Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, Dr. Aronson traveled with Tom DiFilipo (Joint Council President & CEO) and Rebecca Harris (Joint Council Director of Programs and Services) to Haiti. Dr. Aronson has returned to Haiti for her second trip since the earthquake. Below is Dr. Aronson’s journal for her first two days in Haiti. In the coming days, we will post additional journal’s of Dr. Aronson’s experiences in Haiti.
By Dr. Jane Aronson, Founder and CEO, Worldwide Orphans Foundation and Member of the Joint Council Board of Directors
Haiti Journal #1
I am back in Haiti for the second time since the earthquake to continue the challenging work of planning programs for orphans. I am with a wonderfully enthusiastic team of people. They inspire me because they care about the world and are willing take time out of their busy lives to leave their homes and family to help out. Here they are:
· Lori Finkel, mother of three children, one of whom was adopted from Ethiopia, and WWO board member
· Matt Blesso, real estate developer and WWO board member
· Rebecca Scharf, developmental pediatrician and mother of two young girls
· Jill Vexler, museum curator, photographer, and mother of a 9 year old daughter adopted from Ethiopia. Jill first visited Haiti 30 years ago, and has loved it ever since.
· Cathy Chiarello,documentary film maker, mother of twins, my neighbor in Maplewood, NJ
· (in spirit) Dr. Missy Windsor, occupational therapist, consultant to WWO, and all around wonderfully sweet person who is stuck in Belgium due to the volcano.
We arrived four hours earlier today and I was eager to see if things had changed from my last visit, just three weeks after the earthquake. There were indeed differences. There was an obvious lack of military planes and a military presence at the airport. There was only a small area of tents for soldiers as compared to the thousands of tents that were there in January, and I found that I was a bit wistful because the 82nd airborne had been quite supportive when I was there last.
Today, instead of the military, we had musicians – four men in yellow t-shirts who were singing and playing celebratory songs….and one man was dancing and mugging for the cameras.
We went on a short bus ride to the terminal to go through immigration. While we waited for our luggage, we spotted a man holding up a card with my name. How did they manage this when my NJ car company doesn’t show up half the time? Our helper’s name was Alex and he guided us with our luggage through thick crowds of people outside the terminal. Many men were waiting to earn some money by carrying bags to vehicles.
The crowds of men at the airport made us all uneasy because we knew that none of them had jobs or money. There was a din of voices begging and jockeying for opportunities to help travelers…more of them than us…and finally we got to our van driven by Berman, the same driver I had in January.
Haiti is experiencing a huge gas shortage, and the result is that last week, the price of gas was $15 a gallon; now it’s “gone down” to maybe $10 -$12. We discussed this with Berman, who said he would charge us another $50 a day to include gas. I was my usual compliant self and agreed, but Lori was very helpful and negotiated so that we ended up paying him only half the amount for the week tonight.
The day was wonderful because we became a team today. All of us are from different backgrounds and have different motivations for being in Haiti, but we fell into a pace that was easy and patient. We were all protecting one another from being run over or being lost and we were helping one another with the luggage.
There were the immediate technical challenges: phones not working; email not coming, texting okay, but no calls out. Lori coached me and I soon had my e-mail and I was even able to call Diana…but the rest of the day and night was a really challenging. I asked Lori to text Andrew, her husband, to call Diana at home to tell her to call me because I couldn’t call out….and that worked fine.
Finally, on the various routes we went today, we were able to see the people of Port-au- Prince who seem to be adapting to and coping with life in post-earthquake Haiti. Things seem better than the last time I was here. There are many more people in the street and on the side walks nicely dressed and working and busy with the usual routines of life. The ruins have been moved to the side to allow life to continue. The traffic was as crazy as ever and the roads are miserable.
The children are everywhere, begging in the streets. They look filthy and malnourished. The cars and trucks drown out what they are actually saying, and I’m glad because what can you answer to a kid who’s covered with dust and filth? What can you say to kids who disappearing from a safe life?
Before going back to the hotel for a very late lunch/early dinner, we stopped at Omni Market. The shelves were pretty empty, but the food that was there was familiar: Caprisun juice….Culliagan water bottles, Gala apples under plastic on a little cardboard base. And I spied some Haagen-Dazs ice cream in a freezer. The meat looked odd and discolored and I didn’t recognize the kind of milk they had.
We finally had lunch at 3 pm Haiti time. We were all very hungry and tired, and Jill’s college friend Toni, who has lived in Haiti for the last 35 years, took us to La Coquille. We had a buffet lunch with crab, boiled vegetables, rice and beans, goat, and fish. The food was hot and tasty…the fish very spicy, but delicious.
