I was speaking to someone the other day who asked why our kids at the orphanage are so loving towards Americans. It’s pretty simple. From the time those kids arrive, pretty much every American they meet has come to help them.
The volunteer spirit is alive and well here in the thick heat of Haiti. Our current orphanage was actually built in part by volunteers, a group of 23 roofers, plumbers, electricians and construction guys I gathered together after my initial trip.
They called themselves “The Detroit Muscle Crew.” From 2010 through 2012, they came to Haiti nine times, lugging tools, tarps and materials. They built toilets, showers, a kitchen and a three-room school building. From wood to windows to tiles to paint, the orphanage rose through the strong hands of those volunteers.
They were a blast. They rose with the sun, sang while they worked, slept pretty much anywhere, ate pretty much anything, and reveled in the kids, letting them spread grout or make cement or slap paint on a wall. They often hoisted the little ones high into the air and watched them squeal with joy.
Once the building was complete, a new category of volunteers arrived. These folks live with us in small guest rooms. They sometimes sleep on blow-up mattresses. I’m not sure what to call them, since they have no formal job description. They are teachers. Counselors. Practical nurses. Game organizers. Arms to rock. Shoulders to cry on. Laps to fall asleep in.
They are, for want of a better term, full-time kid lovers.
We just call them “part of the family.”
Over the years, the cast of people serving in these roles has been as varied as a checkout line at a supermarket. There was a Michigan woman named Michele who’d spent several years in the military. There was a North Carolina couple named Jennifer and Jeremiah who brought four kids of their own and stayed for over a year.
There were Patty and Jeff, who, in their 40’s, took leaves from jobs with Costco and Aisin to spend a year with us. And there was Anachemy, whom I met when I spoke to her senior class at a New Jersey college. She made an impressive valedictory speech, and began it by saying “When I was growing up in Haiti…”
I looked at a friend who was with me. By the end of the night, we had invited her down for a visit. A few months later, she came. Somehow, I knew it would click.
Sure enough, she agreed to spend a few months helping to run the school.
She stayed for nearly four years.
That happens more than you’d think. Another high-energy woman named Gina, came to us after her mother met me at a book signing and said, “I think my daughter would love to volunteer in Haiti.” I scribbled an email and told her to contact me.
She, too, came for months, but stayed for years.
Before and after were many others, like Kate, who held advanced degrees in applied chemistry, yet spent many months at Have Faith Haiti overseeing everything from water balloon races to TOEFL exams. There were Bob and Amy, a retired couple from western Canada who started our workshop and our sewing classes, and who somehow — and don’t ask me to explain this — figured out how to take heat coming off the generator and capture it, redirect it, and create hot water for showers. On the scale of volunteer miracles, we equate that one with the parting of the Red Sea.
There were recent college graduates like Laura and Kelsey, who made great connections with our teenaged kids, and still-enrolled college students like Eli, George and Alisa, (from MIT and Harvard) who took off a semester to live at the orphanage. Those three taught everything from high level mathematics to toy design during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and allowed our children to thrive academically when most other Haitian schools were closed.
You may notice a pattern here. There are no short-term stays. Oh, sure, friends, church groups, and visiting doctors or dentists have stopped by for a few days to pitch in. But as a rule, the shortest stay to volunteer full-time is three months, or about the length of one of our school semesters.
The reason for this is not arbitrary. Our kids grow quickly attached to people who come to play with them, tell stories to them or hold them as they sleep during evening devotions. Within a week, a bond has already formed. When that bond is snapped after seven or ten days, the child is saddened, sometimes to tears. Our children already have abandonment issues. All of them share that in the stories of how they got here.
To put them through micro forms of that abandonment repeatedly seems cruel. And so we established the longer time frame, because people who stay for at least three months tend to be people who will come back again and again, and remain a part of the kids’ lives. In this way they are more like extended, far-away relatives, the kind we see every Thanksgiving or Christmas.
And the delightful little secret is, most people who stay for three months want to stay longer.
Our current crew is just outstanding. Four women, from diverse backgrounds, who have weathered the most difficult stretch of security and COVID issues with courage, humor and endless work.
Two of the women have nursing backgrounds, Halie and Celeste, both from Michigan, and they’re able to deal with medical issues while also teaching science, English and math classes, organizing games, soothing tears, and singing devotion songs.
Halie, who only arrived a few months ago, said early on, “I can’t imagine not being here when these kids graduate.”
It’s that kind of connection that I witness constantly. It’s magical. I wish I had a better word, but that’s the one that describes it.
Our two other volunteers are Danielle, who was in Haiti with another orphanage for three years and who takes our photographs, teaches journalism, and chronicles our best moments. She, Halie and Celeste are all in their 20s.
And then there’s Maggie, whose age is “retired,” whose degree is in gerontology, who previously was director of an assisted living home in Muskegon, Michigan and who now, at her request, is a nanny for our youngest kids, reveling in their sweet moments like a new Mom.
“I just want to be with the little ones,” is her mantra.
And they want to be with her.
Our volunteers are fuel that keeps our engine running. They are also ambassadors, who teach young Haitian children that love comes in many forms, many colors, and many languages.
Why do our kids take so quickly to Americans? Perhaps because we’ve so quickly taken to them.
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I can attest that volunteering in this way is the best thing you will ever experience. It puts life into perspective. The love given to the children and youth is something foreign to most of them. You will fall in love and become family. I just returne…
I love reading these reports and learning about the orphanage in Haiti. Mitch, I always thought your writing was such a marvel (and I still do) but this project trumps all your previous accomplishments. You are a special person.