Today was my second day back in Haiti since the earthquake. Before leaving, I was having some pretty significant anxiety about returning. I am happy to report that since arriving in Haiti, I’ve been doing really well. There have been a few minor triggers, but for the most part I’m finding myself calm and able to be present with what we are doing at each moment. That has been a huge blessing. I was also worried that I was going to feel immediately distraught and discouraged, because I’ve heard so many stories about how little progress has been made. While it’s true that there is still a lot of work to be done, I’ve been surprised at how much has been rebuilt in the past two years. Today we visited “Tent City” – the largest tent camp community in Haiti where over 60,000 displaced people took up residency after losing their homes. I knew this would be the most difficult place to visit, and it was. It was dark and dirty and depressing, and I found myself feeling especially burdened for the young girls who live there. It is such a vulnerable place for children. The poverty alone is enough to make you want to curl up in a fetal position. But thinking about what the young girls here are up against in terms of having their childhood cut short . . . it’s difficult to fathom. A local told us that this place used to be referred to as “rape camp”. I think I am still in denial about the true horror of that reality for the young girls I exchanged handshakes with today. In Haiti, it always seems like there are more problems than solutions, and more questions than answers. I’ve only been here two days and we’ve already had some of these difficult conversations. Anyone who has served in Haiti for long can attest that aid in this country is something that must constantly be negotiated, and that can easily go wrong. That rice that was handed out freely after the earthquake? It robbed the rice farmer of a living. That shiny new orphanage that was built down the road? It inspired several families to abandon their children so that they could grow up living in the closest thing to Disneyland that they’ve ever seen. The aid money that you gave to a pastor to distribute to the poor? It just made him a target of resentment in his own community. Aid is a tricky thing. I am traveling with an organization called Help One Now, and one of the things I most appreciate about their leaders is that they are constantly re-evaluating what “best practice” looks like as they serve here. They work alongside Haitian leaders, consulting with them to make sure that their impact is lasting. They won’t do a project without a Haitian involved, and they strive to minimize dependence on international aid. Today we met one of their Haitian partners: Pastor St. Cyr. He has been a leader at Tent City since it began – consulting with everyone from Sean Peen to CNN on how to best serve the people now living on this former golf course. Today, under 20,000 people reside in Tent City. Many people have been able to leave and find a permanent home . . . but about 1/3 of the people remain. Pastor St. Cyr is in the process of building a large structure that can serve as a church, a school, and a clinic for the people still calling this place home. Today we also got to see some of the ways Help One Now is helping people to become financially independent through the use of microfinance loans. I really love the microfinance loan philosophy: it allows people some seed money to invest in some kind of business or agricultural venture, and it is later paid back with the money they’ve earned through the business they started. Even better: when the money is paid back, it is then used to help another person start a business. This is Fifi. She lives outside of Port-au-Prince, in the hills of Guibert. Her home crumbled after the earthquake, and she had no backup plan. For over a year, she and her family resided in a tent outside the rubble where their home once stood. Help One Now offered them a microfinance loan to build a rabbit hutch in their backyard, to buy rabbits, and to start a garden. For an American, this may seem like such basic stuff . . . but for this family it was a game-changer. They are now able to be self-sufficient, and they have a back-up plan in case weather ruins their crops. This is Richard. He is an artist who also lives in Guibert. A microfinance loan helped him buy materials he needed to sure up his art business. Since receiving his loan he was able to get his paintings into art galleries in Petionville, and even had an art sale in the U.S. He has now paid back his loan, and also volunteers teaching art at the local school. I’ve mentioned this before in regards to social justice: it is SO EASY to get lost in the magnitude of need . . . to get so overwhelmed that it’s paralyzing. and to throw up your hands and do nothing in response. Once again, I’ve been reminded that the key is often to just pick a place and to work that one field. You may not change the entire landscape, but your effort may drastically change the life of a few. And as Pastor St. Cyr said, “If you visit Tent City and heart is not changed, you’ve got to be a rock.” I am not a rock, and my heart was broken, again, for the people of Haiti today. I feel like I have a renewed burden, but also a renewed sense of purpose . . . and even a little excitement as I get to witness the way Help One Now is creating lasting solutions. I’m going to do my best this week not to wallow in guilt or pity, but instead to keep my heart and my eyes wide open to the ways we can best serve the Haitian people as they rebuild. If you are interested in partnering with Help One Now with microfinance loans, you can make a one-time donation here. You can sponsor a child in tent city here. If you’re strapped for cash but still want to help, consider hosting a garage sale for orphans alongside some friends or your church. Photos courtesy of the talented Molly Donovan Burpo. You can follow our Twitter and Instagram feeds at #Help1Haiti.
