There is nothing that can prepare you for a third-world orphanage.
The flies. The listless eyes. The snotty noses and chins. The swollen, vacant bellies.
And that’s just the adults.
OK, not all of them. Miss Eveline, the director at Notre Dame Orphanage in Carrefour was tired but appeared healthy. But, for most of the women sitting in the filth holding infants in their arms, the heaviness of another day sat upon their shoulders like the slabs of crushing mortar pinning cars across Port au Prince. They are carrying the weight of grief and responsibility and illness and despair.
Their eyes only lit briefly when lollipops left over from my church’s Valentines activity were pulled from the bag. In hopes of securing at least one, a few of the desperate shoved babies toward me, gesturing that each drooping, feeble child would love nothing better than sugar’s kiss upon its malnourished lips.
It was only a small sack of surplus candy and random Happy Meal toys stuffed as an afterthought into a backpack and it caused a churning mass of humanity that literally brought me to my knees.
The rest of our team quickly surged in, scooping up a few of the 60+ children that live out each day in the dust on sheets and a spartan playground. Just a few weeks ago, I’m told there was a heap of more than 50 tiny bodies stacked in the same space after the earthquake broke their world.
Several of our men climbed atop the old iron merry go round, swirling a couple of tykes into broad smiles and laughter.
Beverly went right to work, holding babies and checking their tiny bodies for fever and dysfunction. At least one, she said, has pneumonia.
My husband tossed a donated football with a couple of the boys. Our team’s pastor sat on a tarp on the ground, his lap overrun by a couple of children. Dana had two more. Brad two. Mark same. Debbie. JP. John.
Even with every member of our team cradling several kids at a time, there was no way to grow enough arms and laps to touch them all.
The boys clamored for the matchbox cars in the bottom of my bag and one sad-eyed son scored an unopened bag of tiny green soldiers. His eyes widened in amazement at his good fortune, but I saw one of the older boys pursue him around the corner. The younger of the two was back in line, his eyes swollen with tears, minutes later.
Two sleeves of hair ties were in my bag and, to satisfy so many, I doled them out, one by one, to extended hands. Sometimes there were so many tiny fingers reaching toward my face that I couldn’t see what I was holding.
Red. White. Black. Blue. Pink. Navy. Green.
When the women saw there were elastic ties being given away, they discarded all pretense and stepped forward with hands outstretched.
The older kids were quick learners. When one child who was already clutching a toy gestured that he’d like to deliver a treasure to someone across the yard and I relented, savvy copycats queued up, pointing to phantom recipients. When I busted them with a knowing laugh and scolding, their eyes would sparkle and lips quiver into mischievous grins.
In the space where our team had planned to build a shelter, a French team had already come and gone, leaving behind a sturdy building to house the kids. In the area vacant just this morning when our advance team had visited, there was now a beautiful Shelterbox tent.
There is work that still needs to be done and food is scarce, but the greatest need seemed to be one of companionship. Many of these children likely have no way to comprehend why it has not been their mother’s arms or father’s shoulders that have held them these past few weeks. Their loss is still raw and new.
Too soon, it was time to leave. The sky was darkening and much of our team would be crammed into the rear bed of a pickup truck to ride for 30 minutes through the traffic- and people-choked streets back to our camp. To minimize risk, we needed to hurry.
As the driver was backing the truck from the orphanage, one lone child came staggering toward us with outstretched arms, sobbing to see us leave.
His tears matched our own, but especially those of John, my tall, quiet-natured teammate who had to return him to his plight.
Oh sure, I’m no dummy. I know that sounds either crazy or presumptuous: “God woke me up and spoke to me.”
I get that. Seriously, I do.
But, just as I decided to listen to the fierce urge I felt to go to Haiti, despite that seeming plenty wacky, I’m choosing to risk you thinking I’m nuts to share the thought that was resonating clear in my head when I woke up at 2:30:
“Nothing you have is yours. It’s mine. Give. When you see need – give.”
