I want to create an orphanage in Haiti. In Port au Prince. I was born and raised there, and when the 2010 earthquake happened... well, there's not one word that describes how I felt. After moving away and living in the New York area for 20 years, I'd begun to feel detached from the place where I was born. But when the quake happened, I realized how connected I was. I was still in Haiti in my spirit, and I was devastated. It's like my whole world was shattered.
I was worried about my loved ones there -- my cousins, aunts, uncles, friends -- because I didn't hear from anyone for three days. I didn't know if they were okay. I saw the devastation in Port au Prince on the news and I was afraid everybody was dead. Then I heard from a Haitian acquaintance living in Massachusetts; she called and told me, "I just spoke to your cousin's wife. She says to tell you everyone's okay. No one was injured. They're all alive."
At first, I had doubts. I didn't believe they were okay -- my family is the type who will tell you they're okay when they're not, so that you don't worry. But then my cousin himself called me the next day. I was so relieved and at peace.
Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to do something for others. Growing up in a place like Haiti, I'd seen how people were lacking certain basic things -- food, clean water, access to health care. There were children in my neighborhood whose parents didn't have food to feed them. I would save food for them from whatever my mom made me for lunch. My mom found out and laughed, joking, "Someone's going to accuse you of poisoning their kids!" (Haitians are superstitious.)
My desire to do something for the children in Haiti really intensified after the earthquake. I started pondering how I could do something to help. I did some research, talked to friends in both Haiti and the U.S., and came up with the idea for an orphanage. I had a vision of a homey environment where children were being cared for, loved, educated. A place where children were playing and running around laughing, screaming. I see their faces in my dreams.
I started taking some actions to make it happen. But I felt fear. Haiti has such a stigma when it comes to nonprofit -- people donate their money, then wonder what happened to it, because the work doesn't seem to get done; people's conditions don't improve. They think the government isn't accountable, and maybe it wasn't. I think things are getting better, but it takes time to fix such a screwed-up system and people's attitudes about it.
And I wonder if people will take me seriously and believe in my vision. In New York, I work as a daycare provider; I don't have experience running a nonprofit. I need help and advice for it to happen. Finances are another concern. How will I support the daily expenses of running an orphanage? Orphans can't pay tuition. Providing them with food, health care... it will take a lot of money.
I've been praying about it nonstop and asking friends and family members to pray, too. A couple of months ago, I sat down with a group of five friends and presented my idea to them. All of them said they were willing to come on board to help me make the orphanage happen. They offered money, their talent, their expertise. A business contact came forward and helped me get the orphanage recognized as a nonprofit corporation. The name I chose is "Oceanie Orphanage of Haiti, Inc." Oceanie is my paternal grandmother's name -- as a widow, she raised nine children on few resources. To me, she has always been a symbol of compassion and strength.
Last fall, I went to Port au Prince and visited a couple of orphanages. I looked at possible locations -- neighborhoods where there was an obvious need for it. There were so many of them, my goodness. Carrefour, La Plaine... when I went there, I saw a lot of poverty, children in the streets wearing dirty clothes and looking for food.
As it stands now, I feel like we -- the six of us on the Oceanie board -- are working hard daily and getting closer to the goal. Our next target is getting our 501(c)(3) and putting up a website. It's all so big, and I haven't lived in Haiti for so long; going back and forth and trying to work with the people there is going to be difficult. But I have faith that my vision will be attained -- and better than I can even imagine.
If anyone reading this has experience or advice -- or is willing to share their talents in some way -- I'd love to hear from you in the comments. We're going to need all the help we can get. It really will take a village to make this work!
For more by Myriam Etienne, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.