Sunday, March 6, 2016

When Cultures Clash

Back in the summer of 2011, I was preparing to travel from New Orleans, LA to Kigali, Rwanda, where I would work as a graduate student intern for an orphanage and center for street children just outside of the capital city. I was fortunate enough that local media from my hometown of Plattsburgh, NY were interested in learning more about what I would be doing, and I ended up interviewing with the local paper for a story. It was during this interview where I used the phrase "cultural gap". A cultural gap is effectively exactly what it sounds like - a significant difference between two cultural groups which may hinder understanding or the establishing of relationships, etc. I anticipated that in Rwanda, and met it in many forms. As a social worker, we are trained in cultural competence and appropriateness, as well as being mindful of things like ethnocentrism and cultural relativity. Part of the reason why I believe I am effective in these international settings is my strong sense of fidelity to that approach. One will not likely convince another that they are right simply by telling them that they are wrong. As such, I pride myself in working effectively in cross-cultural environments, simultaneously navigating cultural differences while being respectful and yet still making a meaningful impact.

Over the past 3 plus years I have lived and worked in Haiti, without question I as the Director of a foreign organization operating here, and we as an organization have had to work through countless incidents and examples of how cultures clash - of how that cultural gap resonates and affects the day to day. Of course, there are major differences between American and Haitian culture. We like to say around here that when we know better, we do better, and so there are times where while respecting local tradition, beliefs, customs, etc., we do introduce outside ideas, beliefs, values to our Haitian family. This most often happens with our staff, and during our friend Love's visit to Haiti last week, a very significant incident arose, and we weren't quite sure how to handle it. Thankfully, with Love here, having been Haitian born and raised until the age of 10 before moving to the USA, we had a very helpful perspective to solicit!

The issue arose through what is referred to in Haiti as "radyo 32" - that is, radio 32 - the rumor mill. Gossip. (Think, 32 teeth in your mouth - or essentially mouth radio). It came to our attention in the office that an employee was being harassed and even threatened because it was rumored that he or she was possibly gay or lesbian. Concerned employees flooded the office, asking me to investigate formally, and if in fact it was determined as such, that it would be in the best interest of the organization to terminate that employee immediately. Indeed, the thought was made quite clear that if in fact a gay or lesbian person was working here at Be Like Brit as a caregiver to a child, we needed to be concerned for the safety of the children and the message that it would send if we did not condone this lifestyle, and send this person on their way. Yes, quite literally, the fear was that gay or lesbian people would abuse the children in the orphanage.

Obviously, we disagree. I say we collectively as Len, Cherylann, myself, and our organization as a whole. In fact, contained within our Working Vision and Guiding Principles, a document authored by Cherylann and a committee of professionals (including clergy, psychologists, educators), is a very clear statement on diversity and on the development of a global perspective. Accepting of differences and an appreciation for what each and every one of us human beings on this planet may be able to contribute as a key value, a core value in fact. Indeed, in the spirit of Britney, who was a friend to those members of society who might be marginalized because of their differences, we knew that this situation presented to us an ideal opportunity to teach. At the same time, I knew we also had the obligation to be respectful and reasonable - and culturally appropriate. No, this was not a time for us to present our values and morals to the staff and force them to conform. Instead, it was an opportunity to reiterate the values set forth by our Working Vision and Guiding Principles. The meeting was called...


We sincerely do our best with very difficult situations here at BLB, and at no time do we try to politicize or gain any kind of traction from issues that present themselves. We simply started our meeting by reading aloud our core values and our working vision. Len then described how Britney was an advocate for those who would be marginalized by people who felt it was their right to marginalize others, or render others irrelevant. I spoke about how it was never acceptable to use something about a person that was different from you to try to strip people of dignity or of respect. I spoke to their beliefs as Christians, and was able to pull from the long-ago days of my Catholic schooling that we are all created in God's image, that we ought not judge others - that right was reserved for one, and One only. The looks on the faces of our employees ranged from somewhat horrified that we would even bring it up to nodding in agreement - that, indeed, it was not our place to judge or demean or undermine people. It was our job to raise children in an environment that is tolerant and open to loving people no matter what. The lesson was simple, really. Love thy neighbor. 

