Sunday, May 26, 2013

Reality Check

I'll be the first to admit that it's sometimes easy to forget that I am living in Haiti.  Behind the walls of Be Like Brit, where we enjoy the luxuries of safe clean water, electricity, a backup generator, even air conditioning and hot water in some places, my general everyday existence doesn't feel "developing country" - in fact, it feels quite the opposite.  One of my concerns when we have Britsionary groups and visitors stay with us is that they won't get a true sense of Haiti - that they will exist within this "bubble of privilege" which we so easily forget is just that - atypical for Haiti, and as far from the norm and standard of Haitian society as one can get.  I worry about the effects of this bubble on the children who live here, too.  Given that their environments are so controlled and that they themselves are so safeguarded, it's something I often think about:  How will life in this environment affect these children once they are outside of it?  My job is to be sure they are prepared for life in Haiti - the real deal.  A Haiti I hadn't seen much of until this past week.

It's certainly easy for someone reading this from the comforts of their home in a place in the States or elsewhere, or even in the more affluent parts of Haiti to take the work we do for granted.  I feel like at times as the story of Be Like Brit and the lives of the children play out on Facebook, we do a disservice to ourselves and our readers when we omit some of the stark realities of Haiti.  While we all know that poverty exists and people die senselessly all over the world, I didn't have a true sense of how hard things are in Haiti until I set out with a child for Port-au-Prince this past week in an attempt to obtain services and treatment for the child's HIV infection.

After weeks of emails and calls, invoking privilege and name-dropping, the powers that be at Be Like Brit arranged for an appointment at St. Damian's Hospital in PAP.  I was to take the child along with our driver Francky to be sure that everything we needed to get done was done, and that any attempts to pass the child off to another facility or refusal to administer a given test or diagnostic would be met with my vehement objections and insistence on their following through.

We left Grand Goâve at 5:00am on the morning of our appointment to drive the some 50km to PAP and to the hospital.  Depending on traffic, the drive along National Route #2 can take anywhere from 1.5 hours to 4 hours.  Accidents, flooding, traffic jams, people marching in the streets, etc., are all possibilities that can delay a person by hours.  Our early departure hoped to mitigate the effects of any of these possibilities.

No more than 30 minutes into our drive, as I was nodding off to sleep sitting in the front seat of the F150 pickup, a loud bang and violent sway of the vehicle shook me and caught my undivided attention.  As the truck bounced along the smooth stretch of Route 2, I realized we had lost a tire - likely at around 50mph.  Keeping in mind that Route 2 is about as wide as any 2-way city street in the States, littered with livestock, motorcycles, buses, tap taps, people walking, people on bicycles, losing control of a vehicle can be, and often is, a deadly incident.  Thanks to the skills of my driver and friend Francky, I breathed a sigh of relief as the truck came to a wobbly stop on the muddy shoulders of Route 2.

Francky had the tire changed in no time, and I took advantage of the delay to catch a glimpse at a magnificent sunrise.  Francky was beaming with pride at his great recovery from the blowout and his even more impressive speed at which he changed the tire and had us back on track.  We moved on towards Port, talking excitedly about and laughing at what could have been a not so funny experience.

Port-au-Prince is unique.  I have traveled to something like 7 or 8 countries and always to the capital cities.  PAP is like no other place I have ever been.  I would have expected that by now, the sights, sounds, smells, and reality of the city should no longer affect me.  I figured that I'd be conditioned to this by now, and that as we pass by the tent cities and the squalor, the women laying out their meager goods on dusty sidewalk ,the street vendors jockeying for a place within traffic in the hopes of selling a bag of water or a can of Coke, the children picking through smoldering heaps of garbage and filth, the piles of rubble that sit as if the earthquake happened just yesterday, I'd simply look forward and be unaffected.  Yet for some reason, it continues to emit from me a very sad and bereaved sense of frustration and helplessness.  Indeed, with each trip to PAP, I question all that is supposedly good in this world and wonder, why don't we do better? 

As we arrived at the hospital in the pediatric HIV/AIDS unit, being sent from office to office, building to building, getting the run around on why we can't do this and why we can't do that, we met the objectives of our trip in to PAP - we got the necessary diagnostics and tests run that we needed so we can best help this child.  It did not go without invoking some level of privilege - even invoking what I would call "white privilege" - for surely if anyone else had complained about having to wait too long, they likely would have been met with a different response other than essentially being ushered into the laboratory for preferred service.

