Dr. Aronson's Journals
Welcome to "Dr. Aronson's Journals" where through my mission trips around the globe I will shine a spotlight on the enormous hopes and challenges facing the world's orphans and vulnerable children. It is my hope that you will experience the passion, energy and poignancy of these powerful stories through my blog. I invite you to read my latest blog posts on The Huffington Post Impact. Together, we can transform the lives of orphans worldwide.
-- Dr. Jane Aronson
Journal Entry: One of Many Sitting and Waiting for Adoption, July 10, 2015
As CEO of Worldwide Orphans, I was in Haiti from June 20-26 working with a group of four 17 year old boys who were doing a service project with the children we serve in Kenscoff. It was a great week, but on the day before I left, I went to visit a now an over two year old little girl in an orphanage in Haiti who is waiting for her final adoption by an American family. She has been waiting for over two years and she has all the telltale signs of infant (anaclitic) depression and some other significant medical issues which are urgent at this point.
She has strabismus or “lazy eye”. What happens with lazy eye is that the vision is not normal and the brain is annoyed with double vision, so it suppresses vision in the eye that can’t straighten out. Finally over a few years, blindness in that eye can occur and there is nothing that can be done.
When the child is an infant, we can patch the normal eye, forcing the weaker eye to strengthen and in some cases surgery can be performed to fix the lazy eye. It is a happy ending in modern countries where ophthalmologists can intervene early on. This baby was also premature and she may have some damage to her retinas (retinopathy of prematurity). That complicates this story because if that is not treated she may have damage to the vision in both eyes. There are no ophthalmologists for children in Haiti or in most developing nations and tens of thousands of children lose vision from strabismus and retinopathy of prematurity; they are then beggars in the street; they never get an education. They are trafficked as are most children with different abilities. Worldwide Orphans works very hard to focus on kids with handicaps of all kinds to prevent them from losing their abilities to function normally in society. We love kids with special needs in 4 of our 5 countries and we provide services for them to help them be happy and successful in their communities.
What will become of this sweet, now very depressed toddler who is waiting to be adopted for at least two years. Her papers are sitting on a desk. All the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed. We can’t imagine why there is no final action for this lovely and sweet child who needs medical care to save her vision and the love of her parents who have waited patiently for over two years for this adoption to be final.
Her adoption case is like thousands around the world…children who have been legally abandoned and whose papers are in order, but the process gets stalled and goes on and on….as the child becomes despondent, develops attachment disorder, and medical issues get more challenging to fix. There will be more needed for a child like this as the clock ticks. If she had an adoption that was finalized way back…she would be happy already at home with her family learning to speak and learning to love. She does not even speak now and she is a two year old. Two year olds when loved and stimulated speak 200 words and have at least two word sentences. They are lively and full of curiosity and enthusiasm. They hug and kiss their family members and charm us all day long. We tell stories about their achievements as if they are the only child in the world. They are precious to their families and everything they do is revered and considered unique.
This little girl is alone in a very crowded orphanage where there is no one who treasures her and where she is simply a little brown body, eating and pooping and peeing….she is “speed fed” at each meal, until she almost chokes and she has little to do unless WWO’s toy library volunteers arrive and do some programming in the orphanage. That took two years to formalize because of the usual suspicions that orphanage owners have about outsiders trying to help kids.
I am usually very upbeat as I start my long days of work. I awakened today with a lot on my mind. Much of what was on my mind had to do with moving the programs of WWO along a faster conveyor belt….I dream of scaling psycho-social support through our “toy libraries” globally for millions of kids without parent care.
I received an email from the parent of this sweet little one who has been on my mind since I met her two years ago. I always try and visit her when I am in Haiti. I feel badly today because she has been abandoned by all of us. She is one of many children at risk…vulnerable and left behind. She has an assigned family who diligently have visited her and invested their hearts and souls in her.
It is so very tragic to tell this story once again. I will work harder today for this precious girl, but I want you all to know that my work is not enough. There must be gargantuan efforts to not allow children to be left in orphanages to sustain mental and physical abuse and neglect.
Journal Entry: A Tribute to a Father, June 21, 2015
Long before there were influencers and thought leaders in my life, there was my father, Harold Aronson. He grew up in Brooklyn, attended Tilden High School, and was likely the only Jewish boy who played three sports in a public high school in New York in the 1930’s. He exceled at basketball, baseball, and football and was conscripted into the US Army after Pearl Harbor. He was stationed in Europe, mostly in Belgium, and then was shipped out to the Philippines. Because of his prior experience running a grocery store, he was placed in the “mess” and he learned how to order and manage food services for thousands of GI’s while in Manila. They sent the Yankee platoon off to combat and my father was left behind to manage the “store” in Manila. That is why he survived WWII. When I went through some old papers preparing an application for my mother’s veteran’s benefits, I found commendations awarded to my father in those years. He even received some medals from the US Army.
He was a college student at Baruch College and played sports there too. I wish that I could remember all the heroic stories about my father’s athleticism, but there is no one to ask. My brother is gone and my mother is 93 and has dementia. Next time I visit her, I will ask and see what she might remember. I do recall that my father spoke of his coach in college…a guy named Bernie Friedman…something like that.
And when I was a little girl, there was a newspaper clipping about this coach when he died. My father adored him and told us that he was the reason that he was such a good athlete. My father taught my brother and I to be disciplined about sport and I learned to be a good athlete from him. My favorite photos in camp are of me playing tennis with my father….or was it canoeing with my father…no, maybe it was me playing softball with my father. He used to boast about how I didn’t throw like a girl. He smiled when he watched me smash a line drive into the outfield. When he came to visit me at camp, he and I waterskied together. I loved that my father was the only parent who would participate in activities on visitor’s day. I still remember going to my father’s synagogue softball games on Sundays or bowling tournaments on Thursday nights. He was popular!
My father knew how to “play” even in his 40’s and early 50’s. He loved the outdoors and gardening was a favorite hobby. I learned everything about flowers, bushes and trees from my father. I was never afraid of animals because of my Pops. We fished together and I learned to put a big fat worm on the hook with him. I do that for my sons now. I identified birds like him and never ran from a bee because of him. We flew kites and built birdhouses together. I was a carpenter in New York for a couple of years because my father was handy and taught me to be handy too.
He loved to have me with him when he worked in his store on Sunday afternoons. He taught me a lot about people and gave me my destiny to serve. It was those early years when I was a very little girl in my father’s store, that I learned to love people who were different than me. Finally it was my father who inspired me to give of myself mentally and physically. He invented the word, stamina for both my brother and me.
I wish that I had listened to my father more. I wish I let things that hurt roll off my back more and trusted that being natural and myself was safe. He advised me to pursue so many goals for myself and I didn’t listen because I did not believe in myself. He wanted me to trust myself and I fought him on this. It’s funny how I see it now.
My father wrote me beautiful letters when I was away at camp about his feelings for me. I have some of them in a box. These letters made me cry and miss him. I wish that I had understood him better. He was a complicated man and I was just a little girl. Then I grew up and left home and though I treasured much of what he taught me and am so much like him, I ran away from him. Well, that is another story.
On Father’s Day every year, I like to write about him, my hero and the man in my life who I loved the most and still revere today. He lives inside of me for sure and I think that he would be proud of me today.
As I write about how important my father was to me in my life growing up, I can’t help but wonder what orphans miss when their families fall apart and they are forced to grow up without the role models and attachment that is so important for a developing child. They have no memories of fathers and mothers and they are not able to incorporate the character of their parents into their being. It is my hope that Worldwide Orphans, as a teacher in its communities, can provide psycho-social services to help at-risk children find the success and independence they deserve.
Journal Entry: A saga comes to an end: from the horse’s mouth on Korean adoption, February 3, 2015
For the past 19 days, I have been so confused and angry about the one-sided article “Why a Generation of Adoptees are Returning to South Korea” by Maggie Jones, published in the New York Times magazine section on January 14, 2015. I wrote a 100 word letter to the editor which was published on February 1, 2015 in the NY Times in which I was able to express an intelligent opinion about one perspective that I thought was missing in the story. I focused on how adoption is not the fix for the millions of orphans in the world and reinforced the responsibility of communities and governments abroad to create new models of care to help abandoned children survive and thrive in the future.
The article depicts a very tiny minority of Korean adoptees who have left their American families to live in South Korea. There are no interviews of adoptees who have not gone back to South Korea and there were no other perspectives or research cited about adoption to help shed some light on the complex issues about abandoned children, orphans, and adoption in general.
Thousands of people have written to the New York Times and reached out to Facebook and other forms of social media and hundreds of families who I served as an adoption medicine specialist have called or written to me in tears with anger, panic, and distress about the future of their adopted children, not just Korean adoptees, but adoptees from many countries. I continued to be baffled by the article and I have not slept or found comfort in this almost three weeks because it seemed as if after 30 years of growing understanding of adoption, it was all lost in a poorly conceived and irresponsible journalistic moment.
I have written thousands of words over the last few weeks searching to settle down and find a way to express my anger and the upset of so many in the adoption community, but this went no where. I wrote aimlessly and unintelligibly and even though I asked a brilliant writer who has 5 adopted children from Bulgaria and Ethiopia to help me, she failed to be able to edit my work. She did however inform me kindly and humorously, that my writing was miserable and useless. She took a stab at editing, but upon reading her poetry, I felt that the heart of the matter was still not unveiled. I almost gave up, but then as always, destiny entered into my life and this is what happened.
Last night at a wee hour, Brittany Levinson, who is a Korean adoptee, and who was a long time New Yorker before moving to Singapore in 2011 with her husband and family, called me to just “catch up”. We were on the phone for an hour, but not for the purpose of reviewing this article. We were planning how Brittany wanted to support Worldwide Orphans this summer as she did last summer, for our “Night of 1000 Dinners” and we also spoke of her three children and my two children. We caught up on how life was going in Singapore.We spoke about what friends speak about, including how I should download, “What’sapp”, so that I could communicate with her and everyone more conveniently at no cost. Then Brittany asked me what I thought of “the article” and for 30 minutes she told me what she thought.
She has a lot in common with Laura Klunder. Brittany once lived in Bisabel Baby Home, an orphanage in Korea until age 3. At the time she spoke fluent Korean and she too boarded a Korean Airlines flight direct to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport with escorts provided by Holt agency. She stayed in contact with these escorts while growing up. Brittany also lived in the rural area of Franklin, Wisconsin and attended Pius XI High School in Milwaukee. As a child she too heard taunts about her eye shape and race. In the 1970’s she was one of only a small handful of minority children in the local area. Brittany also attended University of Wisconsin and the Fashion Institute of Technology.
She was passionate and reflectiveas she worked to drill down her thoughts and I will share them in a recollectionon Huffington Post. I believe that her insights are crucial and it confirms for all of us how the article did such an injustice from a simple journalistic construct – the need for commitment to the many aspects and points of view that are so essential to any story. The one-sided story is never a good moment for a journalist or a newspaper and it can victimize and hurt many people and it casts great mistrust on the media that supports such poor practice. We cannot afford to be lazy when we write any story, simple or otherwise.
“They didn’t call me
This is the title of Brittany’s story and what is funny is I identify with that title. They didn’t call me either. Brittany explained that one girl, Laura Klunder featured in the story grew up in the same town as she did (Franklin, Wisconsin) and that she, Brittany, identified with some parts of this story during different times in her life and noted that being an adoptee of the 1970’s seems like it was an altogether different experience than this adoptee’s experience. She then went on to say thatthat just like there is no “pan-asia”, there is no “pan-adoptee” and that cultural provenance plays different roles in adoptees experiences. She said although I’m almost a decade older and I don’t feel right now how these adoptees feel, I can identify with their experimentation, confusion, and mixed emotions about their adoption, but self-pitying and blame is a negative game that only leaves the player the loser. Brittany did mention the concept of “HAN” a word in Korea that identifies with the collective feelings of resentment, unavenged injustice and bitterness. Itis a kind of Korean characteristic that is well-known by anyone who cares to understand Korean culture and it is called, “Han”.
Brittany went on to explain that Han is a very deep and likely in the DNA and is part of the Korean psyche; it is a kind of depression and resentment. Look it up and you can learn more.
As we begin to sort out the DNA of the human genome, we are discovering that there is DNA that is about behavior. She like many adoptees, traveled to Korea in search of her birth parents but could find no records which is a typical outcome for Holt adoptees, later spent time as a tourist in Korea, andhas learned about Korean culture and she does not admire the attitudes of Koreans when they judge single women who get pregnant or how divorce leads Koreans to abandon their children in orphanages when they remarry.
She explained it’s very hard to know yourself when you hold onto ideology that you elevate and make stronger than the belief in oneself.She was surprised that the article didn’t explore the psychological issues of “trauma” and how people don’t experience adoption the same. She asked me why the article didn’t look at the experiences of adoptees from other countries and compare those experiences. Brittany thought that for adoptees who feel wounds that can’t be healed, the smoking gun might always easily lie at the feet of the adoptive parents’ responsibility, upon closer inspection, looking for blame can take you away from being closer to Nelson Mandela’s famous quote, “I am the master of my fate and the captain of my destiny.” All parents, whether adoptive or birth, are just parents with human weaknesses and Brittany’s parents are far from perfect, but what parents are?
