Say the words “orphanage” and “Haiti” aloud and take note of your first reaction. I would think for most people it’s a moving combination of words. At the end of that first walk through a tent community, when I discovered that twenty orphaned girls were living on the ground floor of our guest-house in Croix-des-Bouquets, it felt like one more kick in the gut. On a very selfish level, I wasn’t sure at that point how many more sad stories I could take in without falling apart.
But I also felt what anyone else would feel – a surge of compassion and an urge to help. I was looking forward to meeting Tim and Toby Banks, the directors of the orphanage and Mom and Dad to twenty-five children.
Tim and Toby are two remarkable people. Not only do they direct the orphanage, but they also run the health clinic that sits on the same grounds. I watched them work all week long, tirelessly managing one crisis after another. Originally from Lexington, Kentucky, Tim ran a construction business and Toby spent fifteen years as an emergency room nurse before Tim decided to spend a week in Croix-des-Bouquets helping with construction on the clinic. It didn’t take long for Tim to feel a special connection to Haiti. He returned home and told Toby he wanted to pack their things and move. With five children of their own still at home, she wasn’t so easily convinced.
A year later, Toby visited Haiti as well and this time she understood what Tim had felt there. Back in the U.S., they began planning their move to Croix-des-Bouquets, making sure they had everything lined up before they told anyone their surprising news. Four of their children would be going with them. The oldest boy, however, was finishing his last year of high school and would be heading off to college. For Toby, being separated from her oldest son was really the hardest part of the whole move.
The Banks’ intention was to start an orphanage for twenty two-year-old girls. This way, they would be able to provide education for all of the girls at the same time and at the same level. Their plans fell through, however, when they discovered that healthy two-year-old girls were difficult to find. It seems there was profit to be made from the sale of healthy girls that age. The couple quickly realized they would have to adjust their plans.
A local woman led them to their first little girl. When they met her, they were told this small and terribly malnourished child was approximately two years old. Yet after two months of solid nutrition, that two-year-old sprouted upwards and lost all of her baby teeth. Toby figures she was in reality six or seven years old at the time. When I met her, she was tall and elegant and clearly just entering her teen years.
And so it began. Girl by girl, the Banks gathered their new family members around them. One little girl was found under a bush and weighed only three pounds. Twin girls were found with their dead mother. One girl was so sick she needed a blood transfusion. Eventually, they added to their already substantial family twenty Haitian girls of various ages. For Toby, this made their orphanage “much more like a family” than it would have been if the girls had all started out at the same age.
Today, the Banks are six years into their lives as directors of the H.O.P.E. orphanage. Their mission is to raise all twenty of those girls to adulthood in a good home with a solid education. Like I said, they are remarkable people.
On that first night in Haiti, I found a quiet spot alone on the porch outside of my room. I needed to pause – to come to grips with the terrible things I had learned that day and the terrible things I had seen, images that I knew would stay with me forever. I listened to the thunder rumble in the distance and thought about what that coming storm meant for all the people in the tents nearby. To be honest, I was trying hard to cope and to convince myself that I would be able to handle the week that lay ahead.
It was a weak, self-centered moment.
And then, through the windows that opened out onto the garden below, came the loveliest sound: twenty little girls – all of them orphaned, all of them now members of a loving family – were singing Creole lullabies before bed.
That sound was all I needed in order to remember that none of this was about how much I could handle.
And I couldn’t wait to meet those girls.