- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2020

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. (AP) - Time flies when you’re helping with a good cause.

“I don’t think any of us thought we would be doing this 10 years later,” said Sheila Humphreys, co-founder of the Haiti Orphanage Sponsorship Trust, also known as HOST.

As a new teacher at Hilltop Montessori School in the early 2000s, Humphreys had been looking to introduce her students to new places and cultures. SIT Graduate Institute connected her with Fenel Pierre, a Haitian student who came as a guest to her school and is now an SIT alumnus.

The two stayed in touch and when Mariam Diallo had voiced a desire to help Haiti residents after the devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, Humphreys suggested she reach out to him. He connected her with an orphanage near where he was living.

Humphreys recalled going to get groceries at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, where Diallo had been working as a deli clerk at the time: They talked about how horrible the situation in Haiti was and Diallo wanted to do something to help.

“And I was just blown away by that,” Humphreys said. “I had a 2-year-old at that time. I couldn’t imagine walking into that.”

Humphreys said Diallo is about 10 years younger than her and previously worked with orphans in Mali, where Diallo had been born. The two women united behind the idea of helping in Haiti.

Co-op employees raised money to purchase Diallo’s plane ticket and the co-op gave her a six-week leave of absence. House parties were held to raise funds so Diallo would have money to bring with her on the trip.

Humphreys said Diallo fell in love with the children she met at the orphanage and had been very impressed by what the caretakers were accomplishing with “so little means and no foreign support at the time.”

“They were all educators themselves,” Humphreys said. “They said, ‘We’re going to take these kids from our community in and do what we can to take care of them.’”

Humphreys stays in regular contact with Pastor Duckens Janvier, director of the Foyer Evangelique Orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquets.

The orphanage currently has about 30 children in residence, ranging from 9 years old to late teens, according to a news release about HOST. The group aims to support the kids through high school graduation.

HOST has 60 sponsors, a dozen of whom are said to live in southern Vermont. They contribute anywhere from $5 to $150 each month for a total of $40,000 per year, according to the news release, but only about 65 percent of the orphanage’s needs are being met through the program. Humphreys said Janvier and his wife contribute money from their salaries to make sure critical needs are being met.

HOST also holds benefit concerts, dinners and fundraisers to contribute to the orphanage. Altogether, the group says it raises about $70,000 each year.

Humphreys said the sponsorship program began in 2012 as a way to have ongoing support, so Janvier and the caregivers would know they would have a certain amount for food and medical supplies.

Sponsors get to know the children. They write letters back and forth. And some sponsors have visited the orphanage. The group’s two business sponsors are Brattleboro Savings & Loan and Tito’s Taqueria.

Humphreys finds the project rewarding.

“I do feel like we’re making a difference,” she said.

Life had been difficult for children from poor families before the earthquake, Humphreys said. She recalled children 12 or older being illiterate and unable to do basic math.

“Now, they are succeeding in school,” she said, describing Janvier as an educator and a school administrator for three private schools in Haiti. “One major priority for him is to educate.”

Education involves learning the French language, which is helpful in business in Haiti. Vocational programs offered include woodworking and carpentry, sewing and culinary arts. And a music program has students learning from instructors how to play instruments.

HOST contributor Honey Loring said “it felt so good” to give funds to the sewing program as it could provide the means for students to earn money. She also sponsored a child.

Loring and Humphreys showed the Reformer a video of some of the children dancing. The two women had been practicing some of the move themselves.

The Compassionate Brattleboro Committee recently named sister communities with which to correspond and the list included the town of Meyer, which is within the larger city of Croix-des-Buoquets.

Humphreys said before the earthquake, data showed about 400,000 children had been orphaned and abandoned in Haiti - and she did not think any group had done a survey since. She said the town hosting the Foyer Evangelique Orphanage has 50 orphanages and is populated by about 100,000 people.

“So the magnitude is enormous, and it can be overwhelming as someone looking at that,” she said. “For me to think about 400,000 orphans, I don’t even know how to address that issue. But as a teacher thinking about 30 kids, I can at least start thinking about how to address the needs of those 30 kids.”

She is hopeful that people “with a bigger capacity for problem solving” can help.

Humphreys described the country’s current political situation as “incredibly difficult” given all the street protests that have been happening for about a year-and-a-half. She said people are very upset with the president after $2 billion, which was intended to go into social programs, had gone missing.

Humphreys saw the protests firsthand last February.

“Because the people have no power, what they do is shut down the roads so they block the roads with anything they can,” she said, adding that sometimes they use trees or rocks. “So they shut down traffic. No one can get anywhere. It’s like completely shutting down the economy basically.”

Humphreys described being safe within the confines of where the orphanage is located, but the road 2 miles away had been blocked. She ended up delaying her flight back after her hosts advised she do so.

At the beginning of her trip, two weeks worth of food had been stored. But Humphreys watched as the supply got “scarcer and scarcer.”

“I was thinking, I don’t want to be another mouth to feed,” she said.

Eventually, Humphreys was able to leave. She said she departed as a passenger on the back of a motorcycle for an 8-mile ride that included 20 road blocks and paying two bribes. She called the experience “sobering.”

Janvier recently wrote to her group, “Thanks to the generosity of HOST friends, the children at OFEU are able to eat three times a day, despite high inflation. With your donations, you are making a difference by saving vulnerable children! … I have faith that the situation of Haiti with all these demonstrations and blocked roads will stop soon to allow people to get back to work and produce enough for their survival in this country that is already too poor.”

Protests had paused through the holidays and students returned to school after the buildings had been shut down since mid-September, Humphreys said, but the country is now facing a drought that affects electricity as much of it comes from hydropower.

“So electricity in Haiti at its best is you would get maybe two to three hours of power each day and that’s not every day of the week,” she said during an interview on Jan. 20. “But right now, they are getting power two to three hours a month.”

Online: https://bit.ly/39opLlC


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