I was hardly expecting some 40 children to run at me and throw their little arms around me and my companions as we walked through the old metal door onto the grounds of the orphanage. They did not even know us, and yet they were so starved for adult attention and love that they did not care who we were; they were just happy to see us.
This is what became of many children who lost their parents and families in the 2010 Port-Au-Prince earthquake, stuck in makeshift orphanages destined to live their entire childhoods behind shabby fences and on dirt patches. How could one visit and not want to do something in a place of so much need? Hundreds of orphanages like this were set up after the earthquake, and even more before, in a country where children are frequently used for economic gain, either sold by their parents into child slavery or given to organizations, like orphanages, to be exploited.
I had not wanted to get involved in such a massive project since I was already working in development in Haiti. It seems I had enough challenges and stress to deal with every day; why would I want to give myself one more thing to worry about? And yet those children literally fell in my lap, babbling on in their native tongue of Creole, making no sense to me, and rubbing their little liced heads all over my arms and legs. I should have just walked away right then and there and never looked back, but something held me in place, maybe a desire to make more of an impact in a country where I felt my work was not, maybe a need to get closer to the people and communities where I was living. It didn’t help that my two companions, an engineer and architect, were already scheming on ways we could build a structure to get the children out of the sun and rain. This was their comfort zone, and they were already off and running with ideas to build a dormitory in place of the tents.
The Sens Universel orphanage has around 80 children, although half are not technically orphans and go back to their parents when the orphanage runs out of food. An adjacent school on the property can hold up to 300 students on any given day in six small rooms. An adjacent school on the property can hold up to 300 students on any given day in six small rooms. Over the past year and a half, we have worked to raise funds and build the children everything from a proper dormitory with bunk beds and mattresses to a new platform for it to rest on. We have collected clothes, supplies, and toys to give the children and found a local NGO to provide them with food and health items.
Another NGO has donated water filters and set up a piping system so that a water truck can now pump portable water into the reservoir for washing and bathing. A group of volunteers has taught the children how to make bags and necklaces out of trash and recycled products that they can later sell.
What started as just a short visit has turned into an endless project of needs where every time we think we are finished, a new pot of money pops up or a new list of necessities is given to us. Recently, a friend had an idea to film a publicity ad for the One World Soccer Foundation on the orphanage grounds. His artistic clip of the children playing soccer won the film competition, and the orphanage will now be paid actor payments.
Unsolicited money from friends and family continues to pour in as have funds from a private foundation now interested in the project.
As many times as I have tried to wash my hands of this orphanage, both literally and figuratively, there is always a reason calling me back.
However, this time even the strongest reason will not be able to pull me back. My time in Haiti has come to an end, and I must move on.
My friends who initially assisted with the dormitory have also left, and extra help seems scarce these days. For this reason, I am putting this out to the universe: if you ever find yourself in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti in the near or distant future, looking for a project, a way to feel more relevant, or even just looking for a pair of little arms to squeeze you for a while, I have a place for you that needs all the helping hands and love it can get. Sens Universel in French literally means “universal sense or meaning”. Perhaps they meant a place where everyone is welcome, or perhaps even more fitting, they meant a place without boundaries, all encompassing, where love spills out onto all those who visit from afar, just through a child’s simple hug.