Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Preserving Identities With a Paper Trail

Day 6 (Friday, Aug. 5)

Leogane, Haiti

We stumbled upon a potentially embarrassing problem today at the orphanage when we discovered, shall we say, irregularities, in its filing system for the children’s important papers. The paperwork included report cards, medical reports and birth certificates. Everything was in one, 6-inch stack of random papers, which I estimated to be over a thousand pages.

What’s the big deal? For most of these kids, these papers represent their dwindling identity. Many of them lost both parents to the earthquake, some lost only one parent but were dumped off at the orphanage because the surviving parent could no longer care for them after the January 12 earthquake.

One of the teenage girls was in tears when she showed us where the files were kept in the storage room. Little care had been given to the files. No methodology existed for the Haitians, it seemed. The files were infested with ants (major disease carriers) and most were sopping wet from one of the recent storms. We could see mold and mildew on some of the papers, which could make the kids sick.

After making the discovery, several of the people in our group were livid. “How could they be so careless?” was the common cry.

Then we discussed it some more. Part of our dilemma was our common dislike for the orphanage’s director, who is just 18 and barely an adult. She has made her disdain of our presence known by her ever-present frown. She is rarely at the orphanage, doing who knows what while away. She has clearly left the children in our care. We have witnessed her berate the cook and anyone else who gets in her way. Yet she is in charge, and we have to respect the chain of command.

In truth, this job fell on her after the earthquake. She doesn’t really want to be here, but is here by necessity. This job means survival for her. She wasn’t trained to run an orphanage, and she wasn’t trained to file paperwork. So she stuck everything in a big pile and walked away.

The big issue we faced was this: did the Haitians even want our help with the paperwork problem? If they didn’t, should we take action on behalf of the children in the name of righteousness. This is one of those dilemmas with no right answers. So we prayed: “Lord, what would you have us do?”

Fortunately for us, the Haitians eagerly accepted our offer to help. We separated the files into four sections and even built a storage box with four bins. Our solution to the birth certificate problem came to Catharine in a dream. No kidding. Catharine stayed at the hotel yesterday because she was sick. In between sweating and the sound of hammering by the hotel workers, she slept periodically and … dreamed. She dreamed of taking pictures of the birth certificates.

We used one of our cameras to take pictures of all the birth certificates, giving a paper trail to any potential lost items in the future. One problem solved.

Then a few of our people (all parents) went to work doing what they do best: organize. For people like me who have ADHD, people who organize are gold. These people went above and beyond the call of duty. They showed those kids that their identities mattered. I could see a few of the teenage girls watching them with gleeful anticipation.

One day, these kids are all going to walk away from the orphanage. When they leave, we hope that each one of them has his or her treasured birth certificate in hand.

Perhaps a few of them will remember the time when the Americans came to visit for a summer. Maybe a few of them will leave the orphanage with an identity based in Jesus Christ because of our presence here this summer. That child’s life will be impacted for a lifetime because of his hope in an eternity with God in heaven. Maybe a kid or two will choose to help others around them because of the love we showed these kids.

That’s why we came. We can’t impact every kid here, but we hope to impact a few. As our week winds down, each one of us has special memories of time spent with at least one kid. I hope each one of those kids has special memories of us, too.

Caption: Nora, a mother of two daughters in Pleasanton, California, was one of four people who helped organize the orphanage's important papers. The discolored papers above is from exposure to the sun.

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