Unforgettable Travel Experience to America with Haitian Students
After months of planning and praying and imagining what it would be like when five of our children and Madam Erline arrived at JFK Airport they were finally here and running straight at me. Backpacks and duffel bags swinging between their small shoulder blades they were coming to America. The grandest smiles appeared revealing perfect white teeth as relief washed over them and much more so, me. They had already packed all their Sunday clothes a week before in the duffle bags donated by a beautiful blonde woman from California, named Kelly. This particular morning, they had awakened at 4:00 am Haiti time. No way would they miss that 9:00 am flight from Port au Prince to New York. They stood in the American Airlines check-in line for more than an hour with no visible impatience as they are used to waiting; nothing happens fast in Haiti. They went proudly through security to the waiting area at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, which, like many other mornings, was packed with at least 100 “voluntourists” wearing different colors of t-shirts, each group with a different bible verse. As they walked the jet bridge to the waiting plane they thought about how many hours later they would be questioned by the American people with different shades of sunburn; about who they were and what were they going to do in New York. Madam Erline answered “We are HaitiChildren!” and “We are going to New York and to Washington D.C to learn about your country!” She told me later that I, being the Co-Founder should have done a better job telling the world about them. She is right.
All of the children and Erline, ran straight into my arms nearly knocking me right off my feet. It became clear that so many of the people who had been on the plane with them for the 4-hour flight were now probably missing very much the hugs from the children of the orphanages they had surely visited during the time between breakfast and lunch during the week they had just spend in Haiti. They were going home and might visit again next summer or maybe never. I was very aware I was one of the few who knew I would be going back and had the rest of my life to focus on making a historical difference in Haiti through, not just these five children but over a thousand more who each have a chance to lead their country.
We Are a Family
It dawned on me, at that moment, what we had all accomplished together. The long lines, raw nerves, and unfriendly faces during the interviews at the United States Consulate in Haiti, and oh, the financial challenges would have likely made this all seem impossible. And then when we finally got all the visas stamped, airfares donated (our dear Board Chair, Jeff Leck) and families to host us, something awful happened. One of our little brothers at the residence, T-Robin, had died of complications of hydrocephalus. While we were making plans to meet some of my countries great leaders and business icons, we mourned. The smaller children were at the “residence” could not understand. Some would call our home an orphanage, but we are a family and not orphans anymore. We had the funeral. The days leading up to the trip had been very dark.
We had known from the beginning that only five of the kids would be able to go on this trip. It was unthinkable to choose who would get this opportunity, perhaps the opportunity of a lifetime. Erline, who is HaitiChildren’s Haitian Administrator and lives with the children worked with the many staff at the residence and came up with an idea. We now have 130 children in our family, with the passing of Ti-Robin. 130 different personalities. Some are very popular and have not a shy bone in their body. Some are the “cheerleaders”, and some are funny and make everyone laugh. Some are very serious and excel in school, and some are shy and it’s hard to know if they are happy or sad or just thinking. All were abandoned and left to die. Many came to us with severe illness, broken bodies and shattered hearts. All have come to live with HaitiChildren as part of a family that will never let them be abandoned again. It takes a long time for a child to feel safe again after being left to die. Some don’t remember being left, many do.
Madam Erline met with Dr. Phara our pediatric psychologist and Madam Selmone who has worked for HaitiChildren for many years. Then they all met with our School Director, Madam Floreal. “We should choose the children who work so hard in school….” She said.
Opportunity to Visit America
“We should give the opportunity to the kids who are so shy,” said Madam Phara. “They are always at the back of the line.”
And the women decided that if the very shy kids who have done well in school got the opportunity to visit America they would have so many stories to tell the other children they would likely get very positive attention and lots of hugs that would build their confidence in the future. It didn’t take long to figure out who those five kids were:
Mace, 12 and Dana, 13. Jessica and Kenson are 14, and Moise is 11. We wanted them to have a story that would allow them to shine. A story that all would want to be quiet and listen to. We wanted to acknowledge their kindness and very good grades in school. It was a great decision!
We all walked to the bag claim stopping every minute to look through the windows at the planes and the huge buildings. Then we came to the moving escalator, the moving stairs. We wound up in a bit of a pile at the top. Kenson, who always seems to be observing everyone’s needs revealed himself to be a true gentleman and protective big brother from that moment, and through the end to of the trip. He helped with the little kids and showed great respect to Madam Erline and all of the “grown-ups” on the trip.
Eventful Journey to Our Host Homes
Making it to the baggage claim was epic for all of us. The escalator was ultimately a “human pile up”. I forgot to explain to look forward while going up. Then, in the elevator, the kids thought they were supposed to sit down. How funny it is that when everyone around you is doing something altogether and you’re not doing it you question yourself. As my kids sat on the elevator floor I thought the other passengers were wondering if they should sit. It was adorable. I made me wonder why I ever cared about not wearing the right dress or the right purse to a party. If you believe you’re doing the right thing other people might wonder if they should be doing what you’re doing. On the way to our hosts’ homes, we took our rented 12 seat monster van through the great American dream, McDonald’s drive through! Later, the first night we would all split up into the homes of dear friends and long-term supporters in Long Island, NY. Madam Erline would take the girls and stay in a parish with Father John Worthley, who is a war hero and has visited us all in Haiti. Robin Hamill, HaitiChildren President would stay with Tom Vizza and his wife Joan with Kenson.
The kids were asleep when we pulled into the drive landscaped drive way. All the host families had gathered to meet the children and Erline who speaks almost perfect English. She has never been able to come to the United States. Nerves and fatigue of traveling all day with 5 anxious children and little food offered on the plane began to take a toll. All the welcomes and hugs and as well as English language came at them in a flurry. Erline did not translate well and the kids were confused and lethargic. There were some very awkward moments as I observed the attempted conversations between my little travelers and our hosts.
“How was your trip?” Asked Father John Worthley as he welcomed the kids with open arms. “We have so many wonderful plans for you tomorrow!” That was the understatement of the month!
Please stay tuned to this space for more stories about our amazing Haiti Leadership Experience!
From the heart,