As CEO of SOS Children's Villages USA, I wanted to see for myself the situation for children and families in Haiti. In a lifetime of travel through many developing countries, I have never seen the extent of poverty and deprivation that I found in Port-au-Prince in May, four months after this year's tragic earthquake. Years ago, I lived for a time in the jungle of a remote Philippine island where tribal minorities lived untouched by modernity. I have visited one of the poorest rural areas of China, where malnourished children are the norm. But nothing compares to the state of hundreds of thousands of Haitians now living in vast, congested tent cities or among the rubble of former homes. These images will haunt me for years to come. Words can hardly do justice to the conditions for the Haitians of Port- au-Prince.
Yet, my visit to the SOS Children's Village in Santo, outside of Port-au-Prince, filled me with awe and pride because of the wonderful things I saw happening in and around the SOS Village.
SOS-Santo, outside of Port-au-Prince, cares for 300 more children than it did before the January 12 earthquake: 500 boys and girls reside at the Village, 800 attend the SOS school, and thousands more receive daily food rations.
I always say that within the impoverished, disaster-prone countries in which we work, children who've found refuge in SOS Children's Villages are so much better off than their orphaned or abandoned counterparts. That is an understatement in places like Haiti.
To fully grasp how fortunate SOS children are, you need only visit one of hundreds of small, privately run orphanages that rely on the kindness of strangers, local or international. I visited one such orphanage organized by a young Haitian man who said that he operated 14 similar places in Haiti. This orphanage had been pretty much destroyed by the earthquake. The few dozen children I saw lived in rooms that resembled bomb sites. Their school consisted of wooden benches under a sagging tarp in the blistering sun. If these children had instead found themselves swinging under the trees at SOS-Santo, or preparing for school or dinner with their SOS mother they would have thought they were in heaven.
Outside of the SOS Children's Village at Santo, you have to see an SOS food drop-off point to fully understand the enormity of the task. On a dusty, pot-holed road in Port-au-Prince I came across a bright, clean "SOS Children's Villages International" sign stuck on a make-shift door set among some sad wreckage. The door opened to a small clearing that served as SOS's food distribution point each morning. Adjacent to this area is a sea of small, hot, dark tents that go on as far as the eye can see. Overlapping tarps already frayed from wear were matched by torn plastic sheets and blankets on poles. This tent city has no running water, little electricity, and filthy latrines that could not possibly accommodate such a huge population. Eyeing the cluttered dirt floors inside the tents, I could only imagine what the impending rainy season will bring. Torrents of water will spread filth and disease. I so pitied the children, men, and women who hold no hope for any near-term relief from this purgatory.
Despite the daunting challenges of working in a country already brought to its knees before the earthquake, I feel honored to be part of a large SOS team planning for an even larger presence in Haiti. With donations from all over the world and a truly dedicated staff on the ground who are planning for Haiti's future, it is possible to bring a modicum of hope to Haiti's children.