I’m not saying that my trip to Haiti was brave. I’m just saying that it made me worry. Until I saw the children. As always, children change everything.
When I was first contacted by Susan Pocharski, Entertainment Director at Ladies' Home Journal, asking me if I’d like to join them, CrocsCares, and Feed the Children for a trip to Haiti to deliver shoes to school children, I was beyond honored and thrilled. Opportunities like these are rare and there wasn’t an ounce of hesitation when I leaped back with YES! In addition, I was going to be traveling with Real Housewife of New York, Countess LuAnn de Lesseps and mom bloggers, Nicole Feliciano and Catherine Connors, both whom I look up to and admire greatly. I could hardly contain my excitement.
Minutes later, of course, (being me), I was scouring the CDC and US Embassy websites for up-to-date info on all the shots I may need and the security precautions I should take. After all, I thought, Haiti is the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere. Surely, there’s a lot to take into consideration. But in reality… there’s not much disease or security measures to take into consideration anymore than any other poverty-stricken and under-developed country. A country lacking infrastructure means more than unsettled financials, it means unsettled people… and therefore, I’m assuming, unsettled tourists…
Once we got through customs and outside of the airport, it seemed like instant mayhem. While I certainly wasn’t expecting a JFK type arrival with a Carmel Car & Limo to greet me in a luxury sedan, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a mob, of what I think was mostly men, covering the walkway in which we had to walk through to get to our cars that would caravan us through Port Au Prince to our hotel. People were shoving, grabbing bags, even yanking us here and there to come with them. My travel companions, including the lovely Sally Lee, Editor in Chief of LHJ, however, seemed unfazed. Though I did my best to cover it up, I knew she could tell I was nervous, and I definitely was embarrassed. Buck up, Jenny, buck up. But, I felt so far from home… already. Perhaps it’s because Sally had visited Haiti before, I thought… and as an activist, many other third world countries, that this sort of chaos doesn’t penetrate anymore… This is Haiti, everyone kept saying. It’s just chaos.
And it was. During the nearly 2.5 hour drive to our hotel in Petionville (which is approximately 5 miles away from the airport), it was instantly obvious that the devastation from the earthquake in 2010 is ever-present. Tents on the sides of the road, a completely non-existent National Palace and rubble… still… rubble and crumbled facades. What kind of state will these schools be in that we’re visiting? What kinds of needs will these children have that we’ll be delivering shoes to?
Oh, how I couldn’t wait to see the children. I realize it sounds dramatic and maybe a little cheesy, but truly: I needed to touch a child. I needed to see the one thing that I knew would calm me. Of course I was missing my son, but it wasn’t a homesickness that made me ache to get to these schools… It was a need to find a commonality. A need, for even if only an instant, to connect with a group of people whose lives are so different from mine, simply from a survival standpoint. The love of a child though, that binds us together. It really makes us the same. I’m not here to see the devastation and report back. I’m here to give something.
We started our drive to Dufrene early in the morning. Dufrene is a remote and mountainous community about 2 hours outside of Port Au Prince. If you type in Dufrene in Google, you’ll basically get nothing. There are generalities as far as longitude and latitude on various sites, but specifics? Nothing.
According to Feed the Children, the hunger organization partnered with Crocs Cares, there are roughly 13,000 people living in Dufrene and about 1,670 households. Though Crocs has been donating shoes to Haiti since 2007, this was actually their first trip to this area. Because there is pretty much only one, very windy, rocky, dirt road leading up and down the mountain to this area, the access to water and health providers is very limited for these families. In fact, the nearest location to get water is an hour walk down and up the mountain. It is now Feed the Children that reaches these families to provide food, health care and educational supplies. Deliveries are done once a month, sometimes twice a month depending on storage space.
The children at these schools are provided one meal a day while at school and for most of them, this is there only meal for the entire day.
We were all split up into about 5 different SUVs and trucks, carrying the shoes we were going to be delivering. (We delivered around 600 shoes that day. Crocs shipped 4,000 for the community). Our caravan up the mountain was led by country director for Feed the Children, Dr. Stephane Villate. Dr. Villate provides direct oversite to this community (and others in Haiti) and also oversees their clinic in Carrefour.