I'm not 100% certain that what we did was the right thing to do in terms of having a meeting and setting those expectations and standards with our staff. I wonder if we are not doing our children a disservice by asking them to be tolerant of things which are largely intolerable in this society. I wonder if encouraging our children to grow up with these open minds won't possibly put them in a vulnerable spot some day. Yet, I do try to remember, when we know better, we do better. And I do feel that we did better that day, in that meeting...

We know we will face many more challenges in regards the cultural gap. We can only hope that the values with which we raise our children at Be Like Brit will be the kinds of values that allow them to develop that healthy global perspective, to show kindness to everyone they meet no matter what differences they may have between each other, and to Continue the Compassion of Britney Gengel, who was one of the fiercest defenders of those who were somehow 'different' ~ if we do that well and successfully, we will have done our part to contribute to a world in which more people are loved. That's not a bad legacy.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rolling into February!

It's hard to believe we are already a full month into the new year, and 2015 is looking like it will be fabulous! We are so excited that we have two Britsionary groups booked each month, almost to year's end, and with exciting things happening with medical and dental initiatives for Be Like Brit, we are holding on for a busy, busy month!

This past week, we welcomed Amanda back to Haiti after a long weekend in Florida! Amanda was especially happy, not only because her beloved Patriots won the Superbowl, but because she got to celebrate it with her father ~ an equally avid fan of New England! Amanda's trip was delayed by two days, as a transportation strike in Haiti on Monday and Tuesday this past week had halted public transportation, making a drive from Port-au-Prince to Grand Goâve too unpredictable to chance it! I think she was happy to have two extra days of rest and relaxation, but I do know the awesome feeling it is to come back home to BLB! I think these smiles say it all!

It wasn't long before Amanda was back into the full swing of things! The children had missed her, and they were anxious to get back into Amanda's ABCMouse room! Amanda has managed this program for all of our children, and developed a great after-school enrichment program schedule which allows for daily use, at a minimum of 30 minutes each! Add guitar and piano lessons and English classes by Peterson in the mix, as well as their standard 2 hours of instruction and homework time, and our kiddos are definitely busy! Of course we know the importance of some good old-fashioned fun, and so free time and play is part of the day, every day! With all of the scooters and the few bicycles we have down here, it can get pretty chaotic! We do our best to "divide and conquer" and keep the children as safe as we can! Sometimes, though, accidents happen - just like in any house with children!

I was off this weekend and spent two days in Port, and yesterday morning received a call from Be Like Brit. One of our tiniest guys, Jean Roodly, had taken a spill on his bicycle (just trying to get on it!) and knocked his head on one of the columns in the building! Thanks to our great relationship with the Director of the local hospital, and our friendship with Dr. Anna Mirta, a Cuban Pediatrician who staffs the clinic, Peterson was able to bring Jean Roodly down for the two little stitches he needed! We're very proud of our little man and he's even prouder! Not more than 15 minutes after he returned from the clinic, Jean Roodly was running around the courtyard with a soccer ball, laughing and having fun! We do have helmets here, but we don't have enough! A future Wish List Wednesday item, for sure!

Here's our brave boy just shortly after getting two stitches!

We know he looks rough - but he was a trooper through the whole ordeal! If any of you feel like donating bike helmets for our kiddos (ages 2 to 16) feel free to drop them off at the 'OC' at 66 Pullman Street, Worcester, MA 01606! You may ship them there, too!

Don't think that your friends in Haiti haven't been following along with what many of you have endured this winter! Wow! We can't get over the amount of snow you've had, and as I write this, there's another one on the way! Being from Upstate New York, I've seen my friends and family back home dealing with temperatures well below zero! I will say that there are times that I would enjoy a nice snowfall, but feel assured that this winter is one that I am happy to have missed! Here we are in February, and Amanda continues to bring the children to the beach every Saturday (in two groups!), enjoying some of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen! Jealous? You can certainly sign up to be a Britsionary and enjoy the beaches at Taino at least one day while you are here! 

