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, hidden behind bougainvillea on a crowded dirt road in a middle-class neighborhood of Port au Prince, was next door to an orphanage for disabled children. The orphanage wasn’t our reason for being in Haiti, but we were bristling with purpose and a desire to help, so 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 quiet and still, and we found that the children were tucked away in their beds though it was barely dinnertime. Like the rest of the neighborhood, the orphanage experienced daily power failures and water shortages. Their biggest current need, our tour guide told us, leading us through a dim and barren common room, was soap. We asked for clarification. Some special kind of soap? A clinical soap? Just soap, he told us.

We looked into a room where one of the co-directors was holding up a bag of liquid food, letting it drip into the stomach tube of a hydrocephalic girl. The other children who needed pureed food were out of luck — the orphanage’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, overcome by dread. I couldn’t bear it — on some cellular level, I simply could not bear to see another thing in this place. I stood motionless while the rest of the group went on. Eventually, with the last of them disappearing around a corner, I forced myself to move.

As we gathered at the door to leave, one of the ladies with us burst into tears. Our tour guide looked at her blankly. We’d brought some 500 bars of soap with us to Haiti, and we scurried back to our guesthouse to fetch a few for them. I sent a blender when I got home, but it took two months to arrive. I don’t know if the orphanage survived the 2010 earthquake, but, given its location, I suspect it didn’t. Now when I go on site visits to child welfare 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.