Rescuing Haitian children while scraping for cash

Like many young women away from home, Morgan Wienberg needs money. But the 20-year-old, who hails from Whitehorse, isn't hoping her mother, Karen, sends her cash to cover school and groceries.

Like many young women away from home, Morgan Wienberg needs money. But the 20-year-old, who hails from Whitehorse, isn’t hoping her mother, Karen, sends her cash to cover school and groceries.

At least not for her. She needs the money for her growing family.

Wienberg co-founded a charity in Haiti called Little Footprints, Big Steps. The organization works to bring children off the streets in the impoverished country. If possible, Wienberg reunites them with their families.

Many children who are “orphans” in Haiti actually have at least one parent living. Often, children live on the streets because their parents can’t afford to take care of them. She also has a safehouse where the children, mostly boys, can stay.

Fifteen to 20 boys spend their days in the pink-and-cream coloured building in Les Cayes, six hours south of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Another 29 live there permanently. Almost half of these stay there with their families.

The boys attend school, and learn trades, like mechanics, or take sewing classes. Every week, they attend a sleepover at the nearby church.

Wienberg first visited Haiti in 2010 when she interned with Mission of Hope Haiti. She returned several times in 2011 to volunteer at an orphanage. But when she saw how the woman who ran the orphanage abused the children, and how the children didn’t always benefit from international aid, she knew she had to do more.

Wienberg began rescuing children from the orphanage. In December 2011, she opened a safehouse. This past December, the organization celebrated its first birthday.

Like any parent, Wienberg has experienced the joys and frustrations that come with raising children. There is no typical day – she helps the boys get ready for school at 6:30 a.m. and only finds quiet in the evening, after they’ve all settled down.

And she is a parent. Last year, Wienberg became the legal guardian of Crezilov, a boy she met when she spent time talking with children on the streets. In July, he was illiterate. Now, he shows her pages of French words he’s written – in cursive handwriting. He finished his first term of school with marks just above average, but now the 15-year-old is skipping ahead to Grade 2. Other children are making progress with their writing, too. Some have borrowed the cook’s cellphone to send Morgan text messages when she’s away in Port-au-Prince. “It’s kind of funny.”

Maxine, 16, came to the safehouse shortly after Hurricane Sandy hit the island this past fall. He has a good relationship with his family, and will be returning to live with them soon, said Wienberg. Maxine plays soccer on the weekends, and his coaches say he’s good enough to go to Venezuela to study with international coaches for two weeks. But that would cost over $1,000, and money isn’t something the organization has a lot of right now.

There’s not a lot of funding sources available, said Karen Wienberg, Morgan’s mother and one of the directors of the organization. Some foundations don’t allow charities to apply to them directly, she said. Others don’t fund projects in Haiti. Little Footprints, Big Steps isn’t eligible for other grants because, although it’s a registered Canadian charity, it doesn’t operate in Canada.

“It’s really frustrating that we can’t find grants to apply for,” Karen said.

This year’s budget is just under $150,000, she said. All of that money goes to the children. Morgan does not collect a salary, said her mother. Most donations come through monthly sponsors or donors at one-time events. But the charity still doesn’t have any core funding that provides a stable source of revenue.

And it’s going to need it.

Morgan also worries about being able to provide for the children. She wants them to grow up in a safe place, to get an education and learn trades, but also to have a place to play. Where they live now, they’re “glued together with a lot of other houses,” she said.

In November, the organization found another safehouse that meets their needs. They have a three-year lease on the building. It’s outside the city, but close enough the boys to ride their bikes to school.

A river is nearby. The yard has mango and coconut trees. Eventually, Wienberg hopes to raise chickens in the yard, and have a tent where they can teach the boys more trades.

But no one can move until the security wall around the yard is finished. And since the families and girls staying in the safehouse won’t be leaving, there will be two safehouses to run.

Moving and money are the least of Wienberg’s worries. More than anything, she wants the children to know she loves them. Because she’s experienced the greatest pain any mother can.

Last month, Judelin, one of the first boys she met, died in her arms at a private hospital. He had Hepatitis B. The doctor said it was chronic. He would have turned 17 in July.

When she met him about a year ago, Judelin was living on the streets. Silent and aggressive, he didn’t want to leave. She was told to not even work with him, but she did. He came to the safehouse, but he didn’t stay. In May, he had to leave because he was too aggressive. Wienberg rented another home where he could live. Before he died, he was “super cuddly.” He told Wienberg that she was like his mother.

“I don’t get discouraged easily,” Wienberg said. But it’s been hard.

Instead of relaxing at the computer, she sits and cuddles with the children, letting them stroke her hair, hoping they know how much she loves them. And the boys have told her they’ll sing to her whenever she gets sad, she said.

Their support shows her how much they’ve matured, she said.

Karen always wanted her children to follow their passions. And while it would have been easier if her daughter loved knitting or playing the piano, she knows Haiti isn’t a passing phase for Morgan. “I can’t see her sort of entering mainstream Canada,” she said with a laugh.

Instead, she hopes her daughter finds peace of mind for her birthday this week. She’s been working on a campaign to have people donate $21 in honour of Morgan’s 21st birthday on Friday.

The new safehouse could be ready for the weekend, and that would be a pretty great birthday present as well, said Morgan. But even if it isn’t, her celebration plans remain simple: to drink a lot of coffee and, a rare event, go to the beach with the children.

Two of the boys may sing her a duet. “That would be a pretty nice birthday,” she said.

She knows her life has turned out differently than many of her peers back in Canada. But she doesn’t think about it often. “I’m pretty happy with the choices I’ve made and what I’ve done with her life,” she said, moments after the boys returned from school and gave her kisses.

To find out more information or donate, visit www.littlefootprintsbigsteps.com or email Karen Wienberg at karenwienberg@gmail.com.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at

mgillmore@yukon-news.com

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