember it a lot longer.

About the only downside, to one kid anyhow, is that nothing exploded.

There’s always next year.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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