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Improving Daily Life and Health for Monley, a Haitian Orphan

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Journal From The Field #2: July 4, 2011

This is the second in a series of blogs from my mission trip to Haiti to investigate the plight of orphaned and vulnerable children from June 28 to July 2, 2011.

I became reacquainted with Monley, a 6-year-old Haitian orphan, and his family during a recent mission trip to Haiti. Culture aside, Monley's extended family is quite typical of a family living in extreme poverty in an impoverished country. During my latest mission trip as CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO), I spent time with his family three times when I visited our new Y2C (Youth to Children) program in Kenscoff, Haiti. CNN produced a story about Monley right after the earthquake, and they continue to follow him because they love him and are concerned about his future. CNN, in fact, was in some way responsible for why Monley and his brothers are living with their Uncle Gary.

There are so many things to say about Monley. He is a sweet and clever little boy who deserves a good life, as do his two brothers and their extended family. I saw their life up close and wanted to share some of what I learned so that you might understand the complicated life they lead.

The kids looked dirty, eager, cute and depressed when we first met them. They live in a setting that is filthy but organized. Their temporary home is still surrounded by some rubble, although many agencies are actively removing the concrete and "rebar" and replacing it with small, wooden structures that are quite habitable. One agency is J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), actor Sean Penn's humanitarian organization. We learned that J/P HRO conducted psychosocial assessments of their tent camp (now 35,000 inhabitants) to understand why people were not returning to their homes. They discovered that people could not return home due to the post-earthquake rubble. J/P HRO is busy at work in the communities in Port-au-Prince removing rubble and making space for other organizations (UN OPS, for instance) to build homes. This will facilitate families leaving the tent cities and going back to their original home sites, at least.

That's quite a nice story, but where is the government in all of this?

There is no running water in the homes, and it's the job of women in the community to carry plastic containers of water from local places where water has been delivered by trucks. We watched Uncle Gary's wife carry a lot of heavy water into the home for cooking and bathing. Frankly, I am not clear on the safety of this water. Cholera precautions are all over Haiti in the form of stickers with easily understood pictures reminding people about the separation of food preparation and toileting and hand washing. But in this family, the toilet in the ground (a hole capped with a plastic seat) was adjacent to the kitchen and only separated by a foot. The shower and laundry areas were on the other side of the kitchen. It would be easy to change the order of these "rooms" in a way that would allow for better hygiene. These are the kind of simple changes that save lives in a setting like this.

I saw the kids "bathing" on the third visit -- jumping up and down, laughing and playing with water dumped over their bodies by adults helping out.

Then the laundry is done by hand, and boy, is it clean and white! I caught this in a photograph of a fence outside the house, where little undershirts and underpants were shockingly white as they hung stiffly on that fence, heated by the sun. The kids put their underwear on after their bath, and then they found their clothes in a large, orange, plastic drum filled with neatly folded clothes for the kids.

What do kids do all day in a "tent camp"? Well, when school is out, they do a lot of nothing in a place like this. Monley goes to a local private school, which is the dominant form of education in Haiti. There is really no public school system, but instead a rather rigid education policy that must be adhered to by all schools in Haiti. I have a very nice photo of his report card for the school year. He passed all subjects and was promoted to the second grade. Uncle Gary also showed me Monley's class photograph, along with a bill for next year, which includes a list of fees for books, supplies, uniforms and registration. School fees for the year total about $285 USD.

Since there is no camp or summer program in the community, the kids do a lot of nothing. At Monley's home, an electronic game was hooked up to a big, fat TV on that life-saving metal stand. Two older boys in their late teens or early 20s hogged what looked like an animated basketball game. The younger boys looked on eagerly, yearning to play, but there was an obvious pecking order. It is possible, though unconfirmed, that the older boys had paid to use the game.

One of WWO's board members, Lori Finkel, joined me on this mission trip and generously purchased markers, notebooks and Play Doh to provide the kids with some fun activities.

