A Gift from Haiti

When I first went to Haiti in 2003, I wasn’t entirely prepared — because who could be? — for the poverty I encountered. Our pink-painted guesthouse, situated on a crowded dirt road in a middle-class neighborhood of Port au Prince, was next door to an orphanage for disabled children. Being the tough-but-tender souls that we were, our little group decided to walk right up and ask for a tour. The orphanage was run by two Haitian men who looked to be in their late 20s. They’d taken over when the previous director, an American missionary, developed a pill and alcohol addiction and one night let an unattended kerosene lamp topple over, burning several of the children so badly that they were now bed-ridden.

The two-story concrete building seemed strangely clean, given that, like the rest of the neighborhood, the orphanage experienced daily power failures and water shortages. Their biggest current need, our tour guide said, was soap. Soap? we asked, thinking we’d missed something. No, we’d heard right: soap.

We looked into a room where one of the co-directors was feeding a severely hydrocephalic girl through a stomach tube. The other children who needed pureed food were out of luck — the orphanages’s single blender was broken. We walked from room to room, stroking children as they lay with wide eyes in their oversized cribs. Finally, I began to hang back from the group, filled with a mortal dread of seeing any more. One of the ladies amongst us burst into tears. Our tour guide looked at her blankly. We’d brought some 500 bars of soap with us to Haiti, and scurried back to our guesthouse to get some. I sent a blender when I got home, but it took two months to arrive. I don’t know if the orphanage survived the recent earthquake, but, given its location, I suspect it didn’t. Now when I go on site visits to agencies in the United States, agencies close to home and with many serious problems of their own, I bring with me the one gift manufactured only in places like Haiti: perspective.


Melanie Wilson is Youth Catalytics’ Research Director.