The woman we met as we were leaving a second pizza restaurant this week popped into my mind. She had rushed forward as we left the safe confines of an oasis that seemed impossibly nice in Haiti – they even had a wine list – toward our waiting van and driver.
It was clear what she wanted as she hopefully extended a basket of socks to each of us. She wanted to sell us something.
She wanted our money.
One by one, we assured her that we needed none and pressed on into our van.
She faded back to the side of the filthy road, her basket still full – and the contents of our pockets and bellies also full – as we pulled away.
Our money that we had brought along in case we saw need was safe.
We didn’t need any socks.
I’m sure we could’ve bought her entire supply for 20 bucks. Or 10.
Had my heart been open, I would have recognized she wasn’t going to use my money to buy drugs. She wouldn’t tuck it triumphantly in her bra and walk around the corner to her Mercedes.
She needs to feed her family.
When I say there are moments that will long haunt me from our time in Haiti, some of them are my own failure to listen to God’s nudge in time.
Tonight, we sat, relaxed in our camp after a particularly eventful day and camp-cooked meal of beans and rice, and chatted with our hostess, Mirdrede. She began to open up about the conditions in her country.
“It is hard,” she said, in sometimes halting English. “I do not understand those who lay around all day, saying ‘I cannot give, because I do not have money.’ I do not have money, but I give. I work every day, every hour, since the earthquake.
“I live here,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder toward a tent. “It is not my job. I do not get paid. How would they pay me? No one has anything. But people think if you are giving, it means you have something. I have nothing. I lost my house. I lost my car. I lost my computer. But I am alive. And so I give. My husband is at another hospital in Carrefour. He is an adventist preacher, but this is how he is needed right now.
“When someone gives me three boxes of formula for the hospital, I keep one and I give two away. Because there is great need.”
Our conversation meandered, and I showed her a few of the photos shot during the day.
“These were taken by Roselaure,” I said, beaming. I was especially proud of the young girl’s first attempts at photography. She had a natural eye for composition and I felt like a spontaneous mentor to the girl also living at the Quisqueya University encampment.
“That is her mother who does the washing,” said Mirdrede, nodding. “She has nine children and she lost a daughter who was 9 in the earthquake. We also watch her twins during the day. They are 1 year old.”
The images of the twins show beautiful babies perhaps half that age. There is a new infant laying on the cot beside them in the photos.
“Her mother was killed in the earthquake,” said Mirdrede. “But she has aunts. One is the mother of Roselaure’s mother.”
Each day, those women show no signs that they know such loss. They walk in the shadows of the fallen university each morning and it is easy for the rest of us to assume they were “merely” homeless. But everyone here has lost someone.
“There were 13 professors killed here,” said Midrede, as we sat in our camp, mere feet from what is now a mountain of rubble. “And 25 students. Only three survived. One is my sister and she was trapped for three days.
“Come with me and I will show you something,” she said. We walked down the hill and into a nearby tent, where Beverly Lense, the doctor on our team sat in a roundtable discussion. She was educating the university’s remaining medical students through an interpreter about the wisdom of immunizations.
On a stage, there was a table with teeny clay figures sitting in colorful array.
“Every Friday, there are about 100 children who come here,” she said. “They have no school and nothing to do all day so, about two weeks ago, we started bringing them here. Some of them are being abused by their grandparents. This gives them a place to be secure.
“This time, the students used the clay to make pictures of what they saw in the earthquake. It is important for them to express it.”
There, in figures designed by children ages 5 to 10, lay sprawling and broken limbs of clay, myriad flattened buildings and tents with no sides or doors. One child fashioned a park with a few animals – but no people.
All throughout the day, our team had spent time issuing medicine to children and adults in another tent community. They had been quick to laugh, despite deplorable conditions, and yet, when given the opportunity to release the haunting images inside them, chaos spills into the clay.
