04/24/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

Haiti Journal #2: A Visit to Our Toy Library and the Problem of Social Orphans

From the minute I woke up this morning, I was anticipating the excitement of going up to Kenscoff to see the kids at the tent camp, the orphans from Les Amis de Jesus orphanage, the WWO Toy Library, and the dance performance at the Kenscoff Community Center.

I definitely could not have predicted what we experienced today. As I look back at the day, din the cool of the mountains above Port-au-Prince, I can't get those shiny and needy Haitian faces out of my mind. I still feel their bodies snuggled against my chest and the weight of them on my knees and thighs. Kids who are traumatized by loss, hunger, and lack of stimulation have an odd sense of themselves. They are not the same as children who have the unconditional love of an adult, a full belly and a busy life, filled with school and play. Play is, after all, the work that fills children's brains with synapses, which transform the neurons into connections that are the intellectual power of their being. The equation is clear:

no play = fewer synapses = less intellectual ability = developmental delays.

The children of Haiti are starving. Their hair has a distinct orange tinge from lack of appropriate nutrients. This chronic lack of micronutrients and appropriate calorie numbers easily results in growth stunting and failure to thrive. The children I see are thin waifs who are often tired and listless with empty faces. Whether or not they have family, they have little zest and vitality. They are physically and emotionally fragile.

From the time of their birth, millions of Haitian children are at risk. Yet, inexplicably, they live their lives daily, "avec espoir," i.e., with hope that things will change. Haitian children have many moments of joy and happiness, and I was privy to such a moment on Saturday.

Nick, Andrew, and Samantha are my companions on this trip; Nick and Andrew are WWO board members and Samantha is a WWO supporter interested in learning more about our work; all had children on their laps and entertaining them by showing them how to use cameras; but all the children really wanted was our love and attention, and we were happy to give it. There's no plan among the adults to do this -- it just happens quietly and naturally, and there you are for hours just sitting with those delicious children.

We started off with the children at the tent camp, which is composed of 15 families who lost their homes in the earthquake. We came into the camp and greeted the parents and children and in moments we were all cozy and holding hands. The kids walked up two by two to the Toy Library at the Community Center, and we all then sat down in the space and played "Je m'appelle" and clapped and sang.

I was so proud to be in the WWO Toy Library, with its wooden shelves painted in primary colors and sanitized with vinegar each morning (to prevent mold) by the eager toy librarians ("ludotheque" in Creole). The laminated cards, printed in English and Creole, show how the toys can be used to develop specific skills. The librarians proudly displayed the cards and demonstrated their uses. It was very clear to me that this Toy Library is working just as well as our eight WWO Toy Libraries in Bulgarian orphanages, thousands of miles away.

After we all got to know one another and then dispersed to other fun activities like Nerf ball and drawing, I began interviewing some children to learn about their personal experiences as orphans. WWO is celebrating the spirit of the orphan this year and I wanted to understand the thoughts and feelings of the children.

We interviewed a few girls who were about nine years old, some, but not all of whom are orphans. I enjoyed watching them successfully process some challenging questions, and they taught me a lot about life in Haiti for children and about their emotional development. This will help us better serve their needs in our programs.

Then I spoke to Inez, a 15-year-old "social" orphan. The vast majority of orphans in Haiti (and most likely in the rest of the world) are social orphans: their parents are alive, but for many reasons, they are not raising their children.

Inez' parents live in Hinche, a farming town many hours from Kenscoff. A married couple in Kenscoff created an orphanage, "Les Amis de Jesus" and it is filled with social orphans from Hinche. Our country coordinator will go to Hinche to learn more, but what Inez did tell us was that her parents were too poor to take care of her, and that while some siblings were at home, she and her brother were placed at the orphanage. She was quite able, after some misgivings, to share with us that she was sad to not be with her parents in Hinche, and that her parents were unhappy as well.

Inez's goals for the future are very focused. She wants to study hard and achieve in school so that she can get a job and go back to Hinche and help her parents. She has visited with her parents most recently a couple of months ago when they came from Hinche to Kenscoff.

My next interview was with a group of four young women, Yolaine, Mykerlange, Achena, and Marjorie, from our WWO Youth2Children (Y2C) program. We trained them to work with young children at our Toy Library. They are all in their early-to-mid 20s and were orphaned as children -- either one or both parents died as a result of chronic adult health issues in Haiti: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or kidney failure.

These young people live either with the remaining parent or a relative. They were with me during the interviews of the young children and I asked them how they felt about those interviews. They told me that they thought that it was a good idea to ask children how they really feel because most of the time, people don't know what children think and frankly don't care.

They also were very honest about the challenges in their own lives. They love being ludotheques because they believe that this helps the children with their development, but they are all searching for careers that will allow them to be independent in the future. They are ambitious.

Two of them want to be nurses and one, who has studied finance, wants to go into business. The fourth woman, Mykerlange, would like to find a "craft" that will suit her. They all want to marry and have children, but only when they are ready. I am happy that they are planning their lives, which is not how it is for most poor young women around the world. For most poor girls and women, there are no choices: they are raped or married off or enslaved ("restavek" in Haiti).

As Yolaine so observed, "If you love life, you have hope (espoir), no matter what the circumstances." Espoir -- what a beautiful word.

When I asked what they needed, they were all clear that they needed financial support to achieve their professional goals. WWO is moving strategically in the right direction. We are focused on integrating orphans into their own communities, and getting children ready for the real world. We are helping youth get the education required to have the jobs that will give them choices. Only in this way can they be independent and successful in their own communities. We already have a College Assistance Program (CAP) in Serbia, and our first college graduate, Maja, is working at a preschool and loving it. I am eager and confident that WWO can raise the money to help young people be ready for a successful life. That is our goal for every child we serve.

More later about the dance extravaganza on Saturday afternoon... and the surprise finale.