Yvette Cabrera: Fullerton woman helps Haiti’s neediest orphans:
The town of Saint-Louis du Nord in Northwest Haiti isn’t the easiest place to get to.
My journey there, from Port-au-Prince, included a 45-minute flight on a tiny plane, a landing on a dirt air strip shared by produce-toting donkeys, and an eight-mile, 50-plus minute truck ride.
Despite the stunning backdrop of clear Caribbean and lush jungles, every mile of the trip revealed poverty strangling a country – children drinking from a creek next to a man scrubbing his moped; bumbling thieves setting up a roadblock of old tires and rope.
So, no, Saint-Louis du Nord isn’t the easiest place to reach. But when Fullerton native Courtney Pierce made the journey to the region’s Northwest Haiti Christian Mission’s orphanage for children with disabilities, she found a home.
In 2008, she came to the orphanage for an internship, but learned that the director – her mentor – had been medically evacuated to the United States. She then looked at the Haitian staff and asked: “Who’s in charge?”
They giggled and pointed their fingers at Pierce.
“I joke that I was a perfect match,” says Pierce, now 24, “because I had absolutely no clue what to do.”
She was about to start running a tiny orphanage (just 13 children) with a breathtakingly sad reason to exist – to be the place “for kids to come and die.”
Pierce, a children’s pastor who was then finishing her degree at Hope International University in Fullerton, had found her path.
“I thought ‘I can do this, I can love all these kids.’ That turned into… ‘I can also fight for them,'” Pierce says.
The challenge to help disabled children runs deeper in Haiti than it might somewhere else. In Haitian culture, children with disabilities are either ignored or considered a curse. The kids in Pierce’s “orphanage” actually all had living parents, but they’d been abandoned.
“In Haiti, if you have a child who is disabled, all you can do is just pray that someone will take them from you and give them a better life,” Pierce says.
“I thought ‘I don’t ever want to make a mom decide that she’s unfit to take care of a child.'”
So, first, she decided the center wouldn’t accept any more children with parents unless they came from an unfit living environment.
Then she started helping the parents.
Last year, she established an outreach program to give parents tools to care for disabled children. Designating days of the week by certain conditions, such as autism, Pierce made the center available for free physical therapy, basic medical care, education, structured play time and, not least of all, bags of rice.
The center has come to be seen as a place where parents and disabled children are protected, not judged. And parents (some carrying their children) walk up to two hours each way to make the visit. About 70 children are in the outreach program.
In just two years, Pierce has built up what’s now known as the Miriam Center with five programs, each addressing a different need. The center also cares for 32 orphans at the Miriam Home.
Across the street, the center has a school for deaf children. And Rou’s Corner at the Miriam Home gives terminally ill children a safe place to live out their final days. Pierce established the program after the father of a newborn with severe deformities, including a cleft palette, told the mission staff that his village would kill his daughter if he took her home.
Pierce also created an educational center at Miriam Home, stocking it with, among other things, hundreds of toys (puzzles, Legos, etc.) that she’s lugged in trunks from the US. The kids play in an enclosed patio, near the heart of the Mission, where they can be seen and heard by everybody.
That visibility is key. Even though the cultural norm is to keep these children out of sight, Pierce says, firmly: “We’re not hiding these kids.”
Her goal — to “take the invisible and make them visible” — is accomplished in every task. The staff of 15 Haitian workers treat the children as they would their own, patiently staying with them through bathing, meals and play.
And play is a big deal. Though some of the children are challenged with the toughest of disabilities – including cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus — Pierce makes sure each one gets to be a kid, playing with shaving cream and Slip ‘n Slides, and dipping their feet in paint to make keepsake footprints.
In short, Pierce says everyone from the staff to the parents to the U.S. volunteers is taught “these kids are worth it.”
It’s her dream to spread this message throughout Haiti.
“We’re not asking for pity, because the children… don’t need it,” Pierce says. “They need someone to look at them and actually see them.”
It’s a lofty goal, and both Pierce and the center have their limitations. She’s not professionally trained to diagnose or treat these children. She doesn’t have regular physical or occupational therapists, and relies on U.S. volunteers who visit throughout the year.
Still, the alternative – that disabled children would be shunned or worse – is a reminder of how fortunate these children are.
She doesn’t pretend to have all answers, but she believes the answer isn’t to pluck disabled children out of Haiti, so her orphans aren’t put up for adoption. Instead, Pierce believes they should be raised to adulthood so that Haiti can believe in them as much as she does.
And after Miriam Center supporters in the United States raised $540,000 through a Twitter fundraiser earlier this year, Pierce is moving to build a home for the children when they grow up. Long term, she hopes to duplicate Miriam Centers in other parts of the world
With Miriam Home filled to capacity, Pierce does what she can for others still seeking help. When a Port-de-Paix pastor showed up with six children from his orphanage, she set to work evaluating each one and enrolled them in her outreach program.
“You’re one of mine too,” she told one of the boys. “I can definitely see that.”
Ultimately, she wants to leave the programs in the hands of her Haitian workers; “to the point where I can walk away,” she says.
That day will come when Haitians see these children as theirs. When Haiti tells them: ‘This is where you belong.’