Brittany does understand the intense emotions that the adoptees have for their adoptive parents but doesn’t understand the fruitfulness of seeking a future of acceptance while leaving a wake of discountenance. “I always felt like a sort of ‘gifted alien’ growing up,” Brittany added, “one with special powers and abilities. I could see things from many points of view. This empathy has helped me my whole life.”
Brittany wrapped up our conversation the way she often does with optimism and excitement about life. I’m adopted and I explore my own concepts about adoption almost daily. I’m grateful for the experience. Brittany sharedthat shedidn’t understand the “sensationalism” in the story when the story could have been so tender and gentle and could have given us all a chance to really explore the very deep psychological issues of adoptees in general. “Honestly,” Brittany added, “I thought that the article ended up being a “Trojan horse” -- what seemed to be the story was not the real story at all. This led to misunderstanding and hurt for adoptees around the world.
Journal Entry: An Unnamed Baby -- Secrets and Judgments About Adoption, January 2015
As an adoption medicine specialist I have reviewed thousands of pre-adoption referrals both internationally and domestically. This past holiday, I experienced one of the most excruciating cases in my adoption medicine career. It involved the birth of a baby who was drug addicted and remained in the hospital for weeks without a loving parent and he was not given a name.
A baby boy was born in a big city hospital somewhere in the US. The birth mother had carried the baby to term, but had no intention of parenting the baby. The pregnancy was the result of one sexual encounter. The baby was born drug addicted from maternal oxycodone abuse and developed Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (withdrawal from drugs) and suffered during three weeks of treatment with morphine. Some of the symptoms for babies with drug withdrawal are irritability, seizures, poor feeding, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, high-pitched crying, and increased muscle tone. This little guy had nearly all of these symptoms immediately at birth.
The birth mother decided to not be engaged in the care of the baby and to leave his care to medical staff at the hospital. She had engaged a lawyer just before delivery because she planned to place the baby for adoption. She had no intention of having an open adoption which would have involved some connection to the adoptive parents.
Members of the birth mother’s family came to the hospital and cried, and expressed their feelings of disappointment about the baby being adopted and this was observed by the adoptive parent. The birth mother had worked with a lawyer to sign release papers so that the adoption could proceed. A prospective adoptive couple visited the baby for a couple of hours, a few days after his birth and they decided to not adopt him because they feared the long term effects of his drug exposure. That couple contacted me for some guidance about the science of drug exposure for infants. I don’t tell people what to do in such circumstances, but rather act as a medical guide and interpreter.
A single parent stepped up to adopt him at about a week of life and she contacted me. The baby was on morphine all that first week and had no name. He was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and was struggling, but stable medically due to the superb care of the medical staff. The adoptive parent retained me to help understand the medical issues for this little boy. Even after it was known that there was an adoption plan in place, the hospital doctors, nurses and social workers were ignoring the legal process. Adoption papers were filed by the lawyer for the birth mother and the lawyer for the adoptive mother, but the baby lay in an isolette in the NICU receiving the highest level of medical care without the benefit of a caring parent. The hospital staff ignored the adoption plan information on the baby’s chart. I left a phone message with the social worker at the hospital and that call was never returned. I was in touch with the adoptive parent daily by phone or email as she became more and more involved with the baby. There was no advocate to make decisions for this baby. Doctors and nurses were there to perform meticulous medical care, yes, but the baby was essentially all alone, abandoned and nameless and the adoptive parent was never consulted.
The adoptive parent was frightened and paralyzed emotionally because of her fears about the drug withdrawal symptoms and its possible effect on the future for this baby . The nurses took the baby away from the adoptive parent during some visits because they were not clear on what her rights were as a parent. The papers were there, but no one was following the law. The hospital was in violation of the adoption law in that state and they violated the rights of the adoptive parent and the rights of the child. This baby had no guardian in charge of his welfare. All medical care decisions were made by the nurses and doctors without any discussion with a parent.
I was in touch with the adoptive parent by email and phone to help guide her process. I gave her medical advice based on the records which were finally released by the hospital after two weeks. The baby was essentially in withdrawal from an unspecified opiate, probably oxycodone. I knew that this withdrawal would resolve finally, but mostly what I cared about was the rights of the baby-- the right of the baby to be parented and not just medically managed. I wanted someone to love the baby, hold him and caress him and call him by a given name. I wanted both the birth mother and the adoptive mother to meet and have a moment of transition and the beginning of resolution. I wanted the rule of law to prevail so that the child could have a parent advocate.
The injustice depicted here was completely preventable. There are laws in all 50 states to manage adoption plans. This is not a unique circumstance. Thousands of babies are born to drug addicted birth mothers in the US. Legal releases are signed, transfer of care occurs from birth mother to adoptive parents, and babies in withdrawal survive and go on to live decent lives.
This baby was not protected because judgments were made and secrets kept. There was fragmented psycho-social support for the birth mother, the baby, and the adoptive parent. The lawyers were powerless. The baby was finally named by the adoptive mother at three weeks of age and the adoption papers were filed by the attorney. The birth mother has 60 days to “change her mind” and the adoption can be final by 6 months. He went home with his adoptive parent after 26 days of hospitalization for drug withdrawal. Last week he had his first pediatric visit and he was gaining weight and peaceful.
I wonder if anyone at the hospital is thinking about this baby. I hope that the medical staff became attached as they cared for him. This sweet baby boy needed swaddling, holding, commitment, an adoption plan, and a name at birth.
It appears from my discussions with adoption attorneys that this situation is not uncommon. In 2015, adoption is still treated as a secret and there is shame and stigma attached to it. The process is traumatic because of these secrets and judgments. The birth mother, adoptive parent and the baby need support from the social workers, doctors, and nurses, and the lawyers needed to be able to implement the laws that exist to protect all parties. Judgments are not humane.
Babies who are foundlings all over the world are judged as well and likely the secrets and judgments are at the heart of why these babies are not adopted or fostered in the community and why millions of orphans are institutionalized. Why judge a baby? Why judge an orphan?
My work as the CEO of Worldwide Orphans puts me in touch with these very issues daily. Orphans are stigmatized and judged and that is part of the reason why communities struggle with taking responsibility for these innocent and precious lives.
Postscript January 10, 2015
I share with you a very sad moment in our legal system. There is a new law in Tennessee to prosecute birth mothers for taking drugs during pregnancy; this law is heinous. Drug exposure for a baby is unhealthy, but criminalizing the drug exposure will never be the answer. The birth mother needs counseling, education, support and love, not jail. The baby and the adoptive parents need support and love and an open environment where healing can occur, especially in a hospital setting.
Trauma and Resiliency: November 2014 Gala Speech
Tonight I stand before you with several goals. I want you to leave this beautiful place, Cipriani, on Monday night, November 17, 2014, armed with a lot of facts about the state of the world of children and what you can do to make a difference. I also want you to know me, and why I continue to have passion and personal resolve to advocate and protect at-risk children whether in the US or abroad. Finally, I want you to know that WWO does a great job. There are no borders when it comes to the care and safety of children on the Earth.
We salute all parents in the audience tonight who created families thru adoption, me included. November is National Adoption Month. I thank all of you who were inspired to support the kids "left behind" after you adopted your children.
Zayna Mahbub, who is here tonight, with her parents, is 11 years old and was adopted from Pakistan as a very young infant. She is one of the many reasons why I was inspired to work with orphans. She is an artist and has a brilliant painting in our silent auction. Go see it. She is gifted and resilient. She was adopted from abroad and eager to celebrate her own adoption. She is committed to supporting orphans in their own countries.
There are 550 guests tonight, both new and old guests. It is key that you leave this event knowing why you came tonight and to understand why you need to support WWO going forward.
I am a pediatrician and former teacher and had a destiny to be a doctor through my family history, but more importantly, I became an adoption medicine specialist, assisting parents preparing to adopt orphans from Russia, China, Korea, Guatemala, Taiwan, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Romania, Kazakhstan, among many other countries. I followed these children long term and grew to understand their many medical, developmental and psychological challenges; it was that bird's eye view as an adoption pediatrician that led me to conceive of WWO in 1997, to provide services to children in their own communities; it was obvious that adoption would be an option for a very small few, but not the solution for the millions of unprotected children here and around the world.
I would never have evaluated orphans in institutions in their countries and discovered that there are millions of orphans around the world unless I had been the "orphan doctor". Many of you in this audience know WWO from its early years when I was practicing pediatrics and traveling abroad and learning about the outrageously unjust, tragic and unimaginable conditions of children living in orphanages.
WWO started sending Orphan Rangers/volunteers in 1998 to Russia to work to collect essential statistics on growth failure, developmental delays, attachment disorder/depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in orphans and vulnerable/disabled children. We were -- and we are -- about metrics so that we can design programs based on data and prove their efficacy. That will never change.
I am a scientist and I am curious. Our program officers ask questions so that WWO can know the needs of the children in their communities. We now have a research department at WWO, headed by Dr. Anthony Salandy. He creates logic models and teaches research to our teams abroad. We have data for all our programs to test them and grow them and to report and publish our data. We attend and participate in academic conferences to present the data and we are about excellence and science, not just about doing good.
On November 20, 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), was born; we celebrate its 25th year anniversary this week.
"Millions of children have their fundamental rights violated every day" in spite of the agreement of 200 nations that this convention/international law is necessary and likely the most comprehensive human rights document that exists to date..."
This is an important statement from Dr.Susan Bissell, Chief of Child Protection, in her recent report on this important anniversary when she first started at UNICEF.
The Convention calls for:
• Freedom from violence, abuse, hazardous employment, exploitation, abduction or sale
• Adequate nutrition
• Free compulsory primary education
• Adequate health care
• Equal treatment regardless of gender, race, or cultural background
• The right to express opinions and freedom of thought in matters affecting them
Safe exposure/access to leisure, play, culture, and art -this is the work of WWO along with the work through which we help children heal from the trauma of loss and abandonment. It is one of my goals in life that all children can reflect on their own thoughts and imagination. We want them to know their creativity intimately and love, enjoy and revel in it. That is the beauty of being a unique human being.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD is a book that I recently read. It instructs us about the effects of psychological trauma and it teaches us how to heal.
Trauma happens to us -- our friends, our families and our neighbors. Those dark secrets about trauma are here in this room tonight.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research reveals:
• 1 in 5 Americans was sexually molested as a child
• 1 in 4 was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body
• 1 in 3 couples engage in physical violence
• 1 in 4 of us grew up with alcoholic relatives
• 1 out of 8 witnessed their mother being beaten or hit
• 3 million children in the US currently have a history of abuse and neglect
• 12 million women currently have been raped in the US
I have wondered all these years why I loved orphans so deeply and why I was drawn to them as if I were one. I finally realized that I was one of them. I was sexually molested, when I was a 5 year old, by my brother's gym teacher, while he played basketball in the gym. I spent years trying to piece this part of my early life together and I went to therapy to try and figure out how it played a role in my life, but not a single therapist thought it was important enough to explore. My life is a story of resiliency. The brains of young children who are sexually abused are altered by this trauma. Responses to stress can cause activation of this early trauma and make it hard for these children to self-regulate and comfort themselves. They are in a state of fight or flight unnecessarily. This is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It was not until the early 80s that PTSD became a diagnosis for psychiatrists. Hundreds of thousands of veterans suffered from PTSD from the atrocities of war. They had no one to go to and they lived fragmented and tortured lives. I am grateful to be able to openly discuss my personal experience and there is now a lot of support for survivors, from organizations like Joyful Heart started by Mariska Hargitay and her husband, Peter Hermann, who encouraged me to be open and who sits here tonight in support of WWO and its work. Thanks Peter.
In an article Titled "America's Youngest Outcasts" the report being issued Monday, November 17, 2014, by the National Center on Family Homelessness, "The number of homeless children in the U.S. has surged in recent years to an all-time high, amounting to one child in every 30, according to a comprehensive state-by-state report that blames the nation's high poverty rate, the lack of affordable housing and the impacts of pervasive domestic violence. The National Center on Family Homelessness calculates that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013. The number is based on the Department of Education's latest count of "1.3 million homeless children in public schools, supplemented by estimates of homeless pre-school children not counted by the DOE..."
At a recent conference held by the Atlantic Health System in New Jersey, I heard Dr. Leslie Lieberman discuss ACE...Adverse Childhood Experiences. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. The study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego.
More than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) members undergoing a comprehensive physical examination chose to provide detailed information about their childhood experience of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction. To date, more than 50 scientific articles have been published and more than 100 conference and workshop presentations have been made.
The ACE Study findings suggest that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. It is critical to understand how some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences. Realizing these connections is likely to improve efforts towards prevention and recovery.
Tonight I want you and I to face this trauma and violence toward children so that you know more about why Worldwide Orphans thrives and grows...we are part of a global offensive against violence toward children.
3 new branches of science have led to the understanding of the effects of psychological trauma, abuse, and neglect:
• interpersonal neuro-biology,
• developmental psychopathology
WWO's perspective and unique approach to the needs of orphans and vulnerable children around the world is holistic, organic and scientific. We use camp, recreation, toy libraries, sport and the arts to help kids become independent and successful in their own communities.