As I mentioned, the drive from the airport to the hotel was anxiety producing simply because of the sheer pandemonium and the fact that I’m 99.9% sure I didn’t see 1 traffic light. The drive up the mountain to Dufrene, however? Turbulent, tough and jittery, figuratively and literally. At certain points, the cars (all stick shifts) would swerve and skid over the rocky gravel. I can handle bumps, but for those freaked out about driving on the edge of a mountain with no cell signal whatsoever to a place where pretty much no one on the internet could find me (hand raised here), it was a white knuckle/don’t look out the window situation for most of the ride.
Then we got to the first school.
Ecole Bon Berger Ma Kako. Approximately 200 children. The school house was comprised of no more than 2 or 3 different sections, which seemed to be split by ages. The youngest children were 4 and 5, pre-K equivalent… the eldest children were early teens, I’m guessing middle school.
Our set up and shoe drop was lead by Melissa Koester, Manager of Crocs Cares, who has worked with Crocs to provide happy and healthy feet to children and families around the world. Crocs has donated to developing countries, areas that have been hit by natural disaster and to families in the US who simply need a little help. Since 2007, they have donated more than three million pairs of shoes in more than 40 countries. Because Crocs are lightweight, won’t absorb water, and provide basic protection against disease and bacteria, they are “the perfect shoe” to help people in developing parts of the world or those facing natural disasters.
As our team set up the area where we would fit the children for shoes, we were able to visit them in their classroom. The students were seated on long benches with a long wooden type plank in front of them for desks in a classroom that was no bigger than 12 X12 feet. LuAnn, who is fluent in French, greeted the class and they responded with a sweet and harmonious welcome in Haitian Creole. We were guests, and we were told they (and their families, and the entire village) knew that we were coming with a delivery, but their eyes weren’t wide in a way that seemed excited. I’ve seen my son’s eyes light up when a special guest, like the local Fire Chief or Sheriff, comes to class for show and tell. It's exciting. This was different. This wasn’t show and tell. This wasn't a "treat" for them. We were there to help them. There eyes glimmered with that understanding.
Our translator asked the children what some of them wanted to be when they grew up. My favorite was from a boy who said he wanted to learn how to be an architect…. So he could learn how to build homes for his family and friends. My heart dropped.
Here I am: A privileged mom from Los Angeles, having just spent the previous months agonizing over whether or not to ”redshirt” Jonah and how oh, god forbid, sending him into the “lion’s den” too early could affect his abilities, his life, and even his luck… FOREVER. Meanwhile, just 10 hours by flight from my home, there is another boy who’s birthday is probably in September too, who dreams of going to college in a country where the enrollment rate for primary school is 67%, of which less than 30% reach the 6th grade, BUT whose parents are hardly thinking about whether he’s “ready” for kindergarten or not and if it will even lead to him becoming the architect he dreams of becoming. Please. They’re thinking he is going to school NO MATTER WHAT and no matter WHEN. Why? Because, as I said, for most of these children, their one meal a day comes from the food provided by Feed the Children.
According to Feed the Children, the benefits of the VitaMeal they provide for the children in Haiti include:
- -Contains a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber
- -Provides essential fatty acids required for normal brain development, skin health, and immune defense
- -Provides electrolytes necessary for maintaining normal fluid balance and muscle function
- -Includes 25 essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A for normal sight and immune functions, as well as bone nutrients for normal growth and skeletal development
Other stats include:
- More than 800 million people in the world, mostly children, are hungry
- Every six seconds a child dies of malnutrition
- The consequences of malnutrition are severe and include growth stunting, anemia, decreased learning capacity and a weakened immune system
Served in big tin bowls, every child was eating what looked like 2-3 cups of beans and rice. I noticed that they were all eating fast… shoveling the food in their mouths, actually. One little boy was caught trying to eat his AND the girl’s sitting next to him (Until the teacher stopped him). Some children even carried containers with them; we were told many do this so they can save some for themselves for later and/or they can bring food home to their families. One meal a day for these babies… Could my pre-kindergartner, with an appetite for anything and everything (food and life) sustain energy and health on one meal a day? Would my 5 year old think of saving some for me… if this was all he/we would have? Disbelief over what these children knew at a young age would be an understatement….