Throughout the morning, the other members of our team and I had looked at each other a bit anxiously as the line of patients lengthened and supply of medicines slimmed. When we ran out of zip sleeves for each set of prescribed pills, a search for alternatives began. Could we put pills in latex gloves, write instructions on them and tie the fingers? Was there enough paper to create envelopes?
Finally, we began to spoon each batch of counted pills into sip-sized cups, writing instructions on tape and then affixing it to the side. To keep the medicine from tumbling out, we stacked each set of cups, handed them to the patient and hoped for the best.
Beverly, when she discovered there was no inhaler attachment for a prescribed dose of Albuterol, fashioned a mouthpiece by slicing the lid off one of our plastic water bottles and taping its edge with medical tape, then affixed it to the dispenser. After a few whiffs, the child breathed easier.
Finally, there was no more we could give and the medical students said, “We are finished.”
I was especially anxious as we began to pack our box, since the driver of our van had not been seen in hours. As I eyed the close quarters where we were crammed, with the many homeless Haitians surrounding us, I even felt a tinge of fear.
Things could go south real fast, it seemed. Already the people were disgruntled, because a UN truck had arrived only half an hour before, swung wide its doors for a shipment of food and elated the people. When only a few packs of cookies were distributed before the truck swiftly closed its doors of promise and left, a murmur rose from the crowd who thought they would finally be fed.
“He may not come soon,” said one of the medical students of our driver. My volley of emails to the pastor leading our group seemed to lend no quick solution.
When will I learn that all God needs to show His face is a heart willing to see Him?
When our table was packed and chairs folded, a few children playfully nudged their way into our midst.
Beverly scooped up a girl into her arms and the child quickly took the ends of the stethoscope and placed them in her own ears, then touched the metal scope to her own chest. When Dana cuddled Jefferson, a little boy, he did the same.
John and JP kept a watchful eye for our van to arrive, even as they joined Brad in keeping a watchful eye upon us.
Beverly began to dance with some of the children and then – I swear I am not making this up – “We Are The World” began playing on someone’s radio nearby.
Captivated by their smiles, I began to snap some shots of the kids surrounding us and show them the results. Soon, some of the adults nodded when I indicated I’d like to make pictures of them, too.
They were delighted by the images of their children and friends, especially when I swapped to let Christine, one of the young girls in the camp, become the photographer. Her images were composed beautifully, despite total inexperience. She hugged me, asking for my nombre and gushing, “Je t’aime.”
I love her, too.
God spoke to me then, too, by the way.
He said, “Trust me when I tell you I have a Plan. All you need to do is show up – and give.”
There are a few things I don’t believe I can ever do well, despite how fiercely I may try. Credibly describing the apocalyptic destruction here is beyond my capability.
Like anyone with CNN, I had seen the images of Haiti’s destroyed presidential palace. On my 50-inch plasma screen at home, it seemed very shocking and larger than life. The tent city footage from Anderson Cooper’s broadcast tore at my heart, because conditions seemed bleak.But.
Just as a snapshot or even 5-minute video doesn’t really convey the grandeur of the Tetons in all their glory, with panoramic accuracy and cool-breeze reality, no picture or word stream will put your hand on the rubble that stretches across every threshold of an entire city.
Stunned is how you feel when you stand by a hospital that was bustling with care for hundreds of patients, up and down the corridors of five stories. When the earth shook the afternoon of January 12 for 45 seconds, five stories crumbled into one and no patient, doctor, nurse, guest or janitor escaped.
More swiftly than the World Trade Center fell, a city descended into dust.
It is not occasional, as after a tornado skips its fickle way across a landscape. You can drive for an hour through winding, potholed streets and know only crazy-kilter chaos, with rooftops skewed vertical where horizontal once made life sensical. Slabs of concrete – that once shaped walls hiding the private normalcy of parents and children playing and couples worrying over bills or making love or arguing or sleeping toward another day – shifted into tombs.
