Haiti's street kids given a lift
How the efforts of a few have changed the lives of many Haitians.
[Editor's note, Sept 17, 2009: Douglas Perlitz, founder and director of Project Pierre Toussaint in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, was arrested Sept. 16 by US immigration and customs officials and now faces federal criminal charges for alleged sexual conduct with children at the school.]Skip to next paragraph
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They are derisively called "sangine," which in Creole means "one without soul." Sleeping in alleys and living in the shadows, the street children of Haiti spend their days skipping school, hustling to get enough food to survive, often running afoul of the law, and getting high on paint thinner to try to forget their lot. Their communities and families, if they have them, are too poor to help.
The children are among the most visible signs of Haiti's poverty, even more apparent than the nation's 65 percent unemployment rate. Foreigners visiting the nation are often overwhelmed by the sight of them. But not American Douglas Perlitz.
About 10 years ago, Mr. Perlitz visited Cap-Haïtien – Haiti's second-largest city – where he was soon being followed by "a pile of street kids," he says.
Perlitz, a pastoral minister and volunteer at a nearby hospital, would occasionally come back to town to get to know the kids. Although he didn't speak the language, Perlitz would play basketball and soccer with them, befriending the friendless. One child, Wilnaud Pierre, only 8 years old, especially touched his heart.
"He was going through the initiation of being a street kid. He was tiny, the littlest one, and the others were mean to him," Perlitz says. "He pulled me aside and said 'Would you send me to school? I want to learn to read and write.' For four or five months, he kept at me."
Wilnaud, now about 18 (many street children don't know their own birth dates), recalls that time. "I asked Douglas because I did not want to stay ignorant ... someone who knows nothing," he writes in an e-mail. "School would show me how to live."
Perlitz talked to some local priests who offered him space in an old building behind their church to start a school. He told Wilnaud to tell his friends to come on Nov. 3, 1997, and he would teach them. Some 25 to 30 kids, ages 8 to 17, were waiting for him when he arrived.
"I gave them paper and crayons," Perlitz says. "You could hear a pin drop. They drew stuff – trees, boats, houses. Some didn't even know how to hold crayons. I saw that they had the desire to go to school. They were focused. I knew they could do a lot.... They came regularly, so I got more teachers and started giving them food."