As we prepared to leave the hospital after hours of sitting and waiting, seeing children who have almost no chance of survival, I was emotionally and physically exhausted.  As we sat stuck in the traffic which is so typical of Port, waiting for a convoy of United Nations vehicles to pass through before allowing the locals to move freely, I noticed a large group of people start to move - and fast! Their shrieks and their exclamation meant something was clearly wrong.  As the crowd ran away from where we sat in traffic, we saw a man with a gun pointed at a man working a money exchange counter in front of a gas station.  The man took the money and ran - while the crowd, the UN and the police were preoccupied, directing traffic in an ineffective manner.

After this long day, we made our way back to the safety and the security of Be Like Brit - unscathed, and thankful that the day's challenges and misfortunes were not directed at us, nor did they result in any serious consequence.

This morning, I drove back to PAP with Francky to bring our friend Debbie to the airport after spending a week with us working on staff development and education curriculum for the summer.  The drive in was without incident - no tires popping, no robberies - but the usual sights, of course.

On our way back out of PAP, we were stopped at a police roadblock.  These roadblocks typically check to be sure the driver is properly licensed and the vehicle is properly registered.  This time, however, I was asked directly by the police office, "where is your Passport?"  As I wasn't traveling out of the country, of course I didn't have it with me.  "Where is your residence permit?" he then asked.  I replied that I was not required to carry a passport or a residence permit with me when traveling within the country.  I offered my U.S. driver's license for identification purposes instead.  This was met by a demand:  Money.  Give me money.

I felt the blood rush to my face in anger and in frustration.  The very people employed to protect Haitians and people in Haiti are so often the ones fostering the corruption.  While this officer asked me for a mere 300HTG (about 7 USD), he very well could have asked me for $500, or $1000, or whatever he felt like.  What could I do? I could argue my legal point but to what point?  I handed over the money, angrily and annoyed.

About a mile down the road, we came upon a body, laying in the street, blood running from the man's head.  A moto had been hit by a truck and the two passengers lay dead in the street while a crowd of people, including the police, gathered around to stare and take photos.  No ambulance, no sheet to cover the body, nothing but traffic backed up and people standing in the streets.

As if that wasn't enough, again, we were stopped by the police at yet another roadblock.  Again, the officer asked me, "Blan, where is your passport?"  My frustration was released in a very stern and very annoyed response, proudly all in Creole.  I argued that the officer had no right to ask me for my passport or for a residence permit, as I was not traveling outside of the country, nor do I live here as a full-time resident - whether or not the basis of my argument is accurate, I continued to argue that I was here visiting and volunteering for 3 months, well within the rules Haiti spells out for foreigners in the country.  While it's likely that he wanted the passport to verify I was not here longer than those 90 days, we simply don't travel in-country with our passports.  I refused to pay him anything, hoping I wouldn't find myself in handcuffs and in the back of a police car in PAP.

All of this speaks to the nature of things in Haiti - there is little, if any consolation in authority, or security with police or those who are supposed to be protecting you.  The simple act of driving 3 hours for medical services which should be readily available is a risk in and of itself.  As a foreigner, you are at the mercy of your host country - Indeed, this week, and especially today, as minor as "the shakedown" was and as insignificant as the $7.00 USD is in the bigger picture, I realized just how vulnerable not just foreigners, but all Haitians can be in the absence of an effective rule of law.

I'm not sure if the lesson learned is to carry my passport with me at all times or if it is to expedite the permit process (which, of course is long and drawn-out - bureaucracy exists and the characteristics of them do not necessarily change across borders).  I can say that my experience this week outside of the bubble gave me a new perspective on what it can be like here.  I realize that it's not necessarily unique to Haiti - but I think it speaks volumes about the character of those people who choose to sacrifice their time, their security, and even their lives to come to a new place in the service of others.

The 31 smiling faces which welcomed me home after today certainly helped.  Maybe that's the takeaway?

Have a good and safe week, everyone!


Sunday, May 19, 2013


This past week at Be Like Brit was in many ways similar to weeks before.  We have been fortunate enough to have had three consecutive groups of Britsionarys with us, and in that time have built two homes, made another home safe and secure for a family of 7, provided food to several families, and given 5 goats to families who will use them to breed more goats so that they might have a sustainable source of meat and milk - opportunities they might not otherwise have ever had if not for our amazing volunteers.

In other ways, this week was very different.  While we welcomed a group of Britsionarys who came to build a house, this time, it was different.  The family of Brendan Scott Beck, a young American professional who died at the Hotel Montana just one floor below where Britney was staying, came to Haiti to build a house in his honor and in his memory.  While I'm not normally involved in the physical and manual labor parts of these trips, the time I got to spend visiting with and getting to know Brendan's family and friends was so very precious to me.  I feel so honored to have been even just a small part of their experience, and continue to be amazed at the ability of the human spirit to rise above tragedy and channel that grief and that energy in to something larger, something bigger than themselves.

