If you build it, they will dream

If you build it, they will dream

PORT-AU-PRINCE — In the middle of a construction site, I lined up the kids in various poses. One stood against an exposed interior wall. One stood against a small tower of rebar. A few stood in the foundation. Two others pressed against a beam.

“Now,” I said, going one by one, “tell me what you are.”

“I’m the freezer!” one hollered.

“I’m the pass-through window!” yelled another.

“I’m the propane burner!”

“I’m the mop sink!”

They laughed with each claim, as if they were appliances come to life in “Beauty and the Beast.” And as they laughed, my chest swelled with joy. We were standing in the middle of a soon-to-be new kitchen. 

And we were feeding dreams.

With Thanksgiving now upon us, I realize the most grateful moments of my life are mostly here in Haiti, a place that has the least. But in a place that has the least, a little bit feels like a lot.

And that’s the ground floor of gratitude, isn’t it?

The one constant is your kindness

A little bit feels like a lot. You, the readers of these pieces, alongside hundreds of others who know about our orphanage through visits, media reports, friends, or my books, have done so much to make our children prosper. 

I remain amazed — and humbled — by the continuous stream of donations. Someone I once met.  Someone who read about our kids. Someone who saw a video. 

One act of kindness from a stranger stays with you. But hundreds of acts of kindness? Well, that changes you.

And you all have changed me — and our kids. Thanks to donations from all over the world, the 60 kids we raise here go from starving to eating, from sickness to health, from boredom to engagement, from abject poverty to their own bed, three meals a day and school.

And occasionally, we get to dream even bigger. 

“Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it like it was your child.”

Field of Dreams

So we moved to a new facility, with trees, and open spaces, and no waste facility behind us like we had at the last place.

And now we are building a kitchen from scratch, a place to feed 100 kids and staff members every meal. And before we build it, the kids get to see the dirt, the framework, the wiring, the drainage. They see what goes into a dream.

They are mesmerized.

And for that, I am extremely grateful.

Magic in the moonlight

Thanksgiving is a memory-maker, and a reconnector. To me, that’s its greatest value. I am blessed to have a large Thanksgiving gathering each year  — I think we’re pushing 60 people this week — and nine of those 60 will be Haitian kids from our orphanage, seven of them college students, one a college graduate en route to medical school, and one an 11-month old baby girl.

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Baby Nadie, happy and healthy today

To them, Thanksgiving isn’t an historical event. They didn’t grow up with stories of Pilgrims and Native Americans. They were all born into the harshest of circumstances, where starvation and death were regular visitors.

I wonder sometimes what they must think of our Thanksgiving, watching us gorge ourselves on such a big meal, so many desserts, so many leftovers.

I wonder if they privately say to themselves “That’s enough food to feed my family for a month.” I wonder if they think us terribly indulgent.

But then I’m reminded that they are here, going to college, through the kindness of others, schools, sponsors and donors. They speak English thanks to volunteers who come and teach them in Haiti. They have solid health because of doctors volunteering their time, hospitals waiving their fees, U.S. embassy workers speeding through visas.

I hate to fall on an old cliché, but it really does take a village to raise a child — more than a village, an international community. And somehow we have built that, thanks to you.

And those are the words I want to say. Thanks to you. Thanks to you for the privilege of watching children grow and laugh and pray and love and stand in a construction site pretending they are a freezer, and knowing one day there will actually be a freezer there. 

Thanks to you. A million times over. Thanks.


A Year of Thanks & Giving

Project #1: The Kitchen

A “Year of Thanks & Giving”: Let’s build a kitchen and a healthier future for our kids

A “Year of Thanks & Giving”: Let’s build a kitchen and a healthier future for our kids

The first kitchen was not a kitchen at all. It was a small propane burner that held a pot for rice and beans. There was no sink. No place to store dishes or silverware. No place to sit. Kids got their bowls and found a spot on the ground, or a wall to lean against. And they ate.