Our programs are about healing and reconstituting the inherent resilience of the child. "Resilience is the capacity of an individual to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses and to adapt and grow from the disruptive experience. As an individual builds resilience, you become more able to prevent or mitigate stresses and shocks. You can identify and be better able to respond to those you can't predict or avoid. You can bounce back from a crisis, learn from it, and be revitalized." This amazing quote is from Dr. Judith Rodin's new book, The Resilience Dividend.
We are a community in this room every year and I want to grow this community.
I like to think that rather than humanitarian, we are communitarian. We are active members of our American communities, but more importantly we see the significance of not having borders. We are part of a global community.
The escaping children from Central America in 2014 were victims of violence. The sign held up by frightened misinformed US citizens at our border, "Not our children, not our problem" is not an American core value. There must be equitable and humane solutions for all children running from the threat of violence. This is our responsibility. Syrian children in refugee camps dying, nearly 10,000 of them last year, are our responsibility. Kidnapped Nigerian girls are ours to cherish. Please don't hide from it all... it's not too big. Don't run for cover, just pick a piece and do what you can...a little bit counts.
I always see the gala as a moment of recommitment for Worldwide Orphans and its supporters. I hope we can all pledge tonight to advocate fiercely against violence and trauma against children. Cherishing and protecting all the world's children is the way to ensure the future of our world. Thank you.
Journal Entry: A Space Filled with Love and Hope in Haiti, September 23, 2014
I have observed the Toy Library on many occasions during my trips to Haiti as CEO of Worldwide Orphans. The children walk in holding hands with the volunteers in Kenscoff. They are from the local community, including a tent village where no one has a job and families are very large and extremely poor. They are clean and dressed nicely. How this happens, I don't know. The children are sad and some are expressionless, but then, as they enter the brightly colored cement space constructed at the top of the stairs in an elementary school complex, they come alive. They sit up against their teacher on the floor. The ratio appears to be almost one to one.
The children sing and dance and sway and play. They enter a "space" of hope and zest. They are no longer depressed. They giggle and eat a snack. These children are without any negative thoughts or memories for an hour. The children don't need sleeping pills or anti-depressants. What they need is human kindness and physical connection. The energy level of the caretakers is high and I enter that same "space" and forget about my troubles too. I want that "space" at my finger tips for all the children who are poor and lonely in Haiti.
We interviewed two mothers at the tent village just a few hundred feet from the Toy Library. Each woman had a different attitude about her circumstances, but they both understood their tragedy. They both wanted to have a little business to earn a living to feed and protect their families. One woman believed in God and had faith to help her carry on. The other woman was very depressed and sad. The woman with faith was surely lucky.
We will look into microfinance opportunities for the tent village. And we will continue to create very loving programs to allow children to enter a "space" of love and hope at least at some point during their hard days in Haiti.
Journal Entry: Altruism in Haiti, September 18, 2014
I came to Haiti for a couple of days to work on our yearly Gala film. The film team was Christian Schneider and Dominque Taylor and I was the interviewer. I interviewed several youth who are part of the Worldwide Orphans “Youth2Children” senior leadership team in Kenscoff.
I interviewed one young staff member after another as we stood close enough to feel one another’s breath on our faces. In some cases, the youth were well-spoken in English and in other cases, there was need for a translator (Myriam) because they were more comfortable speaking in their native Kreyol.
The staff didn’t have any idea about what I would ask and none of them were present for the interviews of the others. One by one, they revealed their passion for their work. More miraculously, they discovered during our conversations that they, themselves, had changed. They shared with me about how the children had changed, but also realized that they had been transformed into generous and knowledgeable experts in early childhood development. Their speech became excited and passionate and their faces were animated with delicate muscle movements and smiles. They also cried. I cried and wiped my face to keep my glasses clear and my face less visibly emotional.
One said, “I was bad with them (children) and then I changed.” Another said, “We gave life into a life,” in reference to the changes of children living with HIV at Camp Kan Etwall. One staff quoted a camper as having said, “I want to be in camp forever.” One young man spoke of his commitment to his country and his newly born son. He wants his work to be handed down to his son so Haiti can change.
I felt such gratitude for their vulnerability and openness. I think I was a witness to the birth of altruism in Haiti.
Journal Entry: When One Child Dies, It Matters, August 30th, 2014
Felice was placed in the orphanage in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on July 5, 2012 at two months of age. Felice's mother, Margarite, was getting married and as part of the commitment to marriage, she was unable to keep her child. What justice is this for a mother to be forced to abandon her baby to marry?
As Felice grew up in the orphanage, she was depressed and gradually her belly became swollen in appearance. Her liver and spleen were getting bigger and bigger, likely from malaria, and her skinny little wasted legs hardly held her up. Nonetheless she was a bright little toddler who was curious, communicative, and cuddly.
Felice was referred to a willing couple in Chicago who had already adopted a son from Ethiopia. Ethiopia had crawled to a stop for adoptions so the parents decided to look to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for their second adoption. They visited Felice a few weeks ago in preparation for the final adoption decree. She was evaluated by a local doctor who treated her for malaria and thought that she would be fine. Her parents went back to the States happy with her progress.
On or about August 13, 2014, Felice developed a very high fever and died of complications of cerebral malaria resistant to medication. She was the daughter of two very hopeful and attached parents and the sister of a 4-year-old brother who never met her. They are grieving and in a state of shock.
Ten million children under the age of five die every year. When I started medical school that number was double, and though we have come a long way, this is not good enough. All of these children die of preventable infectious diseases -- i.e. diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria. Poor access to primary health care with lack of immunizations and unavailable oral/intravenous re-hydration for diarrheal disease is just not acceptable in 2014.
I spoke to the mother Suzanne the other night and sympathetically listened to the details of the story. I emphasized that she was like any parent having lost her child. Felice was, in fact, her daughter and the loss was deep and impossibly inexplicable and painful. I supported that they get a new referral to adopt a child. Even with the rawness of her loss, Suzanne yearned to adopt an orphan child and grow her family.
There are millions of kids in the world who need families and the state of health care for all of these extremely poor children is simply abysmal. I am mourning the loss of this one life and I ask you to mourn with me.
Journal Entry: Worldwide Orphans --Warriors in the Fight Against Loneliness, August 6th, 2014
Much of my travel to orphanages puts me in touch with loneliness. I am just back from Haiti a week ago and unraveling tangled emotions. My writing has not come to me easily.
I see faces of children… dirty, dusty, and mucous covered faces with intermittent smiles mixed with confusing affects. I sit with kids of all ages and I am always surprised that so many children can sit on me all at once when I am just one skinny aging woman on a cement wall, or a chair, or a bench, or a patch of grass on a soccer field. There is always room for one more needy waif. I am covered with all sizes of bodies and there is not one iota of my body visible, except my head.
I try to hide from loneliness… I fight hard to not admit my personal loneliness. I feel very young when I am needy and wrestle with the usual judgments about such deeply anxiety provoking emotion. I often feel judged for my loneliness by people close to me, my staff, strangers, and by me.
A recent TEDx Talk reminded me about the disturbing impact of loneliness. The talk, “The Lethality of Loneliness” by John Cacioppo, can be easily distilled into one message… being lonely is very bad for your health and causes sickness, suffering and premature death. This is enough to scare anyone to not be lonely… but in effect you can’t be scared out of loneliness.
I spend a lot of time in my work with orphans wondering about how to get rid of loneliness for them and how to replace it with hope which helps change one’s circumstances for the better.
The programs of WWO are focused on that mission. I don’t judge the loneliness of orphans. I understand that their abandonment and hurt inevitably led to loneliness and I am proud of their transparency and vulnerability, actually.
I don’t pity them and I don’t want them to be lonely, but I honor it and acknowledge it. I encourage a sweet smelling head to settle on my shoulder or I make room for someone to nestle on my lap; the loneliness subsides, but the neediness remains and I perceive surrender and trust from the cuddling child. It is so uplifting to hold and be held; magically anxiety may subside.
We are quiet in these moments of the war against loneliness.
I am always sensitive to loneliness likely because I am filled with it, but now I fear it for the millions of kids all over the world who feel this pervasive and deadly emotion. It is as deadly as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and other chronic diseases that modern medicine spends billions of dollars to cure and prevent.
No one has added loneliness to this list. It is a silent killer of hope, resiliency, and at-risk and poor children are plagued by it.
Will you be a warrior too? Join with me to fight loneliness in children forever.
Journal Entry: A Profile in Courage --An Orphan Buried Inside Herself, August 1, 2014
Trying hard to write about Haiti, but my feelings about the babies in one orphanage in the mountains of Ayiti have haunted me for over a week. I honestly can’t sleep and rest without her in my vision.
This one of many is irritable and distraught. She has one hand in her mouth and she is drooling. I examined her so that I could let her adoptive parents know how she is growing. She is teething and the pain is a challenge…no frozen blueberries like I gave to my now 14 year old when he was a year old…no frozen teething ring to quell the sting and stab of pointy milk teeth erupting through swollen and puffy gums…she is fretting in her little seat and not taking any comfort from her baby colleagues nearby.
She is not able to soothe herself, nor are my hugs sufficient to bring her down from the vigilance and fear she experiences. She is on guard like a fencer…threatened and lonely. Trapped and without protection, she is panicking and bereft of love and safety.
No staff can help her…they are forever changing diapers and blind with work effort and short on kindness. She is alone and without comfort and there are no assurances of her pain ending.
There is an epidemic of anxiety which channels into hopelessness and defeat. Then there is no expression whatsoever. Vanquished, she is silent and empty. She is gone…the very essence of her is lost. No one knows her. I don’t know her. I can’t know her. She has the courage to survive, though I wonder how. And she is buried alive, but not under dirt, though she might as well be 6 feet under.
When you read this, don’t despair…this is the life of a typical orphan in any country. The loss of attachment is fast and what is uncanny is that those who work in the orphanage don’t even see what has happened to the child. When attention is brought to the child’s lack of vitality and connection, the discussions are contentious. After 25 years of orphan work, I don’t lose my perspective. I recognize attachment issues immediately and I feel it in my heart deeply. Please take note that this is what Worldwide Orphans fiercely opposes with rich programming that is deep and committed. That said, we are also eager to not allow this to happen to children at all, ever!
Journal Entry: Not Our Children, Not Our Problem, July 17th 2014
I wrote a few very long-winded essays about the current influx of children and families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and somehow they were not what I was getting at. If I were writing them by hand, they would be crumpled paper in a waste basket.
In my car on the way to work, I heard a report on NPR about the Central American situation which moved me to where I need to be on this subject. I had an epiphany as I started my day as CEO of Worldwide Orphans. Where is our responsibility as a world community for the suffering and trauma of other humans?
Where is our humanity?
Look at the title of this blog. It is taken from a sign that was photographed outside a holding center in Texas for hundreds of kids and their families who had arrived from their journey from Central America. The children are hoping for safety and security from the unjust conditions in their countries. The sign was held by an American citizen who is threatened and afraid of a community from afar...likely not much different than she.
My work as CEO of Worldwide Orphans is focused on orphans and at-risk children all over the world. We work hard to bring orphans into the community and the community into orphanages. Most people don’t seem to understand that orphans are not usually kids without parents. Most orphans have parents and extended family somewhere if we care to find them. It was poverty, conflict, and war that likely destroyed these families and created social orphans.
Many of the Central American youngsters crossing our borders are social orphans. What has been so confusing for me and for everyone listening to the TV reports is that we really don’t get a clear story about who is coming to the US. My hope is that part of the $3.7 billion that is earmarked for human services can help aid the masses of people who are fleeing from poverty and violence in their own communities. Let’s learn about who is in the shelters on the border. Let’s hear their stories. If we humanize the situation we can begin to figure out that these are our neighbors and not our enemies.
Who is working on a strategy for the monies to help the people who are ruined by injustice in their countries? I have watched a lot of legal and immigration experts on every channel, but I have heard nothing about how we plan to help the people who came to us to escape injustice.
When we stop behaving like xenophobic isolationist silos, we might be able to prevent masses of people trying to escape abuse in their communities. We wait for crises to happen. We spend little time and money on prevention and we are in denial about the condition of the human spirit. There is such anger and suffering around the world. Everyone is stressed and impatient. Quick fixes abound. We must come to terms with the fact that kindness, acceptance, and community must rise, scaffold and cradle those who are in need, no matter what the circumstances. I live for the day when unconditional commitment to our neighbors will prevail.
We are one world and we share our problems no matter where we are on the planet earth.
Journal Entry: Self-Care for a Civil Society -- Orphans Need to Learn Self-Regulation, July 16th 2014
As I look back on all the orphans I have met through my international development work as a pediatrician and adoption medicine specialist, I recognize that the most startling aspect of the orphan is their lack of self-soothing skills.
Occupational therapists (OTs) refer to this aspect of the human constitution as “self-regulation”. OTs can specialize in sensory integration- the human capacity to integrate all sensory experience in order to cope with the animate and inanimate stimuli in the environment. Professionals like psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers who are unaccustomed to this population of kids, often disdainfully dismiss the importance of this aspect of brain function. It is even found in the animal world and still there is little attention given to it from the orthodoxy.