We saw a very nice soccer ball on the floor, but it was not blown up. Our raison d'être became about finding an air pump in Port-au-Prince. I already had ball pins in my wallet, as a good mama might have in the U.S. My boys are always needing a ball pin, so I keep a few in my wallet!

Travel was very hard on the roads in Haiti, literally hours of traffic and physically punishing driving. The ruts and ditches on the unpaved roads are a challenge. I am exhausted from the driving, frankly. If someone asks me what I would change urgently to help Haiti, it would be to have the international community come in to build roads. I have personally seen what this has done in Ethiopia, where WWO has programs, as well.

So on our way to various appointments, we tried to find air pumps and more soccer balls. This is not a new endeavor for me. On my first trip to Haiti two weeks after the earthquake, I tried to find soccer balls and was unsuccessful. I trustingly gave a Haitian acquaintance $100 to buy soccer balls and a pump to give to the orphanages I had visited -- and that was never the destiny of that money. On other trips to Haiti, I brought the balls and pumps from the U.S., and we were very successful in bringing soccer to the kids WWO served at that time.

This time we went to MSC, a Home-Depot-like store near the U.S. Embassy, and found some dusty, plastic, packaged pumps made in China; we also found nice white soccer balls made in India. The air pumps seem to have had a pin in the dirty bag, but we paid for everything quickly and didn't check or inspect anything. Once in the car, we discovered that most of the pumps were broken (not much air coming out due to cracks in the plastic) and missing pins. We went back into the store and found other pumps and tested them and checked for the pins. The soccer balls had pins, too, but they were not matched for the pumps we had purchased -- very silly that this is not universally standardized.

As we drove to our next appointment, we pumped up the balls and discovered that some of the pumps were really broken, even though we thought they were OK. What a fiasco! It was clearly evidence for the unsatisfactory product availability and quality in Haiti. How demoralizing must this be for Haitians?! I expect this to be the case.

We eventually get a pump to Monley's family. We gave them a new ball and then pumped up the ball they had. In so doing, that pump broke, and we sort of fixed it, but the prognosis was poor for the duration of future use. Melissa, WWO's Program Manager, will monitor this matter, and next time we'll bring pumps, pins and balls.

The boys excitedly grabbed both balls and ran out of the house into an area of concrete and dirt adjacent to the property. They were playing soccer instantly and laughing. Little Monley was alone with one ball, not quite part of the pack. I never saw him smile during any of our visits. From what I've seen since the earthquake struck, the faces of Haitians are frequently "zombie-like," with moments of joy and vitality. They look better and better each time I visit, but life is hard and frustrating. The rubble gets less and less, and the camps are thinning out in the city. Lots of people left Port-au-Prince early on to seek refuge in the countryside. The city was chaotic.

My overall assessment of Haiti is optimistic. I see a lot of progress every time I visit. I marvel at Haitian fortitude.

I am eager to help the children of Haiti in spite of the lack of governmental infrastructure and cultural impediments that have a 200-year history. The kids need our energy, commitment and eagerness to help them grow through training and education. Monley and his family need us right now, and his family is a reflection of all the needs of Haiti.

Monley and his brothers are orphans by the Unicef definition, because they lost both parents, but after the quake, they became part of a new family with their father's brother, Uncle Gary. This family grew over time, because there were efforts made to find family members in the community. Gary has stepped up to the responsibility of being Monley's father. Sometimes it takes time for a family to be tracked, traced and reconstituted. Governments and aid organizations must invest in the rebuilding of families. Our sympathy is for poor Gary -- depressed and impoverished, but at the same time, he has risen to the task that could change his own life and his country.

WWO will try and study Delmas 34 to find work opportunities for this family; this is the work of community building and just one story of how we can all help to prevent children from ending up alone in the streets or in orphanages. The trauma of loss is still there for orphaned kids, but there are so many ways to change their lives and help them find happiness and independence. That is the mission of WWO.