to problems with the board, we moved to Gonaives.
We had a neighborhood educational program in place known as Amis d’Orphans International (Friends of Orphans International) with an educational room set up with cut-outs and handmade posters. This program was run by Jacques Africot and served about 50 economically disadvantaged children living in the vicinity of our home in Jacmel. On one trip to Haiti, Pranav Gupta, founder of Development International, and I carried down an enormous assortment of educational toys and children’s books that had been contributed to OI in the U.S., as well as a donated tent and baby crib.
We set up the tent inside Haiti House with a large selection of colorful toys and the neighborhood children began to play immediately. The kids had been taught to sing songs and enjoyed their visit with us immensely. Educational toys donated by Beth and Eric Chernik proved to be a tremendous help and greatly loved by the children.
With two projects running smoothly now, in Sulawesi and Sumatera, I became increasingly concerned about the lack of progress with our third project in Haiti. We had attempted to recruit a board in the nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince, but we finally set up our home in Jacmel, a beautiful seaside town four hours to the south of the capital. Only one of the board members attended the opening ceremony. Due to the evident lack of commitment and interest of this board, I formed a new board made up of prominent leaders of Jacmel.
Unfortunately, this attempt to form a board proved to be as unsuccessful as the first! I had assumed the top people in Jacmel would be trustworthy, as they already had what they needed and would not attempt to use this partnership to their advantage. However, the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, the head of the local civic club, the mayor’s brother, and others all seemed to have only their personal interests at heart, and held our house hostage, waiting to get what they wanted. I refused to rent a far more expensive house belonging to one of them, pay them for their volunteered time, or hire their mistresses as staff. Because I refused to meet their demands, the house remained unused for two whole years.
By January 2005, I had enough. Hurricane Jeanne had hit Gonaives a few months earlier, and although not of the scale of the Tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, more than 2,000 had perished. There was great need in Gonaives and all we had in Haiti was an empty home in Jacmel. I flew to the Dominican Republic for a secret meeting with Phadoul Amisial, the human resources director for Haiti’s largest pediatric hospital and the director of the project in Haiti at the time. I did not want the Haitian board to know I was in the area. He crossed the border from Haiti by bus and we settled down for an entire weekend of talks. I proposed that he resign as director and form a new board in his hometown Gonaives where we could help children orphaned by Hurricane Jeanne.
At that time the road to Gonaives was still flooded, and the relief community was struggling to get fresh water and supplies into the devastated city. The director hesitatingly agreed, and three months later we signed a three-year lease for a four-bedroom home, our first campus there. In the middle of the night we removed all of the furnishings from the house in Jacmel and moved them to our new home in Gonaives. By October 2005 we were registered with the proper authorities.
In June 2006, 26 children attended the OI Haiti Orientation, with caretakers, board members, and staff swelling the participants to 47. Sixteen of the children seemed to fit OIWW standards and the caretakers began the application and documentation process with the Gonaives Department of Social Affairs. The caretakers were primarily aunts, uncles and grandparents who cannot afford to keep the children.
Careful screening continued for our children. The Gonaives Department of Social Affairs screened all documents to confirm that both the child’s parents were deceased or that one was deceased and the legally missing, as per OIWW Standards. In addition, a volunteer further screened each child, and our director traveled to the hometown of each child to seek further confirmation of documentation.
According to the Associated Press, that year a rash of kidnappings for ransom was adding to the misery in violence-torn Haiti. An average of four people were kidnapped each day that summer by politically aligned street gangs, drug traffickers, crooked police and criminal deportees from the United States. This was part of what one U.N. official called “an urban war” to destabilize Haiti ahead of October elections to replace ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Victims ranged from wealthy business owners pulled out of luxury vehicles on busy streets to working-class Haitians snatched from poor neighborhoods. Foreigners were prime targets. U.N. officials reported that at least 130 people were kidnapped in Port-au-Prince in April 2005.
OI Haiti board president Phadoul Amisial wrote during that violent summer, just before Aristide fell, “Don’t worry about my safety. Inshallah, I will be fine. Violence is anywhere now and I cannot stop work just for the violence. I can die anywhere.”
The new board and several government officials, together with our new children, dressed in their Easter finest, attended our opening in Gonaives that same month, July of 2005. A brave delegation from the board in New York, led by Doris Chernik, and Jennifer Prince, participated. It was an emotional moment to witness five years of effort spent in a country with no government, no electricity, and no infrastructure to speak of, finally yield a home for our children. Today, twelve children live at OI Haiti. One challenge is their education. Sadly, they were several years below grade level in academic skills, and if we sent them to traditional school, they would not be able to learn to the best of their ability. We decided to keep them at the house and open a Montessori-type multi-age group class.
The project, surrounded by a ten foot cement fence, also includes a preschool and an ecological center to assist our neighbors with reforestation in the wake of the terrible floods last fall. Situated in a 100 x 150 foot compound, the property was planned to eventually have more than just a home: a community pre-school, a public health center, and a community computer center. The interim campus will hold twelve children, and plans will begin following the opening to move to a larger campus where additional orphans may be cared for. The campus will focus on green architecture, especially solar power and composting.
Phadoul was OI Haiti’s first director, who left when he could not see eye-to-eye with the former board. Now, as the human resources director for Haiti’s largest pediatric hospital, he has returned to OI Haiti as its board leader. Jacques Africot, senior houseparent at OI Haiti, trained at OI Sumatera, where he also learned Indonesian. He has become expert in dealing with orphanage-related challenges and governmental relations.
Within the next 15 months, OI will search for and buy up to forty acres of land in Gonaives at a reasonable price. It will then begin building three or more houses on the land, completing them before the present lease runs out in July 2008. The first three homes will be named for Vladimir Pierre Chernik, Rick Luce, and Frances Alleman-Luce
Each of the older children has chosen a younger child to take care of as if the child were their sibling, combing their hair or doing laundry for them. The children also help keep the house clean and are ready to play their role in the house. They now behave better among themselves. Our houseparents have a close relationship with the children and with each other. They meet to discuss the use of constructive discipline in the house, prepare a weekly program for school, meet the children at night for an evaluation of the day, plan the next day, and read a story at night with the kids.
The delegation from America flew to Gonaives in July 2006 to meet with the local Board of Directors of Orphans International, review the educational program, and discuss plans for the future. They also brought some 80 pounds of French books donated by another Roosevelt Island resident, Raya Barut, and a dozen math workbooks donated by PS/IS 217. The workbooks will made it easier to individualize instruction – essential when the range of skill varies as much as it does here.
The primary school children will attend the local school; the pre-school children will be taught on the OI campus. A few local children will be invited to participate. Even the older children knew little more than the alphabet when they arrived at the orphanage in October 2005. Within a year, all of them could read and do math at 2nd or 3rd grade level. Even so, the older children will enter classes 1-2 years below their age-appropriate class. The plan is to move them forward with supplemental individualized instruction during the school term, with summer school this year and in the future.
While in the area, the members of the delegation invited the children of OI Haiti to the hotel pool. The children were ready in minutes and jumped into the waiting truck, ready for a swim. There are the delighted shouts, laughter, squeals, jumping, and splashing of twelve happy children. Afterwards, we ate spaghetti and pizza. Unlike many American children, these kids had no complaints about ingredients, and were polite and appreciative. They didn’t ask for seconds but happily accepted them when they were offered. The day at the pool was as much fun for us as for the kids, and we hated to leave.
Orphans International Haiti has a working permit from the Gonaives Town Hall, has registered with the DGI (Haitian equivalent of the American IRS), and is in the process of registering with the Institut du Bien-Etre Social (Department of Social Affairs).