[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.]
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."
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.
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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