By Kristin Casey
I recently traveled to Haiti to help with orphaned and abandoned children. I am still trying to assess what to do with this powerful experience, but feel that sharing the story is a first step in that process.
Many people have asked me how this trip came about. In fact, it happened with little effort on my part — almost spontaneously. I had decided some time ago that, upon retirement, I would like to devote time each year to volunteering in support of orphaned children.
This summer, I mentioned this to a friend, and through him, I met Elisabeth Kennedy. One call to Elisabeth and I was on the next seven-day trip to Haiti, along with seven others, to help with 50 Haitian orphans, half of whom lost one or both parents in the 2010 earthquake.
Elisabeth Kennedy is a paralegal for a law firm in New Haven, Conn. Years ago, she started volunteering on medical missions to Haiti, but soon realized that there also was a great need for additional homes for Haiti’s orphaned and abandoned children.
She, along with local help from Haitian minister Pastor Jean Phares Beaucejour, and using her own funds, began by organizing and renting a house for 18 orphans, later purchased a nearby plot of land, built a small school, and then built two additional homes after the earthquake to house 32 more children. She also started the not-for-profit charity HELOHAITI.org (Home, Education, Love, and Occupation) through which donations may be received to support the children. Elisabeth is lovingly known to the children as Mami Elisabeth and travels to Haiti several times each year to oversee the operations. She epitomizes the adage about the difference one person can make.
Our purpose was four-fold.
A primary objective was to deliver supplies. There are 50 orphans among the three homes Elisabeth oversees. Since the mail is unreliable in Haiti, we filled 10 duffle bags weighing 50 pounds each with clothing and supplies for the children, as well as supplies for newborn infants at the local hospital. Ninety percent of these supplies were donated.
A second objective was to teach the older children a skill that would help them support themselves upon leaving the orphanage.
Another objective was to provide relief to the house parents while we spent time doing activities with the children.
And, finally, perhaps most meaningful for me, was to give the children the individual attention they craved, to play and laugh with them, to read to them, to hold them, and to love them.
We took books from our grandchildren and read to them; we took coloring books and colored with them; we took T-shirts and decorated with them; we took a long rope and jump-roped with them; we took note cards and helped them write and send pictures to American pen pals; we made necklaces, planted seedlings, sang, took them to the beach — and we got to know each and every one.
The orphanages are 20 miles outside of aux Cayes, in a very rural countryside. Each house has between 13 and 19 children, two married house parents who reside with them, and a handful of housekeepers who cook, do laundry, and clean. The ages of the children range from 1 to 16 years old.
The children sleep in bunk beds, with a room for girls and a room for boys, and, since there are no closets, they hang their clothes from a line above their beds.
The houses are made of cinderblock and concrete with metal roofs. Each house has a courtyard room for cooking and washing.
Each house has a bathroom, with water piped in from a nearby water pump or a cistern. The only water they can drink has to be purified through a filter in a bucket, which each house has to operate manually.
Elisabeth had a well dug, but it ran dry last year.
The children’s clothing is generally provided by Elisabeth, as there are limited funds or places to purchase them.
In our duffle bags, for each boy we brought a pair of sneakers, three pairs of underwear and socks, a T-shirt, shorts, a pair of swim trunks, and a matchbox car; for each girl, a pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear and socks, a dress, a swim suit, and a doll or small purse.
We also brought all kinds of toiletries, sundries, and first-aid supplies.
Children in Haiti wear uniforms to school, so Elisabeth hired a local man to make uniforms for all the children, which they wear every day and change out of when school is over.
Haitians also wear dress clothes to church, so Elisabeth brought dresses for the girls (many handmade by volunteers), and slacks, shoes, and dress shirts for the boys.
It was important to Elisabeth that the children receive education from the start, so she hired teachers to teach at the orphanages.
The children initially used chalk tablets. Last year, a team of volunteers came for a week, and built an open-air “school” attached to the homes. Now, all children, plus some neighborhood children, attend every day, including the preschoolers.
All children learn Haitian Creole, French, and English, in addition to other basic subjects.
In our duffle bags, we carried a backpack for each child that was filled with paper, pencils, workbooks, and other school supplies.
Elisabeth recently received a grant from Orphaned Starfish for 10 laptop computers to start a computer room. We each brought a laptop in our carry-on luggage and, while we were there, divided the preschool classroom in two to set up a computer lab.
The government’s role in education is minimal, although it does require the children to pass a test after middle school and 12th grades. The general expectation is that churches and other non-government groups will provide education for most children.
The school also serves as the church.
On Sundays, the children dress in their Sunday clothes, also provided by Elisabeth, and spend several hours in the morning at church. There is considerable singing with a few simple instruments played by the children.
The kids know all the songs; they clap and sing along — an uplifting, joyful time for them.
Each child has a story, but all have come to HELO due to tragic circumstances.
Most have been brought to Pastor Jean’s attention by someone in the community, brought to his church, or found on the streets. Half of the children lost one or both parents in the earthquake. Three teens had been indentured servants, known as “restaveks,” since childhood.
One child lost her mother in childbirth. Another’s grandmother couldn’t take care of her when her mother died in the earthquake, so she brought her to the orphanage and visits her every day.