What does self-regulation look like? It is not a complex observation, but likely extremely complex in its brain architecture. A child cries endlessly regardless of your comforting and kind verbal reassurances…maybe after you sway/rock the child, the crying subsides. Perhaps with consistent comforting over time, one can reach the inner fragility of this orphan child. However, without adult role modeling, there is little ability for the child to calm themselves in an organized quick manner. When adults, through their handling of children, are sweet and communicative, the child’s inner resources of self-soothing grow strong and are life-long.
Enduring periods of lack of comfort lead to very odd responses for the child who has not found ways to bring peace to the dangling neurons in his/her brain. Rocking and other self-stimulatory behaviors ensue. If you haven’t seen an orphan rock all the way down to the floor desperately seeking comfort to the chaos in his head, you should. This is the ultimate result of unjust and cruel institutionalized care around the world. Some kids move in slow motion (psychomotor retardation) and don’t rock. Other kids look like they might turn their heads 360 degrees in order to protect themselves from the disorganization they feel internally as a result of sounds, touch, and smells around them.
Kids without inner self-calming skills have disturbed sleep, desperate eating behavior (hoarding), reactive responses to change, resistance to coming and going, major challenges in group settings i.e. classrooms, poor depth perception, and exaggerated responses to most environmental stimuli. These behaviors are challenging to interpret and are often misinterpreted. Kids are characterized as having attachment disorder and many do, but the focus on the self-regulation can be completely lost.
I am going to go out on a limb now, and tell you that this lack of self- calming is likely rampant in the non-orphan population too. I hope that by this point in your reading, you realize that we all may have some issues with our self-regulatory processing. We likely compensate with intellectual rationalizations which mostly includes avoidant behavior. Children become deeply depressed and their self-esteem suffers. Kids have trouble learning and success does not come easily. Many kids need special classrooms.
Without secure self-regulation, we are not civilized; we are irritable, edgy and angry. We may become violent. Think about how pervasive this necessary human behavior of self-soothing and sensory integration is and then you will see as I do….we have much to learn about civil society from the orphan.
Journal Entry: No Hand To Hold, July 3rd, 2014
On a June day when children and parents seemed lifted by the warm loving sun and school took on a spirit of the waning long study days with the coming summer just weeks away, I surfaced from the speedy New York subway on West Broadway and walked to Chambers and Greenwich. It was 8:20am.
At the corner of Greenwich and Chambers, where PS 234 sits behind wrought iron gates, children's high-pitched voices prevailed excitedly. They are delivered to school by adults -- one or two or even more mommies, daddies, nannies -- so that they are safe and ready for their classroom routines. Child protection is at work here, along with a lot of opportunities for love, connection, sharing and pride on both sides. Parents confidently hold hands with their "kinder" crossing streets in droves in a ritual delivery, a confident display of ownership and diligence. It is never questioned that these elementary school age kids should be held close from place to place during their day's activities. Giggling and holding starts the very long educational adventure.
I stopped to enjoy and observe at the corner away from the crowd that funneled into the opened gate spewing children and parents, where play ensued and adult socialization flourished. The mix of tiny and larger voices was orchestral. I was enthralled and frankly mesmerized by a mundane happening that for me, was unique and profoundly and astonishingly emotional. I remembered walking to school with my mother and then I recall walking alone or with friends... safe and sound and happy. I never had a fear as I tramped off to school all my years growing up on Long Island.
Then I thought about the orphans and at-risk children around the world who have no one to escort them to school. Most walk very long distances in harm's way... human predators abound on those roads and in the fields, eager to steal and spirit innocent children away. Nigerian girls were kidnapped as you know. Kids are stolen all over the world on their way to school or on their way to doing errands for their families.
The kids served by Worldwide Orphans Academy are parented/supervised by grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents as they leave each morning to school. Some are picked up by our buses, but most walk a long distance to the school through city streets at risk of foul play and finally, their hands are not held. Millions of children in very poor countries don't go to school or go just part time. Their safe passage is not spoken about much in any articles and books. They are alone with their thoughts on the way to school and now in the era of the Taliban/Al Qaeda, and Sunni extremists, there is fear of reprisals for girls who dare to attend school.
The holding of a hand is a loud metaphor for protection and good keeping. It speaks to the natural and developmental need for children to be protected in the years before they are adolescents. The soft and warm grasp of one hand on another is a reminder of the safety and unconditional love of a person older/wiser than the child who cares and commits to this job of safe conveyance.
No hand to hold is just another way in which we fail children on their journey to becoming who they dream of becoming. No hand to hold interferes with attachment, learning and confidence. It is surely a child's right. It is not odd that I, as a global health specialist, would be stunned and shaken at seeing a sea of children with hands held on a typical weekday morning in New York City. With that said, I am sure if I were traveling all over the United States, I would find no hands held for thousands of American boys and girls. We might have forgotten that a held hand is a powerful way to say, "I love you, cherish you and pledge to make you safe all the days of your young life".
Journal Entry: Orphans Under the Radar, June 11th, 2014
As many of you know, in addition to my work as CEO of Worldwide Orphans, an international direct service organization for orphans, I still practice pediatrics by helping parents with their adoption process. How and why I created Worldwide Orphans was inspired by my work as an adoption medicine specialist. I saw depression and malnourishment in newly arrived adopted children from China, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, et al and I decided to create an organization that would provide education, medical care, and psycho-social support for orphans. I wanted to ensure success for orphans in their own countries.
Lately, I've been receiving referrals from families adopting from the U.S., Taiwan, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and China. The numbers of international adoptions are 1/3 of what they were in 2003 (i.e., 7,092 as compared to 23,000), but the stories of the social circumstances of these children are still the same.
Today, I spoke with a family who is adopting an almost two-year old girl from Ethiopia. The girl's birth mother relinquished her daughter in September because she was a single mother and met a man who would marry her only if she gave up her child -- another man's baby. She did just that; she placed her 15-month-old toddler in an orphanage. Unfortunately, the adoption will take a year so the child will have spent over a year living outside of parental care in an orphanage, and hopefully in foster care. The adoptive parents will visit the child in a few months and they asked me what they might do to help their daughter grow normally and feel less sad. The photos show an emaciated baby with empty eyes and signs of depression.
There are some things I can't lie about. There is nothing to be done for waiting children in orphanages, unless there is foster care or trained staff who offer enrichment services like the kind WWO provides. There is simply nothing, but injustice in orphanages. Parents ask me if their visits to the child are beneficial or harmful. The visit will be a moment in time for that child; she will enjoy them after the initial days of bewilderment and shock that comes from love in an orphan's world of empty, long, boring days of "nothing." Then the parents will leave and she will be lost again unless the caretakers have training and professional development to teach them the principles of early childhood development. I would never tell anyone not to go. A bit of love is better than no love at all, in my opinion.
That said, training is affordable and professional development is quite easy to provide in an orphanage. This is an area where WWO thrives. We train staff, conduct developmental assessments, and provide psycho-social and enrichment programs to orphans and at risk children.
If I had more money, I would make the world a better place for children. YES! I just made that claim. We'd train the elderly, youth, and other caring community members to work with children in orphanages and transform their lives. Next would be transforming foster care or better yet, domestic adoption because I firmly believe that all orphans deserve permanent homes. We might even be able to re-integrate and re-unify families and improve pre-natal care and education for women.
Orphans are under the radar and they should be made a top priority. Stay tuned for news about an organization called Hopeland that will help us change it all up.
Babies, Whether Human or Animal, Need to be Attached to Live
I recently adopted a puppy from a breeder in Tampa, Florida. She is a female Havanese pup born October 31, 2014, and on December 28, she arrived in Delta cargo at LaGuardia airport in New York. My sons, who are teenage boys adopted from abroad, took this puppy into their lives completely. They named her Lemlem, which means “blossom” in Amharic, the majority language of Ethiopia. One of my sons was born and lived in Ethiopia the first six years of his life.
They hold her, feed her and walk her; they give her treats and like to watch her dance on two hind legs. We attended a puppy class this past Saturday and they took charge of her education to walk her and help with her training. They were proud and enjoyed that she was the smartest puppy in the class. She sleeps with them and bites their feet as they walk because she is teething. They talk to her with silly jargon like she is a baby and when I pick them up from school she goes to sit with one of them and curls up on a lap.
What I share with you today is about her attachment to me, my boys, my 91 year old mother, my friends and the staff at WWO. She cries when left alone and she longs for human connection. She is, finally, a sweet and clever creature who thrives on love and attention and makes us all feel good when we are with her. When I leave her and walk to the living room, she moans. When I don’t let her up on my bed, she jumps and then sits and stares at me with yearning and needy eyes. Do we need to talk about all the abandoned animals featured in TV commercials?
By all psychological analyses, Lemlem is securely attached just like a baby who has a loving and committed caregiver. What I am reminded of each day of these past eight weeks that she has lived with our family is that attachment is essential to happiness and good health. Lemlem is growing and is happy. The value of our love and dedication cannot be questioned.
One of our program directors worked on a sheep farm in Montana and was on call round the clock, charged with delivering baby lambs because the lambs must be paired with their mothers in order for attachment to be secure; if the lamb drops, the mother rejects the lamb and the lamb dies. If this doesn’t convince you of the power of attachment, I wonder what will? We can search the psychology and psychiatry literature for human behavior and find awesome attachment studies asserting that without attachment, human beings are socially delayed and challenged in intimate relationships.
How is it that there are hundreds of millions of children in the world who don’t have the simple requirements for growth and happiness? A little puppy has it and needs it…..and we should all be committed to every child born in the world in just the same way. All babies, whether human or animal, are in need of secure attachment to fulfill their destiny to be healthy and happy on the planet earth.
Journal Entry: Our Final Day in Haiti
Posted on October 8, 2013
I am so proud of the Service Ranger group from Australia. In only three days, their open hearts and love of play and connection has helped them understand the issues of international development and the challenges that at-risk and vulnerable children face here in Haiti. They have seen malnourished babies and developmentally delayed children, endured the chaos of Haitian traffic and experienced the political complexities of the work that faces Worldwide Orphans (WWO). They have also enjoyed the resiliency of the children and the commitment of the volunteers who work with WWO in Kenscoff. It was extraordinary to observe the group process each day's activities and be able to talk about their feelings and thoughts. They moved themselves to a very clear understanding of WWO goals. Read more.
Crying Voices of Starving Babies
Posted on October 7, 2013
Day two of our service trip was a very long day. We had 12 hours of adventures in the van as we meandered through the traffic in Port au Prince. The 90 degree heat and the traffic toughened us up for sure and gave us a real feel for the challenges of life on this island. We accomplished a lot! We started with a visit to St. Damien Children's Hospital and then to the makeshift Pediatric ER at the public hospital called HUEH which was destroyed in the earthquake; sheared off cement and rebar are the face of this grand edifice. Read more.
Journal Entry: First Day in Haiti, Port au Prince
Posted on October 2, 2013
I always love the first day of a trip to Haiti. It never matters that I have seen Neg Maron -- a bronze sculpture depicting a slave in the Plaza -- dozens of times in the three and a half years since I first came to Haiti just two weeks after the earthquake. And I don't tire of the view of the cathedral which stands frozen in that moment indelibly fixed with the disaster of that day in January 2010. It is now blocked off on three sides as the city is reconstructed and it took us 25 minutes to figure out how to drive closer to it. Read more.
Orphans Have No Anniversaries or Marches to Commemorate Them
Posted on September 3, 2013
Listening to President Obama's speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington brought up a lot of emotion around the struggle for racial equality in the U.S. I grew up in the second half of the 20th century and -- with all the assassinations, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War and the riots in Watts -- the fight for freedom and justice is keenly etched in my life experience. It is easy to understand why advocating for orphans around the world is the center of my life in the first half of the 21st century... and hence my nickname, the "Orphan Doctor." Read more.
Children Proud of Their Work Anywhere in the World
Posted on August 12, 2013
I just returned from Ethiopia and there are so many rich and intense images in my mind. I attended the first day of day camp at the WWO Academy on July 30. Classrooms were filled with eager, chatty children. Two kids were always with one counselor for the entire day. I was struck by the view in Art and Crafts... yes, there is no 's' for Art at Camp Addis. In my opinion, this is very original. Read more.
Teaching Child Advocacy in the Community: A Brigade of Education Outreach Workers
Posted on August 9, 2013
Some of you got back to me when I wrote about special needs orphans and at-risk children around the world and one response described the blog as a "very tall order." Likely that is true, but that doesn't change the necessity for a plan to help teach advocacy for children and their need to be successful in school. What drives the ability to advocate is the deep understanding on how children think and behave during the elementary, middle, and high school years when they are under our care. Read more.
Children and Their Learning and Behavioral Needs: Not a Luxury, a Necessity
Posted on July 30, 2013
School ends in early summer, giving children and families a chance to recover from the very busy routine of classes and extra-curricular activities that seems to take over the rest of the year. If you are a parent, you probably have shepherded your children through the seasons and spent endless hours making decisions about your children's needs academically and emotionally. Read more.
Solar Suitcases for Haitian Orphanages
Posted on June 12, 2013
At any hour of the day or night, we in the first world can flip a switch on the wall, and have light to see, to read, to cook, to do homework, to work, to send emails and surf the web, to deliver a baby or do a life-saving surgery. Most of the developing world is without power and there are no switches. There is darkness that causes a lack of education, inability to perform work, and even death. Read more.
Love and Grit
Posted on June 7, 2013
June 4 was an epic night for all those who attended the 3rd annual WWO Leadership Council event in New York. Read more.
