“The Ox Is Slow but The Earth Is Patient”
The Storm family’s first visit to a WWO In-Country Program in Ayiti (Haiti)
By Martin Storm, WWO Board Co-Chair
SEPTEMBER 29, 2013 – DAY 1
Our life is a miracle in its conception and birth, but an accident in its circumstance!
An average person born in Australia can expect high-class health care and education, abundant and nutritious food and clean water, affordable housing, quality public transport, excellent employment opportunities, family security, limited conflict, access to key infrastructure, participation in the arts and sports & recreation, and a stable, democratic political system. The sun seems to shine there even when it’s cloudy…
But Ayiti is different. We drive by vast tent cities, crumbling post-earthquake buildings, rubble and filth where millions of people still live permanently, all cloaked in depressing grey… I see scrawny scavenging dogs, malnourished children whose lifeless stare doesn’t see me, and overly skinny teenagers roaming the streets looking for something, anything. I see that a family lives underneath a jacked-up broken down truck, perilously unperturbed. We stop by a Catholic Cathedral, collapsed except for its haunting exoskeleton. In its fractured shadow single mothers’ gather with their babies, a hollow-man shuffles, and a lone butterfly wings away. When we drive on I’m feeling anxious, absurdly anticipating a horde of revolutionaries careening past in jeeps and unloading their Kalashnikovs’ wantonly into the sky. I find myself thanking a god I don’t believe in for what I don’t see – the disease, the abuse and the slavery.
It’s hotter than the sun in Ayiti, and colder than the moon…
SEPTEMBER 29, 2013 – DAY 2
Our first day of WWO education began with a gentle walk in the mountains an hour above Port au Prince to visit WWO’s programs at the local Kenscoff Community Centre. Children between 0-5 years drew pictures and made footprints, and then enjoyed a reading of Babar in the Toy Library. There was interest and spirit and these very young children engaged to the extent that each was able. I couldn’t help notice how quiet many children were and I found myself thankful for the occasional outcry. We met some of the WWO youth volunteers acting as surrogate parents for a few hours every day, and we wouldn’t have known the difference given the affection and caring shown. The Storm family appeared cautious. We acted as interested observers but clearly unsure of how far to reach out in this first encounter.
In the afternoon, and armed with a bagful of jumping ropes, Frisbees and Aussie-Rules footballs, we walked even higher into Kenscoff to meet about one hundred 6-16 yo children for outdoor recreation. Coming from a number of local orphanages and schools all of these boys and girls came from extremely desperate backgrounds. After a group warm-up of songs and stretching the fun began. In a moment, the children exploded into an energetic, picturesque disorder. They were laughing, smiling and playing. They were kicking and catching the footballs as if they had played with them their whole lives. They jumped rope and put on a puppet show. And thankfully the Storm family was fully involved. My 25-yo son Jacob was run ragged by an 8-yo boy playing football continuously for 20 minutes.
At first glance, Ayiti was repulsive and frightening. But away from the traumas of Port au Prince and in the arms of WWO, this day was a very positive experience. And who are these WWO youth volunteers who lead and love these children?
OCTOBER 1, 2013 – DAY 3
Today the sun is scorching. We drove two hours down the mountain into the peak hour traffic of Port au Prince, and Sunday’s horrors came flashing back. I won’t go on.
We first visited a hospital and a ward of some 10 children with severe disabilities including cerebral palsy. WWO volunteers come here every day to provide care and love for the children and provide relief for the caregivers. They know these children: they hold them, play with them, feed them, sing to them, laugh with them, and love them, all for a few hours each day. As a result, and central to WWO’s objectives for orphans, there is a real growing attachment between the volunteers and those severely disabled children. In their absence this ward will be a very sad and lonely place for a child’s life to end. I was deeply moved by my wife Sandra and 9-yo daughter Juliet whom bonded quickly with a little boy named Damien and held him lovingly for the entire visit.
We visited another paediatrics hospital ER – in this case a series of post-earthquake makeshift timber shacks not yet replaced. Lovingly, real parents tried to comfort their suffering children, stroking their heads or backs, or holding their hands. I walked through trying hard not to feel anything whilst secretly (and ashamedly) plotting my escape. When I did exit I was surprised to find that I wasn’t the first adult out. The ER was harrowing… As we walked back to our transport it began to rain. But none of us seemed to mind; it offered a cleansing of sorts for what we just experienced. Unfortunately, for the children of Ayiti, no such release.
In the afternoon we visited a local feeding centre. Desperate women with their babies relentlessly knocked at the steel convent door, hopeful of food. We shuffled in expecting the worst and found some 50 children. Each one of us found a child to hold and comfort. I still proudly see my 15-yo daughter Skala carrying a beautiful little boy whilst another little girl hung on to her so tightly that she couldn’t leave that crib. I had a chance to speak to a staff member and learn a little more of their challenges. In the proceeding weeks they had a large group of children with cholera, so they were now relieved to have chemically disinfected the ward and to be back to dealing with the malnourished and dehydrated. Not every child will leave this place but most will, which is good for Ayiti.
From initially confronting my own fears to eventually not wanting to leave, today was an emotional rollercoaster for me personally.
OCTOBER 2, 2013 – DAY 4
Our last day began with another lovely group walk to the best local Kenscoff Hotel (between 2-3 stars by western standards) to attend WWO’s Volunteers Appreciation Ceremony. A beautiful 2-hour ceremony of cheers, songs, dances, speeches, and presentations ensued. The Storm family participated heartily now and at every opportunity. In-Country Manager Melissa spoke beautifully as a leader, teacher, mentor and friend to the older and newest volunteers. Dr. Jane Aronson did likewise, as did staff management. These volunteers are central to WWO’s activities, progress and success in the lives of orphan and vulnerable children in Ayiti. They mostly balance WWO work with formal education. Through WWO they are learning valuable skills in arts, sports, and dance, all critical to playing with, teaching and loving children. They are responsible and accountable for the welfare of the child in their care, and they take it very seriously. We have about one hundred Volunteers so far, so we only need five thousand more to make huge progress in Ayiti.
Our last formal visit was to a local Kenscoff orphanage of some 25 children where WWO provides additional care and support. This was a fantastic visit. We played sport, games, laughed, sang and generally partied together. All of this again ably led by WWO volunteers. Each of the Storm family members made a new best friend or two and we all wanted to stay forever, or take the children back to Australia with us. Neither was possible, but it will be an indelible memory burned within our collective family psyche.
OCTOBER 3, 2013 – DAY 5
We have an early exit so we drive down the hill to the Port au Prince airport in the dawn light. I now have time to reflect.
What happened to the world’s pledges of relief money? Did they ever arrive? Mostly not! So progress will have to come in incremental steps.
Ayiti has some ten million people living on a small footprint island, with a primitive economy, an unfunded and ineffective government, without a civil society, almost non-existent public education, a culture of child abandonment, and nearly 1000 orphanages with over 140 of them listed for closure due to inhumane conditions. This country is devastated and in ruin.
Yet in all of that, the human spirit wills itself to shine. I see WWO volunteers, their love and the beautiful work they do. In their eyes, I see WWO children’s smiling faces and new children trying to attach and engage. I now know why we must do more to deepen and broaden our programs in Ayiti. I remind myself, “The ox is slow but the earth is patient.”