I have been to Haiti five times in the last two years. I have seen the destruction of the earthquake and the extreme poverty of downtown Port-au-Prince. I don't think this is anything one gets accustomed to, but seeing Haiti is different than hearing or reading about Haiti - every time. I have been to many poor countries in my life - India, Cambodia - but Haiti is still the extreme in terms of poverty, overpopulation, and lack of infrastucture. You will not see any foreigners taking tap-taps, the local taxi system, but there are plenty of UN and other vehicles that transport the numerous NGO employees and volunteers around.
I had become involved with St. Damien hospital through a Brown alumnus Patrick Moynihan, who runs a top-notch free boarding school in Haiti for underprivelged children. On my first visit to Haiti in March of 2010, I was introduced to Father Rick Frechette, the national manager of NPFS Haiti and founder of St. Damien Hospital. When I first laid eyes on St. Damien Hospital it was like a jewel in the rough. As a pediatric infectious diseases doctor in a children's hospital in the United States, it was reassuring, if only a familiar scene, to see humanity shining in such a place. It is without a doubt the premier and only children's hospital in Haiti; the level of care and commitment of the medical, nursing, and administrative staff is unparalleled. Father Rick and the staff at St. Damien model the power of individual commitment and perseverance. I have since come to realize that, in Haiti, NPFS not only runs two hospitals, but also a rehabilitation clinic, and several orphanages.
A colleague and I, prompted by the kindness and generosity of a family who adopted an HIV positive patient, decided to sponsor a child through Friends of the Orphans in this family's honor. We co-sponsored Nacia this November and from the first letter and picture we have been rewarded beyond words. I knew that I would be traveling back to Haiti this January and wanted to have the chance to meet our new godchild. I had the delightful opportunity to ride up to the Kenscoff Orphanage with Maximo, the driver of a Land Rover defender 120, a tough truck. He was a pleasant gentleman, and he picked up several weary travelers along the way, which only solidified to me that he was a genuinely good guy. The travel from St. Damien in Tabarre to the orphanage in Kenscoff was about a 2 hour drive, and it lead straight up into the mountains of Haiti. As the port disappeared, the countryside opened up to a rural landscape with steps on the side of mountains and areas of agricultural bounty. The smog and pollution melted away into the cold air of the mountains as palm trees gave way to evergreens.
When you enter the gates of the orphanage, an oasis opens up, almost seeming as if a mirage has appeared. There are enough buildings to house and school over 850 children. The campus is enormous and the backdrop is endless wooded mountainous area. Once we reached the orphanage, we stopped first at the Kay Germain house, a home for disabled children. Right away a teenage boy with spastic quadrapelgia caught my eye as he mustered up a salutation. Having grown up in a home with 2 adopted brothers with disabilities, and countless foster children, I jumped right into tickling and teasing this young man. We were both pleased with our interactions, and he was mimicking my English greetings with a giggle in his voice. I could tell right away that this was a place where all children are loved.
I was eager to meet Nacia and trotted behind the volunteer leading me to her class having time outdoors. I had grabbed some things to give to her and was happy that I had brought some skittles, stickers, and animal flash cards. These were the biggest hits, as everyone in their "house" or classroom shares everything. So I passed out some candy and started tacking clothes with stickers, which quickly became stickers on kids noses, faces, foreheads...I was literally swarmed with the young kids - and as a pediatrician and father of 2 young kids, I was so delighted to have all this attention. Nacia was in the bathroom for the first 10 minutes of my visit with her class, and when she saw the raucous I was hopeful she might find it amusing that her godparent was such a clown. After all the goodies were handed out, I started singing and chanting with the children. They sang me several rounds of alouette, but were most pleased when I pretended to fall asleep, snore and then they would startle me awake. They asked me for dormie, dormie, dormie (sleep, sleep, sleep)....now I am sure they have all sorts of fun and imaginative play with each other, but I hope that my silliness offered them a little more laughing material that day.
I was able to spend about 2 hours with the group of children before the sun started to set and dinner was approaching. With the interactions of the kids I had a little glimpse of Nacia, and her personality. She is feisty, as one of her schoolmates tried to take her animal flash card, she let them know that it was hers, gave a real menacing face, and then went right back to smiling again. I had been away from my own kids for about 2 weeks and seeing her and her classmates was a real breath of fresh air to me!
I think some people have mixed feelings about the no-adoption policy of NPFS. How can you deny these kids families? To which I say - you have never seen such a large family! As someone who has dedicated his life to the health of children all around the globe, there is no better program to invest in the future of children than NPFS. While individual efforts and the dedication of people like Father Rick are vastly important, the most meaningful way to support excellent programs like NPFS and Friends of the Orphans is through sponsorship! I have been lucky enough to have a complete experience of my sponsorship, with the opportunity to meet Nacia, but I know that it's only through continued support that all the kids have a chance to shine. Also important to note, I have meet many graduates from the Kenscoff orphanage with my time at St. Damien, some now employed by NPFS and some whom have gone on to become doctors and nurses. There is hope for Haiti, and that hope as it has always been, is the children.