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Haiti's street kids given a lift

How the efforts of a few have changed the lives of many Haitians.

(Page 2 of 2)

Within a year, the school grew into Project Pierre Toussaint, named after a Haitian slave who cared for the poor in New York City in the early 1800s. Today, the school helps about 120 kids a day at a drop-in center, where they can get three hot meals and schooling.

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Children participating in the project aspire to one day enter the Village, a residential program on the outskirts of town with space for 50 kids who have proven themselves responsible and committed to excel. There, children are offered a wide variety of vocational training, including sewing, driving, welding, woodworking, and tailoring.

"This program is evidence of one person making a difference against incredible odds," says Paul Carrier, a chaplain at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Father Carrier encourages Fairfield students – including Perlitz, who first visited Haiti in 1991 – to do community service work in the third world.

Carrier supports Perlitz's program through visits and constant fundraising. He once brought down 70 pairs of donated shoes – each designated for a specific child.

"I work with a lot of different organizations," says consultant Amber Elizabeth Gray, who has worked in the international human service field for 20 years. "Doug's program is consistently the program that I can say is honest, true, community-based, meaningful, humanitarian work. It has managed to avoid the usual bureaucratic snares and tangles. The program grows in direct response to the kids."

In addition to helping street children, the project provides jobs for 35 Haitian men and women, who have been taught to be role models, teachers, counselors, cooks, drivers, social workers. They learn to avoid violence when disciplining.

"Everyone in Haiti has witnessed violence on a large scale," says Perlitz. "Those over 25 have woken up four different times to a coup, surrounded by violence. People internalize that, and it becomes an accepted way of life. All the schools here use the whip – not ours."

Some staff members, like Francillien Jean Charles, went through the program themselves. Francillien was one of the boys who came to Perlitz's original school. Although learning disabled, he got his primary school certificate.

"He is one of our best staff because of his ability to understand the kids and what they're dealing with," says Perlitz.

"You have to have realistic goals," says Perlitz. "They live in a country with high unemployment. I can't pretend they'll all get jobs. We hope the time they spend with us will make them better fathers and neighbors. We hope they become good citizens of Haiti with solid ideas of right and wrong."

Wilnaud can now read and write, and he hopes to become a mechanic.

"I lived on the street," Wilnaud remembers, "like someone who walks but does not know where he is going ... [but then] I started to see my life change. After two or three years, people forgot the old me.... I became a new Wilnaud."

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