Haiti Blog Post #1 March 13-14, 2019
My last trip to Haiti was in April 2018 when I traveled with Anderson Cooper and his CNN production team, Susan, Bryan and Neil. We shared a wonderful few days working with the children served by WWO in the mountainous community of Kenscoff where WWO has its programs since the earthquake of January 2010. That film can be seen on our YouTube channel and was part of the CNN "Champions for Change" segment that appeared in mid-June 2018.
I loved being with the kids and the teachers who we have trained over the years. Anderson and I were able to visit with a family of boys who had survived the earthquake 9 years ago. One of those boys, Monley, who is now 14 years of age, was trapped in the rubble of his home for 8 days and survived and Anderson and the CNN team were in Port au Prince to witness Monley's discovery and recovery. WWO has supported the education of Monley and his two older brothers all these years through the kindness of an anonymous donor.
Now I return for the 20th plus time to Haiti for a service trip with 3 caring men, Joel Lubin, Jason Barrett, and Eric von Broock who know one another from college and work. My intrepid photographer, Ed Collier, is taking care of us again and he has traveled to Bulgaria, Ethiopia and Haiti since 2016 to help us tell the story of WWO. Ed is a great roommate. He played Motown last night while organizing the photos and video he took on Wednesday. I wrote this blog and ate Oreo cookies that Ed bought for me in Giant on our way up the mountain. We each had a glass of wine and laughed and talked as we worked.
We got off a pleasant 3 hour flight from JFK and then we headed through immigration with some moments of missing immigration forms here and there and then we were picked up by our Haiti team and drivers. Off to lunch at the Oasis Hotel and then we dropped off our gear and visited One Way Orphanage in Fermathe to do an art project care of Martin Brouillette, who is our Art Ambassador. He will be proud to see what the kids did today….and what we, as service learners, did as well. Very fun! We were given a tour of the orphanage and saw the rooms of the boys and girls and then we learned about the social background of the 37 kids who live with Claudette at the orphanage.
One third of the kids in this orphanage have no parents and two thirds may have one parent. Those with one parent see that parent during a holiday once a year….. perhaps. The parents in these cases live too far away for their jobs and cannot afford to come and visit their child. The children cannot go home because the parent is working and there is no opportunity for an education in that location. It is a very sad and enigmatic situation here in Haiti. There are attachment issues on both sides. Kids grow up with trauma and disconnection that is generational. I am not matter of fact about this matter. I am confused and always wondering how we can intervene and disrupt this very toxic way of life here in Haiti.
Many children take so many years to get an education because there is not enough money to send kids to school. Public education is in disarray. Most schools are private and the costs are too high. Kids often don’t finish high school until their mid-twenties. The school day may have several sessions to accommodate all the kids in the community. I love the children in uniforms walking along the roads at all times of the day.
The visitors/service learners who came to visit WWO in Haiti this week were very interested in the social and family history and were compassionate for the kids. It is all new to them and they are eagerly trying to understand Haitian culture and they want to be generous to the children. Our work with kids who are living in orphanages involves music, dance, theater, skits, art, sport, recreation, and hiking. We even have a camp for kids living with HIV as part of a partnership with SeriousFun Children’s Network (Paul Newman foundation).
Today, we will all attend pre-school and the many volunteers will hold the hands of the very young children and there will be singing and dancing and many smiling faces…and then there will be snacks to reward the children for their hard work and sweetness.
Then we will spend the afternoon at a public school playing soccer, steal the old man’s bundle, musical chairs, and rope jumping…yippee….my fav!
I will hopefully meet with the staff to find out how they are feeling after the past month of protests against the government – burning tires, obstructed roads, little access to clean water, expensive and scarce food and poor access to gas for transportation to work. WWO Haiti was closed for two weeks and the children in Kenscoff did not play. School was closed and it was a very anxious and stressful time.
It is Thursday and I am getting ready for the day.
Haiti Blog Post #2 March 14-15, 2019
What an amazing day. We ate a hardy breakfast at Auberge Bellecour, our B & B, and Romel one of the owners made sure that we had everything we like. We also bought treats at the Giant supermarket in Latin Quarter, Port au Prince…..peanut butter, Nutella, Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Soy Milk, Sprite, Coke, Snapple., Beer, wine, and you already heard about the Oreo cookies that are my favorite cookies ever. They made us les Oeurfs Dur….Hard boiled eggs! I don’t want you to think that we are here to eat, but Romel’s chef skills are legendary.
