|A former Baton Rougean fights child slavery with a new school and outreach in Haiti|
Two rows of beaten, brown-dust tire tracks curved long past the young girl, the only living thing standing atop Bellevue Mountain—save for a scattering of twisted trees, their limbs sagging and gaping in holes like dandelions blown to death.
Down the grassy slope were other trees, too, and beneath those, tents, the flapping fabric homes of thousands of poverty-stricken residents of Gressier, a sprawling, loose-knit township west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
All around the girl were rocks, and circling above her, a bird. She scooped up a rock, leapt as high as her rail-thin legs could spring her and hurled it toward the sound of the flapping of wings.
This was the first time Megan Boudreaux, then 24, laid eyes on her daughter.
What are you doing? Boudreaux asked the small Haitian girl through a translator.
Her name is Michaelle.
I'm throwing rocks at the bird because I'm hungry, she replied without hesitation, without any of the fear of foreigners, of the “Blancs,” that Megan had seen on the faces and in the voices of the girl's neighbors, her elders.
And I'm going to eat it, Michaelle added.
After three days of downing Clif bars in her room and feeling like this was all a big mistake, Boudreaux says God told her to go to the top of the mountain and wait. There was Michaelle.
This was nearly two years ago, just after Boudreaux had sold most of her belongings and left Baton Rouge and her post at the Our Lady of the Lake Foundation to establish a school in Haiti, the earthquake-rattled nation with the world's highest poverty rate at 77%.
According to a September Fox Business report, more than 80% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day.
But it wasn't until Boudreaux met her future daughter that she realized just how much the people of Gressier, both young and old, were in desperate need—of education, of opportunity, of hope.
“Why is Michaelle all alone and starving?” Boudreaux thought that early morning on top of Bellevue.
“Where are her parents?”
When something is as pervasive as it is abhorrent, a euphemism can really take root. The half million orphaned Haitian children forced to work laborious hours in the homes of their overseers are casually called restaveks, which literally means “one who stays with” in French.
No mere houseguest, Michaelle was a restavek, and like her, most suffering in this systemic strike against human rights are sold into servitude or simply stolen away from their parents.
The United Nations has deemed it a modern form of slavery, but still the abuse is rampant and overlooked by many in the country that photographer and longtime Haiti documentarian Lynne Warberg recently described to National Geographic as “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant and 100% voodoo.”
What began in January 2011 when Boudreaux met Michaelle and founded a humble school with 97 students in a small, one-room church has now caught the attention and support of Haiti's president. It's brought Boudreaux face to face with a gun-wielding child trafficker and blossomed into a multi-faceted renaissance called Respire Haiti. The organization is spurring education and economic growth and working to put an end to the restavek culture of a depressed region that sits just an hour-and-a-half flight from Miami.
“The need was so great,” Boudreaux says. “We had 5-year-olds signing themselves up for school.”
It was Boudreaux's Christian faith and a string of seemingly random opportunities that led the 26-year-old Respire Haiti founder to the center of this ambitious movement.
A college mission trip to Uganda, where she worked with infants, gave her a passion for children.
A marketing job for Lane Grigsby at Cajun Industries gave her a working knowledge of construction. “I didn't even know what rebar was before that,” she says.
An opportunity with Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana taught her the legal, educational and prevention aspects of child rights issues.
A post-earthquake medical mission trip with Our Lady of the Lake first led her to Haiti.
“It was this progression,” Boudreaux says. “I didn't go over there thinking, 'Let me start this huge thing.' I was just being obedient.”
That obedience allowed her to master Haiti's Creole patois in little more than a month, raise funds to purchase more than 6.5 acres of land on Bellevue Mountain and make herself the key piece of a sting operation to arrest one of Gressier's most malicious orphan keepers and child traffickers, a man who had tried to sell Gabriel, a 3-year-old suffering from malaria, to her for a few thousand dollars.
“This guy walked around with a gun,” Boudreaux recalls. “The orphanage was awful. Everyone called it 'Hell on Earth.'”