Toni explained that the money in Haiti will not be our currency. The Haitian money is called Gourdes…and checks are placed in an actual outer skin of the gourde. I took one from La Coquille earlier this evening so that I could bring something real home to the kids…hey, I would say…this is a gourde in Haiti and this is where the waiter puts the check when you have finished your meal
We did a planning session at the hotel after the lunch/dinner and I went over the entire itinerary in the Haiti binder that Roz, WWO’s fabulous office manager, helped me to create for this trip. Roz did a great job and once I understood the tabs, I could find everything.
We spent a lot of time talking about the process of creating a program over time while sitting in the lounge in the hotel…plenty of mosquitos tonight by the way….but a nice Petionville breeze….
The discussion touched on the issues of humanitarian gifts and how careful we must be to not just give toys or gifts without really planning ….it is nice to give treats to kids, but we need to work this out with the orphanage directors this week and the focus of the trip is really to evaluate the children in two orphanages where we will likely start our Granny Program (Jeune Grandmere Projet). We’ll work with the directors of the orphanages to evaluate the children, hire young people from the community, then train the young people to be good caretakers and teachers to the kids, and use metrics to study the kids’ development. So that’s the plan: find out the developmental needs of each child, employ and train a Granny for every two kids and then study the development over time to see the changes in the children.
I am so excited to help the kids in Williamson and La Maison des Enfants de Dieu. We will all work together to do the developmental assessments so that we can properly plan our Granny Programs…and we will get to know the orphanage administrators and the children. We are beginning the process of commitment and continuity for the children we serve.
We also talked with Toni who owns an Art Gallery, about how to employ the Haitian artists whose lives have been affected by the earthquake. Our long range plan is to establish Global Arts and Sports for orphans in Haiti as we have done in other Ethiopia, Vietnam, Serbia, and Bulgaria. Many of the artists who Toni knows lost everything and now they need work. I would love to have artists in the community painting murals with adults and children/orphans.
We went to our rooms and got ready for bed, talked or texted with families, and slipped under the covers, hopefully to get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow, we’re off to Fond Parisien to see the disaster center run by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and then on to one of the orphanages I visited in January. The kids in this orphanage were playing soccer with old cloth wrapped up in rubber bands. I promised them real soccer balls; Matt bought them and tomorrow, we will deliver them!
I am weary tonight and eager to sleep and then get going on the work. More tomorrow.
I miss my children. Goodnight Ben….Goodnight Des.
Best, Dr. Jane
Haiti Second Trip – Journal #2
What a crazy day we had…starting at 7 am we all gathered to go to Fond Parisien which is the site of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) Disaster Recovery Center outside Port au Prince. Our driver, Berman, drove us through the heavy morning traffic in Port-au-Prince and then his cousin took over. We arrived in Love a Child Compound where the Fond Parisien program is located at about 9 am. Mirian Aschkenazy and Christian Theodosis, both ER doctors working for HHI, were happy to see us and took us on a personal tour of the disaster recovery center.
The center is an oasis: there’s a beautiful lake that magically appears on the left side of the road with towering nude mountains behind it and with mist and clouds over the lake. It’s something that might be found on another planet. The heat was intense.
HHI is truly amazing. There are rows and columns of tents all in order by triage and need and an operating room completely sterile and ready for use to put nails in the bones. Operation Smile is here doing plastic surgery and there’s a new x-ray machine and computer equipment donated by Sean Penn. A physical therapist was busy teaching a woman how to walk again.
There was a full basketball court on a dirt surface, but the hoops and nets on tall steel posts were just perfect. The playground is so safe it could pass any quality assurance in the US. Love a Child Village is a faith-based organization and they gave HHI the land to do their Disaster Recovery Center and they have been respectful and completely generous to HHI. There are no overtly religious attitudes and people are allowed to be….it was a wonderful moment to be experiencing this faith-based setting without any heavy-handed missionary approach. I have always feared church run organizations, but from what I could see and from what Miriam and Christian, our host doctors revealed to us, this organization truly does practice the golden rule.
There were a lot of discussions about politics and the earthquake and the various management strategies for those injured in the earthquake. It is still not clear where people should go after emergency hospitalizations and surgeries, and some approaches to the rehab process appear to be based on expediency rather than strategic long-term plans.
It was sad to hear that HHI is almost out of money. It seems that they were so busy doing great work for people in crisis, that they don’t have money to carry on….we are hoping that the recent grant that they applied for will be approved and that they can stay in business. They deserve every accolade for saving the lives of adults and children (and WWO Board member Lori Finkel and her husband Andrew Cogan, are very proud to have helped them so much).
World Vision was on the site providing a safe play space for kids with race cars and legos. I sat down and played with a whole bunch of kids…I felt at home because this is a familiar activity for me with my own children, Ben and Des. The kids were very happy outside in a little play area, practicing with legos and one little girl stole the cars by placing them under her shirt. The World Vision volunteers were from the Dominican Republic and speaking Spanish…odd to hear, but what matters is that the kids were distracted from their medical issues.
We left at about 11 am to head back to Port-au-Prince for a meeting with assistant pastor Junior Bataille. He translated for Anderson Cooper when he was there in January and he recommended someone to act as translator for us.