Resilience.  I see such strength in people like Brendan's family and friends, in Len and Cherylann, and in all of the children we have brought in to Be Like Brit.  Just when you expect that the difficulties people experience in life might be insurmountable, the human spirit perseveres.  No matter how upset or discouraged I may get at times when I see the things that I see in Haiti, I am forever reminded of the amazing ability at people to press on and come together for each other.  I am thankful that this group reminded me of that reality.

While Brendan's family and friends were busy building this house just outside the walls of Be Like Brit, within them, things continue to be busy!  We are now home to 31 children, having brought 3 more girls in this past week.  We were fortunate enough to have among the Britsionary group our new friend Tom, a RN who volunteered a week of his time to come down and treat staff and children alike here at Brit's Orphanage.  While he performed wellness exams for all of our children, Tom was present for the intake of the newest 3 girls, and was able to conduct the necessary physical exams and tests to be sure we are meeting every child's need here.  He also was on hand when one of our volunteers needed an IV after working long hours in the unforgiving sun, and was able to suture a nasty cut one of our cooks sustained while working in the kitchen.
Tom and I also ventured out into the community and gave medicines and ran tests for some people I have come to know in my time here who were in grave need of his help.  We want to be sure we acknowledge and thank Tom for his efforts! Keeping 31 children and the 30+ staff healthy is no easy feat!  We are so grateful for your time and your knowledge!

We also celebrated Haiti's 210th Flag Day!  Flag Day, it appears, is quite the celebration in Haiti - as well it should be!  The children came home from school on Friday, May 17 each proudly waving their own Haitian flag and most wearing red and blue!  On Saturday, we celebrated the holiday here at Be Like Brit by having the children each draw and color in their own flags and in presenting them with a large flag which will be mounted outside the entrance to Brit's Orphanage.  The children sang and the afternoon was filled with singing, dancing, coloring, and just having a good time!  This is what I love the most - seeing the children celebrating with pride something so important like Flag Day - a holiday many of us back in the States might let pass by without much fanfare.  I was proud of my staff and proud of my kids for making this event as significant and important as it should be.

I'm especially excited this week to welcome our friend and Program Committee member Debbie Pallatto-Fontaine back to Brit's Orphanage! Debbie flew in today and will spend some time here helping me to develop a summer school curriculum for the children.  Debbie's expertise in curriculum development and early childhood education is invaluable and we are so blessed to have her back!

In the meantime, be sure to watch for exciting updates on what is happening here at Brit's Orphanage!

Have a great week everybody!  Here's a few more pics from the week for you to enjoy!


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Team Kabrit and an Engagement!

As we near the middle of May, it's hard to believe how far we have come in just a few short months.  Today we bid farewell to another amazing group of Britsionarys who called themselves "Team Kabrit" -(Haitian Creole for 'goat').  And yes, it is always tough to see a group leave us!

Team Kabrit chose to get involved in several projects, and the amount of work they accomplished in their short time here is nothing short of amazing.  The first task they accomplished was painting the house that Team Toro built for our friend and employee Jackson.  Team Toro started literally from the ground up - clearing dirt for two full days before even being able to start on a foundation.  Because of this extra work, they weren't able to paint the house before their time in Haiti was up.  Team Kabrit jumped right in and completed this new home for Jackson, his wife and their two daughters.

Another project Team Kabrit chose to take on of their own doing was essentially rebuilding an existing house! After learning that the "home" (a plywood and tarp temporary shelter) had been robbed twice by people slashing open the walls with a machete, the group went out and bought all new plywood so that they could install solid walls all around the structure.  They also installed a wood floor in the house and wrapped it all in a new tarp to keep the home dry from the heavy rains which are already happening on a somewhat regular basis.  To top it all off, the Team bought a month supply of rice, beans, cooking oil, milk, and spices for the family, a husband and wife with 5 daughters.  Lastly, they bought and offered the family a goat (hence their team name!) so that the family might raise goats for milk and meat and sustain them in the long term!  The generosity of this group was heartwarming, and we know they have left a lasting mark on so many of us here in Haiti!

Team Kabrit also brought with them exciting projects for the children at Be Like Brit to partake in!  Thanks to our good friend Lauren Gowzdz, the children are all sporting spiffy new tie-dye t-shirts!  Lauren brought all of the supplies, and worked with other members of the group to prep the shirts, tie them, and the process of teaching the children how they could participate!  The children weren't sure what to think at first, and after a bit of time it finally clicked, and the end result is priceless!