In 2010, not long after I arrived, a crew of Detroit-based volunteers came down to change that. Using concrete, wooden beams and yards of screening, they created an enclosed area, then installed a sink, more burners and electricity. We purchased a refrigerator. 

And our first real kitchen was born.

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Celebrating our first refrigerator

Truth be told, there wasn’t much to it. It was always hot and flies were constantly swarming. But for the next 11 years, that small rectangular room gave us a place to stir the Soup Joumou on New Year’s Day, to cut up mangoes when they ripened in season, to dish out oatmeal, to spread peanut butter on sandwiches, to make eggs, boiled chicken and memories.

And then we moved. And we had to start over. 

This time we took a first level room in the school building, originally intended to be an office, and we cut a hole in the wall for venting, put in plumbing for drainage and water lines, and brought whatever we could fit from the old kitchen to create a new one. 

A dining room? Well. Seeing as the food was being made in the school, a dining room couldn’t be far beyond. We took an area originally intended for a classroom and jammed it with long tables and folding chairs. It is packed with kids and they have to eat in shifts.

That is how we’ve been operating. Getting by. Making due. 

But Thanksgiving is coming up.

And we’d like to change that.

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

Mother Teresa

Making food secure

This issue of the newsletter marks the launch of a very special campaign, “A Year of Thanks & Giving”, stretching from this November to next. It is our first ever organized capital campaign for the Have Faith Haiti Mission/Orphanage. We’re doing it because, with 60 children every year and 40 full time staff, we have grown to a level where our needs exceed our means.

We want to create permanent excellence, a place of stability in a country where stability is truly rare. 

To do this, we have identified 12 projects that we think, upon completion, will make Have Faith Haiti the pre-eminent facility in Haiti for sheltering, nurturing, education and cherishing the nation’s most needy and abandoned children. 

It starts with a kitchen, because most homes start with a kitchen, right?

Food is precious in Haiti. A report just last month showed that nearly half the population, 4.7 million Haitians, are currently facing acute hunger, including nearly 2 million in what they call the “emergency” phase.

Most of our children come from such backgrounds. I recently wrote of baby Nadie who was brought to us at six months old having had nothing to eat during that time but sugar water.

A kitchen is not only the place where we begin to rectify such issues, it’s also a symbol, a symbol of what is possible even under the most dire conditions. A place where the children can see, yes, we are making you food, yes, there will be a meal this morning, and another this afternoon and one more in the evening, yes, we have enough for you and all your brothers and sisters.

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Regular meals are a promise made, and kept. Photo: Theresa Finck

And no, you do not have to be hungry anymore.

Hearth and home

We have drawn up plans for our new kitchen, hoping to make it the most complete facility possible. Currently, it is nothing more than a few walls and a hole in the ground. We are digging pipes and drains in anticipation of sinks and – for sanitation purposes – a dish washer, something we have never had.

We are pulling electricity in anticipation of a freezer and two refrigerators, so food can be stored and saved and not spoil.

We are planning for propane tanks to fire up a three-head burner for the large pots of rice, beans, chicken and other foods prepared en masse, which is how you have to do it when you are cooking for 100 people every meal.

A kitchen is not only the place where we begin to rectify such issues, it’s also a symbol, a symbol of what is possible even under the most dire conditions. 

And we are hoping to add an oven, where we can learn and teach baking, in hopes of being able to make our own birthday cakes, since we celebrate at least 60 birthdays a year!

Our dream is to make the kitchen a place of sweet aromas, happy activity, responsible preparation and sanitary cleaning. We also hope to teach our kids – who love to help in the kitchen – how to prepare the food themselves, so when the time comes to step out on their own they are ready.

In short, the kitchen, we hope, will become an aorta of the orphanage, a three times a day magnet, a place of hope that puts an end to the hunger nightmare with which so many of our kids arrive.

