Amidst dusty, pot-holed roads, stray dogs and the abject poverty of a country left devastated by earthquake, five West Shore residents landed in Port au Prince, Haiti in September with the support of their communities, determined to make a difference at the Divine Hands Orphanage.
For Bruce Brown and Russ Lazaruk, it was their first time stepping on Haitian soil. Both said the trip was an eye-opening experience.
“You see the pictures on TV,” Lazaruk said, “but it doesn’t prepare you for what’s down there. The heat and the flies.”
Joined by Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett, Dan Reynolds and Rick Fisher, Brown and Lazaruk made their way out to the orphanage to kick off a years-long process of improvement.
“When we arrived there, it was very apparent that this orphanage was in desperate need of assistance. They really had nothing – no electricity and (it was) very crowded,” said Brown.
Fifty-three children, from toddlers to late teens, were living in a single 800-square-foot building, with outdoor pit toilets exposed to the elements and only charcoal to cook on. “Half were true orphans and the other half had just been abandoned by their families because they couldn’t afford to keep them,” added Brown.
The facility was in such dire need that had the group not intervened when they did, the orphanage was days away from being shut down. That would have left dozens of children with nowhere to go, said Beckett, one of the key organizers for the project.
Driven largely by the efforts of the Rotary Club of Colwood, the group raised enough money to build a dormitory for the teenage boys. The volunteers also installed a transformer to bring ewelectricity into the buildings, and a battery with an inverter system to ensure they’d have backup power. A roof was put over the latrine and a pole shed built to provide the kids with a dining area and classroom. The group also bought hundreds of pounds of rice, beans, flour, sugar and other staples.
“We got them a proper propane stove, solar-powered security lights, a fridge, storage for kids clothes,” Lazaruk said.
With the ability to buy and safely store perishable food, the children’s diets would significantly improve and the added buildings meant they had common areas to play and do schoolwork.
“We built (everything) with the understanding that this land could be sold from underneath them, so everything was built with the ability to dismantle it and be moved,” Brown said.
One of the next priorities will be looking into purchasing a piece of land for the orphanage to establish greater stability for the kids.
“They’ve actually had to move seven or eight times in the last few years,” said Lazaruk. “They need a permanent home. The money they spend on rent could be spent on education or a better diet for the children.”
And the education costs are substantial. Elementary school costs $60 per child per year, middle school costs $90 and for kids 14 to 19 it’s $200 per year. “When people make five, six or seven dollars a day, that’s a huge chunk of money to send your kids to school,” said Brown. “We’re hoping to develop a project to sponsor these kids to go to school.”
There’s a number of projects the group still wants to do, he added, noting it will likely take three to four years to get the facility to a point of self-sustainability.
But for the immediate future, the kids have a much-improved home with access to the basic necessities that North Americans often take for granted.
“When they come home from school now, they’re even bringing their friends home,” Brown said. “They’re proud of their home now. From the old army tent they were using as a dining hall and classroom, to what they have now, it’s like night and day.”
For more information about the projects or to donate, visit helpforhaiti.ca.