The morning was jubilant at EFACAP, a local K-8 public school with likely about 300 children in uniform. We started the day with the pre-school cuties playing and painting and singing in little groups with devoted caretakers. The ratio of kids to caretakers is 2:1…and the appearance of this closeness is so warm and loving. The children are held closely. The songs were in French. One of the adult leaders (a young man in his twenties) did a workout routine with the kids so that they could learn how to exercise and know their body parts…..turning and swaying and moving their heads and necks gauche (left) and droite (right). It was better than a Jane Fonda workout! I speak some French and it is fun to catch up on some words I know.
Painting and music activities are set up for kids in small groups and I chose to paint a picture of a tree while the kids made handprints on paper. Please see the photo with the blog later. We gathered outside the classroom where the kids were practicing throwing little colored balls into a pail. They are learning color, shapes, eye-hand coordination and cooperation. Joel Lubin, one of our service learners juggled those same little colored balls and then spilled the pail of the balls over his head; he was a silly clown eager to entertain the kids and I have a short video so you can hear the laughter and joy. Was such a thrill to see the service group get engaged.
Today we were abundantly overdosing on cuteness.
Then I met with the entire WWO staff at the office and had a wonderfully honest and tender conversation with them about their struggle with the political unrest in Port au Prince in the last couple of months. They were frightened and explained that there was little access to clean drinking water. They couldn’t get much food because the prices were too high. Then there were groups of people setting tires on fire and they couldn’t breathe. Roads were closed up to Kenscoff where WWO has its office. There was little gas for transportation for those in Delmas in Port au Prince. The staff was trapped and unable to work with the kids and the office had to close. Ticiana, the chief of program at WWO, called Jackie, the WWO Haiti Director, daily to check on the 15 member staff and volunteers. It was sad to hear that the staff were unable to reach all the families who participate in WWO programs to let them know that the office was closed. They were brave and caring and I am glad that this political moment has calmed down and that WWO is back up and running and that the staff are safe.
We participated in a very scientific discussion about sex led by senior staffer Alex Hercules and the guests and I joined the girls in their responses about their perceptions about the word, “Sex”. It was open and easy to share our thoughts with the girls and there was no embarrassment and the girls seemed quite prepared to discuss preventing pregnancy and protecting themselves from disease. I was very impressed and I think their education was very sophisticated for a country where there is a catholic majority and lots of church/evangelical culture. Brava, girls!
Another group of youth were learning to sew and some very talented young women sewed their own dresses and then created a runway show for us at the after school program. These young women are ready to be the next generation of fashion designers.
We went back to EFACAP and witnessed a field day extravaganza with soccer and balloons tied to ankles in a combination of capture the flag, musical chairs and tag. I am sorry I missed dominoes and double dutch. I judged some of the events and we gave out lollypops as rewards for the winners. There was also a musical interlude with a group of recorder playing students and teachers. Martin, our art teacher and WWO Art Ambassador, had gifted recorders to the students and voila, they studied and are now performing!
We went back to our rooms to rest and then we ate a hardy dinner of eggplant and beef stew.
Tomorrow we will be at the Toy Library and then we will hike up to the mountain and play soccer and games. We will visit the world famous Haitian art Galerie Monnin at the family home in LaBoule 17 and then register at the Marriott and have dinner with my dear friends, Jean Marc de Matteis and his wife Verena in their home in Petion-ville. We are looking forward to interviewing our service guests to hear about their impressions of their time with WWO.
Up early on Saturday to catch our planes. We will be sorry to leave our service mates. We were a very compatible group and we will hopefully have another opportunity to see one another in the future.
Haiti Blog #3 March 16-17, 2019
Fabulous last day in Kenscoff
Music in Motion
Thank yous to the WWO team
Lunch at Bellecour
Dinner with Jean Marc de Matteis and his wife Verena and their very special friends
Flight out of Port au Prince
Leaving Haiti and arriving in the USA
Final leg home to New York City
I returned to New York City at 2:30 am Sunday…..see the end story about our 18 hour ordeal from Port au Prince to JFK….
I saw Haitian people everywhere in Soho on my walk on Sunday and well….everywhere. I knew them well. I said, Sak Passe and they said Na Boule….Ca va? Ca va!. I had spent 4 fabulous days with Haitian children and the staff at WWO…and then in Toussaint Louverture airport where I was trapped because our JetBlue flight was finally canceled 8 hours after it was supposed to depart.
I missed Haiti…even though I had a traumatic day leaving and even though the country is so desperately in trouble and the conditions of late are “alarming”….a word used by a Haitian woman who I befriended at the airport…..but I love Haiti….oh, so sad….I love her and fear her….
On Friday, March 15, after our 8 am breakfast, the service rangers headed over to the WWO office and took part in the toy library and the music in motion session for the young children. There were lots of teachers to connect with the kids and to show their love and commitment. I have bongo (donated to WWO from CDI) drumming still in my head along with the French songs and the teaching of colors and numbers with the colored panel parachute moving up and down over the kids and teachers reciting.