The first time I went to Haiti, I was 16 years old. The wanderlust bug hit me early in life, and instead of asking for a car for my birthday, I begged my parents for a ticket to Port-Au-Prince. I had a dear friend who grew up there and I wanted to visit her and see the country for myself. My father happened to have a speaking engagement in another part of the country, so my parents scratched their heads and complied with my request. My father and I flew out together – a quick 2-hour flight from the Miami airport. I will never forget landing in Haiti – the drumming, the heat, the crowds, the beauty. . . all of it smacks you in the face as you step off the plane. I said goodbye to my dad and met up with my friend and her sister. They took me to a fancy restaurant in the “bourgeois” part of town. I can vividly remember that drive: first, coming face to face with extreme poverty as we drove past the shanty towns and makeshift villages. And then, the stark contrast as we drove past veritable mansions and ate at one of the nicest restaurants I’d ever been in. I think seeing this staggering contrast between poverty and privilege is something that has shaped my worldview ever since. I remember asking my friends, over and over, how there could be such wealth so close to such poverty. “Don’t they care?” I still don’t have the answer. The next day, the three of us boarded a bus for the rural village of Port-de-Paix. Of course, stories like this always grow more interesting in the retelling, but this is what I remember: 1) it took upwards of 5 hours, 2) about half of the trip was spent speeding around the corners of mountain-hugging cliff roads and thinking I would die, 3) we were the only non-Haitians on the bus and attracting a lot of attention, 4) there were chickens running around the floor, and 5) there were men hopping on and off the back and roof at random. It was an adventure, to say the least. I spend several days with my friend and her family, fascinated by their life in Haiti. Then we rode the bus back to Port-Au-Prince where I was set to meet up with my dad and fly home. We arrived to chaos in Port-Au-Prince. As it turns out, the last day of my trip just so happened to be the day that revolutionaries overthrew President Aristide. There was rioting and burning in the streets. Roads were closed. It was rumored that people were being killed. And we were three teenaged girls traveling without an adult. I’m not sure how the message was relayed to us or how we got there, but somehow we ended up in the home of some American missionaries that lived near the airport. We stayed there, hiding out for a few days. We were told not to go outside or even look out the windows. I remember being more curious than scared. I remember they had gigantic rats, and that the thee of us acted like typical screaming girls every time we saw them. I don’t think I really understood the gravity of the situation. In retrospect I can’t imagine what my parents were thinking. But for us, we were just having a slumber party. With rats, and the smell of burning tires and gunfire. My dad was in the country and we finally connected. All flights had been grounded but somehow my dad made friends with an ambassador who was able to pull some strings and get us out on a flight. Again, I didn’t really understand the seriousness of the situation. My dad knew someone important, and I had to get back to school – that was my thought process. We would forever joke about my having had the best excuse for missing school ever: I was stuck in Haiti during a political coup d’état. This was my first trip to Haiti, and it had been exciting and heartbreaking and confusing and thrilling. Fast forward 20 years, to my last trip to Haiti. Again, I find myself stuck in the country in the midst of a national crisis, but this time it was an earthquake. Unlike my first trip, though, I was profoundly aware of the gravity of the situation. I was a mother, nursing a 9-month-old baby. I was worried sick that Kembe’s adoption was going to be halted. I was fearful that I would never see my other two kids or husband again. Most of all, I was scared to death that each new tremor of the earth would bury me in a building like so many people just outside the gate. Like the trip before, I was evacuated by way of being in a place of privilege. Unlike the trip before, this fact rattled me, and I battled with survivor guilty and PTSD for the better part of a year. You might think that after these crazy experiences in Haiti, I’d be ready to wash my hands of the country and vow to never visit again. But I still feel an inexplicable bond to the country and the people there. Obviously, we have a son from Haiti that motivates us to maintain connected. But it’s more than that . . . and I’ve always know that I would return. I’m happy to report that I