Don't they look like they are having a blast?

As you know, we have recently been talking with UMASS Medical, trying to explore ways that we might be able to work together to bring some of the best health care available down to Be Like Brit! While we are still working on all the details, we are happy to announce that we will be hosting three medical personnel in the coming months from UMASS, and we can't wait for them to arrive! We will first welcome Dr. Michael Taylor later this month! With incidents like Jean Roodly's visit to the local hospital, it is so assuring to know that so many exceptional professionals in medicine are willing to give of their time and skills to the children of Haiti at Be Like Brit! 

Cherylann has been busy, too, working with Dr. Scott Siemen and his wife Katie, who have so graciously taken on the responsibility of heading up the dental clinic at Be Like Brit. In our 1200 square foot clinic, we have a dental chair, complete with all of the necessary tools and supplies we need to operate! Dr. Siemen and Katie have both been to Haiti and have seen first hand the extent of the need for proper dental care in the area! While our children are fortunate to have the benefits of proper hygiene and oral health care, that is an exception, not the rule! Through Scott and Katie's efforts, we've had dentists and hygienists down to Haiti three times already! This is huge for us and we can't thank them enough for all of their hard work!


Shilove has only been with us at Be Like Brit since November. When Shilove came to us, she had been living with friends of the family following her mother's sudden illness and untimely death. Shilove was very shy and timid, and it definitely took a bit of time for her to warm up to us! Fortunately for us, many of our caregiver staff come from the same communities as our children do, and so Shilove quickly found a good friend in one of our part-time caregivers - Nadege. Nadege was actually Shilove's neighbor, and knew her well! A familiar face was all it took to get Shilove to open up, and she's a happy and spirited little girl who brings us so much joy and laughter!

Even in the short amount of time she has been with us, it's clear the benefits of Child Sponsorship and a clean environment with basic medical care! Just take a look at how much she's changed in just a few months!

We can't thank all of you enough for all you continue to do! We are truly humbled with the ongoing outpouring of love and support for these beautiful children! Thank you for helping us help the children of Haiti at Be Like Brit! Have a great week!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Amitye ~ Friendship

Ekip Amitye, or Team Friendship has been with us over the course of this past week! This great group was a sort of synthesis of a group of friends from Halifax and a group from the Boston area. We were blessed to have many returning Britsionarys, and new ones, too! The dynamics of merging two groups of people is always interesting, and this group solidified a great relationship as friends right out of the gate!

As is often the case, a family in great need was identified ahead of the Britsionary group's arrival to Haiti. This time, we found a mother and two young children living in absolute squalor - a 10X10 area of pieced together scraps of metal, wood, and tarp. The evening rains flooded the home, meaning often the family had to sleep outdoors under a tarp in order to avoid laying in mud - which was the floor of their 'home'. The coming rainy season would surely have wiped away the tenuous shelter, exposing the mother and her two young children to all of the elements. Here, you can see the happiness on their faces, while you can also see what was home just a week before in the background...

The end result is much more suitable for their needs, and we know it will keep them safe and secure for years to come...

Among the group were our great Canadian friends, returning from last year, Gillian and Judy! Gillian came down as our medical Britsionary and worked hard in the clinic! She spent some very long days checking up on our children and seeing almost everyone on our staff - as we are committed to not only our children but to our staff as well. Indeed, we are a family here at Be Like Brit and when we have a resource on hand to share, we do what we can! Judy has incredible organizational skills, too, and so I was so relieved when she offered to take care of some filing for me! They make a great team and we're so thankful for the Ambassadors we have in Jill and Judy ~ they have really brought Be Like Brit's message to Canada and as we grow, we look forward to hosting more and more groups from our friends and neighbors to the north!

