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Working with Haiti’s orphans: Smiles make it worthwhile

Mitch Albom is nationally known sportswriter; columnist for the Detroit Free Press; author of Tuesdays With Morrie, The Five People you Meet in Heaven and other best-selling books; TV and radio personality; and philanthropist. For the past five years, he has been working to help children orphaned after a devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. He writes about that effort here.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The woman in the chair had a small child sleeping in her lap. She had come to give him away.

“Who is the father?” I asked, through a translator.

“There is no father,” she said.

“Aren’t you the mother?”

“No.”

“Whose child is this?”

“I found him abandoned under a tree behind a hospital. He was maybe 2 months old, and his belly was big. He was crying. So I took him to the police.”

“What did they tell you?”

“They said, ‘Why did you pick him up? You should have left him there.’ So I took him home. And now I am here.”

This, sadly, is just another conversation in an orphanage in Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the western hemisphere. Jan. 12, will mark the five-year anniversary of a devastating earthquake that killed about a million people and left a 10th of the population homeless. The rubble is finally cleared. The airport is improved. So in some ways, things have started to get better.

In too many ways, they have not.

Haiti, to an outsider, is a heartbreaking mess, and the first thing you understand is that you won’t understand much. Political corruption, a broken economy, hunger, illiteracy, and a constant lack of housing, safe water or electricity are just some recurring problems that make daily life a struggle.

Yet, since 2010, I have been coming here every month, three or four days per visit, to operate and oversee an orphanage/mission in a poor, dusty section of this capital city — from hiring staff to dealing with broken toilets to making heart-wrenching decisions on which new children are admitted and which are not. It may seem unlikely that a white man in his 50s who is not from Haiti, never spoke Creole, and makes a living writing books, would be knee deep in potty runs and dinner bells for nearly 40 Haitian kids.

But many of you, I’m sure, would do the same.

Because despite the abject poverty, lack of education, limited health care and oppressive heat, the only thing that sparkles more than the blue water around this island nation are the smiles of its children.

***

I first arrived here just weeks after the 2010 earthquake. It looked like Armageddon. Bloodied people walking the street. Makeshift hospitals. The stench of death wafting from beneath collapsed shops and houses. I had come with a group to aid a small mission started by a Detroit pastor in the late 1980s. There was fear the place had been destroyed. Instead, we discovered nearly 200 outsiders sleeping on its grounds, using holes in the dirt for toilets, surviving on a few cups of rice and beans each day.

Even then, the children made you melt. You’d be standing still, gazing at the destruction, and suddenly feel a small hand in yours, and a smiling child would lead you off to play.

So, along with several colleagues, I vowed to help the place. We returned to our native Detroit and recruited plumbers, electricians, roofers and contractors for one trip, then many more. Calling ourselves the Detroit Muscle Crew, we helped build the mission’s first real bathrooms, showers, full kitchen, dining room and eventually, a three-room schoolhouse, which is now its gem, because education is the most precious lifeline for Haiti’s poor. A charity I run, A Hole In the Roof Foundation, raised – and continues to raise – all the money for these efforts. Nine months after the earthquake, it took over daily operations. The name was modified to the Have Faith Haiti Mission, and we began the process of taking in new children. The earthquake, by most estimates, created tens of thousands of orphans – in addition to the nearly 400,000 kids previously living in orphanages or group homes – and many of these new ones landed in hastily assembled tent cities, meant to deal with the immediate refugee crisis.

Even five years later, more than 100 of those tent cities still exist, housing around 100,000 Haitians, in a country of 10 million people. The “tents,” made of tin and tarp, are without light or electricity. In one such place near our operation, the “bathrooms” are a few dozen ramshackle port-a-johns, surrounded by discarded plastic bags. The citizens use the bags as toilet paper.

To this day, we take in children from these camps, five new kids each summer, who will live, play and learn with us until they are 18 and, hopefully, graduate our program with the equivalent of U.S. high school education, ready for college here or in America. When they arrive at our doorstep, they are often malnourished, suffering skin rashes, uneducated, abused. We almost can’t take them in fast enough. It is heartbreaking to see what these pre-schoolers have already endured. That baby abandoned under a tree – whom the woman named Appoloste Knox – later suffered a fall when he was 18 months old that left him brain damaged and limping with stroke-like symptoms.

We took him, having little to offer beyond food, shelter and love.

But in Haiti, those are treasures.

****

Here, in a country where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, children in orphanages do not have computers, TVs or iPhones. In a certain way, that leaves them free to be children. The kids here race to the school door each morning. They adore reading, storytelling and playing on the swingset. They dance and sing freely. We employ Haitian nannies, teachers, cooks and directors, have a daily school curriculum (taught in English and French) voluntarily created by an expert educator, and import Americans willing to live for a year or more on site.

The common denominator is a love of children. So in the end, despite paperwork issues, running low on water or having our electricity stolen by neighbors climbing poles, our memories are overwhelmingly positive — because of the kids:

Like 9-year-old Djulene, brought to us by a man who didn’t even know her name. Her parents had been crushed in their house by the earthquake, and she bounced from place to place until finally being brought to us. Today she speaks English and laughs when we call her “Djulene Content” or “Happy Djulene.”

Like 10-year-old Nahoum, who on one of my visits, asked if he could go back to America with me. “When you finish high school and are ready for college,” I said. The next night, I found him under the covers with a flashlight, reading page 2 of the Bible. When I asked what he was doing, he said, “finishing high school.”

Like Kiki, who arrived with his younger brother, so poor you could see, through the holes in their pants, that they had no underwear. Kiki, now 12, leads the kids in devotion every night, scream-singing hymns and pounding the bongo drums.

And like Appoloste Knox, abandoned in the woods, hurt and brain damaged before his second birthday. He is 3 now. We take him to therapy twice a week. He is speaking English, smiling constantly and beginning to run like a normal kid.

Five years after the earthquake, Haiti still needs everything. Its government is in another crisis. Poverty and illiteracy remain rampant. I have always believed that outsiders can’t fix this country. But they can fix a tiny part of it. Our part is a concrete rectangle of buildings and a swingset, less than a half-acre in size but crammed with Haiti’s greatest resource: its children, and the hope they inspire.

For more information, visit havefaithhaiti.org.

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