Another exciting event that happened while Team Kabrit was here with us is a first for Be Like Brit - two of our returning Britsionarys, Melissa and Ryan, got engaged!  Ryan popped the question on their last day here while visiting Taino Beach, a beautiful spot for any event and a favorite last day outing for all of our Britsionarys.  We love Melissa and Ryan and they have been so good to Be Like Brit and our children here - We certainly wish Melissa and Ryan nothing but the best and were so honored to be a part of their special moment!

We were also happy to have Len and Cherylann come in to Haiti for a short visit this week - it's always great   when they are able to meet a group of Britsionarys, and of course to see their 28 children here! The children are always so thrilled when Papi Len and Momma Len are in town! When the children hear the truck pull in the driveway, they run to gather in the main room to greet them, usually with a song they've rehearsed just for them!  This week, it was "Oh Happy Day", one of Brit's favorite songs! How sweet it is to bear witness to these events!

While things are always busy in a household with 28 children, there is no rest for the weary!  As we bid farewell to Team Kabrit, we are eagerly anticipating the arrival of another group, who (by the time you read this blog) will be safe in Haiti and likely adorned in children curiously investigating a new group of friends.

We are excited to see what happens this week at Be Like Brit! Keep up on our progress by following us on facebook and twitter! Happy Mother's Day to all of you in the States -  Haiti celebrates next week!

See you then!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Team Toro, and other things!

This week, we welcomed a Britsionary Group who came down specifically to build a house for one of our employees, his wife, and their two children. This group of volunteers worked especially hard! Usually when we build a home with volunteers, we have our own laborers clear the lot and pour the foundation.  This is a labor-intensive task and requires hauling buckets of dirt out by hand for up to two days.  Team Toro asked specifically to leave this task for them! While they fueled up on Toro (Haiti's version of Red Bull), Team Toro has been working hard and working nonstop! It's amazing what a group of volunteers can accomplish in a week!

We also welcomed our first Medical Britsionarys this past week! Megan and Cindy came down specifically to be sure any medical needs of the Britsionary group were met, and also worked extensively in our own clinic, as well as two days of outreach with the Mission of Hope International Clinic!  In just one week, Megan and Cindy screened all 28 of our children, performed wellness exams, diagnostic testing, administered medicines, updated charts, and even saw members of our staff who had some issues needing attention.  These two worked tirelessly and their work is so appreciated!  We brought them by the Cuban Clinic here in Grand Goâve and to Lifeline Christian Ministries, too, so that they might get a sense of medical care and facilities in a place like Haiti!  We can't thank Megan and Cindy enough for doing all that they have done for us! Bon Travay!

As Haitians celebrated Labor and Agriculture Day, the staff at Be Like Brit took the children out to take part in their own way, each by planting either a seed or a sapling of some sort here on the property.  It's a great way for the children to get their hands dirty and participate in important events of Haitian culture! It's also a great opportunity to teach things like teamwork, patience, and even the basic skill of planting itself!  The kids loved it and we so enjoyed the day!

After the planting was done, we took the children out to a local field where they could get some good exercise, play, friendly competition, and just be kids in general! Thanks to the new bus, we were able to bring everyone and 6 members of our staff out together, and the children slept extra well that night! :)

We also have exciting news to report concerning a new relationship with Tulane University's School of Social Work in New Orleans, Louisiana.  I went to Tulane and am a product of their master of social work program with a certificate/concentration in global and international social work.  That program brought me to Rwanda the final semester of my graduate school study, and after a quick visit from TSSW last week, I'm happy to announce we'll be hosting MSW interns here in Haiti at Be Like Brit starting this fall!

The students will spent 15 weeks here with us, working on specific projects which will give them the opportunity to apply the skills they have learned in the classroom and in their field placements in the U.S. here in a global context.  We know this relationship will benefit both TSSW and BLB, but ultimately it will serve to benefit the children who call Be Like Brit home the most.  As we grow as an organization, so do our complexities, and it's wonderful to have a resource like Tulane University School of Social Work behind us!  My thanks go out to Dr. Elaine Wright and Dr. Heather Gillis of TSSW for their visit and the opportunity to work with them in the future!

We continue to stay busy here at Be Like Brit - and by the time you read this blog, we will have welcomed our next Britsionary Group in!  As my position is an on site, live-in position, it's always tough to see people and visitors come and then go - but we are always excited to welcome new faces and form new relationships with the next group! We are blessed to have the support of so many wonderful people, and our children are the ones who reap the benefit!

