We are often asked, “How can I help Haiti?” There is not an easy answer to this question, but a recent article by Erika Childs Charles, who has extensive experience counseling children in Haiti, gave good insight to help answer this question.
“I just watched a short news story about an orphanage run by a person with a heart of gold in an impoverished area of a large African city. I found myself fighting back tears as I watched the all-too-familiar images of poverty and listened to the oh-so-familiar descriptions of life for children growing up in an environment incredibly different from the Western world. However, my emotional reaction was not from the piles of trash or the stories of struggle. They were tears of exhaustion – exhaustion that there is so much that the world needs to understand, but so few voices are telling (or maybe so few people are listening to) the “other side” of the story.”
“I have worked in developing countries in Africa and the Caribbean, and have seen heart-warming and heart-wrenching similarities among the various communities. I’ll speak to Haiti because that’s where I’ve spent the last six years as a trauma counselor working with kids and families at all stages and levels of the orphanage industry. Haiti has over 700 orphanages and tens of thousands of children living in these institutions. The vast majority of children are not living in orphanages because they don’t have family. More than 80% have at least one living parent, and an even greater number have aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, and other extended family members. Most children are living in institutions because good-intentioned people (but not including the bad-intentioned people also running institutions like human traffickers) have decided that they can provide something better than their families were doing. And on paper (or heartstring-tugging videos) it makes sense. Kids do need safety, education, food, shelter, and clothing. For a lot of families, these things are hard, if not nearly impossible, to provide. But do you know what else kids need? Family. Do you know what can protect kids against the trauma of loss and separation, life-long attachment issues, inadequate supervision, physical and sexual abuse between kids and/or adults, loss of identity, basic needs insecurity, and all the other things that happen in the good and the bad orphanages? Keeping kids in families.”
“But what if families are having a hard time providing safety, education, food, shelter, and clothing? Could we just collect a bunch of kids and put them in a building for the next 8-18 years of their life so we can make sure they have all those things? Sure. But do you know what else we could do? Keep kids in families. Instead of sending our money and stuff to support an orphanage, what if we supported a family or two or seven? It’s actually more cost-effective to support a kid in a family than a kid in an orphanage.”
“But what if a kid is not safe in her family? What if there is abuse and neglect happening at home? Well, abuse and neglect are no respecters of socioeconomic status. You’ll find kids experiencing this in the richest countries (and richest families) in the world. Do you know what you won’t find in these countries though? Orphanages. Places like the United States realized a long time ago that orphanages are breeding grounds for all sorts of developmental, emotional, psychological, and physical problems so we did away with them and found alternative care options like extended family placements, foster care, etc. (which are clearly not perfect systems, but better than raising kids in family-less environments). Don’t you think we could do the same thing for kids everywhere instead of supporting practices that we don’t think are good enough for ourselves?”
“So what can we do to help kids in poverty? First, we can show the world that we think family is more valuable than money. A mom struggling to put breakfast on the table is not an indicator that she doesn’t love her child or a reason to break this family apart. Buying a mattress for a bedroom or rice for a cupboard is not a replacement for a mother. Let’s start supporting the moms, and the dads, and the brothers, sisters, aunties, and cousins. There’s so much you can do to help! Support education. Sponsor a school, a teacher, or a family so they can send their kids to school. Support microfinance programs, fair-trade initiatives, infrastructure and business investments so families can make living wages and communities can strengthen their own economies. Support health programs. Donate to hospitals and clinics, public health campaigns, or water and sanitation programs. Support counselors and social workers who work to heal the invisible wounds of trauma and are front-line workers making sure that children are safe and sound in their homes, and helping find resources for families and kids if they are not. Support family.”
Well said, Erika. The next time we are asked, “How can I help Haiti?” our response will be… SUPPORT FAMILY. Learn more about how you can support families through sponsorship, microfinance programs and health programs, lifting families out of poverty and keeping families together.