MAXWELL:  A rich experience in a poor country

4/25/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Whoever stereotyped Gen-Xers as being apathetic, laconic, lazy and unfocused have not met Eckerd College students Christie Biggs, Daphne Macfarlan, Maria Manteiga, Patricia Manteiga, Tammy Olivier and Taryn Sabia. For the last two Januarys, while many others of their generation went about their business on campus, these six were placing themselves in harm’s way to help 26 orphans near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Eckerd, a private liberal arts college, has fall and spring semesters, with January as a winter term sandwiched between. Instead of taking courses on campus, these young women decided to use the winter term to establish an independent study program in a foreign country.

Haiti was easily accessible. The parents of Maria and Patricia Manteiga, who let the students live with them in Port-au-Prince during the project, belong to the United States Foreign Service and have been stationed in Haiti for the last two years. Wanting to work in a social service setting, the students contacted a colleague of the adult Monteigas who told them about La Fraternite De Notre Dame Orphanage operated by an order of nuns based in New York and France.

“We wanted to help people who really need our help, to take care of children and to demonstrate that, as little as it is, there is something everybody can do for a small part of the population,” Maria said.

By any measure, this “small part” is invaluable to the Haitian children and to the Eckerd students. When they first came to the orphanage in 1998, the Americans fell in love with the Haitian children, ages 1 through 15. But they had to adjust to daily existence in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.

In the dry months, a dusty riverbed separates the girls’ side of the orphanage from the boys’ side, a 45-minute walk in the hot Haitian sun between them.

The nuns, who came to Haiti years ago, had little intention of establishing a large-scale orphanage. But after the island’s poverty destroyed families, leaving children abandoned on the streets or curled up in the beds of pickup trucks, they established the facility. One severely malnourished boy, Joseph, was found tied to the back of a donkey, where he had cried for several hours before a passer-by notified the nuns.

On a typical day, the students begin the morning on the girls’ side of the orphanage. There, they spend about an hour playing with the children, singing and teaching English. Then, they walk to the boys’ side. There, they help construct new buildings that, when completed, will allow the girls and boys to share the same campus for the first time. In the afternoon, they return to the girls’ side, to play with the children and teach them.

The gentleness and innocence of the children have endeared them to the Eckerd students. Simple games, such as musical chairs, keep the children happy and away from the dangerous streets of Port-au-Prince.

“The high point of the trip is just working with the children,” Daphne said. “For me, going back this year was extra special because the kids recognized my face and could call my name. They just came up to us and started singing. It feels good to come back and see how the children and the orphanage are growing.”

The very presence of the Eckerd students has been central to the orphanage’s success. “The local Haitian community didn’t know that this orphanage existed when we first got there,” Daphne said. “Here we were, six light-haired, blue-eyed American girls running around Haiti. We stuck out, and people were asking, “Well, what are they doing? Why are they here?’ We had so much fun spreading the word in Haiti and back here on campus and in our hometowns. I went to my church last summer and raised over $1,000 for the orphanage.”

Indeed, several embassies in Port-au-Prince are donating money and personnel and have installed water pumps for the orphanage.

The students’ work does carry some risk. Although they live in the gated home of career diplomat Felipe Manteiga, the students’ safety is threatened by the government’s instability. Parliament has been dissolved, and new elections are not scheduled until 2001. Violent political protests regularly occur, forcing the students to stay inside for several days at a time.

They recall the day when they were strolling a few blocks from downtown and heard a huge crowd. The embassy radio, which they are required to carry whenever they are out, crackled as a security officer told them that more than 1,000 protesters were headed their way. Two minutes later, the crowd had grown to more than 2,000, then to more than 3,000.

“The security officer told us to get in our car, leave the area and go home,” Maria said. “The political turmoil put a lot of stress on us.”

“Many Haitians dislike Americans,” Daphne said. “They know what diplomatic cars are. They know your license plate, what kind of vehicle you travel in, the route you take to the office. We’re easily tracked.”

Despite the dangers, the students worked with the orphans as often as possible, absorbing the new culture. They were most impressed by the children’s love of learning. Patricia Manteiga recalls a boy who once wailed without pause all morning. At noon, a nun explained that he had made a lower score on a test than that of a younger boy.

“When I quizzed him on the test material, he knew everything and made no mistakes,” Patricia said. “He was so frustrated that someone else would do better than him. He wouldn’t eat lunch. The nun explained that education is such an amazing thing to them that if they had a holiday and didn’t have classes, they would ask the sisters why they were punishing them like this. What had they done to be grounded? They realize that they are lucky because the illiteracy rate in Haiti is incredible.”

The students say that their lives will never be the same after working with the orphans. Before going to Haiti, Maria, for example, had pretty much decided to complete a pre-med major. “The orphanage helped to make up my mind,” she said. “I now know that I want to work with children and make them happy, to be able to teach them on a daily basis. This is definitely a life-changing experience, as cliche as it sounds. I’m definitely thinking about joining the Peace Corps when I get out of college so that I can continue to work with children.”

Daphne, a marine sciences major, said: “It’s the same for me. There’s got to be a way of incorporating my major into something more people-oriented. The trip put everything in perspective. Everything that we take for granted _ from clean drinking water, to hot showers, to clean laundry, to having water to brush our teeth _ is stuff that these children don’t have on a regular basis. The little things. They teach you not to take what you have for granted _ ever.”