My heart was heavy, my spirits were down and tears that could flood a football field covered my face and soul as I watched with disbelief the result of the earthquake. My mind traveled back 24 years to a hot day in August in a crowded, no air conditioned room at the airport in Port Au Prince, Haiti. I was surrounded by 13, brown faced, bright eyes little boys, with my photo saying, “Villie, Villie?” Although, I didn’t understand them I recognized my face and said yes, I am Villie. With luggage, we exited the building and there beside a red truck stood a tall bearded face, with a wide smile was Michael, the founder of St. Joseph’s Home for Boys. Michael Geilenfeld at the age of 33, from Algona, Iowa came to Haiti 25 years ago as a Brother with the Catholic Church and from that work founded the home for street children.
When we arrived at the house, I was seated in a kitchen chair. Suddenly at the top of the stairs appeared the boys with flowers descending, singing, “Come into this house, praise the Lord.” Each gave me a flower and a hug, and by the time they finished I was an ugly crying mess of humanity.
In that moment, I knew that as long as I lived, I would be connected to this family, this home and these boys who which had claimed my heart, my spirit and my soul. Knowing the history of Haiti, I named my self, “Auntie Willie”, for as an African America mother these were my sister’s children.
This house at the end of the road was filled with purpose, energy, fellows travelers with different missions, and a sense of we—ness. The children and the paying house guests ate beans and rice as family. I looked forward to folks sharing their day and bonding with kids whose language I could not speak. Hospitality is when the host welcomes you, but there is also the atmosphere that is created by the host where all gather as members of the community and become family. In those early days, for $10.00 a day each guest was provided with 2 meals, safe drinking water, laundry and 24 hour security. These funds paid the rent and supported the needs of the boys, including education and empowering activities, art classes, music, dance, and or karate lessons and tutors.
Over the years I have traveled home to my “other” family, where I have seen the boys grow, finish school, learn trades, become self supporting, get married and begin their own families. I have cried at weddings, funerals, and blessings of new homes. I have cried with joy as we expanded our family by establishing a home for the physical and mentally challenged children. Feeling at home and unafraid each morning I have walked Demas, the main street, to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Baby Hospital and in the evening rode the tap- tap, truck, or any thing that was moving to get up the mountain and home.
Now I cry as St. Joseph’s Home for Boys is no more, the building collapsed, but the good news is all of the family survived. My annual trip was scheduled for next Thursday, January 21st, the ticket is on the table, two packed duffle bags sit in the living room and I remain in prayer wondering what has happened to the babies, to the other folks I have met over the years.
The second house named Wings of Hope, next to the Baptist Mission, is now where Michael and the boys are living since their own home is uninhabitable.
I cry because a place that was safe & secure, clean & comfortable, a place where you lived in community with Haitians, that you heard roosters in trees crowing day and night, and dogs that become the hallelujah choir as they answered each other. You heard neighbors who might be having a not so friendly discussion work it out. St. Joseph’s rooftop was my Reality TV or HBO, for from there you observed laundry being hand washed, children being bathed or punished, witnessed young people play, study, fly kites and court on adjoining roofs, and the local barber or the beautician performed magic on their clients.
My memory will always yearn for nights on the patio as they were special for me, especially when the neighborhoods roof churches begin their worship. Where else can you see and hear the Lord’s name being lifted up the last thing at night, and before the break of dawn as Michael and the boys would gather in the chapel, meeting to give thanks.
In this house, because the other concrete houses are so close, the neighbor’s music became what I wanted to hear, the laughter of children is what I needed to remind me of what the silence meant when they were not allowed out after dark during the embargo. Seeing little children carrying water taught and constantly reminds me to be more grateful and less wasteful.
If you are not prepared to be influenced, to change, don’t read the history of Haiti and don’t accept the hospitality of this home.. For in the house, tell us what you need and we can show you how to live in abundance without it; learn to live without electricity 24/7, without A/C. microwave, the evening news, total privacy, hot showers, flushing toilets, or getting your socks back from laundry. But think of the joy of living with singing mosquitoes, daily hugs from boys who call you “ Auntie”, the recognizable laughter of the founder, excellent coffee, the beautiful and well prepared meals — all speaking the visible sign of love.
Learn to live with other members of the family who care as much as you do and who can expand your world and worldview. Live with and know that we all come not only with special gifts, but also our personal needs. Haitians who have suffered from slavery and multiple invasion, try to maintain self-direction in spite of outside pressure and policies, and they seem to carry within them the ability to share, to love, and survive with dignity. I was there years later and watched Haitians of all ages stand in the broiling sun, without complaining just to vote for the first time.
This earth quake was a natural disaster, a wake up call which claimed the world’s attention and highlighted their daily struggles. St. Joseph’s Home for Boys will be rebuilt because we believe in the goodness of God and the people of God.
I have responded to calls saying what can I do, inquires from Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, Georgia, and Illinois. Where do you run when the earth shakes, who do you turn to when your world falls apart, who do you lean on when buildings crumble, what do you hold on to…your faith, your family and your friends. The motto for the home is “with God all things are possible”. This is my belief; my faith tells me that we will rise from the rubble as family.
— Willie J. Dell