Then the WWO team surprised us all with amazing gifts for our time in Kenscoff. We all received Haiti bracelets which we will wear until they literally fall off; other gifts were plates, a vase, and sculptures showing traditional ways in which Haitians work; we also bought some necklaces and bracelets from a volunteer at WWO to bring back to our families and friends….what a bargain at $3?!
Joanne, a teacher, represented the WWO team and thanked me along with the visitors for coming and hoped for growth of the work in the future. Much of that growth will depend on money raised in the USA. Fingers crossed.
I hugged each team member and thanked them. I had spent time the day before going over the nuts and bolts of how we might grow the structure of the team with more sharing of responsibilities to make the work less challenging and more fun. I felt a solid connection between myself and the team during that meeting. I love them all for the sacrifices they make here in Haiti.
Then we had a great spaghetti lunch at Bellecour, our B & B.
Off to the hike up the mountain
I walked a little bit, but I didn’t want to overdo it and be crippled by the time I went home on Saturday. The service rangers and Ed, our photographer, walked the entire way. They are in good shape. The car took me up and I was ready for some other activities. There was a knotted rope that reached the length of the line of children so that they could hold onto the rope for safety. Many teachers kept the kids safe as motorcycles and cars passed by.
It was a very pretty day with plenty of blue sky and sun and we all took photos of our travel group and the WWO team so we can remember our amazing time in Haiti. The photos will be posted in the next few days. I especially loved the profile of the deforested mountains viewed at the edge of the brick colored clay soccer field…the size of two fields with the Papa Doc unfinished presidential palace behind us. I have a red nose from the sun…forgot my sunblock.
We observed hundreds of other young people playing soccer, riding their donkey’s across the field and a wild game of musical chairs with just the required tightly held bodies in a group of 5 when the music stopped. Great energy! These were youth with hormones surging and uproarious laughter. Laughter in Haiti is the signature of their culture.
I looked at my watch every few minutes to make sure we would be on time for the Galerie Monnin and was disappointed to leave the gifted Alex, our Program Manager, to begin the games for the EFACAP kids in the circle. We headed down to LaBoule via route 101 to see my friend Toni Monnin’s celebrated art gallery formerly in Petion-ville and now in the family home at Laboule 17. She and her family have a very large collection of local Haitian art which is frequently shown in cities all over the world. Her daughters, Gael and Pascale, run the gallery which is going to become a not for profit museum in the years to come. Looks like it is on its way already. The gallery has supported the poorest artists for more than 40 years…
Gael took us on a tour of her grandparent’s home which I have visited many times when Toni Monnin, her mother, lived there fulltime. It looks like a home and a gallery. The walls are lit by the natural light from the sun with paintings and sculptures artistically displayed. I had a vision of the times we had dinner with Toni and when I brought other service guests in years past. Suddenly I saw a silver door and recalled that it was a washroom; I opened the door and it still had the whimsical portrait of 3 women in black graphic female shapes on the wall hidden behind the toilet; I had to remove the towel to see them. I had this moment where I thought I heard guests laughing and drinking enticing wine and food prepared by Toni’s housekeeper/cook of decades. Gael reminded me that it was Anna and she has since passed. Pierre who is working for Gael in the kitchen, served us fried plantains and yucca with Prestige (Haitian) beer. The beer was definitely a pleasantly cold and easy beer to drink swiftly. I was thirsty, I guess.
Gael expressed her feelings about the stress of living in Haiti. She grew up there and the recent riots in the streets of Port au Prince with the closing of route 101 up to La Boule, Thomasson, Fermathe, and Kenscoff were definitely distressing. I wanted to get her feelings about the Haiti she loves. She even mentioned that a friend was having challenges getting pregnant and her physician thought that the stress of living in Haiti was the cause. She left and became pregnant easily. This feeling in Haiti is like the mystery of why Haiti struggles as it does….what are the explanations? I read a lot and I am still not sure why the politics and government are in chaos and why there is no infrastructure…..and yet, this trip revealed some changes which were promising….ie. the building of roads in Kenscoff and north to Godet. A chance meeting with another passenger who grew up in Haiti revealed more about how Haitians live….she felt that the recent unrest was “alarming”.
Then Ed filmed 5 minute interviews of each of the service rangers….they each sat on an outdoor couch and answered my pointed questions about their experience this past three days in Haiti. They were not prepped and just spoke from their hearts. They had enjoyed the staff and the children immensely and they were relaxed and feeling good about their time with WWO. I was proud of each of them…they were not fussy and had not complained about any of the hardships of life in Haiti. They observed and respected all those who they met. They loved the children and wanted to help their lives be successful.
