The Santa Chiara Children’s Center
A Place for Kids to be Kids
The improbable story
of how a filmmaker and an artist
left their comfortable lives in California
to open a free day care center for children
in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
Gerard Thomas Straub
A Place for Kids to be Kids
Sometimes when I’m filming, something totally unexpected happens. In Cité Soleil, the largest slum in Haiti, I saw a little girl, perhaps five years old, walking through the trash. Flies and insects were swirling around her. When I realized she was on a journey to a quiet spot to pee, I was deeply disturbed. There should be no place on earth, where an innocent, little girl should be forced to urinate in such a filthy place and in such a public manner. I filmed the little girl in December 2009, just weeks before a deadly earthquake destroyed most of Port-au-Prince. Life in Haiti for the chronically poor was a nightmare before the earthquake. Life after the earthquake was a living hell. Five year later, it is not much better.
About 80% of all Haitians live below the poverty line. Just over half of the population lives in abject poverty, subsisting on earnings of less than a dollar day. Nearly 60% of Haitians do not have access to adequate food and nutrition; women and children are at the greatest risk of hunger.
The risk of contracting a deadly infectious disease is extremely high. Half of all children are never vaccinated. Less than 70% of the children attend primary school; the enrollment rate for secondary school is only 20%. 90% of the primary and secondary schools are private, and the cost of sending a child to a private school is beyond the reach of most Haitians; many Haitian parents must choose between food and education. As a result, the literacy rate in Haiti is less than 53%. Nearly a quarter of all children between the ages of 10 and 14 work full time. Many young girls work as domestic servants living in someone’s home, where they are exposed to the risk of sexual exploitation and violence.
I began work on a film in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in December 2009. Just weeks after I returned home, on January 10, 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, demolishing most of the city, killing more than 300,000 people, and leaving a million-and-half people homeless. I returned to Haiti just days after the earthquake on a chartered plane filled with medical supplies and a team of doctors and nurses. I lived in one of the few hospitals that had not been destroyed. We slept on the floor and ate untoasted pop-tarts. During the first two days, the doctors performed more than 40 amputations. Before our arrival, some amputations were done without amnesia. The hospital was so crowded that some surgical procedures were performed outside on the side of the road that surrounded the hospital. Inside the hospital, the tormented sounds of painful screams rarely stopped. The carnage and suffering was beyond imagination. I left the hospital a few times with doctors who were setting up mobile clinics. The sight of so many corpses in the streets was truly upsetting. I felt as if I had landed in some horrendous netherworld of suffering and destruction…and there was no escaping it. It was a non-stop nightmare. And I filmed it all. I came home with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Over the next year, I returned to Haiti at least a half-dozen more times to make a film titled Mud Pies & Kites. I even lived in a massive slum, without electricity or running water…and with rats. I filmed in many of the massive tent cities spread throughout Port-au-Prince that were crammed with displaced Haitians, people living in makeshift tents without any proper means for the disposal of human waste. Tents were everywhere. They lined the streets, filled the fields and were jammed into every open space. Infectious diseases, including cholera, spread like wildfire. Violence against women rose steadily; rapes were commonplace. Many people were forced to bathe in the streets without the benefit of any privacy. People face the painful scourge of hunger every day. Their days became an endless and exhausting search for food and water. In the dreadful Cité Soleil slum, the poorest of the poor ate “pies” made of mud and polluted water.
From my perspective, Haiti was synonymous with suffering. I often found myself on the verge of tears. I was overwhelmed by a profoundly deep sense of sadness…and felt totally powerless to help even one person. But on Good Friday (2010) I met one person I could help, an artist selling her paintings along a wall that surrounded the old hotel where I was staying. Her name was Ecarlatte. The earthquake left her homeless. She slept in an abandoned truck at night. She would go entire days without eating. She looked emaciated. Improbable as it was, we somehow made a connection even though she spoke very little English. I was happy I was able to at least do a little something for one person. I gave her money for food and bought her a cell phone. I had no idea that simple act of kindness would dramatically alter the course of my life…which was a good thing even if I had no interest in changing anything in my life.
After returning home, I began sending her a little money via Western Union…just enough for her to find a small room with a dirt floor inside a cinder block building housing two families located in the middle of the massive Girardoville slum. She had no toilet, no running water, no electricity, and no stove. She cooked on an open fire on the floor. But she was grateful to be off the streets and in a safe space.
During subsequent trips to Haiti, I learned Ecarlatte was very sick with epilepsy. At Christmas 2010, she had five grand mal seizures in a fifteen hour period. It was truly the most frightening experience of my life. The focus of my life became getting Ecarlatte out of Haiti and bringing her to California for medical treatment. The immigration process seemed impossible to navigate. But we kept at it, and on April 28, 2011, against all odds, Ecarlatte and I boarded a plane in Port-au-Prince bound for Miami. She took with her only the clothes she was wearing. Within three months of her arrival in California we were married. She is now a permanent resident of the US and is on a path toward citizenship.
