The remembrance of January 12, 2010, for many is like having open heart surgery without anesthesia. In less than one minute loved ones were buried and were never to be seen again. More than 200,000 bodies, many not identified, were buried in a mass grave on the mountainside in Titiyan. It is painful to drive past the mountain wondering if this is the final resting place of students, employees, friends and family members who were never found by us.
On that day, 10 years ago. I was in Colorado getting a root canal. While driving home from Denver back home to Woody Creek, Colorado, my cell rang. It was Joe, my husband. He told me to pull over immediately. I could not as I was just entering the Eisenhower Tunnel and could not turn back and there was no place inside the tunnel to safely pull off. As I entered the tunnel I heard a woman screaming from my cell.”They are all dead!” I thought I recognized the voice as our orphanage director.
“Joe, what is going on?” At that moment I lost cell connection. It took a full 3 minutes to reach the other side of the tunnel with traffic and snow holding us in a slow motion pattern. I was stunned. “Who is dead?” “What the heck is happening?” I gripped the steering will and prayed it was not our children. Had the gangs in the area of the orphanage attacked again. Had there been a mudslide?
“My God!” Joe said when I finally got him back on the line. “Susie, I have Madam Erline on the line! There’s been an earthquake” The connection with Haiti and Madam Erline was cutting in and out. “
Now I was yelling into the phone. “Who is dead?”
“There are dead people everywhere.” She replied, weeping. The background noise was chaotic mixed with frantic wailing and screams. Joe and I could hear rumbling and popping as if buildings were still shifting. And then a huge crash. The line went dead once again. “By now I was in a full blown panic.” We had 130 children in our orphanage in the Cazeau area of Port au Prince. Over half of them had been thrown away, abandoned, and place with us due to disabilities or illnesses considered terminal. All of the children were fragile and in need of daily medical care.
Joe turned on CNN and put his phone to the speaker. “Just get home. It’s bad, Susie.” I would not know the depth of loss until 5 days later when I was able to fly to the Dominican Republic and drive with a team 4 volunteers over the border into Haiti. I never was able to reach Madam Erline again. Until days later I found her and several neighbors huddles together under a small tree in her back yard.
7 hours after crossing the DR border into Haiti we arrived at the orphanage. The walls had fallen and the entire property was infested with squatters. The children and remaining staff where hiding within the storage and water supply buildings. They were terrified. The squatters where not threatening but all the food and supplies had be stolen by looters. All but one of our Vehicles was crushed in Port-au-Prince. We would find out 2 days later after safely delivering our children and staff to the Archaie campus, that our maternity hospital had disappeared into the earth. Gone. Nothing left. Not even a file cabenet was intact.
We started moving the staff and orphans to the safety of HaitiChildren’s campus in Arachaie (check spelling) Haiti. We created a convoy of trucks from other organizations who had come to help during the disaster.
We drove through the rubble searing for our students, friends and family. There was no electricity, no water, no fuel. People lay on bundles of linens and clothing lining the streets. No one dared to go into the buildings that were still standing. Many were still wailing over missing or dead loved ones. The skies where thick with dust that distorted the suns red hue giving an eerie apocalyptic impression, would later recall thinking the world was coming to an end. You see, no one knew that this was only happening in Port au Prince. They did not know the whole earth was not shaking and opening to swallow everything that sat above the great cracks.
Communication was nearly impossible as there was no way to charge phones. I had brought satellite phones from Colorado, but service was sporadic. In the Dominican Republic we bought a truckload of water and supplies. We arranged to have friends with boats on other islands in the Caribbean to bring in thousands of diapers, food, fuel and medicine.
Every member of the HaitiChildren staff, over 200, lost someone. Every student in our schools lost someone. We never heard again from the people who were simply “missing”. For weeks the sound of pickaxes filled the long days and nights. There would be times when someone would hear a faint “tap, tap, tap” far beneath the rubble. Someone was still alive down there but had long since lost their strength to scream for help. Then, everyone would start digging and carrying slabs of broken cement. “Hurry! Hurry!” Then hours later a blood and dirt covered man, woman or child would be pulled through an opening.
Many institutions were destroyed. We were asked to take dozens of children for whom the GOH has no resources to establish permanent care. Our family grew.
