Shelley in Haiti
My family and I had been in Haiti for a month when I heard a familiar voice call out as I walked in the gate. “Hey, Shelley, you want a baby?”
Yes, I did want a baby, a Haitian baby, though my husband and I already had two young biological children, a daughter and a son, almost five and two respectively. We’d set up house in an evangelical orphanage to be of help to the community as we began the search and rigors of adoption and our attempts to be part of the solution of the orphan crisis in Haiti.
Phillip, a massive security guard at the main house of the orphanage, was sitting under the one tree across the barren orphanage yard and boomed his question with a smirk and a shrug. It was a joke, in a way. Beside him stood one more mother, paralyzed by poverty, in despair, who had no choice but to give away her baby boy with the hope that someone could provide a future with nourishment, clothes, and compassion. She was full of love, but otherwise all she had to offer was her breast milk. Cruelly, the more she allowed her child to suckle, the more her own body was depleted.
I might not have met this woman had I not been desperate for interaction with adults. Divine intervention had brought me there that day. My husband Corrigan was gone all day teaching at a missionary school so that we could afford to enroll our daughter there. I was alone in a two-story, four-bedroom house that was part of the orphanage enclave. Our family was in tight quarters, all of us sharing one bedroom upstairs, which had its own bathroom, and on any given day the floor that we occupied was a play and sleeping space for about thirty kids who had been abandoned because of poverty. Downstairs another fifty children fought, laughed, and clung to life in the overcrowded spare rooms that were used as classrooms during the day.
August had been a hot month that demanded some serious adjustments. The running water at the orphanage was sporadic, and electricity was available only at night when the city power grid kicked in. During the day, we made do with a small inverter and packs of lousy car-sized batteries that stored the night-time power and kept a fan or two running and maybe a light on in the bathroom.
That summer I had my first encounter with bed bugs and developed a deep level of sympathy for the people who had to live with the critters. Survival required buying a crazy kind of over-the-counter poison that you spray all over your mattress. I’m sure the product would be illegal in the United States, but I was grateful to lie in my bed of toxic poison rather than be eaten alive at the end of a long, hot day.
Sweltering temperatures were so relentless we had to shower several times a day. Regardless of our attempts at perfect hygiene, my two preschoolers still managed to contract impetigo, a contagious bacterial skin infection with pustules and crusty sores. My fate was a giardia intestinal infection, which came with abdominal cramps, bloating, nausea, and cycles of diarrhea. Poor sanitation and untreated water meant we all got sick, on and off, during our first year in Haiti.
On that day, I’d locked up our one room in the boy’s part of the orphanage and walked about four blocks to the main orphanage building, where babies and girls were housed. The roads were not paved, so the air was filthy with dust. It caked your body and oral cavity, making your tongue feel as if it had been painted with sludge.
As I approached my destination, my dress sopping with sweat, I could see the broken tricycles and other playthings in the beat-up yard. Donated toys and clothes don’t last long. Curiosity and lack of familiarity would have the children popping the heads off the dolls and taking apart the big wheels and bicycles that were given by big-hearted, short-term missionaries. Donated toys that had value would be traded with neighbors for things they couldn’t get inside their four walls. Bartering would get them a chance to borrow a cellphone to call home or a few days to play with a neighbor’s old Nintendo DS.
I could already smell the stench of bleach and detergent from the backyard of the orphanage, where children were bathed and soiled diapers and clothes were hand-washed in basins and clothes were hung to dry. A sour odor hung in the air. That’s when I heard Phillip’s call.
Altagrace Brissius, twenty-four years old, was slender and taller than most Haitian women I knew. She was about 5’6”. She wore a jean skirt and worn-out loafers, and she carried a handbag that was obviously purchased second hand on the street. Skirts were necessary for women so that they could discreetly use the bathroom in a city with no public places to relieve themselves. She would not make eye contact; she stared at the ground, her shoulders slumped—the posture of numb hopelessness.
But in her arms she held a beautiful baby boy. He was six weeks old. For me, it was love at first sight.
“Who is this, Phillip? What is her situation?” I asked. “Where’s the father?”
Born in Haiti but raised in America and then deported for undisclosed brushes with the law, Phillip spoke perfect English. I had not yet learned Creole, the French-based language of the island, so I needed him to be my go-between.
As Phillip questioned the mother, his muscular body making him an imposing figure, my eyes stayed on the baby boy.
“She has a few other kids out in the province,” he said.
I knew that the province meant the countryside, anywhere outside of Port Au Prince.
“As soon as this baby was conceived, the father abandoned her. She’s homeless. Shelter at night is in an abandoned building. The rest of the time—”
The rest of the time she endured eviscerating heat waves throughout the day as she wandered aimlessly with her baby looking for food for herself that would keep her milk supply up and give her the energy to make it another day.