When the owner was arrested but the orphanage allowed to remain open under the operation of the keeper's wife, Boudreaux contacted child rights groups back in the U.S. who launched a petition. One day and thousands of signatures later, state officials summoned Boudreaux to a meeting in nearby Port-au-Prince. There, Boudreaux met Sophia Martelly, the First Lady of Haiti and wife of recently elected President Michel Martelly—a renowned musician and Wyclef Jean collaborator known as “Sweet Micky.”
Boudreaux described the conditions of the orphanage to her in great detail: the scabies, the lice, the “bathroom” corner covered in excrement. The intimidation, the neglect and the selling of children.
She had taken notes every time she ventured inside to bring Gabriel out to the hospital or to her home.
“I think [Martelly] knew, but she and her husband had only been in office 10 months, so it was almost an in-your-face, 'You need to do something,' moment,” Boudreaux says. “She acted on it.”
Haitian authorities closed the orphanage the following day, and since then, 11 more have been shuttered, their operators investigated and the orphans relocated to better caregivers.
“She's fearless—like a Biblical character,” says George Cramer, a member of the Chapel on the Campus who has been to Haiti with groups of Baton Rougeans to build furniture and playgrounds and paint classrooms at the school. “Megan has put herself in danger to stop the worst abuses of orphans in that country.”
Cramer, a hydrogeologist for Arcadis, has traveled the world and says he's never seen children taken advantage of like they are in Haiti.
“Even in Egypt where you have young children working in factories, at least they go home at night to their families,” he says.
Thanks to Boudreaux, now Michaelle does have a family to go home to. Boudreaux adopted the 8-year-old last year. During that process, the new mother discovered that Michaelle's birth mother's death certificate referred to her passing in the presence of a husband and two daughters.
Boudreaux tracked down ?Jessica, now 5, and held a tear-filled reunion for the sisters.
Legal red tape keeps Boudreaux's girls in Haiti while she travels the U.S. to fundraise for Respire Haiti—she's been three times in 2012—but paper hearts scrawled with “We missed you!” and “Welcome home, Momma” await her in Gressier along with their little creators.
Respire Haiti began this fall with 530 students and 60 faculty and staff working out of two school buildings and a medical clinic with a full-time nurse and dentist. The school was designed by Kyle Fishburn, a 26-year-old Los Angeles native and architect who studied Third World design at the University of Colorado.
Boudreaux met Fishburn last year and asked him to be the lead builder and project manager for the school's facilities.
“Megan is quite a visionary,” Fishburn says. “She's keen at understanding how to put the pieces together and making sure that there are good people around her to help. Her ability to court smart, driven Haitians has been absolutely key to the success that we have had with obtaining land and progressing so quickly.”
As extensions of Respire Haiti's fast-growing school, Boudreaux and Fishburn are planning for a future computer lab and library, a Haitian-run bakery and a chicken farm.
Each week Boudreaux's feeding program provides meals to more than 700 locals, while Fishburn's construction projects employ 120 or more Haitians every month.
Building relationships and engaging natives with outreach programs like these are essential, Boudreaux believes, to changing the collective mindset of the restavek culture and child abuse.
Through education and workforce training, Boudreaux's team is beginning to gain the respect and support of the entire Gressier community as more Baton Rougeans volunteer their time and resources to the effort.
“The biggest reason for a thriving Respire Haiti is not because the leadership is young, and has boundless energy, though they are and they do,” says Luke Ash, a Baton Rouge musician who volunteered with the group earlier this year. “The reason Respire is thriving and growing and doing unbelievable things is because Megan has tapped into something that God is already doing.”
With every meal cooked, every orphan educated and every skill passed on through Respire Haiti, the deep-rooted distrust of “Blancs” and the view that children are slaves is washing away.
“They see we're not there to just build a school real quick and leave,” Boudreaux says. “We're big on teaching to fish instead of handing out fish. It's about being sustainable.” respirehaiti.org
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