We are looking to raise $95,000 by the end of November, completing the first of a dozen projects over the next year. That estimate covers labor, materials, and equipment for a kitchen that meets our most basic needs, and that of the children of Have Faith Haiti.

In a few weeks, most of us will be gathering in dining rooms of our own, to eat a large, delicious, homespun meal for Thanksgiving, and to celebrate the bounty by which we have been blessed. 

I can think of no better time to kick off  A Year of Thanks & Giving, and no better way to start than by building a miracle kitchen for our children, so that one day, they too can  celebrate a Thanksgiving  of their own.

Will you help us?

This big, brash adventure carries on

This big, brash adventure carries on

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Something new is happening at the orphanage. At night, or when it rains, I have to walk from the school down and up a slippery hill. Lately, the teenage boys come running alongside me.

“We’ll help you, Mr. Mitch,” they say.

They grip my shoulders and lock my elbows.

“We’ll walk with you. We don’t want you to fall.”

When did I get so old?

When did they?

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It’s a changing time in our little corner of the world. We are blessed with this beautiful new property, but challenged with how to afford it, run it, and protect it.

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Marvens, 1

We are waving goodbye to college-bound students, but welcoming in more babies than ever. This trip, I visited one-year old Marvens, who is recovering from tuberculosis in our old property, and admitted his three-year old sister, Poushalina, into our group. She’d suffered scabies and a skin pox that forced her into a month of isolation. Now, here she was, finally free, smiling and dancing in front of the other kids as if she’d been with us forever.

We have welcomed some impressive new staff members from Haiti, and my friend and fellow author Ridley Pearson, he of the bestselling thriller novels and the “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Kingdom Keepers,” and “Lock and Key” series, came down and taught writing classes all week.

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Ridley Pearson in a writing class

But Thursday morning, we had to say goodbye to a wonderful volunteer, Sarah Stone, who came all the way from Australia last January and has taught history, English, oceanography, poetry, math and even swimming during her time with us.

The kids and staff organized a farewell party, and some made speeches and some cried. Everybody swarmed her with hugs.

“It made me want to stay,” Sarah said. “I read the kids’ notes they’d given me the night before and I cried. Even though I’m leaving I feel a part of my heart still belongs to Haiti, and still belongs to these children.”

Life, ever-changing.

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Ms. Sarah says goodbye

Swiftly fly the years

Who knows what will happen next in this country? There are rumors an international force will be coming to quell the violence and gang-inspired unrest. There is talk that the gangs’ grip on daily life might be nearing an end.

On the other hand, fuel is still impossible to find, the streets remain fairly deserted, and everyone is on the lookout for daily protests and burning tires. Most schools are closed. Many businesses only open a couple times a week, and usually shutter by noon. Food and water remain in scarce supply. Everyone is scared.

The famous book by Tracy Kidder referred to Haiti as “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” It’s from an old Haitian proverb that speaks of life that way: beyond the mountains are more mountains. Beyond your problems are more problems.

We have overcome so much in Haiti. We rebuilt after an earthquake. We cleaned up after hurricanes. We endured life without bathrooms, showers, hot water, a kitchen or a school, and now have all those things and more.

But there are new challenges, new hurdles. We can’t go out anywhere. We can’t take the kids to summer camps or work with other orphanages. It’s harder to find people to hire in Haiti, because they fear the streets or lack the money for gas. Volunteers from America are harder to entice, because they read the news just like everyone else.

There is so much to do and build at the new property, but we need funding to do it, and it’s hard to convince people to donate to Haiti again. There are only so many times you can paint a bleak picture and still get others to empathize.

And yet.

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One season following another

And yet the kids make it so worthwhile. This week, I watched our smallest ones march in a line, holding each other’s shoulders and singing. I told a bedtime story to the young boys, lifting and swinging tiny Jeff — who is all of 30 inches tall — as a lad who could fly.