Cars and whatever was inside still lay beneath massive, broken chunks of concrete.
Where there were gutters, now there are sewers, with mounds of trashed garbage and torn jeans and mangled shoes and soggy sheets held erect by a mishmash of sticks to form a haphazard network of extended families.
On block after block after block.
That part is shocking – though not altogether new. I asked our hostess, Mirdrede, last night whether most families lived in houses before the quake. She grew very quiet and her eyes filled with tears as she nearly lost composure for the first time since we’d met.
“No,” she whispered, shaking her head sadly. “It is very difficult in this country.”
The families in the tent community we visited during our mobile-medical service yesterday agree.
“Last night, when the rains came, it was bad,” said Menard, a beautiful girl who speaks English well and drew me aside. “Everyone stood up and reached high above our heads to hold the tarp, so the water wouldn’t collapse on everything we have.”
That “everything” is meager. There are a few tents, and some mattresses – with ragged blankets carefully tucked into place as at home – lined under a great, slanting expanse of white tarp. The dirt aisles are newly swept.
“The rains came through all the cracks and poured onto the beds and our clothes,” said Menard, gesturing toward the sections where the tarps had been pinned to anything tall enough for support. “When it ended, we curled up into tiny balls to try to sleep on the dry spots. If taking pictures will help to share how we are living with others, you are welcome to take them. We need tents.”
She said she was a university student only a few weeks ago, before the earthquake shook all hope to the ground, along with nearly every structure.
“I was studying marketing and PR,” she said. “You can maybe tell from talking to me that I am no idiot. But my family has 11 people and there is only one tent.”
She proudly led me across their encampment, past the old man sleeping on a mattress and around the girl braiding another girl’s hair as she sat on the dirt, holding a jagged piece of mirror for viewing.
Menard was proud, despite the squalor, because she was leading me to meet her mother and sister, who were washing clothes in a bucket.
“If you know anyone who can use help, “said Menard, her broad eyes growing misty, “my mother has not eaten today and there will be no food tonight. You can see I speak English well and I can translate for anyone who needs it. I need to earn food for my family. They need to eat.”
As we spoke, she drew in the curious children who were peering at this stranger welcomed to their inner circle. Soon, they were laughing into the lens of my camera. It thrilled them to see themselves dancing on-screen after each shot.
This is perhaps what has struck me most during our time here. Where I would expect to find grief and anger and fierce hurt, there is laughter and welcome and a quick readiness to return my smile.
On every corner.
There is nothing I can offer to ease their big-picture plight and I’m almost embarrassed to meet their eyes as our van drives past but, every time – almost without fail – when I smile or gently lift my hand in greeting, something in their eyes lights up and they nod a smile in return.
It’s more than I can say sometimes for my own home, where most families have an arsenal of Life’s Greatest Pleasures and abundant cause for relief to have won God’s lottery.
As we sat out a table and a few chairs in Menard’s makeshift neighborhood, so that medical care could begin, a line formed. The two Haitian medical students serving as doctors finally realized that the two of us assigned to help them for the day have no medical background whatsoever.
“Tell us what to do and we will do it,” Brad and I assured them. That is how we became pharmacists.
After each patient’s diagnosis, they would pass along a sheet detailing the pills we should scoop with a spoon into tiny zip baggies. We penned directions for use on strips of tan bandaid tape and, when we ran out of that, Brad simply wrote instructions in ink directly on the bags.
By the end of the day, we had overcome most language barriers and worked out an efficient system, even as the mosquitoes swarmed around us and the relentless line of new patients wanting to catch care while it was parked in their midst.
“It is imperfect,” said our doctor-in-training, shrugging, “but it is what we have.”
He spoke for an entire nation.
