A Place for Kids to Be Kids: An Overview of the Santa Chiara Children’s in Haïti
by Gerard Thomas Straub
My friend Fr. John Dear taught me about the importance of nonviolence. We spent many days together in his desert hermitage in New Mexico before I embarked upon making a film (The Narrow Path) about his life’s mission. When I made the decision a few years ago to stop making films on poverty and to begin actually living among the poor, I knew that the primary rule for the home for abandoned kids I founded in Haiti would be that violence in any form, whether verbal or physical, would not be tolerated.
Our home is in the midst of a slum in the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince where violence is part of the fabric of life. We often hear the sound of gunfire beyond our walls at night. Many of our kids have suffered unthinkable violence in the form of brutal beatings by their parents; some kids have been sexually abused.
For me, it was not enough to feed and care for the children living in our home. The home had to be a place of peace and nonviolence, a place where the kids would learn to live together in harmony. Feeding a hungry kid is easy. Changing violent patterns in their lives is an arduous task.
Pope Francis said: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” In our humble, very limited way, I see the Santa Chiara Children’s Center as a kind of field hospital for kids. We currently have 54 children living with us; 13 of them are still in diapers. Our children range in age from eight months to 14 years; 39 are girls, 15 are boys.
It is challenging and exhausting work. Our kids come to us weary from their battle with extreme poverty, constant hunger, emotional neglect, and often physical abuse. They came wounded in many ways. Often the kids who are brought to us have stories of unimaginable abuse and they have the physical and emotional scars that come from cruel beatings.
One child was brought to us on the verge of starvation; she was virtually skin and bones; and to further complicate her recovery, she was also HIV+. Our kids not only come to us hungry and often very sick, but many also come bearing deep psychological wounds and feel a deep sense of isolation and abandonment.
The most important thing we can do is offer them a genuine embrace of love. Then, step by step, we feed them, clothe them, tend to their medical needs, offer them an education, and give them a chance to feel what it is like to live in a place where verbal and physical violence is strictly forbidden. For the first time in their lives, the kids feel safe and wanted.
Fifteen of our kids attend public school; we cover the cost of the school fees and uniforms. In the summer of 2017, we built a simple, one-room schoolhouse to accommodate the kids who are unable to attend an external school because they have never been to school and can’t even read or write. We have three teachers on staff, two for the older children, and one teaches kindergarten. We have a staff of 29 Haitians, including a part-time nurse and a mechanic who keeps our 20-year-old car running. Few of our neighbors have indoor plumbing and the electrical power is out for many hours a day.
When my Haitian wife, Ecarlatte, and I began this new ministry in May 2015. We had no real plan. We simply rented a small apartment in a slum, and waited to see what would happen as we learned to understand how best to help children. It didn’t take long before we had a dozen kids coming for breakfast and lunch every day. Among those we feed were twin boys just over one year old who walked around the slum naked. Last November, we covered the cost of both of them spending a month in the hospital.
Besides feeding the kids who showed up at our door, we shared our small three-room apartment with a homeless woman and her three young daughters. Two other young girls who lived in a one-room shack began living with us when the floor of their parent’s shack became a sea of mud during a prolonged storm. We had one bathroom. After eight months, we moved to a larger facility. By early 2016 we had 22 kids living with us and another 50 who came for the day. By the end of 2016 we had outgrown that second home and moved to new home in a much poorer and more dangerous area.
Over the years, I’ve shared the heartbreaking stories of most of the kids in my daily Journal which is sent to my supporters. Many of the stories are very hard to read. For instance, the mother of one 13-year-old girl forced her to become a prostitute.
I’ll share just one recent and short introduction to a girl who came to us in early December 2017. Her name is Naïve and she is 11 years old. Hers is a truly tragic story. Her mother was only 18 years old when she gave birth to Naïve. A year later, the mother died. The father earned a very meager living as a fare collector on a tap-tap. He was shot in the head and killed in Cité Soleil when he was 26 years old. Naïve was raised for the last ten years by her now very old grandmother, who beat the child for very minor offenses. The grandmother can no longer care for Naïve. Another old woman is a friend of the grandmother’s and she convinced the grandmother, who lives in Cité Soleil (the oldest, largest, and most dangerous slum in Haiti), to let her take the child to us. The woman has brought us other children in the past and she greatly admires how we care for the children. Naïve is an orphan with no one to care for her.
In May 2018, we’ll have completed three years of serving poor kids in Port-au-Prince. It is a true blessing to be part of transforming the lives of all the children living at the Santa Chiara Children’s Center, as well as the seven kids who come for the day. We’re teaching the kids to respect each other and to live in peace and harmony while caring for the weakest among them. The kids are teaching me about the importance of self-emptying love and how each of us is wounded in different ways and we are each in need of mercy and compassion.
Peace and blessings,
Pax et Bonum Communications
P.O. Box 970 • Ft. Pierce, FL 34954
Santa Chiara Children’s Center
Delmas 33, Prolonge St. Clare, 24 • Port-au-Prince, Haiti
PS: Funding for our home in Haiti will run out by the end of February. We really can use your help in keeping the Santa Chiara Children’s Center open. Checks should me made out to Pax et Bonum Communications; simply note “Haiti” or “Santa Chiara” on the memo line. It is also possible to donate on-line at either of our two websites. Checks should be mailed to the Florida address. Your help will be greatly appreciated.