The two most recent to arrive were brought to Pastor Jean in desperation because their father had died in the earthquake and their mother could no longer feed them.
An infant was found under a pew in a church.
There is a long waiting list, and Elisabeth is trying to raise funds to build another home and clinic on the property.
Elisabeth has hired a nurse to come to the orphanage twice a month to give the children routine care. Full physicals are given generally twice a year. She also has set aside funds held by Pastor Jean for medical emergencies, although those funds are often tapped when other emergencies arise, such as a damaged roof, leaking cistern, dry well, new children to support, etc.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the trip for me was the lack of medical care for the poor.
On our first visit to the orphanages, we met Abraham, a young boy of 5 or so. Pastor Jean had found him lying in the street. He had severe malnutrition and an untreated case of measles, and was not expected to live.
Abraham spent two weeks in the hospital, which Elisabeth paid for personally. If he had not been brought to the attention of HELO, Abraham would have died because he had no one to pay for his care. Through care and feeding at the orphanage, he grew stronger, but it became obvious that he had suffered some brain damage.
Abraham speaks very little, his eyes wander, and we noticed that he staggered a little when standing. Elisabeth was concerned with his rapid decline since her last visit, so she pushed for him to be seen by a doctor right away.
Earlier in the day, we noticed 8-year-old Berlin putting his head down periodically, as if he were trying to catch his breath. We felt he, too, should be checked by a doctor.
However, it costs $50 up front before a doctor will see a patient and, if it turned out that blood tests, x-rays, or medications were needed, this, too, has to be paid in advance. So we pooled our pocket money so both boys could be seen and treated. Elisabeth had a small sum of discretionary funds that she brings on every trip, but we were concerned that the costs of treating the boys would exceed this.
As it turned out, Abraham did not have an infection, but the doctor felt, in addition to brain damage causing seizures, he may have developed a tumor. Her comment was that the only way to know was to go to Port-au-Prince for an MRI, which would be very expensive; and then, if it did show a tumor, an operation and aftercare would also be tremendously expensive (if a neurosurgeon could even be found).
The doctor asked, therefore, was it even practical to send him? Her recommendation, instead, was to simply give him some medication and care for him as best we could for as long as he was with us. A very hard reality to hear given how differently things would have been handled here.
So Abraham returned to the orphanage and received the new medication. When Elisabeth walked into the house later to check on him, he lifted his arms to be picked up, pointed to the door and said, “N’ale” meaning, “Let’s go!” Happily, the medication had worked and Abraham had returned to the smiling child she was used to.
For Berlin, he had no infection, but needed a chest x-ray, which we paid for. It turned out he had asthma, and, as soon as he received an inhaler, he was like a new child, filled with vim and vigor the rest of our trip. At 8, he had spent most of his young life suffering from a condition that could have easily been treated. How sad.
We brought with us 50 newborn baby kits. Hospitals in Haiti are pay-as-you-go. You have to pay $50 to get in the door to see a doctor, then pay for any supplies that are needed before service is provided.
If you need an IV, you have to go out and find the money before you get it. If you need medication, you must find the money first. If you need tests, bandages, surgery — it’s all the same.
Nothing is provided for newborn babies. We brought 50 bags, each with three newborn diapers, three onesies, some ointment, and some powder for newborns, and a small stuffed animal for each older child.
The Abandoned Child Ward is where sick or disabled children are placed if no one claims them. Elisabeth always hopes that she doesn’t recognize anyone from her last trip, knowing this means all have since found homes.
This time, she recognized one girl. She is perhaps 6 years old with several physical disabilities. She will stay in that large, cold hospital room until someone is able to help.
Elisabeth’s orphanages are full, with long waiting lists, but she has tried in the past to find homes for these children. It was very hard for her to leave this child behind — again.
How to help
Many have questioned me about going to Haiti when so much aid has been sent, yet so little is being done.
They ask, “Why aren’t the Haitian people doing more about their situation?”
There is a common misunderstanding, unfortunately, that the billions of dollars of post-earthquake relief are in Haitian government hands. The reality, however, is that 90 percent of the funds either never made it to Haitian-led organizations or were pledged but never received.
Further, the government structure is not effective in areas such as provision of energy, a clean-water supply, and local sewage systems. It provides little public education, limited medical care, and few social programs for the poor.
Survival and care of one’s family consumes much of the population. It is hard to imagine people in these conditions banding together to cause the political upheaval necessary to make the dramatic change that is needed, when each day is a struggle to survive.
It is overwhelming to think of what the Haitians must do to help themselves out of this nightmare.
But it is not the children’s fault. And, if one person can make life a little better for one child, perhaps that’s all we can do. And maybe these individual efforts together will have a long-term impact, and one day — maybe a generation from now — life will improve for all the children of Haiti. That is the hope. One child at a time.
So how best can one person help? Perhaps I can continue to tell the story and answer questions of those who have an interest, help Elisabeth with administrative tasks, organize volunteers for the next trip, find sponsors, collect donations for the children, have school children become pen pals, or reach out to the many organizations in the Capital District also helping in Haiti.
I don’t know. But it’s hard not to do something.
Editor’s note: Kristin Casey lives in Altamont.