TACOMA, Washington — As the most poverty-stricken country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is an island with a troubled history. When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit on January 12, 2010, about 16 miles away from the capital of Port-au-Prince, the consequences were devastating. The island had not experienced an earthquake of this size since the 18th century. Every hospital in Port-au-Prince was seriously damaged and almost 300,000 buildings, many of them homes, were destroyed. An estimated 316,000 people died as a result with close to one million displaced. An orphanage in Haiti was one of the many facilities severely impacted by the earthquake.
Have Faith Haiti Mission
The Caring and Sharing Mission in Port-au-Prince was founded in the 1980s. However, with the 2010 earthquake, the orphanage struggled to maintain its operations. Later that same year, operations were taken over by internationally renowned author, Mitch Albom, who wrote “Tuesdays with Morrie” as well as “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and “Finding Chika.”
Originally, Albom flew to Haiti several weeks after the earthquake with a pastor who founded the orphanage. Seeing its dilapidated condition, Albom began returning every month, bringing volunteers to repair the structure. In mid-2010, Albom began running the orphanage.
Albom had written a bestselling book called “Have a Little Faith” that inspired a new name for the orphanage: Have Faith Haiti Mission. The book’s message is about people’s ability to come together, regardless of their faith. “I felt that my being there in Haiti, coming from America and with such a different religious background, was pretty much the embodiment of what I had written, thus the name.”
Poverty in Haiti
Haiti ranked a low 169 out of 189 countries on the 2019 Human Development Index. The most recent official poverty estimate, made in 2012, states that more than six million individuals in Haiti lived below the poverty level of $2.41 per day. Additionally, more than 2.5 million people fell below the extreme poverty level of $1.12 per day.
Helping Haitian Orphans
These conditions mean that even a decade after taking over the orphanage’s administration, there are ongoing challenges such as ensuring the children’s health, safety and education, hiring teachers and funding the entire operation. The maximum capacity of the orphanage is 54 children. Albom makes the orphanage a top priority, returning every month for three or four days. He also commits to extended stays on holidays and in the summer. “I have made more than 130 trips to Haiti,” he says, adding, “I plan to continue to do so for the rest of my life.”
The educational staff includes 14 paid teachers, many of whom are Haitian and some are American or British. In addition, there are a few volunteer teachers. The children are taught in both French and English with the goal of achieving a college or vocational degree. Additionally, there is a music room with instruments. Especially rewarding to Albom is seeing the older teenagers attend college. Three are currently attending college in the United States. One young man plans to attend medical school and eventually return to Haiti as a doctor.
Caring for Chika
Chika was a 5-year-old girl with who Albom and his wife, Janine Sabino, shared a close bond from the moment she arrived at the orphanage. But, when Chika turned 5, she began exhibiting symptoms that indicated a rare brain tumor. Albom and his wife decided to take Chika with them to their home in Detroit. She had the surgery and they cared for her until she passed away at age 7. The author, who wrote a moving book about the experience, states that “Chika gave us the blessing of having a family, even late in life. Her courage was an inspiration and continues to motivate us to take care of all the other kids.”
Changing Children’s Lives
Albom spends much of his time raising funds to keep the orphanage in Haiti running smoothly. This involves providing the best education, medical care and nourishment to the children. Donating to the orphanage “literally will change a life,” he says. He further explains that donations enable kids to have meals that they otherwise would not have. It also enables the kids to receive an education that serves as a stepping stone for their futures. Albom believes that it is a moral obligation to help such children who had no choice in the circumstances they were born into. “These kids are just as bright and just as talented and just as deserving as kids born into more fortunate countries. People with the means or time to help out would want to do so if they just knew about the need.”
The Road Ahead
With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating conditions in Haiti, the Have Faith Haiti Mission needs support now more than ever. This orphanage in Haiti is committed to providing a means for vulnerable Haitian children to reach their full potential and rise out of poverty.
– Sarah Betuel
Photo: Courtesy of Mitch Albom