“She has no food and no way to take care of the baby,” he said.
Finally, at a breaking point, Altagrace had no other choice but to approach the orphanage and ask if she could leave her baby. The director was on an errand, so we sat in silence and waited. It gave me a moment to sit and digest this horrific situation.
The baby started to cry, and Altagrace became flustered. I was still nursing my son, Zebedee, and mother-to-mother, I knew what he needed. I motioned for her to feed her boy.
I fought back tears. A child at his mother’s breast. The last time they would be close and connected. I had not yet developed the thick skin that Haiti would later teach me.
When the orphanage director returned, she listened to Altagrace’s story and agreed to take the baby, but not until Altagrace delivered the birth certificate so that the proper paperwork could be processed for eventual adoption. Unfortunately, the documents were quite some distance from the city. She would need money for transportation. The director gave her funds and against protocol accepted the child before the documents were in hand.
Altagrace handed her boy to the director, walked past Phillip, and stopped just short of the gate to the orphanage. She glanced back, then her head fell and she wept. Moments later she was gone, lost in the daily despair and noise of the city.
I could not bear it.
If I had met her several years later things would have been different. By then I had established a company that taught Haitian mothers artisan skills so that they earned a monthly income that exceeded the ghastly minimum wage in this battered nation. There are no poor children in Haiti, only poor parents who cannot afford to raise children. The Apparent Project was created to reverse that heartbreaking reality. After all, lack of love was not the problem. If we could teach marketable skills, mothers could afford to feed, clothe, and keep their babies.
After Altagrace left, the baby started crying again. He was hungry and probably felt the loss of his lifeline. I did what seemed most natural, but to those around me probably seemed crazy. I still had mother’s milk, so I raised the baby boy to my breast and nursed him.
The next day and the rest of the week, I returned to the main house and I nursed him more. Soon, he got the hang of feeding from a bottle and assumed his position in a crib with other babies in the orphanage.
Despite my effort to keep a close eye on him, the infant began to falter. Within six weeks, he had been hospitalized twice and had dwindled from a heathy breast-fed baby to a bloated malnourished child with spindly arms and legs—classic starvation signs.
“What’s wrong?” I pleaded with the doctors and nurses at the hospital where he had been taken. “He is being fed. Why is he losing weight?”
Even while hooked up to IVs, he was struggling to stay alive. The monitors and IV lines made it so that I couldn’t even hold him. All I could do was take his small feet in my hands and kiss them.
I had to do something. So, after a few days in the hospital, once he was stabilized again and discharged, I asked the orphanage director if I could take him under my direct care. She agreed.
My thoughts went back to the moment I first saw him in his mother’s arms and how she had trusted us with him.
“What’s his name?” I remember asking her as I gently touched the top of his head, covered in soft curly black hair.
She said it like it was a proclamation.
His mother had named him. She couldn’t keep him, and although he has been my son ever since the day he came home from his brush with death, he carries the name that she gave to him.
A visit to the best pediatrician I could find in Haiti led us to the discovery that he was lactose intolerant. The lack of attention with overworked nannies and dozens of babies in cribs in the orphanage had caused him to be overlooked. The bottles that had been prepared for him and placed in his crib with him, propped up by blankets, did nothing for him as he vomited the lactose that his little body could not digest. I bought him a special lactose-free formula and he began to thrive again.
Jackson is a fighter. He survived. There were several babies in the orphanage that year who did not make it.
Still, the ordeal of losing his mother and nearly his life has left its mark on my son. His struggles are ongoing. What his little heart had to endure at the very beginning was nearly unbearable. I have tried to help heal the emotional wounds and remain undeniably smitten and enraptured with him. I am grateful for the privilege of being Jackson’s mom, which became official when he turned four years old and the adoption was finalized.
Some pain, however, never goes away. I have spent the last nine years searching for Altagrace.
“I’m sad I don’t know my mother,” Jackson says. “Do you think she will be happy to see me one day?”
The paradox pains me. I am his mother only because Altagrace did not have the means to raise her son. At night, when Jackson has finally fallen into a deep sleep, I go outside and look at the stars. Sometimes I speak out loud, other times I just pray.
“Wherever you are, Altagrace, I want you to know that your son is amazing and so very loved. Thank you.”
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ByCami L. Franklinon September 7, 2017
What an amazing read! A perfect combination of truth and compassion concerning Haiti and the orphan crisis. Full of both the joys and hardships of working with the poor in Haiti through her own personal stories. Definitely a MUST READ! Don’t forget your tissues. I read it in about 5 hours as I couldn’t put it down. Each story leaving you wanting more.