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Operation safe house Haiti: from internship to home

Eric White | Contributor

Like many young philanthropists, Morgan Wienberg of Whitehorse, Yukon, was a teenager who wanted to make a difference. With an earthquake hitting Haiti just months before she graduated as valedictorian of F.H. Collins High School in Whitehorse, the decision of where to concentrate her efforts was an easy one. So Wienberg headed to Haiti, where she had no idea what was ahead of her.

The 7.0 earthquake that devastated this small Caribbean nation that borders the Dominican Republic struck on January 12, 2010. It left approximately 316,000 dead and 1,000,000 homeless. Wienberg, now 20, remembers how prominent the suffering was in the media. She went to Haiti for two-and-a-half months on an internship with Mission of Hope Haiti, an organization which, according to its website, exists “to bring life transformation to every man, woman and child in Haiti”.

At first, the internship involved teaching two English classes, helping to care for prosthetics patients and visiting the Orphelinat Bon Samaritain de Source Matelas ( an orphanage close to where she was staying). However, Wienberg soon chose to devote the majority of her attention to the orphanage.

“They just had nothing,” She said about her first impression of the children. The orphanage lies in the small rural town of Source Matelas, about 40 minutes north of Port-Au-Prince. “Each day I left that orphanage I didn’t know if the kids would even survive until the next day,”added Weinberg.

As she spoke with the orphanage’s caretaker, Madame Lucien, she came under the impression that no one was making a concerted effort in looking after these 75 kids. Wienberg recalls the woman saying, “No one else [had] really taken that interest to spend time there. People [would] basically come and take photos and leave.”

Throughout the rest of her internship, she spent three or four days per week at the orphanage, making sure the children were eating properly and bringing medical teams with her to examine the children.

Although Wienberg’s internship was originally supposed to end in August so that she could study nursing at McGill in the fall, she realized that there were more important things to her than her studies, and deferred for the year.

After staying in Haiti an extra month, she returned to Whitehorse. She worked two jobs, one at an organic bakery and the other at an animal shelter, with all of her paychecks going directly towards her Haiti fund. Along with fundraising, she was able to return to Haiti in February of 2011 with $20,000.

Wienberg could now live in the orphanage and spend all her time looking after the children, using the money she had saved to buy them food and medical supplies.

However living in the orphanage, as opposed to visiting on a daily basis, revealed new information.  Wienberg soon realized that the children’s caretaker, Lucien, was actually the main reason that the children were suffering.

“I knew this woman was beating the children. I knew she was selling the food that was supposed to be for them; that the children were starving. I knew she wasn’t letting the children drink the clean water that people had brought for them,” Wienberg said, clarifying that she did not understand the extent to which this was happening until she had lived there for some time.

“She’s the most manipulative person I’ve ever met,” Wienberg said. She also added that for over 20 years, the woman had been running the orphanage, receiving aid from various organizations, and keeping the funds for herself. And while she would eat plenty, the children would starve.

According to Wienberg, besides being malnourished and abused, the children had sleeping arrangements that were far below substandard. While the woman lived comfortably in a fully furnished room, there were about 30 to 40 girls sleeping in another room on the concrete floor, while the boys were sleeping in a military tent outside. When it rained, the children in the tent were sleeping in the mud.

As months passed, it became increasingly clear to Wienberg that she needed to get these children out of the orphanage. She began speaking with numerous agencies such as UNICEF and Save the Children, in addition to contacting the Institute du Bien Etre Social et de Recherches, the Haitian Social Services. Since some children had families, she also began reuniting children with their parents. Many families were under the impression that their children would receive an education and a better life in the orphanage.

Before leaving Haiti in August, she also started Little Footprints, Big Steps with Sarah Wilson, a nurse who was also living in Haiti at the time. The non-profit organization’s goal is to provide care for both the children at the orphanage and other children in Haiti who are victims of abuse, child slavery, and poverty.

Although it was once again time for Wienberg to leave Haiti, the decision was not easy. “All I wanted to do at that point was sit with my kids and try and protect them,” Wienberg said. “But me sitting in the orphanage and holding them and comforting them wouldn’t bring any big change for them.”

She had once again deferred from McGill for the Fall 2011 semester, and made the emotionally difficult but practical decision of returning to Canada. In Montreal, instead of attending school, she spent her days and nights fundraising, gathering video evidence of the kids being abused, and contacting authorities.

Along with shutting down the orphanage, Wienberg and LFBS’s main objective has been to build a safe house where the children of the orphanage can be moved to, before being reunited with their families or put into a long-term healthy living situation.

“Orphanages are not a solution,” Wienberg said, insisting that they are merely Band-Aids. “If we just keep putting kids in institutions instead of supporting them and [helping] their families we’re continuing the problem,” she added.

Although Wienberg received confirmation from IBESR that the orphanage would be closed in October, still nothing has been finalized, as there have been numerous logistical hurdles. A lot of preparation has gone into the safe house, however, which is now open.

The safe house is located in Les Cayes, which is about five hours south of Port-au-Prince. Wienberg used her university savings to rent and renovate a house, with the help of Global Family Philanthropy, a non-profit which has been helping her set up the safe house.

Despite the safe house having 23 Haitian staff and being fully equipped with beds and other services for the children, IBESR is still hesitant to shut down the orphanage and put the children in Wienberg’s care. But with increased pressure from numerous organizations in Haiti and abroad, and a Haitian lawyer who is supporting the safe house, Wienberg is optimistic her children will be taken out of the orphanage soon. She also mentioned that after a recent meeting with the director of IBESR, she is hopeful that they will be rescued in early April.

For Wienberg, what began as a summer internship has turned into a life that she could have never imagined. “When I first came to Haiti there was kind of that mentality that it was a trip,” she said. “But it gets to the point when this is where I’m living and this is what I want to be doing.”

The future is now wide open for Wienberg. Although she said she would eventually like to attend university and possibly return to Canada, right now, Haiti is her home and the children she is trying to get out of that orphanage are her family. “I’ve never felt more satisfied and capable than when I’m here and making a difference. These kids are in such a need and I couldn’t even think about leaving them,”she said.

Editor’s note: For more information visit http://www.littlefootprintsbigsteps.com/ and also http://www.facebook.com/events/250557721697170/

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