PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — An old disc jockey would probably say “and the hits just keep on coming.”
But these “hits” are body blows to the tiny island nation of Haiti: Poverty, corruption, violence, earthquakes, hurricanes, and now COVID-19.
The worldwide pandemic poses new challenges for the 300 children plus adult staffers at Maison Fortune Orphanage. The biggest challenge: staying safe.
“The children are doing great despite all the problems, you know, [that] the whole world is having right now,” says Jean Louis LaFort, the orphanage director and founder.
The cost of personal protective gear took a toll on finances, most of which come from donations from four Catholic churches, and individual supporters, here in Hampton Roads.
Jean Louis says some children did show relatively mild symptoms of COVID-19, but were treated with “traditional” Haitian medicine, and soon recovered.
As for LaFort himself?
“Oh yeah, I was sick and I felt all the symptoms,” he said.
He says he was very ill. But, again, after some “traditional” Haitian medicine, which one of his American supporters says included rum, LaFort recovered.
“Three or four days [and] I was fine,” he said.
It’s not the pandemic that supporters, here in the U.S. are worried about, now. It’s finances.
“We’ve seen a substantial drop in our funding,” says Babs Zuhowski, who took over in 2019 as director of Maison Fortune Orphanage Foundation.
Students at Penn State and Seton Hall used to visit the orphanage every year. They’d stay for a week, sometimes longer, at the guest house on Maison Fortune’s campus. Those “stays” were a key source of income for Maison Fortune.
But LaFort says the Penn State students haven’t been to Haiti in four years. It’s likely due to fears of violence and political unrest.
Zuhowski overcame any fears and made her first visit to Hinche, about 50 miles north of Port au Prince, in 2019.
“I spent four to five days in the country meeting the children, seeing Haiti for the first time. And, it is shocking when you go to a third-world country and you’ve never been before, you have no idea the dire needs that are there, the things that we take for granted like electricity running water,” Zuhowski said.
Despite their dire needs, Zuhowski says she was amazed at how “beautiful” everyone was.
“They were kind to each other, loving to each other. The orphans that were there, the ones that had no family at all — we do have some children that have family — but they can’t afford or care for their children, and so they let them stay at the orphanage as a way to help them become better.”
Zuhowski says it costs more than $20,000 a month to house, feed and educate the nearly 300 children, age 4 to 23. Donations have dropped, at times, to about half that.
One of the biggest expenses, of course, is food: beans, rice, protein, meats, mango juice and other nutritious food. And, of course, pay for staff, including several teachers, and other support staff, including adults assigned to different student age groups.
23-year-old students? Zuhowski says those often did not start formal education until they were 10 years old for a variety of reasons, including staying home to help the family while the older child
works or attends school.
Zuhowski says the foundation is planning a major fundraiser in September, a “ball drop.” The previous one raised about $10,000. Details on the next event are forthcoming.
Meantime, as the pandemic eases, and the political situation in Haiti calms down, Zuhowski hopes
more people will visit Maison Fortune.
WAVY News 10’s Don Roberts did, along with his wife and several other adults and students
from St. Vincent de Paul Church in Newport News. The visit was everything Zuhowski said it was
for her. Except, Don was disappointed after one student beat him in a game of chess.
Don’s chess-playing student would probably be about 25 now.
Surprisingly, to an American, one of their biggest needs is raw materials. LaFort says they would love to receive supplies of wood. Zuhowski says supporters here have sent a cargo container loaded with goods recently. LaFort and his team picked it up at Port international du Cap-Haïtien
LaFort is hoping the next container will include raw wood – items like two-by-fours, and 4′ by 8′ sheathing. Native wood, even trees, are scarce in Haiti since many poor citizens burn it and use the ash for a variety of needs. LaFort says they would use the wood and teach the students how to build chairs, tables for the children who now must sit on a concrete slab under a rain-blocking canopy, while eating their meals.
Zuhowski hopes we’ll soon get past the pandemic and reopen our purses and wallets.