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Caring for orphans and children amid Haiti’s collapse

U.S. missionaries hope to return to the impoverished country

Jill Dolan with children from the Mission of Grace orphanage in Haiti Love A Neighbor / Facebook

Caring for orphans and children amid Haiti’s collapse

In Haiti rampant gang violence and scarce supplies have made simple things like diapers and rice hard to come by. Skyrocketing gas prices make it difficult to keep fuel-starved generators running, and just keeping the lights on at the local orphanage is a challenge.

But it’s a challenge Jill Dolan says she’s up to. She just has to find a way back into the country.

As founder of the nonprofit organization Love A Neighbor, Dolan has been living in Haiti for the past 10 years, where she and her family have been involved with the Mission of Grace orphanages in the Haitian towns of Carries and Plaisance de Sud. During that time, they’ve helped care for as many as 200 children at a time.

But on March 23, Dolan and her family were evacuated from the capital city of Port-au-Prince after being trapped by gang violence for more than three weeks. Speaking from her daughter’s home in Lucie, Fla., she says she’s itching to get back to Haiti – and the orphanage.

“You don’t leave your kids somewhere for that long,” she said.

Not really orphans

The number of orphanages has been on the rise in Haiti ever since the deadly 2010 earthquake, according to Heather Nozea, chairwoman of Haiti Family Care Network. A 2017 Haitian government survey found roughly 30,000 children living in roughly 750 orphanages throughout the country. That’s up 150 percent from the roughly 300 orphanages in place before the 2010 earthquake.

Many of the children housed in those orphanages aren’t orphans at all. The parents are living in poverty and drop the child off at the orphanage in the hopes that he or she will receive free food, healthcare, and schooling.

Dolan says she’s seen some children so malnourished they don’t survive.

“They bring them to you and they’re starving,” Dolan said. “They’re almost dead sometimes.”

Additionally, parents of special needs children will often leave them at the orphanage simply because they don’t want to care for them, Dolan said. In other cases, she said large families will decide they don’t have enough resources to feed everyone and leave one or more of their children behind.

In the boonies

Operating an orphanage in Haiti carries unique challenges, one of which is isolation. Dolan describes the town of Plaisance-du-Sud as “the boonies,” a bush area without running water or gas stations. Electricity trickles into the orphanage from solar panels and generators powered by expensive gas. In that environment, supplies must be ordered in bulk and can be hard to find. Gang activity and violence can further complicate matters. In September, Dolan said, Mission of Grace had to evacuate the children from its Carries location after gangs came down from the mountains and terrorized residents in the village.

“Kids were hiding under the bed in Carries, afraid of the gunfire,” she said. “They were having nightmares, and they’re not eating.”

At the time, the Mission of Grace orphanage in Plaisance-du-Sud was already housing 50 children. When more came from Carries, that brought the number to 200. Children were temporarily housed in the school and in workers’ homes, including at Dolan’s roughly 3,000-square-foot home.

“We ended up having 60 children—six-zero children!—stay at our house for the last three or four months,” Dolan said.

The availability of healthcare is also an issue. The violence has closed many hospitals and healthcare centers. Doctors cannot get to and from work safely, and many have decided to leave the country. The lack of healthcare means children can’t be treated for ailments like diarrhea, cholera, or a broken bone that gets infected.

"These kids are literally dying throughout the country over the last three years of things that would have been normally treatable,” she said.

Orphanage staff endeavor to shield the children from these concerns, Dolan said, helping them to focus more on the simple joys of being a kid. She wants the children to spend more time playing kickball than wondering where tomorrow’s rice will come from. But the orphanage is also concerned about spiritual development, with staff seeking to show the children how to be Godly and responsible citizens in a country troubled by uncertain leadership.

“We are trying to show them the love of God every day,” Dolan said. “We’re trying to teach them to live a different way.

Wise investors

Nozea said over the years, less-than-reputable groups opened sham orphanages in an effort to cash in on billions of dollars of international aid. As of 2017, only 15 percent of the existing orphanages in Haiti were registered with the government, according to Nozea. She said she has seen some orphanages house children for show during the day, then turn the same children loose at night to go home to their families. Orphanage workers might discipline children by whipping them with a broom or forcing them to kneel on concrete in the hot sun for six hours in the afternoon.

Nozea recommended that foreigners support only those orphanages that are registered with the government. Mission of Grace is, according to Dolan.

The level of professional care available to children is also important, Nozea said. Mission of Grace has a social worker and a psychologist on staff to help care for the physical and emotional needs of the children. Dolan said Mission of Grace has about 100 staff members to help care for the orphanage’s roughly 200 children.

In place of orphanages, Nozea advocates for a “family-based care” plan that mirrors a global shift from institutionalization toward foster care over the past 15 years. She says international aid should be redirected accordingly.

“Why aren’t we taking those resources to help those families access food and education in a way that empowers the families where the kids don’t have to be separated from mom and dad and siblings and cousins and grandparents?” Nozea said.

Dolan agreed that it's generally preferable for children to remain with parents, but it may not be possible. Dolan says when a parent brings their child to the orphanage, staff will often try to find other options, offering to provide food, money, or job aid to help keep the child with the family. In many cases, parents aren’t receptive.

“They just for one reason or another just decide, ‘No, I really can’t do this. I need to work. I don’t have anyone to watch my child.”

Trapped in Florida

For the past few weeks, Dolan has helped manage Mission of Grace orphanage remotely from her daughter’s home in Florida. While Plaisance-du-Sud has been relatively peaceful, gang violence and kidnappings have plagued the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021.

On Feb. 29, Dolan and her family traveled to Port-au-Prince to catch a flight out of the country. They planned to be in Florida a month ahead of her daughter’s wedding. While they were at the airport, there was a shooting nearby. Eventually, gangs tried to seize the airport, and it was shut down indefinitely.

Trapped in Port-au-Prince, Dolan and her family stayed in nearby hotels for weeks.

“We did hear gunshots,” she said. “And sometimes you’d hear it more during the day. Sometimes you’d hear it at night. Once we did hear it right outside our gate…and so that was a little scary.”

After spending 23 nights in hotels, Dolan and her soon-to-be daughter-in-law were rescued via helicopter by the Jack Brewer Foundation, a global aid organization, working in conjunction with TAD Recovery, a global defense logistics company. They were taken to the Dominican Republic before flying back to Florida.

Weeks later, she’s taking time to rest. She’s also communicating daily with the staff at the orphanage. She says the children there are thriving, but they’re having to switch up the children’s menu. Much of the rice they use is imported from the United States, and with Haiti’s main airport shut down indefinitely, it may soon be hard to obtain, Dolan said.

“Baby formula is going to start to be hard to get,” she said. “Diapers. You know, things like that are going to be hard.”

But she’s hoping to get back there in May or July.

“We have three kids that we’re adopting that don’t have passports or visas or anything, and they’re there, and they’re our family,” she said. “We have a house. We have dogs. And that’s our home.”

Travis K. Kircher

Travis is the associate breaking news editor for WORLD.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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