Long before Ecarlatte immigrated to the United States, she dreamed of opening an orphanage for the many abandoned kids in Haiti. Since her arrival in America, Ecarlatte has repeatedly spoken about going back to Haiti someday and caring for children. I felt that would truly be a hard thing to do and probably far beyond our reach. But the idea for something less ambitious popped into my head: a simple children’s center where we could care for kids for free during the day. In late January 2015, I floated the idea of a children’s center in Haiti to the Pax et Bonum Communications’ board of directors. Much to my delight, the idea was met with instant enthusiasm and support.
Between May and October of 2015, Ecarlatte and I made four trips to Haiti. We found a small apartment at the end of a narrow, long, twisting alley that became our beachhead in Haiti. At first I was fearful of even walking down the alley. A few years ago I was robbed and thrown to the ground in Haiti; the thief was a teenage boy who grabbed my passport, credit cards, and all my cash. That experience left me a bit apprehensive. The apartment was a modest, small four room residence on the second floor of a private home in a very poor neighborhood in the Peguyville section of Port-au-Prince. I was tempted to say “slum” instead of “a very poor neighborhood” but in comparison to the many large slums in the city, such as Cité Soleil and Girardoville (where Ecarlatte lived after the earthquake), this was a few notches above those slums. Nonetheless, it was still an extremely impoverished area where few have running water or jobs. Our rent was only $2,800 a year, which was paid for by a dozen people donating $233 each. Our next-door neighbors lived on the second floor of an unfinished building. They had no running water. The family includes an infant child. The kids were always hungry.
Our humble apartment became a microcosm of what we hoped to do on a larger scale when we move into the permanent home for our center. During our trips to Haiti, we fed six to ten kids three meals every day. Each night four to six kids slept on the floor in the apartment. Our narrow balcony became a beehive of activity, where kids gathered, where we prepared most of the meals and where everyone ate. Some kids were even bathed on the balcony. The balcony also served as a class room, a painting studio, and a dance floor. The apartment became a place for smiles, laughter, games, and a place to be fed and loved. It was a place for a kid to simply be a kid. A homeless woman with three girls came for something to eat one day. They were thrilled to receive some new clothes. We couldn’t just send them away. They spent one night in the apartment and the next day we purchased the material to make them a tent, which was built by men from the neighborhood.
In October 2015 we found a building that would serve as the home of the Santa Chiara Children’s Center. It too was located in Peguyvillle. We took possession of the property on December 1, 2015 after it is completely renovated. The rent was $16,500 per year. The owner of the building was thrilled it will be put to such a positive use. The walled property also included a small building that became a one-room apartment for Ecarlatte and me. Many of the poor women in Peguyville walked past our day care center on their way to the larger street markets in Pétionville. We hoped they would drop off their kids off with us for the day so we can lovingly care for them free of charge…and they did! By the end of April, 2016 between 35 and 50 kids a day came to new Center, and another 8 to 14 kids spent the night with us due to one emergency or another. Four of the kids essentially lived full time at Santa Chiara. Every child who entered Santa Chiara was fed three meals a day.
Pope Francis said: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” In our humble, very limited way, I saw the Santa Chiara Children’s Center as a kind of field hospital for kids. They knocked on our gate weary from their battle with extreme poverty, constant hunger, emotional neglect, and often physical abuse. They came wounded in many ways. We began by welcoming them, then feeding them, then embracing and encouraging them, then playing with them, then teaching them…and sometimes even healing them. When needed, we offer them temporary shelter and even access to medical care. We paid school fees for some kids. But mostly, we offered them love.
An important part of the mission of Santa Chiara was to offer the children classes in reading, writing, and math. Many of the children cannot read. Each child is given one-on-one personal attention depending upon their needs. Without educational opportunities the children will not have any chance to escape the prison of poverty that ensnares so many Haitian. We also provided art and craft classes which is the only time the kids get to explore their own creativity. Outside the walls of Santa Chiara there is no time for anything but the struggle for survival.
Why create a day care center for children?
Allow me to paint a picture of “child care” in Haiti. Basically, there is none. A poor woman with children who earns her living selling things at a public market or on the street has no viable option other than to take her kids with her. Women set up their tables in the larger markets at 4:00am, dragging their sleepy children with them. The women who spend their days seated along the side of the road selling some meager amount of produce or cheap merchandise must also take their kids with them. Besides breathing in the obnoxious fumes spewed from old vehicles, it’s not uncommon for children to be hurt by passing traffic.
