Yukoner Morgan Wienberg’s work has been getting a lot of attention over the last few months.
Wienberg, 22, runs an organization, called Little Footprints, Big Steps, that helps reunite Haitian street kids with their families, get an education and build a life for themselves.
She recently met a journalist with Thomson Reuters in Miami, and now her story is spreading all over the world, with articles not only in English but also in Spanish and Dutch.
“Most of our donations have been, in the past, from people we know or people from Yukon and New York, maybe, who heard me at the U.N.” said Wienberg in an interview from Miami this week. Wienberg spoke at the United Nations Youth Assembly in 2013.
“But now, to have people reaching out and encouraging me and some new donors, some new people interested in sponsorship from Uruguay and Hong Kong and Europe – it’s pretty incredible that these children who I just met and have told some people about, their stories are going so much further.”
Wienberg has been in Miami since April for a very special reason.
One of the kids she lives and works with in Haiti, Ysaac, needed to have a large tumour removed from his face, and Wienberg found some doctors who would do it for free, but they would have to travel.
Wienberg met Ysaac, 14, back in 2012, when she started a safe house for street kids in Les Cayes, Haiti.
Ysaac’s mother died when he was nine, and he spent the next three years on his own.
“During the earthquake – on his own on the streets,” said Wienberg. “During hurricanes, police beatings, all this, he was alone on the streets.”
He even paid for his mother’s funeral by begging on the streets.
The tumour on his face, giving him the appearance of someone with a puffed-out cheek on one side, was a blessing and a curse.
“It actually helped him make more money, while begging in the streets, but that made him a target for other street children,” she said.
“So he would be attacked while he was sleeping, have his pants slit or be cut open and attacked with knives and razors, or wake up and have all of his money stolen or the shoes taken off of his feet.”
When Wienberg began reaching out to Ysaac, he rarely responded with words.
“He would respond by screaming or shrieking or making some wild laughing noises or some animal noises and running around. And he wouldn’t let me get closer than an arm’s length.”
Things continued like this until one day, Wienberg visited Ysaac in the evening, several hours later than usual.
“He had this angry face and he said, ‘I thought you weren’t coming, and I cried.”
That moment was a breakthrough in Wienberg’s understanding of Ysaac, but a setback in their relationship.
“Being late that day was about five steps back in building his trust, and it took about a month to get back to where we were.”
But eventually Ysaac did move into the safe house. At first he would have frequent psychotic and violent outbursts, but after a few months of stability, “he just didn’t do that anymore.”
Now, he’s at the top of his class despite never having been to school before, and he’s one of the best behaved children that Wienberg works with.
“He’s really brilliant, and a perfectionist,” she said.
It took a year and a half to get the paperwork in order to bring Ysaac to Miami.
“I had to have his birth certificate made, I had to have a death certificate made for his mother, get the passport and the visa, I had to become his legal guardian,” said Wienberg.
Ysaac got his tumour removed in June. It turned out not to be cancerous, but it was 33 centimetres long and had started to invade his jaw muscle.
He will return to Miami next year for a second surgery to reconstruct his face.
Ysaac and Wienberg will return to Haiti on Monday.
It will be a bit of an adjustment for Ysaac, who has gotten used to being an only child, said Wienberg.
But she’s looking forward to it.
Work starts right away. Wienberg’s first business meeting will take place on the bus from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes, where she will discuss a partnership with an organization that is bringing community gardens and agricultural education to primary schools.
There’s something else to look forward to.
Wienberg’s work with Little Footprints, Big Steps sprang from the time she spent volunteering at a Haitian orphanage in 2011.
The orphanage was corrupt, and the owners would take aid money for themselves while exploiting and abusing the children, said Wienberg. Most were not orphans at all, and in fact in some cases had living parents who were trying to get them back.
All of Wienberg’s work since then has come from her desire to help those children and others like them.
After three years of advocacy, local authorities finally shut down the orphanage earlier this year.
“I can’t even explain what a dream come true it is to me,” said Wienberg.
With all the work getting Ysaac to Miami, Wienberg has not yet had a chance to visit with the children she knew back in 2011, who have now been reunited with their families.
Over the next few months she will work on getting sponsors for those children so they can go to school, and for their families to build a stable livelihood.
“I’m really excited to finally get to connect with these children again and finally give them a little bit of the opportunity that they deserve.”
Lately the organization has been focused on giving youth and families the tools they need to sustain themselves, rather than depending on aid.
That could mean helping a family raise livestock, grow a garden or start a small business.
Youth at the safe house are enrolled in plumbing school, driving school and cooking classes in addition to their regular schooling and literacy tutors.
And they’re working to secure land and homes, not only for the families they work with, but for the safe house itself.
Wienberg’s staff got a lesson is self-sufficiency while she was away for months in Miami, too.
She employs eight Haitians to run the safe house and help with outreach work.
“My staff have had to step up, and it’s really proven both to me and to them how much they’re able to do with me being at a distance.”
The idea that Haitians must step up to help themselves is catching on in a broader sense, too, said Wienberg.
“It’s something that’s really difficult even for locals to understand sometimes, because they are used to this culture of aid and just people coming in and giving things, but I always get extremely excited to see locals really understanding that the best thing for the country is this more sustainable approach that will have a long term impact.”
Visit littlefootprintsbigsteps.com to learn more about the organization and meet the children in need of sponsorship.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at firstname.lastname@example.org