Every child was in need of emotional and psychiatric care. Not just the ones that came to us during the days following the earthquake but every child that had been left to die by someone they trusted had deep emotional wounds. Some come with scars on their skin, but all come with scars on their heart. We knew we needed help. Through friends we were able to build a partnership with Mount Sinai Pediatric Medical Center (check with Robin Hamill about name). They have sent teams over the years to help each of our children through the long journey of healing. We now have a pediatric psychiatrist on campus as well.
So many of the children that are placed with HaitiChildren also have physical disabilities. Often that is the reason they were abandoned. We’ve worked for many years to build a facility with a strong medical and physical therapy team so that each child would have the best medical care available in Haiti. Some of the children who for years had to be carried from their bed to our Physical Therapy Center can now walk on their own.
I believe in miracles. It’s a miracle every time a child hugs me or one of our volunteers or staff members. There is always that look in an abandoned child’s eyes. They are either scared to death or they have stopping feeling anything at all. Sometimes it takes months before you see a sign that they have any expectation at all that they are worth feeding or having their hair combed or their feet played with. And then one day, there it is! They reach out for you when you are leaving their bedside. A miracle.
In the Aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake:
Thoughts on Haiti Earthquake:
Fast Forward to 10 years later:
HaitiChilden established its own village also known as, The Williamson Campus. The HaitiChildren Village is located approximately 40 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince in the Arcahaie Arrondissement Community. The village is situated on 18 acres that is completely walled to ensure the safety of the children. It is comprised of three residence buildings for the orphans: one for the disabled and sick children, one for the girls, one for the boys, a therapy center, two schools for the Learning Academy, a special needs school, employee housing, security building, a soccer field, three 3,000 square foot greenhouses, an outdoor recreation center with two water therapy pools and a community center and church building which houses the staff offices, cafeteria and the food warehouses.
HaitiChildren Village is home to 119 abandoned Haitian children. Sixty-six of our children suffer from mental and/ or physical disabilities, without the presence of HaitiChildren these children would have been abandoned as a result of the cultural beliefs around deformities being a curse of sorcery and Voodoo. In all of our nine programs HaitiChildren employees 170 Haitians providing them with a consistent income in an otherwise volatile job market. The Learning Academy within the HaitiChildren Village provides an educational curriculum to 300 students annually. These children are provided with a curriculum of mathematics, geography, French, grammar, health, sciences and history among other subjects. The Learning Center also provides the children that attend one hot meal a day. These children otherwise would in most cases not be provided a meal cutting down on their nutritional intake for the day.
Chili when she was found
Chili at HaitiChildren
Over the years seven of our children have grown up and are now able to live on their own outside of the orphanage. Two of them have been admitted to college to further their education. Five more will be receiving scholarships in the near future. With fewer than 30% of Haitians making it to 6th grade we are beyond excited to have two of our children now following their dreams and attending college.
HaitiChildren Village operates a community service program which includes conferences on health, business, civic duties, community and family planning, to approximately 600 people a month developed by Pastor Claude and visiting professionals. Within the HaitiChildren Village we have soccer fields that offer a playing field to 50 children who come to play from outside of the orphanage.
As a result of the lack of access to clean water, HaitiChildren has also installed three wells. Two of the wells are on our campus and one is in Cazeau. These wells serve approximately 3,000 people per day. HaitiChildren takes pride in providing the vital service of clean water to our children and the local villagers to help cut down on the spread of water borne illnesses and diseases.
Aside from the campus, HaitiChildren saw the need for education in Cite Soleil which is the most dangerous and poorest cities within Haiti. It is in the same vicinity where HaitiChildren began in 1994. HaitiChildren established the Community Institute of Teaching and Education C.I.T.E School providing school classes to 300 students as well as one meal a day.
In total HaitiChildren impacts the lives of 4,650 people through our programs monthly. We are proud of how far we have come in the last 10 years. Growing from the rubble of the devastating hurricane to building a flourishing campus, serving and saving the lives of 119 children to grow and develop, assisting the community by providing them educational institutions and providing our village and others with potable drinking water and emergency nutritional services. While Haiti is a complex nation with many hurdles to jump, we look forward to the next 10 years and the positive impact we can continue to have on our children and the local villagers.
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