The child in the bright orange T-shirt is looking at the crowd; his eyelids heavy over a slight smile. Next to him is a shorter boy whose serious face pokes above the half wall at the front of the orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This is home, and both are busy contemplating the intentions of the visitors from Canada who are mingling with other children and touring the small rooms inside.
Beyond the new perimeter wall, which is topped with barbed wire, the desperate struggle continues in the dusty, crowded streets of the capital. In the distance you can hear the honk of tap-taps (overcrowded and often dilapidated commuter vehicles) as they bounce and lean through large potholes, darkening the air with exhaust. Much closer—within the walls—is the peep of birds joined by the smiling ti-mounes (children) who have suddenly formed a choir.
The song is a measure of thanks from the children to their guests who include federal politicians, journalists and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson. Such moments usually pass without much notice in Haiti. But this is a good news story in a country besieged by bad news—a country recovering from a cholera epidemic and the 2010 earthquake that claimed some 250,000 lives (The Haitian Beat, July/August). The children, however, seem destined to move beyond the tragedy, encouraged by the generosity of Canadians, specifically members of the RCMP, Canadian Forces and the residents of Langford, B.C., who have stood behind efforts to rebuild the orphanage and support its residents for years to come.
L’Orphelinat Enfant-Jesus de Prague (The Baby Jesus of Prague Orphanage) is one example of how Canadian police and military personnel serving with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by the French acronym MINUSTAH, are making a difference on the humanitarian side while posted in the Caribbean country. These efforts are in addition to their regular duties. Other examples include a 20-page activity booklet that encourages children wedged into the stifling confines of IDP (internally displaced person) camps to read to further their education; support and reconstruction of other orphanages, and help for children wanting to attend school.
This kindness from Canada also extends to other endeavours, including the twinning of a Canadian elementary school—Manor Park in Ottawa—with a school in the impoverished commune of Cité Soleil. Two years ago students from the Ottawa elementary school canvassed family, friends and neighbours to raise money to buy knapsacks and fill them with supplies for children in Haiti. The idea came from former colleagues of Chief Superintendant Doug Coates who was killed in the earthquake. Deborah Doherty and Clive Law wanted to do something for the children of Haiti in Coates’s memory, and so they approached the elementary school where his wife is a teacher. It took students only a few weeks to raise enough money to buy and fill nearly 120 knapsacks.
The activity booklet, meanwhile, was started by Montreal police officer Pierre-André Arbour who recognized that education is the key to the future. A Canadian company specializing in the production of teaching materials, Bricolane et Filles Inc., climbed on board, and with the help of one of Arbour’s colleagues—Patrick Lucas—and other police contingent members and their families, money was raised and booklets and toys distributed to children in IDP camps.
Run by nuns, The Baby Jesus of Prague Orphanage accommodates 40 children, some not yet a year old. The fundraising efforts to rebuild it were led by RCMP Corporal Christine Briand who was in Haiti during the 7.0-magnitude quake, and RCMP Staff Sergeant Stéphane St-Jacques. Since then thousands of dollars have been raised from RCMP employees and from other police and military contingents. It has also benefited greatly from generous fundraising of Italian Roberto Dormino and the Longsee Foundation & You Change China Social Entrepreneur Foundation.
Earlier this year the orphanage was dedicated to the memory of Sergeant Mark Gallagher and Chief Superintendent Coates, the two RCMP officers killed in the earthquake. Both were regular volunteers at the orphanage.
RCMP Staff Sergeant Richard Martel has also made it a priority, noting last March he was honoured to be part of such work. “Our overall mandate [as police] is to protect property and communities—safe homes, safe communities and we do that here in Haiti as well. Even though we are working far from home we have an obligation to get involved in the community and this is how the Canadian police contribute…”
Martel said the Canadian Forces are “fully engaged…as is the City of Langford, B.C. It is a team effort. It can be challenging in this country to invest in the proper places, but there is a lot of good co-ordination going on—all of us exchange emails all the time and it is just wonderful to see the progress and how it benefits the children.”
Since the devastating earthquake, the residents and businesses of Langford have made it their goal to help rebuild the orphanage. The objective is to provide the children with a safe haven, a chapel to practice their faith and a classroom to learn academic and life skills. All of it is supported by a long-term plan. Close to $250,000 was raised to build a new chapel, classrooms, staff quarters, dining room, kitchen and washrooms.
“The mayor and council of the City of Langford have—to their credit—been involved in a number of humanitarian projects over the years,” explained Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett who is team leader for the Langford Children of Haiti Project. Aware the city was looking for a long-term project in Haiti, the RCMP told Beckett about the orphanage. “I was corresponding with Corporal Briand and she said they could use our help. I said, OK, we will be down in a week. At first I think she thought we were kidding. We weren’t… We went down, looked at the project, saw the potential, the opportunity for a solid partnership, and quickly recognized that the money we would raise would directly benefit the children.”
Soon the mayor, city council, residents, the business community and schools in Langford were solidly behind it. “It has evolved from simply building the existing building that was damaged to us getting involved—bringing in municipal water, putting up a wall, putting barbed wire up, looking after security, putting gates up, doing interior walls, drainage and septic. It has gone from a small project to a very large project.”
Earlier this year the mayor and council agreed to sponsor—for the next three years—the hiring of an administrator to help the elderly nuns run the orphanage. That decision proved very timely. One of the nuns, Sister Gerada, passed away recently due to complications from a fractured hip. She was well into her 80s and founded the orphanage in 1962, so was mother to literally hundreds of children were raised there. Before she died she was able to witness its reconstruction. “She was so grateful for everything that Langford and everybody else did to improve the situation, ensuring her legacy will live on for many more generations of children,” noted Beckett. “The rewards you get from doing volunteer work like this are huge. First and foremost is the genuine joy of working with the children and getting to know people like Sister Gerada. The children here have nothing in comparison to our own children. They are so happy and their love is unconditional, and that’s amazing because they have no moms, no dads with them.”
Although it suffered serious structural damage, the orphanage was spared the pain and grief experienced by other orphanages and schools during the quake. “It was unbelievable no one was hurt here,” added Beckett. “There were many other orphanages that suffered casualties and I have heard reports that post-traumatic stress disorder and mental disorders are rampant in some of those orphanages.”
Beckett said the children are resilient, but he and others don’t take it for granted. He believes they are still vulnerable in so many ways. “That is why we spent $25,000 to raise the wall 10 feet and put barbed wire on it so they are not going to be susceptible to those other elements that are just completely unacceptable.”
He agrees education is the key to Haiti’s recovery. “People back home need to know the RCMP and other Canadian police officers are here volunteering and helping fund their education… It is going to take a couple of generations but all these kids are in school. And when we are sitting here at the end of the day and they come home with their curriculum—and I see the level of education they are getting it is absolutely excellent; it gives me hope that these children will find work because unemployment is terrible down here.”
It also must be noted that everyone involved in Langford’s Haiti project volunteers their time and pays their own transportation cost when they visit.
For Martel, Beckett and everyone else who has or continues to help, the reward is a “heart filled with good memories.” For the boy in the bright orange T-shirt and his serious buddy, it’s the start of something good.
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