Off and running to the Marriott hotel for our last night in Haiti
We checked in and just had enough time to put our bags down and change a shirt….maybe. I had no time to do anything….washed my hands and ran back downstairs to be driven to our last dinner in Haiti.
Jean Marc de Matteis and his wife Verena have a warm and loving home
They were born in Haiti and attended college in the US and have lived their whole lives mostly in Haiti. They have two school age children and they work and live in Bourdon and love their country. They invited interesting friends to join in for a relaxing and fun evening to show us hospitality in native Haiti. Jean Marc was very helpful to me when I had to cancel the trip and he provided support and logic for rescheduling the trip for this past week.
We ate gourmet food: squash soufflé, salad, baked chicken, mushroom biscuits, and black rice. There was plentiful red and white wine and from what I could tell, everyone was enjoying their conversations and their dinner. Lichi sorbet was the dessert…perfect flavor! I sat next to Jene Thomas, the USAID Director in Haiti. He has been living there for many years and is off to Peru for his next assignment. He has lived in 12 countries over the last 30 years and expressed his sadness about leaving Haiti, but he is very excited to learn about Lima, Peru and he has loved all of his adventures with USAID. Jene is a talented administrator at USAID and has accomplished sweeping change for thousands of people in need during his career. Bravo, Jene Thomas!
Other guests were HIV professionals from the UK, Tessa and Nat Sagren and Nada who runs a private flight health rescue service in Haiti. Tessa and Nat save thousands of people living with HIV in Haiti…they are heroes for sure. Nada must also be saving people with emergencies….we will keep her contact for the future.
Today we awakened early and had breakfast in the Marriott. Then we drove to the airport, Toussaint Louverture, and said goodbye to the service group, Joel, Jason, and Erik who flew out to get back to LA and New York. I met a former WWO volunteer, Clifford, who helps people with their pathway through the airport….reservations, immigration, etc….it was nice to see him.
Ed and I spent 11 hours in the airport waiting for our JetBlue flight to take off…..our plane had a mechanical issue which could not be fixed….there were JetBlue flights to Boston, Philadelphia and Orlando scheduled for the rest of the day , but there was almost no communication from the staff and we sat sadly waiting for news. Leaving for the restroom required a path through the x-ray machine and the removal of shoes etc. I must have followed this routine 10 times on Saturday.
I schemed in my mind to get on another carrier, but decided to wait to see if we would get on another JetBlue plane. Alas, I ended up leaving the flight area and went back to the reservations counter to get on a flight to Orlando. There was just too much chaos at the desk near the planes. My traveling companion’s JetBlue app displayed that he was magically changed to the Orlando flight and my app did not display this same good news. We discovered that JetBlue was actually automatically trying to put the New York travelers on the Orlando plane without even telling anyone.
You can probably imagine the upset of all the travelers squeezed into a very small waiting area for the entire day with limited and sparse communication. There were 13 elderly women in wheel cheers who needed to be maneuvered in an elevator to get them on their respective flights. They sat alone for hours unattended.
The final steps of our take off to Orlando were fraught with many twists and turns, but we did finally find seats on that plane and arrived safely in Orlando at 8:30 pm. I actually had to find my way back to JetBlue reservations to get a boarding pass; this then required that I go through security and customs again! What perseverance! Landing back in the US of A was exhilarating! Went through the Global Entry and felt safe and sound!
We then had a snack at an airport bar and I spoke with a very interesting woman who is a board member for Fon koze, microfinance NGO in Haiti. WWO has a partnership with them in Kenscoff….a very small world. We will continue our conversation in Manhattan!
Ed and I were on the last flight of the day from Orlando to JFK. A Snickers bar is giving me the last bit of energy I need to finish this blog. I bought Oreos for Ed to keep him nourished for his 3 ½ hour drive to Massachusetts from JFK once we arrive at 1 am.
My driver picked me up outside jetBlue and we made it back to New York in 30 minutes on a sat night…..in the door by 2:30 am and I unpacked and showered and went to bed.
I slept 4 hours and then decided that the best remedy for 18 hours of travel was to walk in the West Village, have an omelette at Pannino and then head to Soho to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day in the city.
All I could think about was the amazing days in Haiti with my 3 intrepid Orphan Rangers, Joel, Jason, and Erik…they were into it….they loved the children and the staff and played hard!. They made the staff feel a sense of purpose and appreciation. They will be remembered.
And finally, I felt proud. WWO in Haiti….awesome achievements building capacity for the staff and the children who are headed for a better life. I must believe this and trust that what we do makes a difference in an enigmatic island country…with inexplicable issues.