We met our new translator at La Medaille, a restaurant recommended by Junior because it is good and close and truly Haitian. After lunch, we were off to the orphanage I had visited in January where the kids were desperate for a soccer ball. When we arrived, I realized that this orphanage was where I had removed the stitches from the head of a boy named Jhon. I asked for him immediately and out he came looking very quiet and shy. Then he recognized me and warmed up. I inspected his scalp and it looked great. His hair has grown in so you can barely see the scar on his scalp. He gave me a drawing that he had done with a very happy sun….very sweet indeed.
We went all the way through the orphanage. I was very saddened by the way the kids looked last time and the caretakers were exhausted and annoyed…some were frankly angry that day. This time was different. The caretakers were upstairs having a meeting and then they took some time to pray and sing…it was just beautiful to hear. And we spent time with the kids in their rooms.
The children are so sweet and vulnerable and they need better nutrition, education, and developmental stimulation. We all held the babies and toddlers and I tickled them quite a bit, making them laugh. It was a treat, but finally I felt tears on my face as I realized that we were leaving and they were staying in a place that, in spite of their well-meaning caregivers, was smelly, dirty, and inadequate in most ways.
Our last stop was an orphanage I had been to in January where the boys study the bible and learn English. They recognized me when I came out of the van into the play area. Matt had bought soccer balls for them, so I asked him to get a game going. He did and they had a wild time…running and kicking and Matt was definitely out of breath and sweaty and very happy as the game slowed up. At the end of the game, a boy asked us to come uptairs to hear some singing.
We were in for an amazing moment. One boy was already upstairs teaching the group a song with words written on the blackboard. When we walked in, the performance began. Two older children, the choir leaders, had trained the youngsters and they sang harmonies and rounds that were absolutely beautiful. We were mesmerized.
I was very far away while listening to the songs in that small, hot, dark room. I was transported to so many countries, standing in similar rooms, listening or watching children’s creativity and enthusiasm. For orphans, there are so few moments when their creativity can shine through.
After the performance, one of the children revealed that they were in need of instruments and Lori immediately promised that she would take care of providing them with what they needed.
I thought later about the children’s fluency in English and their choral performance as amazing examples of the resiliency of children in captivity….that is how I see orphanages these days. Their bodies smell; they have scalp and fungal infections, scabies, scarred legs and toe nails…traumatized feet….no shoes….growth-stunted bodies, retarded intellects, and depressed souls.
There are kids with uncharacterized genetic diseases/syndromes. Kids with odd facial expressions and small heads. There are adolescent girls with large breasts and no bras and no awareness of their sexual identity. In some orphanages there are no lights by 6 pm and kids are living in a “Lord of the Flies” system, including.physical and sexual abuse . I have seen this for decades and in all countries.
So where do we begin? WWO has programs in Bulgaria, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Azerbaijan that alleviate the conditions I just described. We train the caregivers and staff about basic child development principles, and we provide kids with medication for HIV/AIDS, school, enrichment programs, camp, arts, sports, dental care, one-to-one attention, and psychological support. And they thrive.
Haiti looked chaotic today, but it also seemed full of vitality, with a flourishing street life that fascinates me. Endless beep-beeps from buses painted wildly and packed with people, cars driving erratically on the roads, traffic stopping only at the very rare red lights, and moments for us of “almosts,” as we careen down and around curvy inclines on our way up and down from Petionville and La Boule.
Dinner with Toni Mannin, Jill’s friend from Texas who has lived here for the last 35 years revealed another side of Haiti; one that includes brilliant art work by her daughter, Pascal, and many other Haitian artists. Toni cooked bourgeous haitian food as she calls it: a whole fish, chicken, egg plant, palenta, and a root with an almost gazpacho topping – delicious! There was a lot of discussion about how enigmatic Haiti is and why so many different people find it so attractive. Homemade pound cake filled with butter, eggs, and sugar reminded me of my grandmother.
Tomorrow will bring more work, downtown for a view of the earthquake ruins…no more palace as it has been bulldozed away. And then perhaps the Children HIV/AIDS program which has won the Gates Award for Excellence this year. Then we will go to La Maison orphanage to evaluate kids for our Granny Program…the boys who were the caretakers at the two orphanages described above could easily be trained to help kids…they are doing it now – they can be our Grannies.
Now, finally, to bed and to dream about the many beautiful sweet faces of the day….and though the feelings are always mixed in this work, the sum of it all is that it is never too late to make a difference.
About Dr. Jane Aronson
Dr. Aronson serves on Joint Council’s Board of Directors. She is a board certified general pediatrician and pediatric infectious diseases specialist, and has been a practicing adoption medicine specialist for the past 12 years. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and the director of International Pediatric Health Services (IPH), which she opened in 2000. Since founding Worldwide Orphan Foundation in 1997, Dr. Aronson has visited orphanages in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Latin America.