Saturday, January 23, 2010

My Haitian Connection

(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

The news from Haiti is particularly poignant for me. For more than half my life, I've been a foster parent to a series of young boys in that destitute nation.

I began when I was only 16. I discovered the biblical idea of tithing - giving 10% of one's income to good works - and made that commitment for the earnings from my part-time jobs. I didn't trust my money to organized religion, with the scandals that seemed always in the news, so I chose a charity I trusted.

I signed up and never looked back. Twenty-seven dollars a month was a lot for a teen, but my job pumping gas provided enough.

My first "son", Jean Phenice Raymond, was only a year younger than me, so I thought of him as a foster-brother. He lived in Jacmel, hometown of our own Gov. Gen. Michaƫlle Jean. A few years later, Jean Phenice turned 18, too old for Plan, so I was assigned another: Jonas Gelin, four years my junior.

After he, too, graduated, his own much younger brother, Evens, became my next foster "child." Their family lived in Croix-des-bouquets, a community just east of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince.

When Evens in turn outgrew Plan in 2004, my monthly support shifted to another family, that of Valdrist Petite Frere in Sibert, a little to the north-west. Finally my foster child was actually young enough (or really, me old enough) to be my own child, had I become a father in my 20s.

Through lean times at university and then working overseas to pay off student debt, I never lapsed in my monthly support, even as inflation brought the amount up to today's $35. No matter how tight finances were, things for me were infinitely better than for those I helped, and I was glad to be able to give them a chance at a better life.

Plan is not a direct handout to children; the money also provides community support through basic facilities like water and latrines, health and vocational training, and building and maintenance of schools.

You may recognize the names of these boys' towns, because they are near the epicentre of the earthquake. Towns near Port-au-Prince have been shaken to rubble, and Canadian troops are experiencing firsthand the chaos of Jacmel.

I don't expect to hear for several weeks the status of Valdrist or his family. I can only hope they are relatively unharmed, and still housed. I have lost touch with my previous foster children over the years, so I don't know if they still live in their hometowns.

Certainly, the employment situation there was not good, so they may have left seeking work. But since employment elsewhere in Haiti isn't much better, they had hoped to establish small businesses or farms where they grew up.

One of the main goals of Plan is to create sustainable, self-sufficient communities as an alternative to the migration of landless, jobless poor.

It breaks my heart to know that so much of the facilities my donations built over decades were destroyed in mere minutes last week. It hurts even more that the lives improved may be scarred forever - or ended.

Canada will match all individual donations to Plan and other qualified charities up until Feb. 12, so my family will send extra support this month, even though it is a lean time for us, too. At least we still have a roof over our heads, clean food and water, and good schools for our daughters. I hope that, with our help, my Haitian "children" will someday have the same.

Learn more about Plan International at

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

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