I lost my Blackberry last night. It was new. As in just-bought-it-on-Friday-because-of-the-trip-to-Haiti new. I wanted something with a better camera and video, so I could share with you. I wanted life’s best, even when I had some clue I would be trekking through life’s worst.And it was wonderful. And I lost it.
And it was upsetting.
Did I mention that I lost it when leaving a pizza place? Yeah, it turns out that our interpreter knew of this place that had just opened before the earthquake and it was doing business, again. We figured we would support the local economy by briefly shaking off the horror we’d witnessed from the safe confines of our van and take a break before crashing in our tents.
The pizza may be the best I’d ever tasted. It beat the protein bars we had for breakfast and lunch. It was better than the scoops of rice I was willing to eat from the plates our Haitian hostess, Mirdrede, set out for us. (I left the salad and peas, at the advice of the health department lady who gave us our trip inoculations. I left the brown beans, for what may seem obvious reasons in a camp with backed-up toilets. But I felt ashamed as I stacked a plate still filled with food in the discard pile.) The cold, bottled Heineken was good, too. All I’d had to drink all day was water I’ve decided to trust through an instant-filter bottle contributed by a caring company to our trip. So far, so good.
Life seemed pretty light again, for the moment, and there was laughter among us as I showed the video of our team in our red HAITI shirts shoving our van up a hill it couldn’t quite top.
And then I lost my phone.
Sure, I saw the irony. I felt panicked, because it was my link to my family back home in my safe, real world and to you, my community of loving, supportive, rescue-me-by-just-walking-alongside-me friends. I felt mortified, because it was a $450 phone. Sure, it cost me significantly less as a longtime customer and, yes, even that was broken into four easy payments. And, OK, I was aware that $450 would match the typical annual income of a Haitian family.
But I sure loved that phone.
I suspected that the restaurant couldn’t find it when we called, because those two Haitian guys at the next table had been eying us closely – especially when it was time to pay and wallets surfaced. I had even looked behind us to be certain they hadn’t followed us out. If I had left my phone on the table, I just knew they would’ve scooped it up triumphantly.
I spent the evening feeling dejected. No more blogs to bring you along with us. Gone, the frequent emails to my precious daughter and son.
I was quiet as Mirdrede wove my stringy long hair into tight braids as the ruins of her university lay crushed behind us. I could add little comfort as she shared that she is the oldest child in her family and so she is the one her parents and siblings call for help. It had only been minutes since they had called, crying, to say it was raining in the streets, again, and they would be wet – all nine of them, her parents and sister and brother and his wife and three kids and a cousin – another night. Was there nothing she could do?
But what could she do, she asked me. She had told them of the tent under which we were then sitting and where they could hover. But, in the morning, the few students remaining would again gather to peer toward a different future than the one of which they had dreamed at enrollment. “We Continue,” the banner beside us asserted in Creole. Patients would again stream through the makeshift hospital that now fills the space once devoted to student parking.
Her family would be displaced once more. She is just a volunteer doctor and it is not her space to offer – but she is the first child, and so it falls to her to care for the oldest of her family down to the youngest. She tries now to keep very, very busy, so that she will not think of what life was like before. This is her life now. One moment, one footstep at a time, this. is. her. life.
I assured her that, once we reached our shipping container in the morning, her family would receive the first tent issued. I asked whether they needed food and she shrugged. Of course, there is little to go around, but everyone is getting by somehow.
The same seemed true of the haunting little boy who had sidled up to us earlier when we stood beside our parked van, waiting to gain entry into a safe compound. We were awed by the sight of our U.S. military guys nearby and their massive, air-conditioned tents and satellite dish. We were cheered to see their presence. Then this little kid appeared beside us and extended his open palm. Quickly, gratefully, we passed him a pack of crackers from the box of our cross-country snacks. Here, at last, was someone we could help, even before our official duty began. He tucked it in his pocket and continued to stand there, expectantly. We looked at each other a bit nervously. There were few snacks left in the box – and we didn’t want to begin a frenzy among the homeless Haitians across the street. They were already eying our truck and its tarp-covered mysteries. For us to dig through it for more, before we had unloaded and sorted it in safety, might invite chaos and even danger.
