While most of us loll around and gorge on sweets this holiday, Morgan Wienberg will continue to be living her dream in Haiti – rescuing child slaves, reuniting children with their families and plumping up the malnourished.
So if you happen to have some holiday coin you’d like to donate to a worthy cause, the 19-year-old Whitehorse resident humbly suggests the charity she’s just set up.
It’s called Little Footprints, Big Steps.
It runs a newly opened safe house in southern Haiti for children rescued from the streets or from mistreatment and neglect at orphanages.
Wienberg decided to create the organization after two important realizations following her several humanitarian stints in the poor Caribbean country.
The first was that most so-called orphans in Haiti are no such thing.
Some were abandoned by parents who couldn’t afford to care for them. Others were given up because parents believed they’d have a better life, including education, under an orphanage’s care.
“The general perspective of parents in Haiti is that orphanages are wealthy and your child will have a lot more opportunity,” she said.
But in reality she discovered that many of the children in orphanages lived under appalling conditions. This led to her second realization – orphanages could be part of the problem rather than the solution.
Across Haiti, child abuse and neglect is occurring on a massive scale, said Wienberg. She’s convinced that some orphanages are complicit with this.
As Wienberg told a crowd in Montreal last month at the TEDxMcGill conference: “Thousands of children in Haiti are being beaten, burned, sold, used as slaves, kicked onto the streets and completely exploited … and their parents have no idea.”
Hence Wienberg’s new venture.
The aim of Little Footprints, Big Steps is to reunite Haitian orphans with their families when possible, and to otherwise ensure they find a permanent home where they’re cared for and able to attend school.
During her two previous trips, Wienberg spent much of her time at Orphelinat Bon Samaritan, just north of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Scabies, ringworm and other infectious diseases flourished for lack of clean water. Children ate meagre diets, often consisting of little more than a bowl of protein-fortified rice each day.
Girls slept indoors but were lucky to have a mattress to sleep on. Teen boys, meanwhile, slept outdoors on nothing more than a piece of cardboard, without blankets, jackets or socks.
Wienberg did what she could to improve conditions at the site. She worked to ensure the kids received mangos or at least vitamin C supplements. She’d occasionally rustle up chicken or fish as a treat. And she arranged to have potable water trucked to the orphanage.
But she came to realize the orphanage wasn’t the best place for many children – particularly the older ones who often became de facto childcare workers because the orphanage was run by an elderly woman with no staff.
Wienberg reunited several orphans with their families. The parents, she said, were horrified to learn of the appalling conditions their children had lived in.
But she knew she was staring at a bigger problem.
Wienberg had enrolled children in school, using charitable donations and her own money. But she alleges that the orphanage’s owner later confiscated the children’s uniforms and pocketed their tuition.
The physical abuse of some children was disturbing. Wienberg saw a four-year-old girl being beaten with a metal rod for wetting the bed. The girl, understandably, became terrified of urinating.
She also met an 11-year-old girl who had been sold by her family as a slave. The girl had been beaten by her owners so badly with a piece of sugar cane that her shoulder bone stuck out from her skin and remained that way for several months.
Authorities in Haiti tend to turn a blind eye to child abuse, focusing instead on fighting the trafficking of child slaves. But public concern about the state of some orphanages in Haiti has grown enough that Morgan’s new outfit enjoys government support, she said.
The ultimate aim of her organization is to help strengthen Haitian families so that parents aren’t tempted to give up their children in the first place.
“We need to be building stronger families and communities, not just institutions,” said Wienberg. “Families don’t really have any support. There aren’t social services or anything like that.”
To that end, she plans to provide reunited families with fruit trees to help provide them with an income.
Two 18-year-old girls, rescued by Wienberg, now have part-time childcare jobs at the safe house, “which they’d been doing their whole life, without being paid.”
Wienberg quickly bonded with Haitian orphans during her first visit. She’d sleep with them at night, undeterred by the scabies she acquired. Helping them out quickly became her personal quest.
“They are absolutely the most important thing in my life,” she said.
Wienberg calls them “her kids.” It’s not unusual for them to call her “Mom.”
She’s on intimate terms with approximately 80 of them. They range in age from one and a half to 19 but most are between three and four or 12 and 13.
“What I want to find, more than anything in the world, is long-term sponsors for my children,” said Wienberg.
Sponsors can feed a child a month for $30 while $65 can help cure malnourishment.
A year’s education can be covered for $90 to $300.
Donations can be made online or money dropped off for Wienberg at the Alpine Bakery or call her mother Karen at 456-4434.
Contact John Thompson at