Posted on June 3, 2013
I like the idea of a "third metric," but first let me say that power and money were never my first two metrics. Maybe they should have been, because I would have liked the power to end the "Orphan Crisis" and I would have liked more money to financially support both my foundation and myself so I'd be less stressed about making ends meet. Read more.
Blowing Kisses on FaceTime
Posted on May 21, 2013
Something happened this week that I think is unique and special... in fact, many wonderful events occur in the office in Maplewood every day because the office is busy and productive and we are all watching boys and girls around the world grow up. Let me share this story about a sweet moment. Read more.
A Golf Outing Benefitting Orphans
Posted on May 20, 2013
Seventy golfers from the United States and Canada joined together on Monday, May 13, 2013 at the Somerset Hills Country Club in Bernardsville, New Jersey, to raise awareness and money for the orphans served by Worldwide Orphans Foundation. Read more.
"Caregiver's Day" in an Orphanage in Ethiopia
Posted on May 14, 2013
What is Mother's Day for orphan boys and girls? Is this a bad thing to ask...hurtful and painful? Most kids in orphanages have no clue about this day, but one of our faithful American volunteers, Sarah Poole and her husband, Adam, did a cultural turn about for this day in Ethiopia. Read more.
Being a 'Mama': My Most Important Job in Life
Posted on May 9, 2013
Like all mothers, I remember my first Mother's Day. It was May 13, 2001. Benjamin, my youngest son, had just been adopted from Vietnam. He couldn't make me a card or buy me a gift, but holding him in my arms when he was all of 11 months old was the best and most gratifying gift for me. Read more.
In the Hollywood Hills: Closing Our Eyes and Looking at the World of Orphans
Posted on May 6, 2013
How do you share the world of orphans with a roomful of supporters halfway around the world? I was faced with this challenge as I attended a Worldwide Orphans fundraiser at the iconic John Lautner Garcia House in the Hollywood Hills. Read more.
'Mommy and Me' in Haiti
Posted on April 3, 2013
Why do I love Haiti so much? I can't say all the reasons why, but I can tell you that I am addicted because of the success of our work. In a matter of hours and some minutes we can be in Port-au-Prince and climb up the mountain to Kenscoff to see the sweet faces of the boys and girls we serve.
Each trip is a chance to also see the program through the eyes of supporters. Whether they are board members or other professionals who work with us in some capacity, they believe that WWO is occupying a unique role in the recovery of the youth and kids at risk in Haiti and they are eager to learn about our work. Their process during the trip is quite telling about how human beings can, in a matter of days, become very aware and passionate about this work. Read more.
'Witness Uganda' Review: A New Musical Probes the World of International Development
Posted on February 19, 2013
The arts can give us radical insight into our world. Now, a new play is shedding light on the complexities of international aid work. "Witness Uganda" by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews is the world's first musical documentary, based on the true life story of Griffin Matthews and his work with orphaned youth in Uganda. The play was directed by Diane Paulus and performed in workshop style at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. Read more.
'Amy Poehler in Haiti'
Posted on January 9, 2013
I met Amy Poehler at the Glamour Awards in 2009. We were two of 12 Women of the Year, and we bonded immediately. I was a fan of her work at Saturday Night Live and was very excited about meeting her that night. At dinner, she just about begged me to let her help my organization, Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO). I knew then that she and I would be friends. She has kept her promise to help WWO. She hosted our Santa Monica event in the spring of 2010 while quite pregnant with her second son, Abel, and then hosted a birthday party in June 2011 for one of our board members to help raise money for WWO. Read more.
'More on Wadley and His Family: What Every Child Needs'
Posted on January 7, 2013
On our last day in Haiti, the team wanted to go back and say goodbye to the children. I wasn't sure about this, actually. I think that I was afraid to say goodbye. Yeah, you heard me. I was so vulnerable on Saturday, that I wasn't sure that I could do it again. I was in a lot of pain about Wadley's family and how traumatized he was when I found him in the bed. Read more.
'Wadley, a Three-Year-Old Boy with Clinical Depression'
Posted on January 7, 2013
I was in Haiti last week visiting Worldwide Orphans Foundation's (WWO) program sites, as well as forging a partnership with Fundafield.org, which helps build soccer fields/programs in developing countries. Along with Kyle Weiss, his mother Lisa and sister Kira, our group of travelers included Amy Poehler, our new Ambassador of Arts and WWO Board Member Mary Knobler and her daughter, Grace. Our Puma Guy and recently appointed Junior Board Chairperson, Noah Gonzalez, brought endless soccer treats -- shirts, hats and shoes for all the kids. Photographer Kelly Campbell documented our week. Read more.
'Service Is Simple'
Posted on January 7, 2013
As the founder and CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, I travel to our programs all over the world. I enjoy my site visits for many reasons, but most importantly, it's because I love knowing the children we serve. To sit and play with children takes me away from everything and focuses and inspires my vision. Children are shiny and open and loving. The WWO staff as grown to love our children deeply and that is the magic formula for success. I can see the attachment and connection that the staff has created with children. Read more.
'Imagining My Children as Orphans: Where Is Our Humanity?'
Posted on December 31, 2012
With time off over the holidays and the Russian adoption ban, I have had time to think about orphans in a more personal way. I am usually eager to write about and advocate for orphans. This week I was interviewed on CNN and wrote a piece for The Daily Beast. I railed against the injustice of this ban and I articulated the real issues facing orphans left to rot in institutions in Russia. I was "the expert," but at the end of it all, I awakened today very vulnerable. My sober and smart talk about the cruel treatment of millions of orphans around the world finally wore me out.
'Our Outcry Against the Russian Dumas Is Self-Indulgent: Go Deeper To See The Tragedy For Millions of Orphans'
Posted on December 28, 2012
As a pediatrician and adoption medicine specialist for the past 25 years, I am not surprised by the recent threats to close adoption in Russia yet again. My perspective is that international adoption from Russia to the US has never been a cooperative and strategic endeavor. I have experienced yearly moratoria and threats of closure over and over again. Thousands of families were affected during my tenure, and I watched children and parents held hostage to a system that was never smooth or collaborative. It was, in fact, a patchwork of regional decisions that kept it going and the Dumas was always a signature away from ending adoption. Read more.
'How to Cope in a World Where Children Are Never Safe'
Posted on December 19, 2012
When I heard the shocking news of the killings in Newtown, Conn., I tried very hard to stay present, honest and conscious. I did not want to go to that easy place of denial. Like many, I felt on edge and very fragile. I am always thinking about child protection globally. A dear friend/colleague who is a fierce advocate of child protection for UNICEF, Susan Bissell, wrote a note to family and friends that clearly stated that "our children are never safe."
'The Lost Roma Children of Bulgaria: A Meeting With Dundee Precious Metals'
Posted on December 12, 2012
I just returned from a short jaunt to Sofia, Bulgaria; the fastest trip I ever planned. I was so eager and filled with excitement that I actually took notice of my enthusiasm. What was so compelling about this trip as compared to my many trips to Bulgaria over the 17 years since my first time? I was going to meet with a group of men from Dundee Precious Metals, a mining company from Canada, with three international mining sites in Armenia, Bulgaria and Namibia with dazzlingly authentic cause-related work in the communities of the mines. Read more.
'How Are Haiti and Bulgaria the Same?'
Posted on December 6, 2012
This morning a sweet young girl came into the World Wide Oprhans (WWO) office in Kenscoff, Haiti and stated that she needed to give her child up and put him in an orphanage. Jacqueline, a trained WWO youth worker, and Melissa, our program manager, talked with her for about an hour. Read more.
'A Processional for the World's Children'
Posted on December 6, 2012
Imagine you are in the quiet of a cathedral or a chapel on a glorious fall day. Then imagine this solitude and peace in a school gym where parents have filed in, in an orderly fashion from a chatty social moment to be seated in their chairs. At the Far Brook School in New Jersey, where my son Ben is a student, parents eagerly anticipate this one hour of peace, connection and spiritual inspiration on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Read more.
'My Life Started When I Came Here': Orphans and Their Memories
Posted on November 30, 2012
Children share very important feelings and thoughts about themselves at the oddest moments. You can be putting them to bed at night, or sitting with them in the car, or even folding laundry together when it happens. At bedtime, they are vulnerable and tired and close to a dream state, thinking about the day. That's often when something comes out. I enjoy listening to these wanderings of the mind. Read more.
Thanksgiving for a Newly Adopted Child: A Tribute to National Adoption Month
Posted on November 26, 2012
I am reminded every year that Thanksgiving is a precious holiday for my family. Even in years of crisis and personal challenge, this day has been sacrosanct. Des, my now 14-year-old son adopted from Ethiopia, made this holiday come alive after years of routine family gatherings. Prior years were good, don't get me wrong, but they were not as full of meaning as they have been since Des came to be part of our family eight years ago. Read more.
Death of a Baby on His Way Home From China
Posted November 20, 2012
Hello Lenore,Please cancel our November 20 appointment with Dr. Cameron. My son Lawrence Yu Huang unfortunately died of heart failure in Hefei, China on November 1, two days after I adopted him.
Kind regards, Denise Feldman
On November 2, I awoke at 3:33 a.m. and saw the light on the iPhone on the night table blink for a moment, and though I had no intention of reviewing the emails, I thought it was odd that it had blinked. Then I saw the email above. Read more.
Sandy and Orphans: There Is a Story That Connects Them
Posted November 5, 2012
It is 4:04 am on Thursday, November 1, and now that the storm has come and gone and left us with some experiences good and bad, I have decided to share my thoughts. It has been a very long week. Our kids will have had the entire week off because there is still spotty power in Maplewood. Nine thousand of the 26,000 residents of Maplewood still have no power and we are in that one-third. I pass my home on the way to town and the house seems darker than dark and it is in fact now, very cold inside. Read more.
Matt Hannon Rows to Montauk for Orphans
Posted October 17, 2012
Why would anyone row 90 nautical miles from Point Lookout to Montauk? What motivates someone to run an ultramarathon for 60 hours? To climb Mt. Kilimanjaro? Worldwide Orphans supporters did all of these things to raise money for orphans and vulnerable children. And in the process, they've built awareness among their friends and family. Read more.
Orphans and God
Posted October 2, 2012
It's a late Indian summer night and the sounds of crickets are co-mingling with the whistles of trains going by. My sons are asleep and I am working. What is on my mind is what orphans think and know about God. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have come and gone. I am watching the Yahrzeit candles in their glass vessels flicker on the marble counter top. Read more.
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone Help the World Remember What's Important
Posted September 16, 2012
This weekend Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield were photographed on the street in New York City holding up homemade signs, expressing their desire to advocate for their favorite charities rather than be photographed by the paparazzi who were following them. The photo can be seen in: OKMagazine. Read more.
Arrival Day for an Orphan: From Anonymity to Permanency
Posted September 11, 2012
It was twelve years ago that our youngest son, Benjamin, arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam when he was adopted. Our family calls this day "Anniversary day" and "Arrival day" -- every adoptive family has their own name for this day because it is poignant marker of the moment a child transitions from an orphan's life of anonymity to a family life of permanency. Read more.
Gratitude in Las Vegas
Posted August 27, 2012
Throughout my travels, I am continually amazed at the generosity of people who have opened their hearts to the cause of orphaned and vulnerable children. Last week I attended a fundraising event for Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) in Las Vegas, hosted by Martin Storm and his wife, Sandra Ferguson. Martin is the global president and CEO of BMM, a successful gaming software certification business with 13 offices in 12 countries around the world. Read more.
My Son's Nature Lesson in Haiti
Posted August 22, 2012
We went to Haiti as a family so that our boys would learn about the country and its children, whom I love deeply. We also wanted the boys to do service with the children and youth in the Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) programs. Anyone who has been following my blogs knows how I feel about Haiti. Once I went there after the earthquake in 2010, there was no chance that I would not return again and again. Read more.
Posted August 20, 2012
We are back in Port-au-Prince after an amazing morning in the Haitian coastal city of Jacmel, where we visited Ciné Institute, Haiti's only film school. The school was founded by David Belle, a documentary filmmaker and philanthropist, and aims to give Haitians a voice through the power of film. Read More.
Camp Haiti: Miraculous Moments for Children Living With AIDS in Haiti
Posted August 16, 2012
I am visiting Camp Haiti, high in the mountains of Haiti, five miles north of Kenscoff. This camp -- a partnership between Worldwide Orphans Foundation, SeriousFun Children's Network and L'Envol -- is the first of its kind: a camp for children living with HIV/AIDS in Haiti. The altitude is about 3500 feet, but it feels higher because the journey was so frightfully arduous. Read more.
Home and at a loss: The Experience of a Mission Abroad
Posted August 15, 2012
Our team of Worldwide Orphans Foundation staff and supporters has just dispersed after three intense and emotional days in Haiti. For those of you who travel to far off places to do service, this essay will be familiar for you, but for those who dream of service or who just enjoy reading about it, this will be the inside look at the the emotional experience of heading home after such journeys, where deep connections between people have been created. Read more.