By the time the students finished their meal and our area for shoe fitting was set up, and we were ready to go. The children were brought out to us in a line, starting with the youngest grades. Helping them into the chairs, instantly I noticed their skin… Many had deep wounds… wounds that were probably from typical 4-5 year old activity like running, or skipping, but because of their living conditions and lack of medical supplies like Neosporin or even band aids, their cuts were terribly infected. It didn’t stop me from touching them, lifting them up, taking off their socks and switching their tiny feet from their ill fitting shoes into appropriately sized Crocs.
During the “shoe drop,” which lasted about 2 hours, I specifically recall one little boy that had a tiny terry clothe washcloth pinned to his shirt. I could tell that was his blankie. It made me smile. My boy has a blankie. It is an old, grey El Al airplane blanket and is ugly, dirty, and frayed. And he loves it.
Haiti. Los Angeles. Blankies. Boys. Commonality…. With a heavy dose of reality.
At one point, the school director sat down a 5 year old boy who appeared to be extremely bloated for his small size. It didn’t seem normal—his overly extended belly and round face. And then we found out, it wasn’t. This boy hasn’t actually been at school for months. But his mother (who looked like she wasn’t more than 20 years old) had heard that we were coming, and wanted him to be seen by Dr. Villate.
Dr. Villate set up a little area for him where he examined the boy… his belly, his extremities. He told us that this boy, who he has seen before, was suffering from an extreme heart condition (which is clearly affecting his other organs). He told us that he was going to come back later that week and drive the boy and his family to the hospital where he can get examined further. It is likely he said, that the boy will need open heart surgery. The look on his mother’s face was something I’ll never forget. She looked petrified, yet entirely composed and still. Her hard life has forced her to be strong. There’s no cracking. No pleading, just fear at a stand still.
This woman embodied “keeping it together.” I was heartbroken and envious of her her strength all at once.
Before leaving Bon Berger, I left the school director with about 80 mini notepads and pencils (I purchased from Target before my trip) that I thought he might be able to share with the children. I wanted to leave behind something… from me.
I’m a writer. I tell stories. Maybe one of these children will want to tell their story too...
Our drive to the next school, took about 45 minutes. It seemed like we were at the top of the mountain at one point. 2 hours down, you could see all of Port Au Prince. Pere Koatalem was a much bigger school than Bon Berger. With 450 children, it made sense that the school was actually a three story concrete building. However, after the earthquake, the building was condemned and no longer safe. Now their classes are held in wooden type barracks that were constructed by various UN and disaster relief organizations.
It was about 2pm in the afternoon when we arrived at Pere Koatalem. As I mentioned, there was no running water or electricity where we were, so none of us had eaten/ drank or gone to the bathroom since leaving the hotel at 8am. And of course, the only bathroom (for miles around) was on the third floor of this building, in the back of a library... that hadn't been used since 2010.
I'm sharing this portion not because I think I deserve a pat on the back for going into a condemned building… but to share the fact that the one and only time I laughed that day was when I pulled down my pants, hovering over a mosquito infested toilet, and I realized that this was the one area on my body I didn’t spray with bug repellent. Oh, well.
The children at Pere Koatalem definitely spoke more English than the Bon Berger students. In fact, I will never forget a group of girls, all about 12-14 years old, who sat down. Looking at their feet, we would try to judge their size and fit them appropriately. I remember bringing one of the girls a pair of purple Crocs, (which fit), but she shook her head “No.” Clearly, she wasn’t interested in them.
“You don’t like them?” I asked confused.
She pointed to a black pair. I brought them over.
“But they’re too small.”
She pointed to the black Crocs again and said, "Black," with a smile.
