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The Children's Place

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The National Museum of African Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Haitian government have brought a project to Washington D.C. to showcase the artwork of some Port-au-Prince children after the January quake.

The project that produced the exhibit Plas Timoun is a humble venture standing against staggering statistics. According to the Haitian government, 90 percent of the infrastructure of the capital's schools have been destroyed, leaving a staggering 1,200,000 children without schools -- a challenge that is ordinarily daunting anywhere but in Haiti is a kick straight to the poor house. To further complicate their lives, many of these children have lost their parents and have no reliable guardian in the Haitian government.


First Lady Michelle Obama talks about her visit to Plas Timoun - Miami Herald

Plas Timoun hosts 1600 kids at two locations in Port-au-Prince. The children are classed by age and led in arts and crafts sessions during which they can paint, draw, or make pottery. This program also stands in lieu of a proper scholastic cirriculum, dedicating educational hours to help the kids learn geometry and math.

The classes are held in buses donated by the Dominican First Lady Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez. One of the camps is stationed in Champs de Mars, the square that was once the pride of the capital, but now has been turned into a camp for those whose homes lay in wreckage. When US First Lady Michelle Obama visited Haiti in April, she dropped by to paint with the children. Her painting of a fish is included in the exhibit.

After visiting, patrons are invited to paint their own pictures which will be sent to the children at Place Timoun. It felt like a small thing to do -- "what can my doodles mean anyway from so far away?" I thought. But then I remembered Judner's pictures and how they had touched me and inspired me in my own life. He too probably thought his doodles would have no impact. So I wrote back: "Whatever you can to create joy or spread it, do it, however small."

Judner Antoine is one of the child-artists featured in the exhibit. His early drawings are daymares of January 12 -- people running in the street who have lost a foot or an arm. Some carrying the limb with them. But later, his pictures become more idyllic. They start to include vegetation and regular activities like cars passing, Don Quijote-look-alike astride on his horse.

One of the most haunting images among the news coverage of the Haiti earthquake is a plain shot by Cristobal Manuel. No gore, no tearful faces, just one man sauntering amongst a debris-strewn street. Naked. This picture is emblematic of the mental state of many people affected by the quake. But they have few resources to help them heal. Before the quake, Haiti's mental health system had been limping on only two functioning mental wards, x and y. After the quake, these institutions suffered infrastructural damage and shortage of staff. Programs like Plas Timoun are helping to respond to the increased need for mental health assistance, even only 20 kids at a time in a class.

Sometimes there is nothing else left -- the house is gone, the food is scarce. The only thing left is that force inside of you that says "I'll go one more day." Hope. And sometimes, you need someone else to help you believe in that hope.

One of my favorite stories is from Eduardo Galeano about a boy who goes to the sea shore for the first time. "When the child and his father finally reached the sand dunes, after much walking, the sea exploded before his eyes. And her immensity and power were so great that the child stood dumb-struck. When he could finally speak, shaking, stuttering, he said to his father: 'Help me look!' "

In the same way, when a great tragedy befalls us, we need someone else to help us hope. Sometimes the most important thing we can do for people is not to give them money but to help them hope, help them believe that tomorrow will be brighter than today so that they'll have the strength to bear the hours out.

Plas Timoun is the spearheaded by the office of Haiti's First Lady Alexandra Preval and Haitian artist Philippe Doddard. The exhibit at the National Museum of African Art runs until October 17.