"She was just doing some work and a cement block fell on her," fifteen-year-old Ednel recalled. I tried to remain calm as I imagined the fragile, eight-year-old Haitian girl pinned under a heavy brick of cement. "She screamed a lot," Ednel went on, staring straight ahead as the memory unfolded before him. "That was the second child I saw die in the orphanage."
It's been a year and a half since this enslaved eight year old died -- yet the orphanage responsible for her is still running. What might be even more surprising? That girl had a father, stepmother and brothers living 15 minutes away. She had a family.
She's not the only one: most "orphans" in Haiti are simply victims of extreme poverty, whose desperate parents gave them up with hope that an institution would better provide for their child. Most "orphanages" in Haiti, unfortunately, are businesses. Inhumane conditions and emaciated, barefoot children lead to increased international aid for orphanages -- so child exploitation becomes a source of income for those managing the institution. This is what I discovered firsthand.
In 2010, following January's devastating earthquake in Haiti, I was drawn to the Caribbean country for the first time. It was about two weeks after my high school graduation and prom. That's right: I was 18 the first time I met Ednel and others starving, beaten and deprived of all basic needs, in a corrupt for-profit orphanage. But my age didn't matter. I recognized that the mistreatment of these children was WRONG. I wasn't about to accept it.
In 2011, I deferred my acceptance to McGill University and returned to Haiti. This time, however, I went independently. I lived alongside the children in this corrupt orphanage I'd visited. Children slept on my chest in a dusty tent as rats crawled by; they spent days doing work as no staff were hired to look after them; they hid when they were ill as they knew they'd be beaten... and in the meantime, they taught me to speak Haiti's principal language, Kreyol. Communication became a life-changing window of understanding, as I began to catch a glimpse into each child's history and thoughts. I soon realized that 73 of the 75 children in this "orphanage" had families. Families?!
Why are children suffering -- even dying -- while their parents remain unaware? What can we do about it? My answer to both of these questions is identified in three of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as I discussed at the United Nations Youth Assembly this August. Typically, parents who have relinquished their children to for-profit orphanages or situations of slavery live in the impoverished communities of Haiti's countryside and struggle to enroll their children in school. These parents dream of (1) ensuring access to education, and (2) eradicating extreme poverty and hunger in their children's lives. But something was missing. These parents saw aid funnel into institutions. On their own, they had no access to what the MDGs identify as "global partnerships for development." They had no access to support.
This is where you come in. You can make a difference in this world. Have you been told you're too young to help? I was 18 the first time I went to Haiti; I was 19 when fellow Canadian Sarah Wilson asked if I'd like to create an organization to support these Haitian children... and we cofounded Little Footprints, Big Steps (LFBS). I'm now 21 and have reunited approximately 50 children from this orphanage as well as over 15 former street children with their families. Another eight victimized children are living full time in our transitional safe house; I am legal guardian of four children; LFBS is advocating for parents as they trace their trafficked children; and we're sending over 120 children to school this year! Not to mention, LFBS employs seven locals full-time. Yet I started out trying to change the world by saving my tips, as a server in the local bakery of Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Every one of us has the power to help! All you have to do is reach out to another being.
If you're too busy, sponsor a child. Donate for a family to start up a business. If you don't want to travel, raise awareness! Mobilize others. Speak up for those who can't. If you're a good listener, show someone in need that there is hope. Will there be obstacles as you strive to make a difference? Absolutely. The greatest obstacle will be the temptation to give up: that easy option of living an isolated life amidst a world of suffering... a world that craves togetherness, intervention and open mindedness. Yet if you can overcome this temptation; if you refuse to accept 'giving up' as an option, you can overcome any other obstacle that is thrown your way.
I squeezed Ednel's hand as he stood and gathered his backpack. He was off to summer camp, where he'd study English, French, Computer Literacy and Arts. Ednel gave his younger brother a friendly push and, with radiant confidence, they walked together to the LFBS safe house gate. If you can make a difference in the life of just one person, it is worth it. It is truly worth it.