When our friends Stan and Danae asked us to join them and a group of real estate developers in Haiti, we knew that it was going to be an eye-opening experience. Ron and I have traveled a bit, but we have yet to visit a third world country for missionary purposes. I’m not sure that we completely prepared ourselves for what we would see once we landed in Port Au Prince.
The traffic was horrible, the driving was even worse, the heat was intense and the staring from the locals was a questionable motivation of either interest or disdain. I didn’t know if I should keep eye contact or look away and my LA Dodgers hat wasn’t helping anyone.
Our group was diverse, but all real estate based in the US – from Ohio, Arizona, Utah, Charlotte and Greenville. They had met through a conference, and then added us through mutual friends. Scott (a flipper from Utah) has led the charge on our purpose in Haiti – an orphanage that he created two years ago called Children First.
They prepared us for what to expect once we walked out of the airport. The gist was put your backpacks on the front of you, don’t let anyone help you with luggage, and stay in a line. We made it to our van to load up our luggage, and the thirteen of us piled in to head to the hardware store for supplies.
We waited at the hardware store for about an hour as some of our guys went in to pick through sub-par wood, nails and attempt to find a paint that was a fun color for the children. Or just a color at all. The guys said that the best wood in there is what we would usually put back at Home Depot or Lowe’s here in the U.S.
Our goal this trip was to build new bunk beds for the children and shelves in the storage areas, as well as paint the chicken coop and exterior doors that were added last time. This was the third trip our group had made, and the first time for us.
When Scott visited Haiti in the past, he was with other groups, and then birthed the idea of creating an orphanage. Two years later, Children First has twelve kids ages 3-13 all with different backgrounds and stories. The site in Haiti has three rooms, a storage area, a kitchen, and a new chicken coop as well as a security wall (which thankfully the group built last time because I could barely make it up the hill that they carried concrete bags up to make it).
We worked every day from 9am until about 1pm when the children got back from school and the work was intermixed with playing with kites, giving them snacks, and just holding on to them for a little while. It’s hard to not put down a paint brush when a three year old runs up to you and holds up her arms to get closer. I was nervous the first time the kids came running up the drive to the orphanage. We were new, and the other developers had been here in the past. I thought that it would take a few days for the kids to feel comfortable around us. But I was incredibly wrong. They hugged the other women and then ran full force at me next. They were so full of life and personality right from the beginning.
The first day I held the youngest child for about an hour. I had only just met her minutes before, and she ran up to me to hold her. I sat down in a chair as she sucked on her thumb, and quickly fell asleep. I hummed a French nursery rhyme as she rested, not quite remembering the lyrics that my mother taught me when I was younger. About thirty minutes in, my legs got extremely warm. I quickly realized that I had been peed on. It was extremely uncomfortable, but at least I knew she was calm enough with me holding her to relax completely. Our foreman Jason really got the brunt of it a few days later when he was holding her. He told me it was a right of passage. You didn’t really do anything until you’re covered in urine.
During our time, we went to the market to get food for a few families in nearby villages. Same as the airport, we were told to put our backpacks on the front of us, walk in a line, women in the middle, as we charged through attempting to gather what we came for. In a small cinder block storage shed behind a maze of vendors, we purchased flour, sugar, rice and beans and separated it for the different families. Our friend Stan got chased and slightly bitten by a dog which created all of the excitement and terror we could handle for the day before loading back up to head to the village.
The small group of homes were off of a road, in a mix of cacti used for privacy fencing. The first home housed eight, including a small boy that was running around without pants. We had also brought toys, and thankfully clothing and a pair of shorts that fit him. The other home was where one of our translators lived – Gabe. Gabe helps tutor the children in the orphanage and wants to come to America for college. He lives in a home the size of an American bedroom with eleven others. There were three beds, a sheet for the front door, a jagged piece of mirrored glass on one wall, and ‘Gabe’ inside of a heart near the entrance. Eleven people. Three beds. No more than 120 square feet. And that is what they call home every day.
We also saw the home of Simon – another translator and volunteer at the orphanage. Simon is twenty one, and finishing up school. We talked with him for a bit, learning his back story. His father is a VooDoo priest, and he left home when he was sixteen. He told us he was baptized at nineteen, and now attends church with Gabe. He too wants to attend college in America, but unlike Gabe doesn’t have a passport yet. He wants to be a business man like all of the investors and developers in our group. With the promise of us helping him when he wants to come, we gave him the money he needed to apply for his passport.