will be visiting Haiti twice next month. First, for a blogger trip with Help One Now, headed up by Chris Marlow and Dan King. On this trip, we will be sharing the stories of the orphans they serve, the leaders who are making a difference, and the communities that are being transformed. We’ve got a train team going, including Jen Hatmaker, Jennie Allen, Sarah Bessey, Mary DeMuth, Deidra Riggs, Duane Scott, Scott Wade, Mollie Donovan Burpo and Kris Rutherford. (Any of you who happen to be reading this post and freaked out above the stories above, I promise I’ve had some drama-free trips to Haiti, too! Let’s hope this i s one of them!) On this trip, we will also be partnering with Pure Charity. You can learn more about them here: Change the world with Pure Charity! from Pure Charity on Vimeo. Later in October, we will be stopping in Haiti as a part of a family cruise we are taking with Fisher Price. This will be Kembe’s first trip back since his evacuation and adoption, and I think it will be a great way for him to visit as a brief and positive experience, since I’m betting it will bring up some big feelings for him. In the future, we will do a more extended trip but I think this will be a good way to help reintroduce him to his culture without totally overwhelming him. I’m excited to be returning to Haiti but obviously there is a little anxiety there as well. I know things are still in bad shape since the earthquake and I know I will be both disappointed at the lack of progress and triggered with some of the stressful memories of the earthquake. At the same time, though, I’m excited. And I think those feelings of fear and longing sort of represent the feelings I’ve always held about this country. I know I will be staring down some demons to go on these trips. And I know it will be good.
I woke up this morning to a phone call from Diane Sawyer’s producer. An hour and a half later there was a film crew at my house.
So. I guess we’re on World News with Diane Sawyer tonight? I think it’s at 6:30. [EDITED: NOT TONIGHT. LATER THIS WEEK] They are doing a follow-up to the orphans Diane visited right after the quake. (That would be Kembe in her arms. Can’t express how that felt – seeing him on the news happy and playing with his friends the night I got home from Haiti).
The film crew showed up, and mostly wanted to get some shots of our family just doing normal, everyday things. Don’t mind the camera.
I can assure you, all of the vignettes they captured are typical to everyday life here at the Howerton house. The immaculate house, the full-family basketball game, all six of us sitting around blissfully playing puzzles, Mark being home in the middle of the day . . . this is just how we do it.
We always eat lunch this way, lovingly gazing at the kids. Only usually Mark and I are in even more of an embrace. We didn’t want to seem cheesy so we kept it casual. Also, I am in pumps and jewelry by 10am every day.
That’s just how I roll . . . you know, keeping it real.
This guy does actually have a head. And it’s probably time for me to replace those two missing frames that Jafta knocked down when he was three.
Just before my close-up, the camera guy told me I looked exactly like someone he had just filmed, but he couldn’t place it. As he paused for a few seconds to recall, I was thinking, “please don’t let it be someone hideous, please don’t let it be someone hideous”. And then he said, “I know, it’s Kate Gossling” and started rolling tape. So if I look like I am crying a little during my interview, now you know why.
It wasn’t really an interview – the camera guy wanted me to respond to two questions, but they were about how he’s liking California, etc. Nothing hard-hitting or deep in terms of adoption, but it is what it is.
It’s hard to believe it has been six months since the earthquake. There has been so much progress, and yet there is such a long way to go. For Haiti, and for our family. I had wanted to sit down and write about that this morning . . . but instead I ate up my time pretending to be a patient, loving Stepford wife while threatening my kids within an inch of their life to act smiley and perfect. If you watch tonight, you can let me know how much you are buying my act.
I have to admit, I have been rolling my eyes at all of the news programs that have appointed Sean Penn as an expert on Haiti. But I will give him credit. He’s still there, and he is righteously pissed with the bureaucratic nightmare and speaking out for the people of Haiti. I recognize the rage he exhibits in this interview – I think it represents the way so many of us feel who care for this country. It’s hard not be enraged by the way aid is not getting where it is needed, despite the money and people that have been flooding in. The story of this little boy’s senseless death is just one of many, I am sure.