Another option is for women to “rent” the kids out to families for the day; the child will spend the day inside someone’s home doing all sorts of menial tasks, such as cleaning and hauling water. The family “renting” the kid for the day will feed the child in exchange for the work they do. The food the child gets will simply be a bowl of plain rice. Even worse, some women loan their kids to a person who spends their day begging on the street. This is hard for us to imagine: using young kids as a tool to elicit sympathy. The professional beggar will share some small percentage of what they “earn” during the day with the child’s mother. If they don’t make any money, the mother gets no money. To add to the complexity of the situation many poor women can’t afford to send their children to school, as they don’t have the money for tuition, books, and uniforms.
It’s been estimated that half the women in Haiti are illiterate…they have never been to school. They can’t even sign their own name. Many of these uneducated women don’t understand how people get AIDS or other serious diseases. This absence of rudimentary education makes them extremely vulnerable. They lack awareness of fundamental human rights and are easily manipulated into “selling” their children into various forms of servitude to pay off a debt to a money lender.
A child who has been sold into servitude is called a “restavec.” The term comes from the French language rester avec, “to stay with.” A restavec is a child who is sent by his or her parents to work for a host household as a domestic servant because the parents can’t afford to care for their child. Restavec may refer to any child staying with a host family, but usually refers specifically to those who are indentured. Restavecs are typically young girls who have been born into severe poverty. These children receive food and shelter in exchange for doing housework. Restavecs are usually treated badly; they will not receive any education and are often physically abused and sexually molested.
Restavecs have no social or political voice, nor can they determine their own futures. Tragically, the life of a restavec is often considered better than the alternative life of chronic, hopeless poverty, which is why some parents allow their children to become restavecs; of course, the child will never have a better life. No Haitian parent wants to see their child become a restavec; poverty forces them to resort to this painful alternative. In many cases, the economic means parents used to have no longer exists. The rising influx of foreign rice, eggs, and other things on the market by big business has destroyed the peasant economy, and created a whole chain of events that leaves some people with no other option than to send their child away so the child has a chance to survive.
Haiti is a nation of ten million people, and thousands of children are restavecs. Theirs is a hidden, harsh life. As poverty and political turmoil increases, so do the numbers of restavecs. Most people will get rid of their restavecs by the time they turn fifteen, because a law was passed stating that at age fifteen all people must be paid.
The truly impoverished Haitians have barely a glimmer of hope of how to change their sorrowful plight. A Haitian once told me they went to church “to pray for hope.” Life in Haiti for the children of the chronically poor who have not become restavecs is nonetheless still very, very hard. I believe God has put it in our hearts to do what we can to make things a little better for at least a few kids… and maybe even save some from the fate of becoming restavecs.
My experience of filming poverty all over the world for the past sixteen years prepared me for this new mission. I’ve witnessed many small ministries begun by one very motivated individual who has made a great difference in the lives of those they served…and I was ready to do likewise.
Our children’s center is named in honor of St. Clare of Assisi. In her native Italian, she is known as Santa Chiara. Regrettably, most people don’t know much about this amazing woman who was the most fervent and loyal follower of St. Francis of Assisi. No one captured the heart and spirit of St. Francis’ message more than St. Clare, and no one ever came closer in following or reaching the Franciscan ideal than she. She has been called “the flower of the Franciscan Order.” St. Clare understood St. Francis better and loved him more than anyone else. She was, in short, his soulmate. She died fighting to keep his dream alive.
When we first began the children’s center, I wrote: “I envision the Santa Chiara Children’s Center as a beehive of creativity, where kids can come to play, to learn crafts, to feel safe, and be able to laugh, sing, and paint…and perhaps even learn to read and write English. I envision volunteers from America coming to help, especially people with medical and teaching skills. I’m thrilled that a number of professional people have already indicated they are itching to join us in Haiti…including two doctors, a teacher, a musician, an icon painter, and a nurse. It really is all possible…and the possibilities are truly exciting.”
The vision did in fact materialize. But we slowly became more than a day care center. Some children were left for the day and their mother never returned to pick them up. Some women showed up at the gate and begged us to keep their kids, as they were destitute and homeless. Little by little, more and more kids were actually living at the center.
For the Santa Chiara Children’s Center, 2016 was a year of tremendous growth and some dramatic changes. By the end of the year, we had outgrown the facility Peguyville section of Port-au-Prince and moved to Delmas, 33, which is a much poorer, more violent area not far from the airport.
