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Building Hope In Haiti Part II: The Orphanage

KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl

Flagstaff was one of hundreds of cities across the world that sent disaster relief teams to Haiti after a powerful earthquake struck the country in 2010. While most other cities have long-since stopped aid to Haiti, Flagstaff remains, and is now one of the leading cities in the world for sending volunteers to a country still rebuilding. In the second story in our series Building Hope in Haiti, Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl reports on a group of Flagstaff volunteers who've - essentially - adopted dozens of Haitian orphans and the compound they live in.

Foyer Renmen is an orphanage in Bon Repos, Haiti. And day or night there is almost always someone singing. 55 children live here: A 3-acre compound with a main house, boys and girls dormitories, a nursery, a school and a large outside kitchen. When the earthquake struck, singing helped the children stay calm. Florence Thybulle is the founder of Foyer Renmen, but here, everyone calls her "Mommy". "My mother always says singing is praying twice, so we start singing," Mommy says. She sits on a shady balcony while construction projects go on around her. Mommy converted her family home into an orphanage 20 years ago because she says she could no longer watch idly as homeless, starving children roamed the streets of her neighborhood. "Some of the kids are from very poor families," Mommy says. "Some of the kids are from young, young, young mothers. Some of them are orphans and are brought by aunts, uncles, grandmas. And then I've got one little boy that was left at the gate."

Credit KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl
Some of the younger children at Foyer Renmen wait for breakfast, Bon Repos, Haiti

After the earthquake, Mommy took-in even more children. Most were too young to say their names or know what had happened to their families. Some were traumatized, injured or sick. Mommy struggled to keep the orphanage going. She says she waited for government relief that never came. "They promise a lot, oh my God", Mommy says. "But delivery is something else, delivery is something else."

When delivery did come it was from an unexpected place; Arizona. Kelly Reber is a podiatrist from Flagstaff. He first came to Haiti a few weeks after the earthquake to do medical relief work through the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps, or NAVMC. But when he saw how many children had been left orphaned in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Reber decided the group should - essentially - adopt Foyer Renmen and make improvements there. "You just can't help but think about the lives of these children you're holding", Reber says. "There's no immediate fix for Haiti, but there is a fix for small groups of people in Haiti. You pick one place to start."

Foyer Renmen is one of more than 700 private orphanages in Haiti (source: CBS News, 2011), a tiny country with one of the highest rates of orphanism in the world. The earthquake destroyed the compound's nursery and containment wall. The water filtration system was damaged and only one stove burner worked. Volunteer Lisa Jobin says, "we were able to get a beautiful 12-burner stove that they cook on now."

Credit KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl
Cooking for nearly 100 at Foyer Renmen, Bon Repos, Haiti

Jobin is a former social worker from Flagstaff. She believes the orphanage project has expanded NAVMC's volunteer-base from strictly medical professionals, to teachers, contractors and even kids and grandkids of past volunteers. "Hundreds of people from Flagstaff have been here," Jobin says. "And the amount of people who are willing to give money and who care about Haiti, it's just tremendous. So, I think Flagstaff has heart."

Jobin has heart, too, for one little girl in particular at Foyer Renmen. Belle is 3 years old. She was abandoned days before the earthquake in the courtyard of a hospital in Port au Prince. She was starving and had typhoid fever. Jobin says no one knows who Belle's parents are or if they survived. For nearly 2 years now, Jobin has been trying to legally adopt the child. "I'm 55 years old", she says. "It was crazy to think about adopting her at this point in my life: I have two grown sons who are 21 years old. But there was just something about Belle. I just fell in love with her."

Credit KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl
Belle, Foyer Renmen, Bon Repos, Haiti

Today, Jobin's neice Beth Zeder is helping gather the necessary paperwork for Belle's adoption status meeting at the Haitian Embassy. "This is an abandonment document, an ID form and a transfer document," Zeder says. She's reading the details of Belle's case for the first time and they unnerve her. "This is a horrible, documented event that happened to this little, tiny, joyful person", Zeder says. "It makes it more real, I guess."

Adoption is something many of the kids at Foyer Renmen think about, especially the older ones like Rolandy Pierre Louis, a tall, shy girl who loves ballet and wants to visit the U.S. someday.

Credit KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl
Rolandy, 12, borrows a computer to look at Facebook pages from Flagstaff. Foyer Renmen, Bon Repos, Haiti

"I am 12 years old. I want to visit New York, Miami, Florida and Arizona", she says. Rolandy's parents left her at the orphanage 6 years ago when they became unable to care for her and moved to another part of Haiti. She says they visit once or twice a year. She says she knows they love her. But at night, after she and the other children sing bedtime songs, say their prayers and hug and kiss everyone goodnight, Rolandy quietly slips letters under the doors of the Flagstaff volunteers' rooms. The letters ask if someone will please be her 'Arizona Mom' or her 'Arizona Dad'.

Gillian Ferris was the News Director and Managing Editor for KNAU.
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