Soccer, Toys and Companionship for Haiti's Orphans
Posted August 10, 2012
Our travel group in Haiti is dispersing after three amazing days visiting with the Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) Soccer Program. We bonded quickly, fell in love with the children and were intoxicated by a sense of purpose that saturated our perspective and renewed our commitment. We are also afraid of leaving and losing the connection to one another and the children. If you have ever been on a mission, this is the desired and inevitable trajectory of the intensity of the work. Read more.
Kohl #14 Is Here With Us in Haiti
Posted August 9, 2012
Our arrival in Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince was a happy moment for me. Showing off Haiti to my sons begins. I love explaining the steps through "Immigraysion;" Creole signs will always mesmerize me and I want the kids to understand the sweetness of the Haitian people as they walk alongside the rocky, uneven roads of this country. After a traffic-free ride through Tabarre to Petion-ville, LaBoule, and Fermathe, I ask the kids what they think about Haiti so far. Des says it is poorer than Ethiopia and Vietnam where they have been twice thus far. Read more.
WWO Soccer Tournament in Kenscoff, Haiti
Posted August 9, 2012
As we stepped out of a red metal door onto the makeshift soccer field, the children were already drilling for the game. These seventy children -- orphans from Les Amis de Jesus and Joie Timoun Yo (Joy for all Children) and children from the local community -- had been working hard for the last two months to prepare for this day. Now they were ready to kick-off the very first Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) Soccer Tournament. Read more.
What Happens When an Orphan Dies?
Posted August 6, 2012
I live in a community, Maplewood, N.J., where people care deeply about one another and when a young boy in our hometown was diagnosed with a brain tumor nine months ago, everyone mobilized and made a plan to support the family. This 12-year-old boy, Kohl -- one of triplets -- died in the early hours of July 24 and left his family and friends devastated and reeling with loss. Read more.
Seal: An Inspiration for Orphans Around the World
Posted July 19, 2012
Two years ago, Seal co-hosted the WWO Gala at Wall Street Cipriani and wowed us all with a special performance. I have never forgotten how inspired we felt as he sang alone on stage to help us raise money to support education, enrichment and health care for the orphans served by WWO. This year the WWO Gala will honor the strength of the orphan, and so we are creating a film that includes interviews with high profile adults who were orphaned as children. Read more.
Spider-Man and the Amazing Superhero Inside Every Orphan
Posted July 2, 2012
As a child, I was captivated by all the superheroes created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko from Marvel. Back then I didn't know who the creators were, and I didn't quite comprehend the concept of the superhero archetype, but now I understand. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were young men, born in the 20s, growing up in a complicated and challenging time...economic depression, war and holocaust. Read more.
Summer Camp Is for all Children Around the World: A Child's Right
Posted June 4, 2012
My kids -- like so many around the United States -- are busy getting ready for summer camp. They are anticipating who their bunkmates will be and what adventures they will have -- sports, swimming, nature hikes, sailing, fishing, camping, ghost stories, campfires, plays, arts and crafts and songs. But millions of kids around the world don't have anything to look forward to when school lets out. They spend summers isolated, listless and even hungry, since schools often provide the only full meals kids get. That's why the Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) is bringing camp to Vietnam, Ethiopia and Haiti. We want to make sure every kid gets the chances to enjoy this rite of passage. Read more.
Posted Apil 26, 2012
Why would the CEO of a U.S.-based NGO that works with orphans and vulnerable children in Haiti (and other countries) take Creole lessons? The answer is eezy peezy lemon squeezy... let me tell you. I first went to Haiti right after the earthquake on January 27, 2010 so that I would be able to speak in an informed way about the issues children faced in the midst of this devastation. Read more.
Haiti Journal #4 - Culture, Literacy and Medicine
Posted April 23, 2012
There are many ways to learn about cultures and people around the world. In Haiti, store signs are symbols or photographs, not words. That's because few Haitians read anything except the Bible. Literacy is very low. If I could change one thing for the people of Haiti, it would be to help everyone learn to read. Read more.
Haiti Journal #3 -- The Highs and Lows of Fieldwork
Posted April 25, 2012
A few weeks ago, the WWO Global Arts Coordinator, Christine Hall, and Jed, a volunteer, came to the Community Center in Kenscoff to teach dance to the youth in our WWO Youth2Children (Y2C) program for a week. During our visit we were lucky enough to see the results. With the help of the Y2C trainees, the kids put on a dance performance. The show was outstanding; the kids implemented complex choreography with energy and enthusiasm. The house was packed and the audience clapped appreciatively. The teachers looked on proudly. Read More
Haiti Journal #2: A Visit to Our Toy Library and the Problem of Social Orphans
Posted April 24, 2012
From the minute I woke up this morning, I was anticipating the excitement of going up to Kenscoff to see the kids at the tent camp, the orphans from Les Amis de Jesus orphanage, the WWO Toy Library, and the dance performance at the Kenscoff Community Center. Read more
Community and the Death of my Good Friend, Tersh Murdoch
PostedApril 21, 2012
While parked, I decided to quickly check my email to make sure that I wasn't missing some crisis at work or a nice note from a friend. I read two emails and then, at the third, just stared with disbelief and confusion. My study buddy and dear friend from medical school was dead at 59. His wife, Elaine wrote me a kind and loving note informing me that Tersh (Dr. Alfred Murdoch III) had died on April 3rd of a sudden illness. Read more
Back in Haiti - Journal #1
Posted March 27, 2012
I am back in Haiti and very happy to be here. People are friendly and open although they are constantly by challenged poverty and lack of opportunity. There is hope here, and I'm not sure why. Neg Mawon, the sculpture of a black slave calling other slaves to revolt, is emblematic of survival and resiliency. Read more.
Why Do I Keep On Dancing... And Fighting?
Posted March 26, 2012
I was with some colleagues today discussing the plight of the children of the world. Sometimes, I think that if I just keep talking, something will come of it. I'm optimistic and hopeful even though the statistics are ugly, alarming and outrageous. Tony Lake, head of UNICEF, wrote a beautiful piece for Lancet in 2011 in which he referred to the loss of developmental potential for children in the modern world as an "outrage. Read more.
An Adoption Plan With A Happy Ending
Posted February 16, 2012
As an adoption medicine specialist for more than 20 years, I have read and agonized over the social histories of thousands of children adopted domestically and internationally. These stories are fragments and secrets of a rich fabric of dysfunctional family life from all corners of the world in 196 countries, whether rich or poor, large or small. Most of the time, I have only been given a sliver of what is likely a complex and worthy life of a very young birth mother who may not have ever menstruated or a woman raped and beaten, birthing a precious life all the same. Read more...
WWO: Trusted and Valuable Resource within Haitian Community
Posted January 25, 2012
Since Haiti's devastating earthquake two years ago, WWO has been in the process of adapting our current program models to fit the needs of children who have been affected by the horrific tragedy. Our successful program models of physical and mental health and education support are all desperately needed and...Read more.
Remembering AIDS Orphans on World AIDS Day
Posted December 1, 2011
On World AIDS Day, observed Dec. 1, we remember the millions of precious children who have been orphaned by the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic and who are living with this disease on a daily basis. Read more.
Elena's Story: A Story on the Effects of Abandonment
Posted October 25, 2011
I want you to know Elena. To know Elena is to have the privilege to observe the effects of abandonment and recovery. She gives us a sweeter, tender way to enter her world of darkness from being left over and over... again. I will tell you her story, but first... Read more
Abandonment of a Baby: Jail and Adoption are not the Answers
Posted October 11, 2011
I started my day at 6:30 am on Oct. 9, reviewing a pre-adoption medical abstract from a country abroad for a lovely American family. I am wearing my hat as Dr. Jane, the adoption doctor today... When I saw this little boy's photos in my inbox from the Jones family, I was eager to learn about this child. He was sweet and shiny and alert, just a few months old, and I felt hopeful for a moment. Then I read the social history. He was found by a local older woman on the grounds of the market place when she heard his hungry cries. Having had babies herself, she knew that distinctive cry and raced in its direction. She found him swaddled tightly in a colorful scarf and he was clean and not ill appearing. She picked him up and felt a crinkly paper note under the scarf, which upon inspection had his date of birth and given name. He was a month of age and she instantly felt compelled to hold him close. (Read more)
The Trouble With International Adoption Is not Trafficking: It's the Global Orphan Crisis
Posted September 20, 2011
This blog is in response to a September 18 article in the New York Times, by John Leland, on the trafficking of babies in China.
Over the 22 years that I have been an adoption medicine specialist, there have been many historic moments where the legitimacy of the adoption of children from abroad has been questioned and revealed on TV and in print media. Countries have closed at these moments, leaving children stranded in orphanages, parents without their children and accusations of trafficking. Inter-country adoptions have gone from 23,000 in 2005 to about 11,000 in 2010 with fewer and fewer choices available to families looking to adopt from abroad. (Read more)
What Do Orphans Think About at the Amusement Park?
Posted September 8, 2011
I sat on the couch in my den tonight with my 11-year-old son, Ben (adopted from Vietnam as a baby), helping him tend to the 53 mosquito and flea bites on his legs and back from a summer of fun and escape. We visited friends and family each weekend, capped off by a trip to Niagara Falls and Canada where our dear former neighbors from Maplewood, NJ, rented a cottage in northern Ontario. They enjoyed road trips to the beach, swimming eight hours a day in a friend's pool on the North Fork, sports camp, robotics, mountain biking, camping on an island in Lake George, fishing, freshly baked chocolate croissants, tubing near Shelter Island, card games of any sort you can name, and a 1500 mile drive to Canada and back. (Read More)
Partnerships... Smarter, Cheaper, Kinder
Posted August 9, 2011
I awakened at about 3 a.m. today, eager to write and get some work done. An email in my ever-growing inbox (I emptied 200 emails just 24 hours ago in an attempt to clean house) arrived telling me about some very nice work that their organization was doing for disabled... (Read more)
Abyssinian Princess on: Inspiration for all Orphans
Posted August 8, 2011
I awakened early on Saturday, July 30, eager to participate in a special event while visiting a friend on Shelter Island, an island at the eastern end of New York's Long Island. Their sweet and sassy 4-year-old daughter, Aliyah Temanesh, adopted from Ethiopia more than three years ago, was about... (Read more)
Reunifying Ethiopian HIV Orphans With Extended Family
Posted July 18, 2011
Integrating orphans back into their own communities and cultures is a key aspect of the mission of Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO). WWO has worked diligently to complete psycho-social assessments on the 39 orphans with HIV/AIDS who reside in Des's Village, an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We learned a lot... (Read more)
Helping Haitian Orphans Through Sports and Community Building
Posted July 14, 2011
Journal from the field #3 -- July 4, 2011
This is the second in a series of two blogs from Dr. Jane Aronson's mission trip to Haiti to investigate the plight of orphaned and vulnerable children from June 28-July 2, 2011.
What do kids do all day... (Read more)
Improving Daily Life and Health for Monley, a Haitian Orphan
Posted July 14, 2011
Journal From The Field #2: July 4, 2011
This is the second in a series of blogs from my mission trip to Haiti to investigate the plight of orphaned and vulnerable children from June 28 to July 2, 2011.
I became reacquainted with Monley, a 6-year-old Haitian orphan, and his...Monley's Parents (Read more)
Monley's Parents Are Dead, But Is He Really an Orphan?
Posted July 11, 2011
This is the first in a series of two blogs from Dr. Jane Aronson's mission trip to Haiti to investigate the plight of orphaned and vulnerable children from June 28-July 2, 2011.
My recollection of Monley, a 6-year-old Haitian boy, is that he was trapped under rubble and... (Read more)
Visit to WWO Programs in Varna, Bulgaria on International Children's Day
Posted June 6, 2011
Journal from the field #2, June 1, 2011
Dr. Aronson in Bulgaria, May 28-June 2, 2011
While in Bulgaria, we met with the head of UNICEF in the Bulgaria office, where I outlined our work goals for orphans and vulnerable children in Bulgaria by sharing information about our Granny... (Read more)
Effectiveness of WWO's Bulgarian Granny Program
Posted June 6, 2011
Journal from the field #3, June 1, 2011
Dr. Aronson in Bulgaria, May 28-June 2, 2011
The WWO Granny Program is very successful as reflected in the qualitative quarterly reports from our team in the 10 orphanages in Bulgaria. The first phase of the program, however, shows the damage... (Read more)
Accelerating Progress to Help the World's Orphans
Posted June 6, 2011
Journal from the field #4, June 2, 2011
Dr. Aronson in Bulgaria, May 28-June 2, 2011
After a week of meetings dedicated to interim care planning, foster care, group homes and domestic adoption in Ethiopia and Africa, followed by a week of meetings with government officials in charge of... (Read more)
Ethiopian Orphans Are Growing Up With a World of Possibilities
Posted June 1, 2011
Journal from the field #2, Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia, May 23-27, 2011
I've traveled from Ethiopia to Bulgaria and am finally adjusting to the seven-hour time difference both countries share with New York. Still having some trouble sleeping, but making some progress, though last night I... (Read more)
Bulgaria: Changing Orphans' Lives
Posted June 1, 2011
Journal from the field #3, Dr. Aronson in Bulgaria, May 28-June 2, 2011
I arrived from Ethiopia in Sofia on May 28. Mark Beukema, Worldwide Orphans Foundation's (WWO) director of programs, and I have been traveling through the beautiful Bulgarian countryside to hold incredibly productive meetings... (Read more)
What Does a Bar Mitzvah Have to do With the Fate of Orphans Around the World?
