Anyone who subscribes to the quaint idea that it takes a village to raise a child need only consider what it takes to keep my little chum Dieunison and his older brother Jerry in school. A village exists in Grand Goave that should care for these boys. Although their mother and fathers are dead, they have a grandmother, an aunt and an uncle in town. But these so-called adults abandoned them; leaving the boys to fend for themselves and sleep in a dirt floored lean-to with a tin roof so low they could not stand up straight. When a village refuses to fulfill its responsibilities there are only two options: let Dieunison and Jerry become another pair of Haitian drifters or pump in an infusion of support.
Over the past three months we have built an extensive yet fragile network to give these boys a chance. Like so many endeavors in life I had no idea what was involved going in, but now that I am up my waist in social service muck, I have no choice but to see it through.
Gama sought a school that would accept an 11 and 13 year old who had completed first and second grade respectively. Huguener had contacts at L’ecole Maranatha; a Baptist missionary school that accepts problem children. Headmaster Maxi met with us and the boys’ teachers, Naomi and Harry. Harry agreed to tutor the boys every day after school and on Saturday mornings. Lex and Renee volunteered a two room building they constructed near the block factory where the boys could live. Huguener left the group house he shared with other guys, installed shutters and doors on the building, and took one room as his own in exchange for proctoring the two rascals. Gama bought the boys beds, sheets and blankets. Huguener drummed up a small table. Syltae, a woman with four children of her own, welcomed the part-time job of cooking meals and laundering for this household of very young men. As the American I cowboyed up; my desire to give two boys a chance morphed into directly supporting more than half a dozen people.
I have no talent for social service; I have never received much and am wary of a society over reliant on help from others. But my experience quilting this patchwork together helps me understand why providing social service is so expensive and why it so often fails. Trying to replicate what a family is supposed to do is an immense undertaking. One would be hard pressed to find two children anywhere more ‘at-risk’ than Dieunison and Jerry, yet I have had to marshal the resources and good will of so many people I have worked with over the past year to give them an opportunity.
That does not mean that the boys appreciate, or even want, what is offered. They have survived Port-au-Prince, they have lived on the streets; they are accustomed to doing whatever they please. Though they like having a house and a bed and steady meal, they struggle getting to school and tutoring; there is always a pick-up soccer game more appealing than learning French grammar. At least once every visit they wander off track we have a stern talk about the quid pro quo of receiving creature comforts in exchange for their education, though only in Haiti would a regular plate of rice and beans be considered a luxury. I am prepared for the very real chance that our efforts will come to naught and they will return to being street thugs. But since Dieunison captured my heart more than two years ago, I have not yet exhausted my will to try.
I wish there was a village to raise these boys; one that reared them well in a culture that values its children. But that village does not exist in Haiti, at least not for Dieunison and Jerry. Lacking that, I take the reins as best I can. I’ll continue to cobble this conglomerate together until either the boys fall into the listless life they see all around them or, hopefully, until we ignite their potential and they strive for more.
Huguener with Jerry and Dieunison outside their house