As we discuss our friends and our commitment to community, I feel compelled to introduce you to a new addition to Be Like Brit. Two weeks ago, while on a weekend off in Port au Prince, my phone rang after 6pm. It was Gama. He called to tell me that the government entity in charge of the welfare of children was at Be Like Brit, and were asking us to assume the custody and care of a sixteen year old girl. My first response was to protest! "Our program is not designed for children of that age", I argued. "We are not obligated to accept any children from the government without a legal order", I continued. Yet as the inspector with the IBESR office began to explain the urgency of the situation, and essentially begged me to help, I made the decision.

We've enrolled our newest friend, and child number 67 in to Brit's Orphanage. Meet Aseline! She will be with us for a few months, and we want her to feel right at home. We're glad she has already said that here she feels safe and secure. When the government called just yesterday to check on her, I was proud to hear the official tell me how Aseline told him she feels right at home here, that it is a good place that is safe and that the children are very much loved. There's no better compliment to our collective efforts than the praises of a child!

While we welcomed Aseline a few weeks ago, we had to say goodbye to another friend at Be Like Brit! Most of you will remember that we brought Petit Bruno down to Haiti in September of 2014, just a puppy of 3 months at the time! Our thoughts were that having a dog would encourage some of the children to take responsibility. Who doesn't love a pet when you are a child!? Ti Bruno's presence here was very helpful for many of our children. Some of the more aggressive children seemed to find great pride in assuming the responsibility of him, and we noticed many behaviors improve just with this simple addition. Indeed, there is great value in having man's best friend around!

Of course we knew that this breed of dog would require some special attention in a place like Haiti. Not exactly the type of dog that does well here, we know of dozens of people who bring English Bulldogs in to Haiti. The veterinarian's office in Petionville told us of countless customers who own Bulldogs here, and so we figured we could keep him comfortable in the areas of the orphanage which are air conditioned.

This worked, but we soon learned that Bruno much preferred to be outside, running around with the children and playing! Given his breed, that just wasn't feasible, and so we made the tough decision to bring Bruno back to the United States so that he could run and be free no matter where he was! Our children understood, and were remarkably matter-of-fact about it. "So he can breathe better and be outside" one of the children said. There were a few tears at his departure, but we know Bruno is better off with Papi Len and having control of the whole house!

We can't thank the Animal Care Center in Petionville and Missionary Flights International enough for all of their help and professionalism in helping us get this not-so-petit Petit Bruno back to the United States!

Amanda left yesterday morning ahead of our group for a weekend in Florida. She says she went so that she could watch the Superbowl with her father (they are huge Patriots fans!), and we hope she has a great, recuperative weekend in the USA. I wonder what treats she will bring back for me? I mean, for the children!

It's unusually cool here in Haiti these past two days. Cloudy skies and afternoon rains, with a cool breeze sweeping up the mountain. It's the perfect time to grab some light blankets, put on a movie, and enjoy the quiet that comes with this kind of weather in Haiti. People tend to stop and while I know it's nothing like the blizzard our friends in the Northeast just endured, I like to think of it as our own kind of snow day.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and as always, thank you for helping us help the children of Haiti at Be Like Brit!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

This past week, we welcomed our good friend Alan to Be Like Brit! Alan, as many of you know, was responsible for all of the plumbing work at BLB during the construction phase of building Brit's Orphanage. Alan donated thousands of hours and endless supplies of materials to ensure that our water supply and our water quality were the best they could be! Alan has returned to Be Like Brit many times as a member of the infamous group, Team Toro. He's largely responsible for the playground that group built for our children last March and he's also the man responsible for bringing more than 1000 gallons of water to the local community, as we share our supply with neighbors on an almost daily basis!

As you can see, Alan's also made a few friends here at Be Like Brit over the last few years!

Alan was here this past week working hard on Gama's new house - helping him install plumbing and working hard on the well there! Alan has installed a solar powered water pump at Gama's house, and so not only do we give water out at Be Like Brit, but now Gama is able to provide water to the community just a bit higher up the mountain, behind us! This is great, as it not only provides water to more people, but it also alleviates the burden on our own supply. Access to clean drinking water in Haiti is a privilege, not a right, and so this work goes far beyond the seeming simplicity of it all! We can't thank Alan enough for all he's done for Be Like Brit and for the people of Haiti over the years! He's a true hero!