I met with the middle school kids in a private discussion group and one of them asked me, “Mr. Mitch, what is the difference between desire and destiny?” A teenage girl, Bianka, asked if it was possible to study Latin. Chamaika, who is tall for her ten years, painted a beautiful picture then walked it over and said, “Mr, Mitch, this is for you.” Two of our most studious kids knocked on my door one night, sat down and said, “We’d like to apply to college for early admission.”

And the two boys I’ve known the longest, Nahoum and Appoloste — who were knee-high when I first arrived in 2010 — both made me blink this week.

Nahoum had to take the Duolingo English test, a language proficiency exam used to admit international students to American colleges. Other kids had taken it, but only after spending days on practice tests, over and over, until they were confident.

With Nahoum, whose passport arrived late, we didn’t have time for all that. So he took a chair and a small table and we plugged in a computer and he started the test totally raw. No practice whatsoever.

He blew the score away.

And Appoloste? Well. The kid who only knew one word of English when I first met him — “Cookie” — is now taller than me and was one of the young men holding my elbows as we walked down the hill.

“Isn’t this a switch?” I said.

“Yeah,” he smiled. “You used to hold my hand when I was little.”

“And now you’re holding me up.”

“Exactly.”

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Mylove and Luxie, sleeping side-by-side

Life, ever-changing. I began this series at a transition moment, the time we decided to move homes. But the truth is, at a Haitian orphanage, everything is a transition moment.

After this week, we will stop publishing “Life at the Orphanage” weekly here at Bulletin, but will continue at least bi-weekly at havefaithhaiti.org and will soon be announcing a Year of Thanks campaign — from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving — in which we hope to raise enough funds to complete our new home. Perhaps you’ll be kind enough to share it with others.

On my last night this trip, I told the kids a joke at the end of our nightly devotions. It went like this:

The big animals were playing the little animals in a soccer game. The entire first half, the big animals won every ball, stomped downfield, and scored goal after goal, the elephant, the rhino, the giraffe. The score at the half was 72-0.

Then the second half began. The little animals got the ball first. And the centipede took it and went dashing right, left, right, left, and zoomed between the big animals for a goal.

“That was great! That was amazing!” the other little animals squealed. “But where were you the first half?”

The centipede said, “Putting my shoes on.”

Sometimes, that’s what it’s like on this adventure. The odds are big, brash and stacked against you. It can take a while to get your shoes on. But little people can do amazing things. I see it every day here.

Our shoes are tied, and our task is endlessly before us. Nurture these incredible children, love them, feed them, teach them, cherish them, and marvel at the changes as the journey goes on.

Life, ever-changing. This place, as always, blows me away.

Taking stock of where you are as a family

Taking stock of where you are as a family

Did you ever look out your window and see your family there, playing or running through the sprinklers? Did you ever take stock of your loved ones in a noisy moment around the Thanksgiving table, eyeing them all together in one setting?

Here we are. For years I had these “inventory” moments at the orphanage, standing on the second level balcony from which I could see the entire expanse of our cramped, third-of-an-acre facility. If the children and staff were outside, I saw them all, from east to west, north to south, gathered under my watchful gaze. In those moments, I had a feel for the totality of the place, what we lacked, sure, but mostly what we had. Standing there, taking it all in, felt good. It felt…satisfying.

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An aerial view of the old “campus”

Times change. This morning, I tried to take stock of “where we are” and realized our little orphanage has spread out in so many ways. It covers more land. It covers more settings. It covers more countries!

It starts, of course, with the dormitories on our new facility, where the kids now wake up. Where we once had all the boys in one room and all the girls in another, we now have divisions: youngest, middle, oldest, boys, girls, eight rooms, multiple nannies. 

Our live-in “staff” used to be a few people sleeping where the kids slept. Now we have multiple nannies, nurses, volunteers, administrative staff — many of whom have to sleep in our facilities because the streets are too dangerous to travel back and forth.