These kids were so happy to see us each day, and it was so interesting to see what they attached to or what caught their attention the most – interesting, as well as heart breaking. We didn’t have food for lunch while we were working, so we brought over various snacks and protein bars from the U.S. to keep in our backpacks. Ron and I ate squeeze apple sauces one day and then threw them in the trash. A few hours later when the kids got back from school, two of the boys were passing around the same brand of apple sauce. I asked Ron if someone else had also brought them along. But looking closer, they were even the same two different flavors we had brought that day. The kids had seen the packets at the top of the trash, filled them with water, and were passing them around to get the last of the apple sauce. It broke my heart. If I knew that’s what they wanted, and not the fruit snacks we had shared with them, I would have brought twenty of those apple sauces. I wanted to give them boxes of apple sauce. In that moment, I wanted to be the Oprah of apple sauce.
There was one child who seemed to be a little more reserved than the others – one of the boys. He has burn marks on his arm and side, and a stutter when he tries to speak. On our last day, we took the kids to a resort to eat and swim at the beach. We knew that everyone else had already been on a trip to the orphanage, so Ron sat back and let them buddy up with their child before he got up. And the child that was left was the one I had watched all week. When you hug him, he doesn’t hug back. When you ask him to smile, it’s like he doesn’t know how. When we got to the resort, I was walking him and one of the girls to the ocean and when he got to the stairs, he let go of my hand. A man spoke to him in Creole, and I assume he told him to keep walking with me. When we got down to the water, he held on tighter than he had all week. I held back, slowly leading him into the small break of waves. Ron met us down there when he was about up to his waist, and let him ride on his back. And there it was – the genuine, full mouth smile I had been waiting to see. There was pure joy that came out of his eyes. He put on Ron’s hat and sunglasses and stayed in the water with us for hours. I ingrained that picture in my head – a transformation of spirit before our eyes.
On the ride back to the orphanage, the children were exhausted and all fell asleep on top of us in the tap-tap ( an open, bus-like Haitian form of transportation that you quickly realize you’re totally dead if a crash occurs). The thirteen of us made eye contact with each other and sat in silence as the kids slept. We smiled, knowing that our hearts were full with hope for these children. All of us knowing that our time with them was coming to an end, and none of us were ready.
I know that this blog post cannot accurately describe what we have seen. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of trash we saw. How many people were using the bathroom openly in the streets. That when you find water you bathe in it, cook with it and drink it. The fact that a homeless person in America probably is eating more and better off than someone that is making a wage in Haiti. There was so much hopelessness. So much tired in their eyes. So much of a desperation for just survival. I don’t know where to begin, and I don’t know if there is an end. What I do know is that if we can make a difference in one child’s life, let alone twelve, then it is all worth the aching that my heart feels right now.
As you may or may not know, Ron and I have struggled to have a child for the past two years. Two failed IUI’s, one failed IVF and one miscarriage have led us to this day. We have discussed adoption, but both came to the conclusion that we didn’t think that was our path. We didn’t think it was right for us. On the last night, our group was going around in a circle on the beach after dinner discussing reflections from the week. When Ron spoke, he broke into tears, and I quickly followed. Without even talking about it, we were in the same place. If we could have taken that little boy, he would be home with us right now. I wanted to just hold him until he held me back. Ron wanted to swim with him every day so the smile would return. We wanted to have all the patience in the world with every word that came out with a stutter. And while we are back, and showered, and fed – a large part of our hearts is still lying in that orphanage in Haiti.
We were able to finish all of the bunks and thankfully get rid of the metal beds they had been sleeping on. We went through all of the supplies that had been brought over, and organized it all on the shelves so we could see what we needed, and what we had in abundance. Throughout our trip, many of you asked how you can help. Monetary donations are always needed and welcomed. Outside of that, the children need shoes right now (Crocs are the easiest and are used the most), and always need more twin size sheets. We are collecting these items in Greenville over the next three weeks, but I am happy to coordinate shipping with those that are not here and still want to help. Our friends Stan and Danae are heading back after Thanksgiving to visit the children as well as other orphanages in the area to see how we can improve. Thanks to the hard work of Matt and Lindsey, a couple in our group, we were able to have an attorney visit the orphanage while we were there to work on accreditation so the children can start getting adopted. There are several of us from our group (and hopefully some reading) that would love to give the children a home in America, and we are moving towards that goal.
Thank you to our friends for asking us to join them on this life-changing trip, and to Children First for all of the hard work you have put in thus far. We will see you again very soon!
Click below to donate now.
(Children First is a 501 (c)(3) organization.
xx, Paula and Ron