While we did not host a Britsionary group this past week, it was business as usual with the children at Be Like Brit. We were overwhelmed with the number of photos people submitted to Amanda on January 21, 2015 - Brit's 25th Birthday! So many of you went "Blue for Brit" and the donations rolled in, too! We can't thank you enough!

When Amanda wasn't busy posting photos of all of you in your Britney Blue, she has been hard at work heading up the educational programming here at BLB. We asked Amanda to give us an update this week, as we've had lots going on in her department! Here's what she had to say:

Since the beginning of the school year back in September, our teaching staff has been working very hard with the children at BLB to support each child individually in their education.  As you would find in any family or in any classroom, some of our children need more support than others.  Our staff does an amazing job of providing that support for our children, no matter what grade level.  Often in Haiti, that means a lot of repetition.  However, we are beginning to see our staff utilizing other methods of reaching with the children.  Many more hands-on activities can be seen either one-on-one or in the class as a whole!  This is one of the things I have been trying to work on with our teachers, finding a way to have children discover things instead of using rote memorization. 

We have received our first round of report cards, which contained 2 terms worth of marks.  I assumed we would receive them after each term, as I had to complete report cards for my students at the end of each term.  But assuming things you learned when growing up in the States is something I have learned that I need to let go of now that I live in Haiti.  So come to find out, the schools didn’t want to send children home with expensive paper after the first term to not have the parent return the report card to the school.  So we waited until December, or even January to find out how our 66 students were fairing in school this year.  When we did finally receive these, we were very happy to see that as we had hoped, our children were doing quite well.  A few need a little more support in certain subject areas, but the overwhelming feeling was that the children at Be Like Brit are doing well and often exceeding the expectation set at school.  Many of our children are top of their class!  Considering the majority of our children have come from homes where they previously didn’t have the opportunity to attend school, this is incredible!

So now that we have the academic area of our education covered, we are bringing in some enrichment.  As you know we have had the wonderful donation of the ABCmouse program by way of Peter Smith at Kid Orange Tech in Boca Raton, Florida.  Through this early learning program, all of our children are getting an early exposure to English.  Many of them have progressed significantly since the start of a regular schedule with the program.  As we are Haiti and Internet isn’t always top-notch, there are have been some days that we were unable to open the room with our 7 touch screen computers and multiple tablets to the children.  They are usually disappointed when this happens, but have come to understand that when there is no Internet, ABCmouse doesn’t work.  However, we are hoping not to have to worry about this problem anymore!  Jonathan has worked very hard at getting a new company to come in and install a better wi-fi system for us.  So far, and I knock on wood as I say this, we have been pretty smooth sailing!  I love being able to say, “yes” whenever the children ask to do something educational!!!  As an educator, it’s music to my ears!  We have also hired a physical education coach to come in and work with our children 4 times a week.  Two of these days are dedicated to the older children who have created 2 volleyball teams, one boys one girls.  The other two days, Coach works with the younger children and teaches them the importance of physical activity.  The children love when they have “sport” almost as much as they love ABCmouse! 

Back in December, our Program Committee member, Debbie Pallatto-Fontaine, came down and spend a good deal of the week working on our education program with me and some training with our staff.  During that week we had a major focus on RESPECT.  We decided as a whole that respect is the source from which all other things follow.  One must have respect for self before you can then have respect for others and for the things you have.  We worked together to create a “Respect Pledge” that the staff and children have begun to review each night to discuss the importance of respect.  We know that constant reminders will be the basis of instilling this value in our children.  As we say in the pledge, “Respect is the key to every door you would like to open!”  Doing these things, like emphasizing respect, are what I believe make us stand out.  We are focusing on the child as a whole and taking into consideration what we can teach our 66 children now so that they well be well-respected members of society and hopefully respected leaders in Haiti when they grow up. 

