I came from a globally minded family, or so I thought. We had sponsored a child through World Vision my entire life. My parents sat us down to watch those Saturday morning "starving child" specials on tv. The high school I attended supported a school in Haiti. We did hot dog sales to raise funds. We made dresses in Home Ec that were sent to children. It made me feel I was doing something. At 16, it felt like I was doing enough. My life was pretty easy. Private school. A beautiful home. Good friends.
And then I went. Flew to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Young, incredibly naive and completely unprepared for what I would see. Port Au Prince with its crowds, heat and constant beggars was shock enough. Hordes of malnourished children. Piles of garbage. Crowded orphanages. It was, I thought, as bad as life could ever get. What I didn't realize is that they were the lucky Haitians.
We left the city and drove several hours. We got out in a small town simply trying to survive in the midst of being decimated by AIDS. 50% of all adults were HIV positive. There were orphaned children everywhere being taken in by neighbours, friends, grandparents, and churches. Disabled children dragged their broken bodies through the dirt. We were shown the morgue. Young people lain on whitewashed slabs. Mothers, Fathers, Children. Body after body. Again, I thought that must be as bad as life could ever get as I struggled to absorb it all.
Then we left the village. No roads, just a foot path. Tired, old and emaciated donkeys carried our young, healthy, teenage bodies up a mountain. A mountain where a village had been found. A village of the starving. The living dead. We were supposed to be bringing them hope. A few boxes of seeds. Assorted medical supplies. Toys.
You might think you understand what it means to hold a child that is dying. You might think you understand what it feels like to look into the eyes of a child dying from a preventable cause. But until you have lived that; Felt it in your very soul, you cannot begin to understand.
When you realize that I, as a teenager with a stethoscope and box full of deworming medication was the best medical care, the ONLY medical care, this village would ever see maybe you can fathom the enormity of the experience.
6 year olds the primary care givers of 3 younger siblings because their mother had died in childbirth. All near death. All severely emotionally disabled from lack of affection, lack of attention, lack of hope. Pregnant women so anemic that death was inevitable once they went into labour. Starving mothers and fathers. Children so near death you know your touch might be the last. Mothers explaining that they had given birth 9 times but only two of their children had lived to a year of age.
It was a week that you cannot fathom. A week that changed my life. A week that the simple act of putting it into words has kept this post locked up because I fear I cannot do it justice.
It is here I saw the need. The desperate, absolute need of children. Heart breaking, desperate, overwhelming need. Need that can't be solved with rhetoric or policy. Need that even money couldn't find a solution too. The need was simply there. Desperate, dying children. Alone. With no one, nothing and absolutely no hope.
On our last day, the lucky children, if you could ever say that, had parents that begged us to take them. I would be holding one child and a mother would rip it from my arms and press her own baby into my arms. As the translator shared her appeal. "This one is cuter, take it please, take my baby to Canada". Then another, then another, then another. Cuter or younger or a boy or a girl. All mothers desperate to save their child in any way they could. Even by sending them half way around the world with a stranger. A child stranger at that.
We left. A group of 16 and 17 year olds completely silent. Tear streaked faces. The nurse we were working with before the trip had STRONGLY advised us not to "get attached" not to hold the babies or the toddlers left motherless. As we left she said something that I didn't completely understand at the time but do today.
"It's worse for them now. Those kids know what they are missing. Before they didn't know what a hug felt like, now they will miss it."
We silently progressed down the mountain on our donkeys. Spread out. Each needing our own space, deep, deep in thought. I passed a hut. Small, mud bricks with a tree branch roof. Suddenly a woman ran out screaming.
With great force she threw something at me.
Instinctively I reached out and grabbed it as it flew by. I realized it wasn't an it. It wasn't a something. It was a someone.
A beautiful, gorgeous, precious baby boy wrapped in a rag.
He was also a starving, dying baby boy.
And as I held him, his weeping mother hit my donkey so it would run off with me carrying her baby in my arms.
And I turned. And I threw that baby back. Back into the arms of his mother and she collapsed to the ground. Yes, back to his family of origin. Yes, back to his home culture, language and place of birth. But also back to certain death.
My life suddenly became more complicated. At home I faced those questions that maybe some never face. Why am I so blessed? Why, through a twist of fate, was I born to a family in Canada while an equally precious child is born into dire poverty in Haiti.
It is on that trip that I lost all sense of "us and them". My world perspective shattered and then expanded globally. Those children I held weren't any different than my newly found niece and nephews. Than my adored baby cousin. Their eyes were a different color, our skin looked different but we were the SAME.
And I became aware of a world where children died alone. Where babies never were held. A world where brothers and sisters were separated out of necessity. A world where mothers were so desperate for their child to live they were willing to beg another to take them.
Haiti changed my life. It will always hold a place in my heart. We continued to send money to that village for a long, long time. Many, if not most, of the children we met that January in 1991 died.
40,000 children died today from starvation and preventable starvation related illness. 40,000 more children will die tomorrow. Each as precious as the child you love most in the world. Each with as much hope. As much potential. Each with a mother who bore them in love. Not to die an agonizing death before ever experiencing life.
Within a year I would be immersed in a culture where there exists very few orphans, and again I saw another side of story of children without families of birth.