Charity works to save young Haitian lives
Haitian teenager Jean Berry has trouble sleeping. His home in Port-au-Prince has no gate and crime is rife.
The only time he feels truly safe is at his school, run by American charity HaitiChildren.
He is learning maths and French, subjects which he thinks will help him find a job in a big company when he grows up.
Bermudian Robin Hamill, president of HaitiChildren, believes that children like Jean are the way forward for Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world.
The charity runs an orphanage, three schools, a feeding programme and clinics. Their work touches more than 5,000 Haitians a year.
“[Founder] Susie Krabacher and I believe, firmly, that Haiti will not be lifted up based on any amount of foreign aid,” said Mr Hamill.
“It has to come from within. It has to come from kids who have been educated and taught really good values. We believe we are raising Haiti’s future business leaders, spiritual leaders and community leaders.”
He got involved with the charity last year, and became its president in February.
Mr Hamill went to Washington DC with HaitiChildren earlier this year to lobby policymakers to pay more attention to elections in the Caribbean nation.
“It’s not really our mission,” he said, “but it’s very important. When the country is in turmoil, more children end up in our hands as orphans.”
August elections were plagued with low voter turnouts and violence. Mr Hamill hopes a second set of elections next month will go better.
The role is a big change for the businessman.
The former eMoo CEO and Merrill Lynch Reinsurance Solutions Ltd president grew dissatisfied with the corporate world six years ago.
It was then that he and his wife Shelly and their three teenagers left Bermuda for Aspen, Colorado.
He met HaitiChildren’s Mrs Krabacher and her husband, Joseph, in a Bible studies group while there.
“With my work in Haiti, the bottom line is that very young children will die unless we do our jobs well,” said Mr Hamill. “My paycheque may be looking smaller now, but the job is very satisfying.”
The position comes with its own special perks, including a flood of birthday greetings from his young clients when he turned 50 earlier this month.
“To open my e-mail and see that was very moving,” he said.
He now handles the charity’s American operations, and co-runs the rest with the Krabachers.
He spends a week each month in Haiti monitoring the organisation, courting potential donors, and getting to know HaitiChildren Village’s 130 orphans. Many of them are disabled.
“In voodoo culture, children with physical disabilities are often viewed as imperfect and cursed,” Mr Hamill said. “Many of our children were left somewhere to die.”
The orphanage is located in Williamson, 30 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince.
The charity’s 17 acres of land includes residential care buildings, a school, a chapel with office space, a generator, a guard tower, security gate with perimeter security walls and two water wells.
A 10,000-gallon per day water filtration system is open to the community daily, and provides clean water for 150 families.
The HaitiChildren Learning Academy hosts 250 students, including 40 orphans in the morning and in the afternoon acts as a trade and technical school.
HaitiChildren is hoping to send some of its older residents to Cuba to university when they graduate high school.
The charity also runs a school in Cité Soleil, a violence-plagued slum in Port-au-Prince. The area’s 500,000 residents are packed into 25 square miles.
“One of our schools has about 225 students,” he said. “The students’ homes often have no electricity, running water or sanitation. The lunch they receive at school might be their only meal for the day.
“Many of them have family members involved in gangs, and they protect us. Often, if there is about to be a gunfight, the school will get a call warning teachers to get the children to safety.”
Two police officers were killed near the orphanage this week.
Visiting the area can be dangerous and employees of HaitiChildren often travel with armed security guards.
“My family do worry about me,” said Mr Hamill. “There’s no guarantee, but I try to be as careful as possible.”
Sometimes danger comes from unexpected quarters. In 2010, Haiti was rocked by a catastrophic 7.0 earthquake and part of the orphanage collapsed.
“It is estimated that 223,000 people were killed instantaneously in Haiti,” said Mr Hamill. “Thirty-two of our orphans were missing after the quake.
“Susie immediately flew from the United States to the Dominican Republic to buy supplies and then drove over the border into Haiti to help. Most of the children were found, but six were killed in the earthquake.”
For more information see www.haitichildren.com. Also see Ms Krabacher’s book Angels of a Lower Flight.