Debbie and I also took the opportunity to visit all 3 schools that our children attend.  I’ve mentioned many times, but I never cease to be amazed at the many differences that you immediately see upon walking into a school in Grand Goave vs. the many schools I’ve visited and worked at in throughout several places in the States.  The one major thing I noticed on that particular visit was simply the number of students in the classroom.  I’m a firm believer that smaller is better in a classroom as you are better able to give the proper attention to each student.  All but 2 of the classrooms we visited had more than 30 students and a handful of them had over 50!  I’ve had 30 children in a classroom and that was a challenge, I can’t possibly imagine 50!  God bless those teachers!  I am happy to report that recently one of the classrooms with 59 students in it has split into two, making the classes more manageable and much more conducive to the needs of the students. 


(from Amanda):

I’d like to give you an example of just how your support is making a clear difference in the lives of our children.  One of our children, Magdaline, has been here with us since March of 2013.  Before coming to BLB at the age of 5, she had never been to school.  She was immediately enrolled at MOHI. When I moved down last summer, the first thing I did, which took a while, was educational assessments with each child.  Magdaline did fairly well for a child going into the first grade.  However, I knew if we pushed her a little more and gave her a little more support she would make incredible strides.  When I assessed her in August, she knew by sight identification maybe 10 letters of the alphabet, numbers 1-10 and could tell me her name and where she lived.  Just this past week, I did a re-assessment to see the growth that she has made.  I was amazed.  Magadaline can now identify almost all of the letters in the alphabet.  She can now identify numbers well past 20.  She can identify her birthday and even how old she is, not a common thing to be able to identify in Haiti, many adults do not know when their birthday is and how old they are.  I was even more impressed when I gave Magdaline a simple book to read and she was able to read almost the whole book with no assistance!  This is the difference our education program is making in the lives of our 66 children.  Through many of you who have chosen to be child sponsors allowing our children to attend school and allowing us to provide these enrichment programs for our children is what is making the difference!  I can’t wait to re-assess again and see the continued growth in Magdaline!!!


After lots of frustration with our former internet service provider, we're thrilled to announce our new relationship with Access Haiti! Access Haiti is a local company and we've had amazing results with them and their team thus far. We're so blessed to have Pastor Scott Johnson of St. John's United Church of Christ from Kenton, OH, and his congregation who continue to sponsor our internet connection - making things like ABCMouse possible - among many, many other things! We're scaling up our capacities in our clinic and hope to have our telemedicine in place and operational before the mid-point of this year! Thank you Scott and St. John's in Kenton!!!

Many of you saw on facebook that Cherylann and her sister Jodi (a Board member at Be Like Brit!) were busy rubbing elbows at the Sundance Film Festival! What an awesome chance to spread the word about the amazing work that BLB is doing in honor of Britney and for the children of Haiti! We were thrilled to learn that Len and Cherylann's book, Heartache and Hope in Haiti, was included in the gift baskets many of the attendees received! We hope this plants seeds for more people to become involved with our efforts at Be Like Brit and even come down to Haiti to volunteer as a Britsionary!

We're busy welcoming our newest Britsionary Group here in Haiti, along with Len's arrival yesterday! The week is sure to be an eventful one, so stay tuned to our updates on Facebook and Twitter! As always, thank you for helping us help the children of Haiti at Be Like Brit!!!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Paradox: Grieving Death, Celebrating Life

Haiti is never simple. The familiar adage that Haiti is the exception to almost every rule really rings true, at least in most of my experiences in the day to day. It's not so much that Haiti's realities are unique to Haiti, but it's the myriad dynamics and complex history which seem to just exacerbate any and every situation that makes Haiti such a conundrum. No better example could present itself than the marking of the 5th anniversary of the earthquake. While we knew we had to recognize this date with our staff and our children, we didn't want the day to be dark and depressing. Yet how can you acknowledge douz janvye without it taking over your emotions and leading you down the invariably bumpy road?

