👋 and welcome to “Life at the Orphanage,” a newsletter about life for the 50+ children of Have Faith Haiti. Follow along as I share the universal lessons learned watching the purest of childhoods in one of the poorest places on earth.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — The chairs were arranged in crooked lines. A wooden podium stood near the front. The sun was baking hot and it was not even 10 a.m. I pressed a button on my phone and “Pomp and Circumstance” played through a speaker. As the little children craned their necks to see, people started walking down the aisle.
Here, amidst the chaos and poverty that is everyday Haiti, was a graduation. Not a fancy graduation. Not a large graduation. To be honest, the graduating class was one student.
But that one student meant the world to us.
Ten years ago, under the academic guidance of my educator sister, Cara Nesser, we opened a school at the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage. Well, first we built it. Then we opened it. At the time, our oldest students were eight or nine. We had no middle school or high school. We recruited teachers from our staff and the community.
As the years grew, the school elasticized. We invented new grades as new grades were needed. Cara’s curriculum swelled. So did the number of kids and the teaching staff. We added a classroom. We sprawled our sessions out into the yard.
But the learning never stopped. And now, for the first time, one of our students, just shy of 18, was receiving a diploma and heading off to college in America.
Edney / Photo by Patty Alley / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
His name was Edney. He wore a blue gown with the proper blue cap, and waited until the official moment to flip the tassel. Never mind that we had to teach him that tradition an hour earlier. He embraced it with a smile that could light up the entire power grid of Port-au-Prince, which would have been nice, since we only get power a few hours a day.
“Today is simply the end of a chapter of a very, very, very long book,” Edney told the audience in a speech he had written on his own. “I started kindergarten when I was seven. I was illiterate. I didn’t know how to read or write…”
“I was not used to love when I felt alone. I was not used to words of encouragement when I screwed up…”
Learning is a bitter subject in Haiti. Almost everyone must pay to go to school – public school, local schools, private schools. Every few years, a politician squawks about making education free to the public, as it is in most parts of the world. But it never happens.
Consequently, nearly half the country remains functionally illiterate. The average Haitian adult has had three years of school. It is not uncommon for people in their 20s to still be in junior high, having had to stop and start their education depending on available money.
We knew early on at the orphanage that the only way to change this was to open a school on our own grounds. So we did. With the help of Haitian laborers, a group of dedicated American volunteers whom we called the Detroit Muscle Crew built a three-room schoolhouse, painted it banana yellow, cut a ribbon, and let the kids walk through the doors.
The Detroit Muscle Crew and local laborers work on the school building / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
School Director Cara Nesser holds up shapes at the front of the classroom on the first day of school (2011) / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
Edney arrived in 2011, just as the school was starting. He was a quiet kid with a high forehead, big almond eyes, and a long grin that hid many of the deeper emotions he was feeling. But he loved to learn. And soon he was finding any corner of the orphanage to sit and read.
He became a perfectionist, mad at himself if he didn’t score the highest grade. As he grew up, he blitzed through the science and math classes that we created and was working on calculus during the pandemic. He beat the required TOEFL score to attend American college by 30 percent.
All of our children at Have Faith Haiti have a scholarship waiting for them to attend university in the U.S., provided they make the necessary grades. We do this through our own dogged fundraising and through a partnership with something called the Michigan Colleges Alliance, a consortium of more than a dozen small colleges in Michigan.
Edney will be attending Madonna University in Livonia starting this September. He told me last week that he was “nervous.” When I asked why, he said “All the kids there will be smarter than me. They’ll have been speaking English since they were born.”
I put my arm around him.
”That’s OK,” I said. “They haven’t gone through what you’ve gone through.”
Edney (2011) / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
Edney lived through an earthquake that leveled his country. He lived through a hurricane that left thousands homeless. He lived through having to start his life over at age seven, learn a new language, a new home, new parental figures.
He has studied outside, at night, with mosquitos and oppressive heat bearing down on him as he tried to read beneath the light of a single bulb. He didn’t have Google to look things up, or a phone to text classmates, or internet to research anything whenever he wanted.
He earned his education the old-fashioned way. Books. Papers. Lots of homework. But that doesn’t mean I don’t fret for him, that I’m not nervous myself as he heads to our country.
Since arriving at the orphanage, none of our kids has ever spent a night without other kids sleeping in adjacent bunk beds. None of them eat alone. None of them have ever walked to school by themselves, or had to find a professor across a campus, or had a teacher they couldn’t hug after class.
I remember the moment Edney came to our orphanage. His grandmother brought him in. She explained the poverty they were living in, explained how he had no chance of schooling if he stayed with her, how there was little food and unsafe shelter. Edney was a little old for us, already seven, and quite shy. But something about him struck me. A curiosity in his eyes.
We told his grandmother OK.
Now, soon, he will be leaving us.
His graduation, just days before the Haitian president was assassinated in his home, was a rare moment of quiet loveliness in an otherwise turbulent nation.
As he finished his speech, Edney started to choke up.
“If I am here today,” he said, “I could not have done it without you guys. Thank you for making this day special for me…
“Of course, I’ll be coming back here every three, um, every few months…”
That’s when it hit him he was leaving. He stopped and wiped his eyes. The wind blew his paper off the podium.
“I just love you guys,” he rasped.
Everyone applauded, his schoolmates, his teachers, the staff, the little kids. A few minutes later, all the teenagers gathered on the porch of the school and sang the pop song “Friends Forever” by Vitamin C, with Edney in the middle as they swayed arm in arm.
“As we go on, we remember,
all the times we,
Then, just as they’d practiced it, they let Edney go, and he slipped off, in his blue cap and gown, waving to them as he went.
As our lives change,
We will still be
It was a graduation in the midst of poverty and chaos and generator fumes and barbed wire. But here at the orphanage, it’s not what things looks like, it’s what they mean. That morning meant hope for the future. So it was everything a graduation should be.