We left for Haiti on May 14: my 21st birthday. While many kids my age spend this birthday drinking more than their body weight in alcohol, bent over a toilet in a strange bar or unaware of how they even celebrated, I will remember every moment of mine.
Getting off the plane in Port-au-Prince people began grabbing for our luggage faster than we could say “arrete!” We found out quickly that any person who laid their hand on your bag or directed you to your destination, regardless of whether they were dressed as an airline attendant or not, would later ask for a tip. We made it to our scheduled taxi parked outside of their airport after upwards of ten of these encounters and pulled away with a group of Haitian men yelling after us for money. We didn’t truly get a sense of how bad things are in the capital because we were driven right to our charter flight next door. But as we ascended above Port-au-Prince you could see hundreds of tin roofs and make-shift tent houses sprawling out from the center of the city along the coast.
The flight took us from the crowded city of Port-au-Prince to the barren mountains and agricultural fields of eastern Haiti. We landed in Les Cayes blown away by the natural beauty of the country.
After a short ride to Proje Espwa we were given a tour around the orphanage. We saw the schools, the houses for the children and medical center and began to get a lay of the land.
As we entered the boy’s village, kids came up to us from all sides–grabbing for our hands and repeating a question we would hear over and over all week in a thick Haitian accent, “What is your name?” Using the French I could remember for middle-school, I asked the kids their names and ages. They smiled and pulled us along with them. At the girl’s house in the boys village the kids took pictures with my camera and before I knew what was going on, I was holding one of the kids and they were all singing happy birthday to me. I will never forget that moment: surrounded by beaming children, holding a baby on my hip.
Although many of the kids at Espwa are orphans, not all of them are. Some of the kids who attend school there don’t have families that can support them and will walk 3 miles without shoes along rocky roads to Espwa during the week. Many of the kids haven’t been shown much affection in their lives before Espwa and reached out to us with more love than I could have imagined. Their hearts are so full of love for each other and for us–complete strangers–who showed up one day in May.
Although so many spend their 21st with their friends at a bar–and I hear that’s a lot of fun too–I cannot think of a better way to spend my 21st birthday than surrounded by Haitian children full of love and music.