How We Started:
“We would like to sleep in a bed if possible, not the back of your car.” -John Ceasar, 12
I first arrived in Haiti in 2012.
I have always loved working out and since I had decided to do a year of service in Haiti, I continued with my running regimen. It helped me deal with stress and also allowed me to escape some of the challenges I faced living in a completely different culture.
I began to run through town, and quickly stumbled upon a group of 7 street boys.
I developed a passion for these kids when I started doing week long missions trips to Haiti to visit an orphanage in Cap-Haitien. I thought about the street kids often, and felt drawn to them in an unexplainable way.
As I would run in town, these 7 boys would sometimes tease me, run with me barefoot, and always ask me for “just one dollar.” As we interacted, running, talking about money, we began to form a small bond. I couldn’t speak the language well, and they certainly couldn’t speak English, but we shared laughs -the language that transcends all.
I started thinking about how they got where they were, how, if I was told I was nothing over and over, how I would also believe it. How, if I had nothing left, I would also beg and do whatever it takes to survive and probably not care either way.
So, I asked my translator to come with me and talk with them. After we learned that most had no idea how old they were, when their birthdays were, or in some cases their names, we decided that we would give them that – every boy would have a birthday and a name. We would put it on a file folder and every time these kids would commit to running with me, they would earn a sticker.
We kept a record of these stickers, and used this as the basis of a point system in an effort to give them the opportunity to earn things. After so many stickers were earned from their running, they would be able to turn them in for shoes, clothes, hats, and other items they valued.
What shocked me most, at that time, was to see how excited they were at the sight of their name and their birthday. I learned then, what was most important in opening the door to them experiencing love – it was knowing their identity. “I have a name. I have a birthday. And – 3 times a week, this crazy girl needs me to be at a certain place and time because she cares about me.” In their kid world view, this meant that they were loved and cared for at least a few times, during the week.
The relationships began to form organically.
I remember sitting at a nice hotel, hearing my name being called in the bushes. I walked out the entrance to find some of the boys excitedly waiting for me because they had bought me popcorn. I sat and ate and loved. Another time, a boy shared rice with me (clearly with things moving) and I ate it anyway. His smile was worth the sacrifice.
As the relationships grew deeper, I was able to get further access into the ghettos. They also tested me by trying to shock me into giving up on them. “I bet if she sees me doing this, she won’t love me anymore.”
That did not work. In fact, it didn’t phase me whatsoever. What did shock me was to learn more about what their daily life was like – constantly in fear of being beaten or attacked and often sexually exploited, even raped.
It was then that I realized this problem was too big for one person to handle. Only Jesus could cure this type of pain, and guide them in the right direction. So, we started a church in an alley, our motto being “no shoes, no problem.” The messages given by two pastors were based solely on the love of Jesus and after the service, the boys, pastors and I shared a snack and juice. In addition to laugher, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches united us all.
We also began offering basic medical care to anyone that needed it. I got sick with many of the same infections and parasites, and all of the illness gave me a further appreciation for what the boys were dealing with on a continual basis except with no medications to cure their itchy rashes and painful infections.
The boys slept in cardboard boxes, and I would climb into their boxes with them. It was in one of these boxes that I shared the news that I had found out my Mom had breast cancer, and they sat and comforted me while I cried. This was a mutual bond born out of love.
Often in the morning, I would come out of my apartment to find a handful of kids sleeping in the back of my car under a tarp; it was the safest place they could think of.
I eventually ended up opening my home, and during one year at Carnival time when the party atmosphere in the city can be a little dangerous, I had close to 20 kids sleeping on my floors. My landlord was FURIOUS. Something had to be done.
I had been told by many in the community and those that had been volunteering in Haiti over a period of many years that:
A – you cannot provide a home for street kids. They will steal everything, never listen to rules, and never stay in the shelter. That is why they aren’t in orphanages.
B – don’t even think about educating them. It is too expensive and they won’t stay in school.
I liked those odds and God LOVED those odds.
I asked my home church pastor if he would help. He knew the odds, but chose to answer the call on his heart. We had rent money.
While I had no money to feed them, I figured that at least we could offer a clean place to sleep and a place to shower. Anti-bacterial soap DOES WONDERS! I was committed to and believed that God called me to open a night shelter offering basic care. It was a good starting point.
On opening day, I was a nervous wreck. I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted cute little gift basket bundles on each bed, sheets color-coded, and other inviting love touches that as an American, I thought they would enjoy.
30 minutes before the doors opened, fear shot through me like fire. What if no one comes? What if they aren’t serious? My staff encouraged me to go to a hotel – I was driving them crazy! I still remember pacing back and forth wondering what had happened at opening, and then I got a call about 10 minutes after opening. “We need you to bring more towels, more toothbrushes, more soap, etc. This place is PACKED!” I hit the ground and cried of joy and then headed over, loaded with supplies.
Shortly after being there a little while, the kids started asking for a meal. God provided. Then two meals. God provided. And then they asked the BIG QUESTION. The one I was warned to never respond affirmatively.
“Momma, we want to go to school.” I tried to argue, explaining to them that it was too expensive, they wouldn’t stay committed and all the other reasons I had been told but they begged and begged and well…what Momma can say no to their child’s aspirations? We are about fostering dreams, not squelching them.
I found one gentleman in Warrenton, Virginia who looked at those odds, and tossed them aside in favor of the vision. He personally sponsored school for 36 children. If one child did commit and stay, just one, then it is a success.
36 kids entered school for their very first time 7 months after we opened. 28 made it through the year.
I and my staff and I knew that street kids don’t stay in orphanages. We decided to create a different model, one that worked for them.
That was 4 years ago and today, we have 122 children and young adults thriving in their “impossible destiny.”
We continue to give birthdays and names, and now and legitimate birth certificates through the Haitian government! We impact our children and the community across 6 departments and over 20 different programs.
We learned a lot in that first year. To be a part of this program, this movement, is to make a commitment to continuously learn, evolve and change. It isn’t easy, but nothing great and miraculous ever is. It is hard and beautiful. It is challenging and Grace-filled. It is painful and healing and loving.
It only takes One person to believe. One person to hold their faith. One child to commit. And ALL GOD to make it happen.
Here’s to many more years of thriving in the midst of chaos and opportunity and love.
Thank you to all who have been with us from the beginning, and to those who continuously join us on this journey. Your commitment continues to be fruitful.
Blessings to all and ALL GLORY to God!