Posted May 27, 2011
Journal from the field #1, Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia, May 23-27, 2011
This trip has been hard on me. Traveling to Addis Ababa took 25 hours and then another hour just to get through customs and bag checks. But I was happy to be in Addis... (Read more)
The Death of a Mentor
Posted April 11, 2011
I have looked for mentoring all my life...I have yearned for it and sought it almost desperately. There were fortunately some giants in my life and I am grateful. I write this note at 5 a.m. in the morning on April 9 to honor the philosophy and importance of mentoring.. (Read more)
Fulfilling a Childhood Dream to Build a Home
Posted March 14, 2011
San Antonio Del Mar, Mexico - This is the second of two blog posts from a volunteer home build with Homes of Hope - During the build, some of us gravitated to one another to complete tasks because we liked certain skills. I found painting very relaxing and I think... (Read more)
Working Together to Build Homes for a Mexican Family
Posted March 11, 2011
San Antonio Del Mar, Mexico -- My son, Des, is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah in May. A service project is encouraged for the Bat/Bar Mitzvah. Des has done service in Ethiopia where my foundation, Worldwide Orphans Foundation, works with orphans and vulnerable children, but he wanted to do something... (Read more)
Changing my Medical Practice to Make Room for a Vision
Posted March 9, 2011
After more than 20 years of running a primary care pediatric practice for children adopted from abroad, I've decided to change my practice. I'm not stepping away from being a doctor, a dream of mine since I was 3 years old, but I am removing the daily pediatric care of... (Read more)
Dr. Aronson in Haiti (Feb) - Journal #4
Dr. Aronson in Haiti (Feb) - Journal #3
Dr. Aronson in Haiti (Feb) - Journal #2
Dr. Aronson in Haiti (Feb) - Journal #1
Dr. Aronson in Vietnam - Journal #3
Dr. Aronson in Vietnam - Journal #2
Dr. Aronson in Vietnam - Journal #1
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia - Journal #8
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia - Journal #7
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia - Journal #6
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia - Journal #5
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia - Journal #4
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia - Journal #3
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia - Journal #2
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia - Journal #1
Returning home from Haiti Journal #5
Dr. Jane Reports From Bulgaria (part II)
Dr.Jane reports from Bulgaria (Part I)
Dr. Aronson in Haiti - Journal #4
Jan. 28-29, 2011
I am on the plane back to aux Etats Unis… my home which I love and appreciate even more each time I travel far away. I am tired and eager to see my family…my boys, Ben and Des. And I want to see the piles of snow that fell two days ago. What a January!
I have been home since 9 pm last night (Jan. 28) and although I was tired, I stayed up and hung out with my boys. I eventually went to sleep after unpacking and doing some laundry. I awakened early on Saturday to shovel the car out of the driveway and then I took my kids skiing. I didn’t ski because I was too tired, but I caught up on email and watched my kids come down the slopes.
Then we visited my almost 89 year old mother at her assisted living home and watched her play bingo.
Our Team in Haiti
I’d like now to introduce you to the incredible team joining me on the mission trip in Haiti.
Bella is a 14 year old girl who lives in south Jersey and who I met through her family just recently. She is not just an ordinary young woman; she has an extraordinary eagerness to change the world. She and her mother and father came to Haiti to make it a better home for its citizens by bringing solar energy and economic strengthening. And they joined WWO for a day to learn about orphans and vulnerable children in Haiti.
Bella brought clothes for the children that she collected from school friends. She also brought her sweet nature, open heart and fearlessness. And you can see from the photos of her with the children that she will help change our world. I am grateful to her for being so loving; her gentle play with Jaline, a 4 year old little girl (the size of a one year old) who nearly died from starvation made me content as I watched them play together. Bella made a lot of new friends at Dam Biah, an orphanage where 75 children are living in torn tents with little food and education. The school has about 335 children, but most of the attention goes to the community children, some of whom come from surrounding tent camps. Bella smiled and laughed and gave everything she had to give that day. Thank you, Bella.
Bella’s Dad, David is a warm, natural and innovative man…totally in the moment discovering a world he has never seen. He turned 52 years old on Wednesday night, January 26, and we had dinner at a restaurant in Port-au-Prince to celebrate. I let him complain about being 52…I am such a good sport, right, David! We are grateful for your work in Haiti to provide solar panels to develop businesses in Haiti.
Bella’s Mom, Isabella, did something very special for me that I will always remember. I needed to go to International Medical Corps (IMC) at the Haitian Relief Organization (HRO) camp to find out about vaccines for orphans. Isabella accompanied me down to Block A in the 90 degree heat just quietly talking and sharing the moment with me. I think that we walked about a ½ mile into the bottom of the camp. The camp has changed markedly since I last saw it a year ago. Now it is a tent village of tens of thousands of people living peacefully. HRO Camp has a superb medical center at the top of the hill where the 82nd Airborne had their MASH unit last January when the earthquake occurred. The scene last year when food was scarce and people were ill and depressed was scary and chaotic. You may remember the stories that healthy men were keeping the food donated by World Food Program and not sharing it with women and children. This is no longer the same place. The camp was a very peaceful place today. I stood in the exact spot where I stood a year ago, looking down at the camp and across the city thinking that indeed Haiti has come a long, long way in this terrible year.
Kathi Juntunen is the director of Chances4Children, a 5 year old generous orphan support organization that works in Haiti. Kathi and her husband, Craig, have three children adopted from Haiti and live in Arizona. The Juntunens are a hard working team devoted to orphans around the world. Craig runs Both Ends Burning which advocates for more efficient and ethical practice for international adoption to ensure that more orphans will have permanent families. I spent the week visiting Kathi’s program sites so that we could create a partnership for WWO and Chances. We dreamed together this week and enjoyed the vision of growing our programs. We both are very excited about implementing some of the models of WWO i.e. toy libraries, music, art, dance, theater, photography, camp, and sports to orphans. Can’t wait to get started….
Harry Leibowitz, President and Founder of World of Children, and his son Craig Leibowitz, a filmmaker, came to Haiti to see the work of some of their organization’shonorees. Susie Krabacher, Director of Mercy and Sharing, is a WOC honoree and has been doing orphan support work in Haiti for 15 years. In 2006, I was an honoree for my work in Ethiopia, Vietnam, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Azerbaijan. I met Susie that year.
Harry and Craig visited Susie’s school in Port au Prince. Harry has been all over the world visiting the programs of many of the 90 WOC honorees for the last 14 years. The Leibowitz father and son team, followed Kathi and I and really got to know Haiti. There’s nothing like kidding with Harry! He taught me some very important American expressions like “My bad” and “I’m good”. Thanks for improving my ability to articulate my deepest thoughts! Thank you to Harry and Craig.
Margaret and Jerry, filmmakers from Partisan Pictures in New York City, were my shadows for the week. They shot every breath and word I uttered. They helped me interview the children and learn about how they feel about their lives in Haiti. They were a lot of fun even though we were looking at a lot of sadness and deprivation; we needed to keep our wits so that we could accomplish the work planned for the week. Their balance and compassion were appreciated.
Dr. Aronson in Haiti - Journal #3
Jan. 28-29, 2011
I woke up just now with Katy Perry in my head...yes, I was humming the song “Firework” …. "Baby, you're a firework..."
I am now seated in front of the mirror in room N at the Villa Creole in Port au Prince. I see my tired old face with a neck that is beginning to show that yes, I am 59 years old... My big blue eyeglass frames are fun and I am smiling because I was literally lifted and propelled from my sleep singing Katy Perry's very hot and inspirational song, "Firework". This happens a lot for me when I spend a week in Haiti or Vietnam or Ethiopia or Bulgaria where I am with orphans all day. I’m filled with their sad faces and followed and touched by them because they want my attention. They want anyone who will help them feel the human touch and make them feel a sense of connection and vitality for a moment… they'll take whatever they can get. You walk around a compound at an orphanage in Haiti and you are followed by children; they become like your accompanying little fish in the sea -- symbionts so close and yet so very disconnected. You don't need to tell them where you are going because they are around you and know how to follow you, clutching onto your clothes. If you stop, they get closer and may even stop you from going somewhere for a moment...but then they always let you go because they can follow you perfectly. The children are so very eager for you to stop and look at them. I know this feeling for myself, but let's not talk about me...
Orphans Need Art, Music and Recreational Sports in their Life
Let's talk about the death of the spirit of children all over the world. That is what woke me up this morning. These children were without affection and without art, music and sports and theater and dance -- everything! Children were dying while I slept. Their hearts and minds were like the dimming kerosene lamps that were all over the orphanages that were so dark, stinky and filthy. All I could think of was how that kerosene would ignite something and burn and kill those precious babies. They are dying every moment when they live this kind of life....dying souls...dying, dying, dying.
I’m writing this journal on early Friday and I get to go home soon to the two feet of snow in Maplewood, New Jersey. My children, whom I miss, are for sure sleeping and dreaming of the fun that they had in the snow on Wednesday. I just popped up at 4:25 am thinking about the fact that the children I met this week in Haiti have no music in their lives... nothing creative in their lives. There were no mirrors in the orphanages so they can't see themselves and if someone takes a photo of them, they see it perhaps for a moment, and then it isn't for them. It is for us so we can show people how much they need and want, how cute they are, how sad they are, and how tragic their lives are. But we steal the photo and take it away with us and they don't see themselves. They can't watch themselves grow up. We touch them and love them for a moment and that is fine, but then we leave. We ask them questions and find out about their deepest feelings of loss and we know that they have these feelings. We film them because they need to tell their stories. So they tell me their stories and I see them, really see them, and they are real for me. I know their names and I take away their memories of dead mamas and papas. I think about how WWO can help kids have better mental health. I begin to dream about how we can use music, art, dance, theater, and soccer to help kids express themselves and feel better and feel stronger. We do this in other countries...no brainer. I am going away and I am leaving them now; I will be back, but they don't know this. I feel badly and I am sorry that I opened their wounds without healing with them. I am so sorry Djempsy, Fryzhelly, Watson, Jean, Christophe -- all of you. They are "paper thin"...and so am I.
One of the best moments this week was when I filmed the kids singing a song about the history of Haiti (something about Haiti being mountains surrounded by water) on my iPhone and then showed them the film of themselves. They couldn't get close enough to the little screen on my iPhone and they laughed at themselves. Their big smiles, white teeth and velvety black skin were so close to me. I was loving their joy so much that I almost fell off a cement platform that had been poured the week before as part of the construction of a new bathroom. There I was seated in a child's straw chair an inch away from the edge and the kids were laughing and pointing to themselves as they watched the film. I didn't fall off, but if I had, I would have laughed and had the satisfaction of the power of their excursion into a new world...the world of discovery of self.
One young man, Djempsy, whose photo accompanies the Facebook journal this week, spoke to me very quietly about his dream to become a singer. I fell crazy in love with him. He wore a hat and had a glove on one hand. Had he seen a Michael Jackson video? He was so cool, but very depressed (he had psychomotor retardation...he was in slow motion) and so interior and dark. I suddenly got this idea to play the iPod app on my iPhone. I searched for Katy Perry's song “Firework” and clicked it on the screen. I played it loud and he and the other kids stopped fidgeting and turned to the magical iPhone. They don't see iPhones, folks. People have cell phones and Blackberries, but I didn't see any iPhones in Haiti this week. Now go download “Firework” and listen to the words. In my opinion, it’s poetry and words that are for orphans and for me and anyone who needs inspiration. I keep putting it on as I write this note and I find myself moving in my seat. I stop my writing and raise my arms up in the air singing the words.
Last Saturday, Jan. 22 (before departing for Haiti), I was with my kids and one of their buddies in the car on the way to ski at Hidden Valley Resort [in Vernon, NJ]. It was early in the morning say, 7:30 am, and we were off for an adventure, after a bagel and hot chocolate early morning car picnic. And I set the auxiliary and plugged in my iPod and cranked up the volume. I picked “Firework” and as the music exploded; we were all dancing and humming "moon, moon, moon" and the car was shaking. I turned it off abruptly as we drove up on the highway. I asked the kids what the song meant and if they knew the words. They knew the words of a lot of songs, especially my almost teenage son, Desi. He mouths and sings the words of songs on the radio all the time. This song was new for them and they didn't know it as well as others. I knew the song better than they did! The minute I heard it a few weeks ago, I memorized the words. This song meant something to me, and I wanted them to listen to the words. I said a few lines and then told them that songs are poems and people who write music are poets. Their friend’s father is a musician and writes music for movies. I told her that her father was lucky because he could express himself by writing music which then made people happy.
In Haiti, there we were in a dark and sad place...an orphanage. And we were outside in the sun on a tiny concrete platform, listening to Katy Perry singing “Firework”. The kids were glued to me as we walked back to the front of the orphanage. They were listening to the song and I was saying the words. They were swaying and humming; they really got it and Djempsy was staring at the iPhone. I pushed the music closer to his ear and told him that he could make this music too. I told him that I would help him have music. My eyes started to fill up with tears. How does this happen to children? No music. No art. No fun. No poetry to identify with. No identity to have. No looking at your face and knowing yourself. Not fair, not fair!