So we tried to gently shoo him away with his cracker reward. He gestured that he was thirsty. Again, we looked at each other. We had all encountered beggars at resort ports before and, in our experience, they won’t stop asking until you stop giving.
What WOULD Jesus do?
My teammate asked me if she should give him the remains of her water bottle, though it had little left. I nodded. He drank it and stood waiting.
For us. The team who had traveled from Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., through countless canceled flights and obstacles and driven six hours from the Dominican Republic to help the hurting.
He was waiting for us and we were questioning how much we should give.
I wanted to scoop him up and take him with us even as we turned our backs in the hope that he would give up and wander away. I saw our Haitian driver watching and wondered what he was thinking. Probably that we’re full of sh*t with our matching church shirts and flawed, here-to-rescue-but-not-to-deeply-sacrifice hearts. I was grateful when a man with no arm came up and danced and sang after our small gift to him. That felt better. He let us feel good about ourselves. Heck, I even tossed that kid a juice box as we were told we should now enter the compound, where few beyond the wall could enter.
I was safe, again. And benevolent.
P.S. This morning, I was awakened by the same 4:30 alarm that I had set yesterday in Santo Domingo on my brand-spanking-new Blackberry Bold. It was shoved deeply inside a zippered pocket that, even when lit up by my chiming phone, I could not quickly figure out how to reach. Somehow I had missed it last night in my feverish search, before calling T-Mobile to shut down my service. I was finally able to shut it off, but somehow I can’t sleep. It is still pouring rain outside and thousand of families are huddled in feeble huts with walls fashioned from soggy sheets. It. is. their. life. now.
P.S.S. I thought I would write to you of the horrors and ugliness of what we witnessed today – instead, I have shown you my own. May God – and you, who have sent me here to do God’s bidding – forgive me. Rather than patting me on the back and assuring me that I’m still wonderful, please fervently pray with me that He will change me to live like Him. It is the only way our world will ever change.
Last P.S. The day has begun and the skies have cleared. I can tell, because the Haitians are up. Singing.
It seems it should be tougher than this:
1. God put a desire in my heart to go to Haiti.
2. I prayed that He would guide me, if my wishes reflected His, and then I expressed my desire publicly.
3. Within two days, I received an invitation to go from someone I’d never met.
4. I shared with friends and family my desire to help Haiti meet its needs.
5. My friends and family helped me reach my necessary financial goal.
6. Today, I spent the day boxing up the supplies provided by caring neighbors.
7. Monday, a generous company is providing the shipping.
8. Next Sunday, my husband and I, along with a team of eight others, will board a flight for Haiti.
9. For nearly a week, we will meet medical, physical and spiritual needs in a country that desperately needs us.
When it is God’s will, there is a way.
You don’t have to sit at home in your chair, wishing you could help.
If you can’t get the images out of your head of hundreds of thousands living in the streets and mud, left without family, food, shelter or health – if you ache to be there beside them, lifting them in any way possible from their desolation – maybe you’re in the middle of Step 1.
You’re just a prayer away from the rest.
Weatherizing our Haiti home (we will leave it in Haiti for another family’s use) in front of our USA home. Can anyone make sense of God’s lottery?
My daughter is an amazing and talented person. Last night, she opened up to me and shared that she has been resistant to my plans to go to Haiti, because she is afraid for me.
It’s true, there are risks.
She understands, because she is heading to Swasiland in Africa this July. At only 17, she, too, has a heart for those who hurt. I know her stamp on this world will be beautiful.
She designed a t-shirt to help us raise funds to help Haiti. Like her, it brings happy tears to my eyes:
Savannah’s tees can be ordered for $20/black or $15/white. All proceeds after cost go to Haiti.