The move to the larger property in Delmas gave us a chance to evaluate what we were doing and refocus the service we offered. Besides the 22 kids living with us in Peguyville, we had up to 50 kids coming every day. This was truly exhausting and expensive. But what I observed was that while the “day” kids were poor, most of them had one or both parents who worked, even if at menial jobs. Many of these parents could afford to send their children to school. Many of our “day” kids in fact came to us after they were let out of school. The school day was from 7:00am to 12:00noon. The kids basically came for lunch and to play for the rest of the day. There was no question this was a valuable service we offered. We were keeping kids off the mean streets. We decided that when we moved to Delmas we would downplay the “day care” center part in favor of being a home for abandoned and displaced kids. Because we have a number of the mothers living with us, and other mothers visit on a regular basis, we don’t think of ourselves as an orphanage. In time, if the resources are available, we may once again let kids in for the day.
We now have 48 abandoned and displaced kids living with us, 12 of whom are still in diapers. Besides feeding the children three nutritious meals a day, we cover all their educational and medical expenses. One child required surgery in 2016. Three of our kids spent most of November and December 2016 in the hospital being treated for malnutrition. Four of our kids are HIV+; we take them to an HIV/AIDS clinic once a month for medication. We are sending 15 of the older kids to school; the rest of the children are being taught how to read and write by the two teachers that come to Santa Chiara every day. The older kids also assist in teaching the younger kids. At Santa Chiara, the children are taught the importance of mercy, compassion, and non-violence. In December, we added a third teacher who is trained to teach English as a second language; the teacher comes three days a week and the hour-long class is open to all the staff and teenage kids. Everyone is very excited about learning to speak English. Some of our staff never finished high school, and for them the English class is a dream come true. 2016 saw another major advance: we now have a nurse who works three days a week, six hours a day. She is creating a clinic that is well-stocked with a wide-range of medications. The nurse is teaching our best staff member how to properly administer the proper dose medications at the appointed time. We currently have three children who require specialized medical attention, which they are getting.
We now have 22 Haitians working at Santa Chiara, most of whom earn less than $100 a month. Our highest paid employee is the nurse, who earns $200 a month. We cover all the medical expenses of the employees. The staff is dedicated to safeguarding the well-being of the children. A generous donor paid for the solar power system to be installed ($6,000), freeing us from the extremely unstable electricity in our area, where blackouts are a daily occurrence. We have no source of clean running water; we must purchase truck-loads of water for the laundry, washing dishes, and bathing. All the laundry is done by hand every day. We purchase huge jugs of clean, safe drinking water for the kids. In the scorching heat of Haiti, the kids drink a lot of water. In 2016, we also purchased, thanks to another special donation, a used car which made life immeasurably easier; the 16-year-old Honda allowed us to transport kids to the hospital and the doctor, and also let us shop for food in larger supermarkets which offer a greater variety of food for less money. We tracked the cost of food and essential supplies for the last six weeks of 2016; we are spending an average of $150 a day to feed the kids and staff.
While our focus is on children, at least a half dozen mothers of the children spent much of the day at Santa Chiara, where they are busy making clothing for the children; we are teaching them a craft that hopefully will allow them to earn some money. A few of the women actually live at Santa Chiara, helping with the kids at night. We gave two women who were prostitutes’ large coolers, ice, and money to purchase juice and fruit which they sell on the streets. An Ursuline nun wants to help us become a training center for women; she will provide us with educational material and train our staff how to run the program. The same sister will be installing a water purification system at Santa Chiara in the near future.
The hardest part (and the most expensive part) of operating the center for the first two years has been all the travel back and forth between our home in Los Angeles and Haiti. At the dawn of 2017, Ecarlatte decided to effectively life full time in Haiti…at the center. We have also adopted three of the kids, who live with us on the second floor of the new facility in Haiti. We gave up our rented home in California, dumped most of our possession and rented a small apartment in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Ecarlatte needs to return to the States at least once every three months to maintain her permanent resident status. We also need to have access to medical care. It will now be possible for us to return to Florida once in a while for need breaks and time alone together. Our work in Haiti is literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We began 2017, with less than two months operating funds on hand. I estimate it will take $165,000 to operate the Santa Chiara Children’s Center through the end of 2017. We greatly appreciate all donations, no matter how small. Anything you can give would be a great blessing. If you are able to help us to continue to care for our kids, the check needs to be made out to Pax et Bonum Communications and mailed to our Florida address; just note “Haiti” or “Santa Chiara” on the memo line. Donations can also be made on this website. We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation. All of the donations to Santa Chiara go directly to Haiti to support the health and well-being of the children. We greatly appreciate any help you can offer.
Pax et Bonum Communications will continue to be a prophetic voice speaking out on behalf of those who are poor. I will continue to give presentations at churches and schools in which I’ll utilize our vast library of over 20 films that promote Catholic social justice teachings, as well as getting the message out through my blog and future books.
Pax et Bonum Communications, Inc.
Santa Chiara Children’s Center
P.O. Box 970
Ft. Pierce, FL 34954
Santa Chiara Children’s Center
Delmas 33, Prolonge St. Clare, 24
A 501(c)3 Nonprofit Corporation