She wanted me to find a black pair… and every other 13 year old girl there wanted black and they were not getting up until they got black.
Hey, I get it. Girls will be girls, and teenagers are teenagers…. no matter where you go and what is going on…. Again, commonality.
Before we left, (and we were done with the shoe drop) a little boy came up to my leg and tugged on my shirt. He was crying. Because of the language barrier, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Catherine and I looked down at his feet… they were stuffed into his tennis shoes. Maybe he needed help tying his shoes? So I sat him on my lap, we tied his shoes, and he stopped crying. The children loved looking at themselves in the iPhone camera so I showed him our picture. He sort of smiled and then an older sibling, I think, grabbed his hand and walked him away.
It occurred to me as we were driving back down the mountain that maybe he was crying because he lost his Crocs or someone took them. To this moment, I am so upset with myself for that not occurring to me while he was in my arms… He was missing his shoes. What if he is punished when he gets home for not bringing a new pair home? Or what if something was hurting him? I’ll never know or understand… and for some reason, I just cannot let that image of him crying go. It’ll sit with me for a while.
Though it was close to sunset, the ride back down the mountain seemed less frightening… and we saw a baby goat being born on the side of the road. Like literally, in action. It was raw and spiritual, a blatant reminder how far apart this world is from mine. We were done visiting with the children, and I felt very far from home again.
I have to be honest, I was ready to go home. Like, get me on the plane NOW ready. I left on a Monday, flew to New York, spent the night in New York, flew from JFK to Haiti with the group Tuesday, spent Tuesday night, Wednesday day and night in Haiti, and we were flying back to New York on Thursday afternoon. I wasn’t going to be home until Friday. I have spent 5 days away from Jonah before, but never without talking to him for 2 days straight. While I was in Haiti, with the exception of a text upon landing and taking off and a few emails here and there, I did not speak to anyone at home.
Looking out at the Manhattan skyline from my friend Lauren’s rooftop deck in Brooklyn on Thursday night, I couldn’t even imagine that just 24 hours before that, our team followed a young girl, Darline Alceus back to her house where she lives, in tiny dirt-floor hut, with 11 family members. That’s her WORLD. And this, Brooklyn bridge, Chinese food delivery, and all, is mine for the night.
When I finally arrived back at LAX, on Friday, P and J greeted me in Baggage claim and like any reunion it was bittersweet and exceptionally special. I hugged both of them tighter than I ever had and thanked the sun, moon, and stars for having a deeply caring boyfriend and a perfectly healthy son.
As we drove up the 405 and past the iconic Getty, I lost it. Tears rolled down my face. Holy shit, this is where I live? This gorgeous building, solid, white, majestic, it’s for me? For this community? For anyone? The site of it just made me cry. Cliche as it may sound, everything around me looked different and precious.
It wasn’t long, however, until I was reminded about the harsh reality of being privileged. Here I was, minutes home after a pretty intense, and at times, unsafe journey and my 5 year old wanted nothing more than for me to “download a new game!” on my iPhone. Just like that. “Download it now, Mommy. Now.”
The days after coming home were hard for me. Without missing a beat, I turned into the “there are starving children in Africa,” parent who returned a request, a demand, a plea, with a “too bad” attitude, and “You don’t know how good you have it,” tone. Eventually, I found the words, and patience, to convey to Jonah the importance of perspective and being thankful. But his/mine/ our entitlement has hardly dissipated—and I think about this often.
Like anything eye-opening, this trip to Haiti made me want to be better and do more. I don’t feel like I changed any one life by giving a pair of shoes, because, let’s face it, there’s SO much these families need. But if my helping to deliver one pair of shoes offers a child or his/her family even a shred of ease, an opportunity, or at best, a chance at safety, then it was WORTH IT.
Thank you, thank you, thank you Ladies' Home Journal, Crocs Cares, and Feed the Children… for everything.
And even more thanks to the beautiful people and children I met in Haiti... Without knowing, you taught me an invaluable lesson about what, in this life, I truly need to worry about.
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