Black Press reporter Katherine Engqvist followed a team representing the Westshore Rotary Club as they travelled to Haiti to assess the needs of two orphanages. The following is the first installment in a four-part series highlighting some of the people they met with along the way.
The road to the Divine Hands Orphanage near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is dotted with mauve hibiscus growing wild along banks scattered with garbage.
“I’ve never been to this part of Haiti … It’s almost like going over the Malahat,” said Langford resident and Glenwood Meats owner Rick Fisher. He’s lost count, but this is roughly his 10th time venturing to Haiti on humanitarian trips.
Approximately six months ago the orphanage’s director, Doris Abraham, decided to pack up everything she could and relocate after discussions with her new landlord. It was a move that landed her in the hospital. Now, she stands on the side of the main road, waiting for a group of special visitors. The little round woman is beaming as she flags down the truck carrying a group of Westshore Sunrise Rotary volunteers. A smile spreads across her freckled face and she wraps Rotarian and Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett in a bear hug.
The new location is more than an hour’s drive from the previous. But it’s further into the countryside, away from the city. Two oleander bushes frame the front entrance, which is packed with smiling children. The team arrives with Lays potato chips and juice boxes – as well as enough chicken and vegetables to make a proper feast. The children all wait patiently for everyone to get a bag before tearing into them, older children helping smaller ones. Little hands reach down to feed the small dogs that wait patiently under the wooden benches. Others trade sips of the different flavours of juice.
“This is so much better than before … you should have seen the neighbourhood they came from, it was awful,” Beckett said.
Hilary Groos, a Victoria resident and the wife of a Rotarian that has made the trip twice in the past, translates for Doris as she sits down with the team. “The kids feel better here … The insects are way less,” she noted.
Little treasures and stuffed animals line tables beside bunk beds. The girls stay in rooms inside the house, while the older boys stay in a dorm outside the main building. It was constructed by the Westshore team on a previous trip. When they moved, Doris had it reassembled at the new location. “That’s how we designed it,” Beckett said proudly, as he examines their handiwork.
Through Groos, Doris noted they’ve rigged up what they could for electricity and lighting. Issues with power also affect the delivery of water, which is pumped from a 180-foot well into two holding tanks, and from there, “everything is carried by hand into the house,” Doris added.
When Doris and the children arrived at the new property the well was dry and had to be re-dug by hand. “We did that in Ethiopia once and it scared the willies out of me,” said Saanich Coun. Leif Wergeland, part of the volunteer group.
The electricity is usually on for five or six hours a day, just enough time to fill the tanks, but Doris noted they often run out of water when the power’s off for extended periods.
On the other side of the entrance is a small makeshift shelter, protecting a cage containing roughly 40 chickens. They produce enough eggs to provide another source of protein, but in the future Doris would like to expand their operation to 160 chickens so she’ll also be able to sell eggs.
A little boy named Tyson has taken a special interest in the project. He hauls a bucket filled to the brim with water over to the cage. As he climbs on a rock ledge, the bucket – about a third of his size – teeters dangerously. He manages to keep it balanced while he continues up the side of the cage, pouring the water through a drip line the chickens can drink from.
A large perimeter wall topped with barbed wire encloses the front and sides of the orphanage, but it slowly disappears as you climb the hill to the house, leaving the back half of the property exposed. “And that’s a problem for them,” Beckett notes as he tours the property.
Doris allows a man and his family, including his four children, to live in a little concrete room attached to the house. In exchange, he provides security and does odd jobs around the property.
Originally from the Dominican Republic, Doris has personally lost five pregnancies and while she has no biological family of her own, she notes “the children are my family.” But it hasn’t been an easy path to follow, she said, noting it’s incredibly difficult and at times she fears she’ll have to give it up. She looks to the group in front of her, tears sting at her eyes while discussing what the Westshore Rotary Club is able to help her with. “Please realize this means an incredible amount to me and the kids,” she adds.
Fisher shakes his head, “there’s no end to their immediate need.”
While the group is there to help her purchase a long list of items such as a generator, more chickens, mattresses and food, they are also assessing the viability of purchasing the land the orphanage sits on. This will free up about $4,000 US annually earmarked for rent.
Later riding in the back of the truck, the orphanage disappearing from view, Wergeland turns to the group. “When you leave a place like this, you can either remember something like all of the garbage, or you can remember the smiling faces of the children,” he said.
Jonathan, the boy with the gloves
A little boy adjusts the bright red work gloves he wears on each hand. It’s not immediately clear why he’s wearing them, until he shuffles and his two wooden crutches come into view. One of his legs is completely gone, while a prosthetic masks his missing right foot. His name is Jonathan and back in January, Bruce Brown and other Westshore Rotary volunteers arranged to have him fitted with artificial limbs.
Rick Fisher smiles at him and the 10-year-old returns the gesture. “I’ve got a funny feeling he got crushed by some concrete (in the earthquake) and they must have cut his leg off to get him out … he’s got quite a scar on his head (too),” Fisher said. “(But) he’s amazing playing soccer with the other kids.”
Doris Abraham, the Divine Hands Orphanage director, pipes up, noting “he’s a really bright young kid.” While she is very careful to take him to all of his follow-up appointments, he only likes to wear one of his prosthetics at a time. Doris notes that Jonathan’s mother, who was very young at the time, abandoned him after the quake because she thought he would become a burden.
When he’s not using them, Jonathan’s red gloves get passed along to the younger children. A small boy sits on the front steps pulling them over his small fingers, smiling as he inspects how it looks.
To learn about Rotary’s work in Haiti go to helpforhaiti.ca or for more information on Divine Hands, search La Main Divine Orphelinat on Facebook.