“If my mother was here,” Crezilov told Morgan Wienberg, “I would not be on the streets.”
Usually, Crezilov acted tough. But that night on the streets of Les Cayes, Haiti, he cried. His mother died when he was three. He has never met his father. He had lived with an aunt and uncle, but the uncle was abusive and Crezilov was being used as child labour. He had never attended school.
Wienberg had reunited the 15-year-old with his grandparents. But a week later, the 20-year-old Whitehorse native saw him again on the streets. She was discouraged.
And then one night he explained why he returned. His grandparents didn’t want him. They said they wouldn’t care if he died.
“If my mother was here,” he continued, “I would be at a school.”
So Wienberg solved the problem the best way she knew how: she became his mother.
Crezilov was the second child to come to the safehouse Wienberg operates through her charity Little Footprints, Big Steps. He now works with a tutor everyday. He has a sponsor. Last week, he started a mechanic apprenticeship. In March, Wienberg became his legal guardian until he turns 18.
She’s acted as a mother to many Haitian children for several years. Wienberg co-founded Little Footprints, Big Steps in 2011 with Sarah Wilson, a nurse who lives in Kitchener, Ont. The organization works to reunite children with their families and give them an education, food and a sustainable means of income.
They want to support families so children don’t have to live in orphanages. Most children in Haitian orphanages do have family. Many are there because their parents can’t afford to care for them, or because their parents believe they will receive an education there.
Wienberg met Wilson in the summer of 2010 when she interned with Mission of Hope Haiti. There, she visited an orphanage regularly. In February 2011, she returned to live at that orphanage, where she says she saw the elderly woman who ran it physically and verbally abuse children and take donations from them.
A mother returned for her son to learn that after nine years, the 12-year-old could not spell his name. Other parents were beaten when they returned for their children. One woman was unable to bathe herself for eight days after coming for her child. Other parents were told their children are no longer there.
Wienberg campaigned to have the orphanage shut. She began alerting authorities of abuses. By October 2011, social services and Save the Children agreed the orphanage needed to be closed.
But when Wienberg returned to Haiti in December, the orphanage was still operating. Local authorities didn’t know where the children would go, so Wienberg started a safehouse. She wanted the children to have a place where they could receive food, shelter and education before, if possible, returning to their families.
She’s been able to rescue 39 children from the orphanage. But she knows this woman could always leave and abuse children elsewhere. When removing children from the orphanage became too discouraging, she spent time with street children and started to offer them shelter.
Nineteen children live in the house and another five spend most of their days there. Thirteen used to live on the streets.
They used to view themselves as animals, says Wienberg. Now, they live in a seven-bedroom, three-kitchen “mansion” and play on the nearby soccer field. Except for Wienberg, all the staff and volunteers are Haitian. Two Haitian mothers live in the home with three children each. Another 10 street children have been reunited with their families.
Wienberg knows over 80 children who need homes. Many children choose to live on the streets but when they realize they don’t have to, everything changes.
Wienberg met Wathson before she opened the safehouse to street boys. The 17-year-old had lived on the streets for a year. She told him if he went home and took school seriously, she would support him. Wienberg was with him when he returned unannounced. Wathson’s mother is dead and his father is disabled.
There were only three months left of school when Wathson returned home. Determined, he walked two hours each way for over a month. He was never late. For a reward, Wienberg brought him a bike.
Whenever Wienberg spoke with him, he told her about his progress in school.
“If I do well on my exams, will you be proud of me?” he asked her.
“No matter what you do, I’ll be proud of you,” she replied. He never missed a day of school.
But Wienberg knows not every story ends this way. In April, Gladys, a seven-year-old girl, died at the orphanage where Wienberg used to live. She was a week from being reunited with her family. Her brothers had already been reunited with their father. When he saw his daughter’s body, Wienberg said, he knew she had been beaten. A 12-year-old boy told Wienberg she was the second child he’d seen die at the orphanage. “How is that an orphanage?” Wienberg asks.
Last month, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the woman that runs the orphanage. The charges against her are for child trafficking and murder, Wienberg says. The warrant is based on allegations from four Haitian parents, including the father of the girl who died in April. The woman has yet to be arrested.
Wienberg hopes to return to Haiti in September. She’s in Canada to raise money and awareness and allow the organization to become more independent with her gone. While a local couple donated her flights home and back, Wienberg fundraises the costs of operating the safehouse. The legal work to shut down the orphanage and arrest the owner has also been costly.
The local Rotary club is planning a fundraiser for the middle of September. Individuals can sponsor a child for $30 a month. A child can attend school for between $125 and $300 a year. In November, Wienberg hopes to start bringing people to Haiti to volunteer with the organization.
Wienberg will spend her time in Whitehorse and Montreal. She’s been accepted into the nursing program at McGill University, but has deferred to spend more time in Haiti. She’s taken online courses on child protection, and wants to focus more on social work.
She doesn’t imagine living in Canada permanently. “I really feel like I’m just visiting when I’m here,” she said.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at