We were fortunate to have with us this past week the fabulous Britsionary group from the College of Holy Cross in Worcester. Among the group was Father Jim Hayes, who blessed us with a prayer as we stopped all we were doing, gathered in the Fr. Bob Lord Chapel with all 66 of our children, our staff, and our group of Britsionarys, and observed a moment of silence with 33 candles burning.

As we sat still, in silence for 30 seconds, the children (as they often do) amazed me with the way they behaved. Even children as young as 2 years old somehow knew that this moment was serious and deserving of nothing but respect. One of our caregivers, Madona, offered up a prayer in Creole, too. While simple, the moment was perfectly apt. In those 30 seconds we reflected on all of the blessings we had all been so fortunate to receive, and thanked God for the gift of life as we continue to do our good work.

While we stopped to recognize and pay our due respects to the estimated 300,000 lives which were lost 5 years ago, we also had a celebration on the horizon. Our boy Dotchley turned 6 years old on January 12, 2015, and while all of our children are special to us, he is extra precious. Dotchley was nearly killed in the earthquake 5 years ago, and if you ask him about the scar on his hand, he'll tell you (even though we know he can't possibly remember). "Douz janvye" he says, matter-of-factly, as if his 6 year old mind knows or even really understands what happened to him 5 years earlier. Nonetheless, it is a poignant and powerful reminder that everyone we know - our 66 children, our 78 employees, our neighbors and our friends - all of them were in some way affected by the earthquake. That fact is inescapable.

As we moved on past a somber Monday, our focus shifted to the outpouring of love and support we at Be Like Brit were flooded with following the incredible press coverage of our work as the national media reported on our work. We were so fortunate to be featured in dozens of local news stories, featured in print and on television. We were especially grateful to have a wonderful write up in USA Today, and to be featured on NBC Nightly News' "Making A Difference" segment! This kind of national attention is invaluable in keeping Brit's story and Be Like Brit's journey lasting, and the support that followed the 5th anniversary was overwhelming! We want to thank Dr. Nancy Snyderman and her Producer Erika again for the great coverage! As well as Marisol Bello from USA Today! Mesi anpil!

As we moved through the week, we remained busy as always with the group from Holy Cross in Worcester, and with our medical Britsionarys on site! Dr. Vicki Kvedar and her daughter Julie first visited Be Like Brit around this time last year, and fitted seven of our children with glasses! They were able to conduct eye exams on all of our children last year and most of our staff! This year, they have already completed 66 eye exams on our children and dozens more with employees! They also worked two days at the Mission of Hope International clinic, seeing dozens more community members! Having this specialty on hand is a rarity and we're so fortunate they are with us!

We were also so fortunate to have Dr. Olga Smulders-Meyer on hand! Dr. Olga is a physician in the States with a specialty in Women's Health, and given that medical care of almost any kind is so sparse in Haiti, especially in this type of speciality, she was very busy working not just with our children on the normal well-child visits, medications, etc., but offered her services to the community, too. Again, this type of specialty is hard to come by here in Haiti, and so we know that the dozens of women Dr. Olga was able to see were so very fortunate to have been seen by her. Another example of how through our Medical Britsionary program we are able to continue the compassion of Britney, and continuously give back to our neighbors and community! Thanks, Dr. Olga!

While our Medical personnel were busy in their respective roles, the Britsionary group from Holy Cross was equally busy! The group was building a home for one of our security personnel and his family near to the orphanage. Fritzner has been with Boss Len and with Be Like Brit for a long time, having worked on construction of the building. His daughter works for us on weekends as a part-time caregiver and the children absolutely adore her! We were thrilled that Fritzner and his family would benefit from the hard work and dedication of this Britsionary Group! You can see the home that he and his family were living in before. Their new home, while simply by our standards, is a world of difference for this family!

 We can't thank this group from the College of Holy Cross Worcester for an incredible week of reminding all of us what it means to Be Like Brit! Thank you for helping us help the children of Haiti at Be Like Brit!!!

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!