June 26, 2015
Yesterday I met with the teachers at Toy Library in Kenscoff and then later I met with the senior leadership team that manages and supervises all of our Haiti programs. What a day of inspiration!
I observed and admired them working this week while in Haiti and when I sat with them and listened to them talk, I realized that they had grown and developed into leaders with big dreams. We spent an afternoon with 120 children at the top of the mountain on the old site of a Duvalier home never completed. The clay soccer field is expansive with mountains rising all around us. The yelps and cheers of the children were joyful and made me cry. I sat near each of the groups to absorb their energy. The children come from orphanages and the community. They are from homes with one parent or a grandparent or other relative. Some are far away from parents who are farming at the other end of Haiti, i.e Hinch. Some of the orphanages are very poor and hard to visit and others are just bearable. This is not just in Haiti. The world is filled with very destitute conditions for children, but we power on and try and enrich the lives of vulnerable children.
The kids were separated into play groups: young boys, young girls learning soccer: older girls singing and jumping rope, older boys playing soccer and learning how to throw an American football. Each group was instructed and coached by teachers who knew the children well and kindly supported their achievement of new skills of socialization and sport. I marveled at their ability to be in the moment. There was not a moment of sadness...maybe just some skinned knees -- that should make us all smile!
Not a surprise actually, but in a country like Haiti where there is so much poverty and mystery around their culture, I was proud of how hard the teachers and staff had worked to defy the judgments of outsiders and those who come here to fix problems. The kids were learning and becoming independent. They were a contrast to orphans from orphanages not engaged in regular recreation. There should be no child without engagement in recreation every day of the week, but unfortunately this is not the case.
I have spent the last 5 years getting to know Haiti and it has been a love affair for sure. I fell deeply in love at first sight amidst the rubble and chaos after the 2010 earthquake. Then I searched for the meaning of every puzzle that faced Worldwide Orphans as it desperately searched to find its place in a country with so many abandoned children. WWO wanted to help the thousands of social orphans who live without their birth families in this island country without much social infrastructure. Romance and commitment have endured during these years, but I am not sure if I really understand all the questions that are posed each time we invite visitors to do service in the mountains of Haiti. Maybe it is enough to know that the meaning of Ayiti, the Indian name for Haiti, is "mountains beyond mountains".
I love a challenge and I am endlessly enamored with the unanswerable questions posed. We continue to solve problems for the community of Kenscoff and we try not to judge. The teachers, volunteers and staff who solidly command and demonstrate vitality and dedication are in love with the children and their work. It shows. Every time I am here, it is obvious that the kids are happy and hopeful and they have learned so many interpersonal skills that make them confident and comfortable with themselves. We have metrics and we can show you graphs and scores on tests that support these conclusions of improved self-esteem. More importantly, there is hope for the future and the staff and teachers are growing in their personal and professional dreams for WWO.
I sat with each group this week and asked them how they feel about their work. I asked them what they felt when they first took their current jobs and how they feel now. I asked them what they want for their future and the future of "double vay O" (Kreyol for WWO). It was unanimous for the teachers and senior leaders. They were "timide" when they arrived and they were not sure if they could learn about early childhood development. They were not sure how to talk to children or help children to sing, dance, tell stories, or play. They didn't know how to play. They had never seen our toys and they were not clear if they could meet the goals set out for them, but they wanted to learn. Most of them had not finished school. Only 3 % of children graduate high school in Haiti. Over the time that they are with us, many of them have gone back to school and are trying to graduate high school. They are in their twenties and living on very little, but excited and happy to go to work for WWO. They commute long distances in some cases or have moved away from family to live in Kenscoff to be closer to the work.
They are now aspirational and ambitious. Their dreams for WWO in Haiti flowed easily in their conversations. They were even frustrated and afraid that their goals would not be realized because now they know what is at stake for the children. They spoke in that pressured way that people speak when they know what the answers are and fear that those answers will not be realized. All of the work depends on us raising more money in the US so we can explore the rest of Haiti and its "mountains". The teachers and staff want to grow the organization and go to many towns in need. They want WWO to be mobile and nimble.
Dr. Betty who is our pediatrician and psycho-social coordinator at WWO, has led the charge to create groups for mothers. I witnessed her lecture on birth control. Abortion is illegal in Haiti and birth control is random. The birth rate is high in the midst of poverty and lack of access to public education. There were mothers from several small towns studying with WWO this week. Their children were singing and dancing to drum beats, while the mothers were in class, learning about early childhood development. They were being tested from prior sessions to see what they had learned and retained. WWO does this routinely as part of our commitment to train citizens in their own communities.
I was very proud of the teachers and the WWO team in Kenscoff. Their capacity to grow is a reality. They have the maturity and commitment to teach in all of the communities where they travel. They are change makers and thought leaders; WWO has become a teacher and mentor in the community whichever country we find ourselves at work.
As we enter Orange, New Jersey to set up our first domestic toy libraries we will study our ability to scale the model and we can take our inspiration from the in country leaders in Haiti, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Serbia. I suggested that the accomplishments of the teachers and staff would be a very important part of how we design and scale our programs. You would have enjoyed their smiles and cheers when I mentioned that we would create an exchange between the Haiti staff and the newly hired staff in Orange. There is a large Haitian population in Orange and we will be using all that we have learned in Haiti and apply it to Orange.
Our future is to mobilize and bring what we have learned from abroad through creativity, dreams and strategic planning to change the lives of thousands of vulnerable children around the world. All of these years of global work has been about us going there and now they will teach us and their work will inspire us in the US. It is an exciting time of innovation and the capacity we have built abroad will lead us into the future.
They are the revolution.
Dr. Jane Aronson
CEO and President, Worldwide Orphans