It’s not possible to see everyone from a single balcony or window anymore, because the new place is expansive compared to where we were, and at any given moment the kids might be exploring trees, or running on our makeshift “lawn,” or in the school building, or the kitchen, or doing a nature walk.

Here we are.

Family in Michigan

Then I think about our “extended” orphanage, which tentacles itself to America, beginning with our home in Michigan. 

This is where you find Knox, 11, Ziggy, 5, and Nadie, 10 months, all here for various medical treatments. They bundle up in winter clothes they never would use in Haiti, they travel freely to doctors and rehab centers, they enjoy an occasional trip to a frozen yogurt store.

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Knox holds Nadie as Ziggy leans in

But they still pray before every meal, the same words the kids in the Mission pray, and they still study their lessons during “school time” in the house, and they can’t wait to get back to Haiti this weekend and shed the coats and the boots and run freely with their brothers and sisters.

Then there’s the college kids, seven of them, spread across two campuses, Madonna University in Livonia and Hope College in Holland. There, our kids are plowing through their studies. They call or visit regularly, and this week I heard from a number of them with their midterm grades. Almost all A’s. That’s incredible, when you think about the culture shift they had to endure just to reach their first day on campus. New environment. New laws. New weather. New food.

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From left to right around the table: J.J., Esterline holds Nadie, Knox, Kiki, Ziggy, and Samanza

“Yeah,” said Kiki, who had a single B+ in his psychology class, “but I want to have all A’s. I’m going to get up earlier to study.” 

These kids have adapted better than we have a right to expect, making friends, participating in campus activities. But they still can’t wait to Facetime the kids back in Haiti, and when they do, it’s a raucous, laughing, shouting exchange, teenagers simply giddy with the excitement of reuniting, even over a computer.

Family home in Haiti

Then there’s the 11th “ex-pat” of our orphanage, Manno (Emmanuel) who takes the bar the furthest. He graduated Madonna last June with the highest honors and a 4.0 grade point average, and while he is now applying to medical school, he is working for the year as a medical scribe. 

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Manno at work

He lives with us as his own man, earning his own money, arranging his own way. For all intents and purposes, he is a responsible adult in an adopted country. But his dream, as soon as it’s possible, is to return to the orphanage as a pediatrician and take care of those who never had access to such a doctor before.

Here we are. In four different locations, two different countries, various classrooms, various bedrooms. The orphanage that used to fit in a glove is now growing, thriving, opening its palms and reaching to the skies.

In the very first installment of this series, I wrote that we needed to move. And now, a year and a half later, we finally have — but it’s just the start. We need help desperately to build essential areas like a kitchen, a church, a living room, a music room, security facilities. Our costs, like all costs in the world, have skyrocketed. But juxtaposed against Haiti’s current backdrop – gangs that terrorize and murder, politicians that manipulate and don’t care, essential services that shut down at all times of the week, a populace trapped between frustration and desperation — well, those costs seem almost insurmountable.

The money that was raised by this newsletter on Bulletin went directly to help our orphanage. And now, just as our kids have shifted, this format shifts. Bulletin itself will soon go away. But we are taking this newsletter to havefaithhaiti.org, where I will continue to share our joys and triumphs and challenges while we – with your help — continue to build up our new home. There are more stories to tell, and so much work to be done. [**More on the changes to the newsletter, and what this means for your subscription below**]

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Our story, like our kids, is shifting location, but it is nowhere near over. I hope those of you who, through these pieces, have grown attached to the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage, will retain the first two words of our name as we move forward. That way, when we look out at our precious children and ask that take stock question — Where are we? — the answer will be here, there, and, with you, everywhere.

I say goodbye, they say hello

I say goodbye, they say hello

PORT-AU-PRINCE — The last of the stragglers came through the gate and got on board, their backpacks heavy on their childish frames. I walked up and down the street, lingering for a moment in the din of diesel engines choking out black smoke.

We have boarded buses before.

But this time the buses weren’t coming back.