Have a great week, everyone! 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Family Week!

Every week is busy here at Be Like Brit, and this past one was no different!  Len and Cherylann arrived last week on Monday to visit with the children and tend to some business, and our Be Like Brit family grew by three boys!
Len and Cherylann greet the children as they come home from school!

Brothers! (L-R) Kerby, Davidson, and Fredo
One of the week's biggest events (and one of my favorite days!) was last Sunday after church when Rosenie and I took 14 of Brit's children out with us and visited the communities they were living in prior to coming to Be Like Brit.  Part of our programming includes regular family involvement (keeping in mind that family may mean a variety of things in this context!) and while the policy itself is ever-evolving and being tweaked to accommodate for each individual child's need or desire, I believe it's very important to keep the children connected to their roots.

I sometimes refer to Be Like Brit as a "bubble of privilege", and the last thing I want is for our children to become so insulated inside that bubble that they lose their sense of identity and all familiarity with what the real world is like for most people in Haiti.  That's how we bring up a generation of future leaders who value things like reciprocity - by keeping them connected.

At any rate, the children were more than excited to go and put on some of their best clothes as we piled in the pickup truck and set out for the afternoon.  And yes, driving a pickup truck filled with children in Haiti does make me nervous!
Let's go, already! 
I really had no idea what to expect as we set off for the first stop.  I had spent a lot of time discussing the visits with the children involved, being sure they wanted to go, talking about how they felt about going, etc., etc., but still, those things you plan for the most often are the things that you have to have a "wait and see" attitude.  I wanted our children to be excited about seeing aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, old friends, and even a few moms - but I was nervous about the emotional toll it might take on them.  I mostly feared that some of our children would express a desire to stay - to not want to come back to Be Like Brit.  How would I handle that?

One of the homes from where some of our children came from
I was so relieved to be witness to the excitement and the anticipation each child felt for the others as we neared the next "house".  They couldn't wait to introduce their new brothers and sisters to their extended families or to the people with whom they were living; to show their new brothers and sisters their old home, to see old friends.  They were genuinely happy, excited, and spoke proudly of going to school and what life is like for them now at Be Like Brit.

Steeve was happy to see his Grandmother!

Something that I don't think I'll ever be able to fully "get" or understand is how familial relationships seem or appear to work in Haiti.  At face value, even when bringing children in to the Orphanage, there seems to be this stoic, emotionless, very matter-of-fact exchange of "child for birth certificate" sort of arrangement.  I always ask the adults bringing us children if they would like to walk around and see where their child will be living, meet their caregivers, etc., and almost always get an awkward no.  When I ask adults about visiting the child they will be bringing us, they almost always say something along the lines of, "yes, sure, when would you like me to visit."  There's not often tears, there's never a screaming child holding tight to the arm of the adult who has provided him or her with care for the last 'X' number of years.  At least not on the surface.  I remember crying so hard the first day of school every year until I was about 9.  I have yet to see that happen here - that separation doesn't seem to bring any sadness.

Walking to another house!
And that's how these visits seemed, at least for the most part. Children and adults were not overly emotional about seeing each other. They didn't run up to one another and embrace.  There were no tight, long hugs and tears of joy like we see in the States every day at something as simple as an arrival gate at the airport.  And I can't quite yet figure that out.  It wears on my mind constantly.  Is it that simple?  Is the presence of a child in your home so much of a burden because it's another mouth to feed that the absence of that child provides so much relief that the dominant emotion is not sadness?  Or is it a facade?

Socrate, waving?
I can't help but believe there's more going on beneath the surface, though I realize that's my own Western framed mind telling me this.  The whole idea of trauma is something scholars contest as a social construct of Western thought and not so much a reality for those who are supposedly suffering from it.  I don't know who is right and who is wrong, and quite frankly, I don't care.  I'll continue to be mindful of all of this while keeping the best interest of our children as the number one priority.  Smiles don't usually lie.  Our children seemed overwhelmingly happy to reunite briefly with friends and family, share a quick hug, and head back home to Be Like Brit.  As I spoke with each child afterwards about how they felt about their day, it was clear that all was well with their world.  At least for the moment.

Thanks for reading - and enjoy a few more photos from that day!


Old friends in the neighborhood!

Love na's neighbor is happy to see her!

Waving to Be Like Brit from another hill!

Ephesiens recognizes his old neighbor!

Many of these homes have yet to be rebuilt, 3 years later.