It was time to go. For real. Leaving behind the orphanage that had been our home for years. Moving to a new facility. Bigger. Safer. Newer. We had packed everything. Sent the cargo ahead. Now all that remained was taking the kids. I searched their faces for traces of nostalgia. Most of them could not recall any other home but this one.

But if I expected tears, I found none. Only excitement. They bounced in their seats. They couldn’t wait to get to their new digs.

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That left the nostalgia to me. I studied the purple exterior walls of our old place and remembered when we first painted them, covering the pale, dirty yellow. How proud we were. I looked at the front gate, with the words “Have Faith Haiti Mission” in block white letters, and remembered when we first painted those as well.

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I looked back on the chapel, the first thing you saw when you entered our gates, and the tilted basketball hoop, and the potholed concrete and the exposed tree roots and the rusting swing set that we had to leave behind because it was bolted into the ground.

The yard, always so raucous with screaming childhood activity, was empty now, baking in the hot sun. You could almost hear the silence questioning itself. “What gives? Where did everybody go?”

The closing of a home.

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The opening of a new home

When the bus pulled through the gates of our new place, the kids pressed their faces to the windows. What was absent in nostalgia was made up for in curiosity. They pointed. They squealed. Some seemed to be holding their breath.

The first thing we did was get them to their bedrooms. The last time they had seen them was the surprise “reveal” day, when they ran into the rooms and discovered beds with their names on them.

Those names (along with some deflating balloons) were still there now, and the kids put their backpacks on hooks and turned the bathroom faucets on and off, on and off.

Then it was time to explore. Small bands of children raced from one building to the next, checking out every room, flipping on every light switch, pushing up against every window.

“Mr. Mitch, where is the kitchen?”

“Mr. Mitch, where is the chapel?

“Mr. Mitch, where is the music room?”

Of course, many of these things are yet to be built. We moved in before construction could be completed or in many cases even started, thanks to the endless issues in Haiti that make everyday commerce a dodgy affair.

“Can we walk, Mr. Mitch?”

Walk? Well. At the old place, taking a tour was a simple exercise. You walked from one end of the rectangle to the other.

But here, on a multi-acre parcel of land, we had to grab the hands of the smallest children and make sure they didn’t wander into thickets of trees. And a construction wall separated us from part of the property. And huge piles of dirt and concrete had to be avoided.

“Stay by me!” I yelled, as the kids fell into a long line.

And off we went, exploring.

The opening of a new home.

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Gaelson, Richardson, and Knox walking on the new grounds

A hone with good bones

By the end of the day, as the sun lost its glare, the kids had a vague if exhausted sense of where they were. We gathered in the new gazebo for our first night of devotions.

This tradition, more than any other, is the continuity of our orphanage. It’s like our dinner tale moment, everyone gathered around, winding down together, sharing songs and laughter and prayer and conversation, the babies falling asleep in laps, the older kids holding them up.

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The new gazebo

The night before we had done this at the old place, and we went around asking everyone what they would miss the most. Many of them said “the kanip tree” which only shows you never know.

And now here we were, in a freshly painted, newly constructed, but same shape gazebo. Everything around us was different. Buildings were different colors. Floors were different materials. There were all these trees!

But as we sang familiar songs, and stood for a familiar prayer, and the kids recited a familiar Bible verse, the place began to break in, like a new shoe as you continually walk in it.

When the kids went to their bedrooms, I visited each one, and kissed all of our precious children goodnight. I kept asking, “How do you like it?” and the answer was almost always a single word: “Good.”

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Joseland snuggles up in her new bed

Good. It is indeed that. New? Yes. Confusing? Yes. Expensive? Dear Lord, yes. We will need help with everything. More support than we have ever solicited.

But it is good. And as nightfall settled on 53 sleepy young heads, I found myself outside, under dark Haitian skies, wondering what to say thanks for first.

And wondering what the morning would bring.


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