I heard a lot of songs this week. The kids sang Creole songs that I didn't know and the songs were fun and the kids were happy when they sang for us. One little girl, almost 4 years old and very malnourished, named Jaline sang very quietly about Jesus. She just recently came into care after almost starving to death. I had to get closer to her to hear her words. She was a depressed little one, but the singing animated her a bit. These kids need to be raucous and wild and loud and boisterous...
WWO Programs for Haiti’s Orphaned and Vulnerable Children
WWO will make life more fair....We will bring music, art, plays, and dance to orphans in Haiti. I will sing “Firework” a lot to keep myself from crying about what they don't have. I am looking at myself in the mirror in Room N at Villa Creole in Port au Prince and I am crying as the roosters crow louder. I am going to click on Katy Perry and listen to some poetry.
Below are the words to the “Firework” song, but you need to play it loud on your iPod and stand in front of a mirror. Then you will start to sing and dance and feel so good that you won't recognize what you see in the mirror. I am a doctor and this is my prescription at 5:25 am from Haiti where it is 80 degrees and sunny.
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind
Wanting to start again
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards
One blow from caving in
Do you ever feel already buried deep
Six feet under scream
But no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there's still a chance for you
Cause there's a spark in you
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
Cause baby you're a firework
Come on show 'em what your worth
Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!"
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
Baby you're a firework
Come on let your colors burst
Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!"
You're gunna leave 'em fallin' down-own-own
You don't have to feel like a waste of space
You're original, cannot be replaced
If you only knew what the future holds
After a hurricane comes a rainbow
Maybe you're reason why all the doors are closed
So you can open one that leads you to the perfect road
Like a lightning bolt, your heart will blow
And when it's time, you'll know
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
Cause baby you're a firework
Come on show 'em what your worth
Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!"
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
Dr. Jane, signing off for now
Dr. Aronson in Haiti - Journal #2
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The last two days have been long and busy. My heart and head are filled with the faces of Haitian children; all of them are too cute for words. Every little face is sweet and I am mindful of how eager they are for a life that all children need and deserve.
Visit to Orphanage, off Toussaint Street in Pétionville
There are so many stories to tell. I love the Creole word for children, timoun. So let's start with what I saw on the corrugated metal wall, next to an orphanage referred to us through actor and humanitarian Sean Penn's Haitian Relief Organization (HRO). The words "Championa Timoun" ("champion of children" in English) were painted on that wall. (See the photo attached to this journal.) The words were written by a man who has been trying to help about 53 orphans. He also wrote his name and address on the wall contiguous to it. We didn't have a chance to meet him, but we met the children and some caretakers who were not so pleasant....tough and likely overworked.
The children were living with very little resources in a 20 x 20 feet space at the top of a very inaccessible road. They were dirty and not stimulated. I found them seated in the dark on benches in the orphanage’s designated school area. They seemed distant and afraid...They sang for us and were not so eager to connect. I checked out a wooden shelter in the space that had been built by an "aid" organization just recently...for free. There were old bags of rice filled with clothing and then a pile of bags of rice from Guatemala. Toussaint Road was outside their door and we struggled up that road past tented family homes and shanty homes. The HRO team told us that the area around their camp in Pétionville (HRO has been located on the premises of the Pétionville Country Club since Jan 12, 2010 when the earthquake occurred) was dotted with enclaves of orphans, who were unregistered and managed by adults. The kids were malnourished at this little orphanage and I was anxious and annoyed frankly. Under these circumstances, there was no way for us to help these kids because they might not be here long and one day might abruptly be gone and untraceable. Obviously, there was no game plan for these kids. The director was not around and the HRO people said he was incommunicado with them. HRO wants to provide medical care and any resources to help orphanages around them, but staff told us that the director has likely formed an alliance with other organizations or has decided to not accept help from HRO any longer.... No direct communication about this occurred, but the lack of answering the cell phone and change in the reception at the place is indicative of this.
Overall, there is a real lack of strategy in caring for orphans in Haiti and this is just one of thousands of examples. It is about desperation and this is how it plays itself out. That said, this director sees himself as the "champion of children". We can't work with people when there is no accountability and that would end in corruption. We moved on to the next orphanage hoping for a better moment. Sadly, we got back in the car and met the treacherous road again, slipping down a wet dirt road on our way to another orphanage called Dama Biah.
Visit to Dama Biah orphanage (as referred to us by HRO)
Alexi, director of the Dama Biah orphanage, is gentle and eager to speak with us. This orphanage is on a huge plot of land with five tents on the upper plateau of the land; and a huge tent sits below. The two sites are actually separate. The big tent is where over 335 children attend school. These children are community children who have families and some live at the HRO camp and others have their own homes in the area. The school has volunteer teachers and we join a class of kindergarteners. Their teacher is young and enthusiastic. She stands in the middle of the room correcting workbooks held by each child who is standing in line to work with her individually...just like any other school in the world. The rest of the children are seated quietly on the ground. They were very receptive to us. They sang and enjoyed our company as I asked them some questions: What games do you like to play? They yelled out answers and were eager to talk to me. These children did not cling or glom onto me or my team. They had families and were just like any group of healthy children with permanent families. And they were clean and neat and their hair was not covered with areas of baldness from fungal infections.
About 75 orphaned children reside on this site, but due to the cholera epidemic, they were kept separate from the community children. The director had decided that the community children brought cholera into the compound. I felt sad about this decision because it didn't make any scientific sense, but this is again how things can play out in this crazy world.
Asking Probing Questions to Identify Orphans’ Needs
I brought together a little group of 15 children and we all sat on a rocky area and started to talk. I had a translator and Jerry from Partisan Films filmed our conversation. I love talking to children and getting to know them; this is what I always try to do when I’m visiting a country. I learn from them and they also feel happy when someone takes an interest in them as individuals. I asked them their names, which is a challenge since I don't understand Creole that well. There were two older boys who headed up the group. This happens a lot where older kids are like parents to the younger children. It is sweet, but can go awry in the night. Sexual abuse can certainly occur in settings like this. The ages of this group were about 6 years old to teenagers.
I asked the children lots of questions: Do you have parents? Where are your Mama and Papa? Where did you live at the time of the earthquake? Were you hurt when the earthquake occurred? Were your parents hurt? Were your parents killed in the earthquake? Do you have sisters and brothers? Aunts? Uncles? Grandparents? How did you get to Dama Biah? What is your favorite school subject? Why do you like that subject? What games do you like to play? Sports? What do you want to be when you grow up? Why do you want to be a mechanic? Doctor? (after they answered) What are your dreams for the future? Do you think about your families? Would you like to have a family of your own when you grow up? Would like to have babies of your own? What will you teach your children?
Some of you may think my questions are too personal or stressful, but please understand that these questions help children to speak about their sadness. All of the children are eager to heal and be happy again. They all have some losses and are trying to just be children. Certainly there are many ways to help them, but I want to really know them and figure out what WWO can do for orphans here (and all over the world). I want to make sure that we are direct and honest about how we provide programs for kids in need. And these kids are like most kids living in extreme poverty around the world. They have endless unquenchable needs for love and affection. They loved being in this little group all huddled together and getting some attention. I found that they were all clever, alert and vital.
So the answers came with some prodding on my part. I am a funny prodder. I push and make fun of them and myself, and then I sort of beg them to tell me what is in their hearts. I told them that I want to help them feel better....I know that they are sad and I name that sadness. They become more relaxed and answer the questions with excitement after a while. They want to be mechanics and doctors and some want to play soccer. Nearing the end of this tete a tete, a young boy of about 8 years of age with a dirty face and fungus all over his head, tells me that he misses his Mama and dreams of her at night. And that is likely the truth for all these lovely and sweet vulnerable children.
Kids will most often tell the truth, but I’ve found that the translators are often a challenge in each country. For this trip, I found that the translator, though lovely and smart, was not willing to ask my questions in the way that I was asking them. He kept changing the questions so as to protect the kids...likely. I think he disapproved of my questions on some level and wanted to avoid asking such personal questions because he thought the kids shouldn't be talking about such issues. I understand this conflict. In the future, I need to sit with translators beforehand and work to get buy-in from them. That way, the questions can be asked in a culturally-sensitive way and will enable the children to explore their deep sense of loss and hurt. The kids were very connected to one another during the chat and were very connected to me after the session. The two older boys came to me and each of them took my hand and walked me up to their tents and showed me where they slept and ate. They pointed out the tears and holes in the tent and told me that the tents needed to be fixed. They were proud of their tent and frankly I was proud as well. The tents were clean and neat homes in a terribly tragic corner of the world.
I was crazy about these two young men and felt as if WWO could help them reach their dreams. They both wanted to become something in life and wanted families and babies some day. They had hope. WWO’s programs can provide them with organized sports and art and music. We could develop a mental health program that would include focus groups and also a more sophisticated education system with curriculum that would help kids to achieve and go on to higher education or vocational training. These kids are not lost yet.... They would greatly benefit from a camp experience to learn life skills as well. They could be counselors at camp and leaders in this world.
I felt sad to leave them, but in fact, I also felt good. The resiliency is definitely there and we pried it open a bit. We can enter their world and make a difference.
I washed my hands at the entrance of the orphanage and several children joined me. We laughed and washed one another's hands. Then we left to see the HRO medical facility up the hill. We were off again onto the treacherous Toussaint Road to Pétionville Country Club, now the site of the HRO camp. More later...
Dr. Aronson in Haiti - Journal #1
Dr. Jane is back in Haiti, celebrating a year since her first trip
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
It is 11: 45 pm on Monday night, Jan 25, 2011 and it will be a year that I came to Haiti for the first time on the 27th of Jan, 2010...and I have been back a few times since then and it finally does look different. I hear dogs barking loudly outside and I could swear that I am in Ethiopia. The dogs come out at night in Addis and bark all night so if you find it hard to sleep, Addis is not the place for you! And now, maybe Haiti is not the place for you either...but both places are just fine by me. The flight was a quick 4 hours; when compared to my recent travel to Ethiopia last summer and then Australia and Vietnam for the Christmas holiday, it felt like I had taken a train to New York City from my home in Maplewood, New Jersey. That is likely a good deal of the attraction of Haiti...it is very close to the US. I can't help myself when I tell you that I look forward to coming to Port au Prince. I begin to anticipate the sweetness of the people ...friendly and smiling. The music that greets us at the airport is inviting and whimsical. And yes, that was all there today...smiling faces enticing me to smile back and I did. I felt like I knew everyone at the airport and I gave a thumbs up as we smiled at one another.
The crowds were oppressive and annoying, but at the same time, there was the comfort that other people were coming and going even though everyone is saying Haiti will never be fixed. Nou Bouke is said and seen about town, which means "We're tired" in Creole. And yes, the people are tired especially this past week because Baby Doc came back and then left and then came back. Maybe former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will be back any moment, as well. Who knows? And who can understand all of this political nonsense? I can't, so I return to the main purpose of my work in Haiti. There are hundreds of thousands of children living in squalor without proper nutrition, without adequate primary medical care, and barely enough education to give a child a chance to rise up and out. I must be here...no choice I guess for now. The rubble is cleared away from so many places that were once unpassable. There are new construction and banners everywhere which announce re-openings of schools, clinics, pharmacies, stores. Some are grand openings and new addresses head the banners. Yet, the roads are still choked with cars, trucks, Tap Taps, and people. The street life was flourishing today...more alive than ever. Every kind of goods was hanging on walls, hooked on doors, spread out on roadsides, and piled high in supermarket baskets and wheel barrows. I took a lot of snapshots of the street chaos today. It was an eye-candy and in fact I let my window down and took iPhone photos all the way back to the hotel after our afternoon at the Rosemina Foundation orphanage. The drivers of our two cars were each sure that their way to the next destination was better....but we let them work that out. Of course, we got lost for just a few minutes and had to double back to find the right address. I am happy actually to see that no matter where you are in the world, finding an orphanage is challenging and even after you go a few times, you will still miss the entrance and get a bit lost. People’s lives also seemed different. They were still living in tent cities, but there was order to that life. I could see at the end of the day, that people had returned from work or school and they were lining up as in a routine to get clean water at the entrance of their tent city. And everyone had that expression of "It’s the end of my day and I can't wait to get home to my family". And there were men and women who were dressed really nicely and neatly, even though they might have slept in a tent for the last year. They were living a routine life now and that was a given. The contrast between the rubble and crushed buildings and the new construction and neat walking commuters was pleasant for me. There was always excitement and eagerness wherever there were little groups of children in school uniforms hanging out and on their way home from school. That was really fun to see. The kids were dressed so carefully, especially the teenage girls, with uniforms that had some individuality reflected in a belt and stockings or a sweater and beautifully coiffed hair. Their faces were shiny and clean. They were going home to do chores and homework amidst the chaos of a nation almost destroyed in a matter of seconds just a year ago and a history of child slavery and tyrannical leaders.
Visit to Rosemina Foundation orphanage
Off to Rosemina Foundation, an orphanage run by Pastor Rolande Fernandez, an elegant woman in her 50s whose grounds house 86 children. Mostly children have families in some location, but no one is collecting this information. Case management by a social welfare system doesn't seem to exist in Haiti. These are what I call "social orphans"; there is a parent and likely some extended family, but they are too poor and not educated. Many believe that being in an orphanage is the only solution. So the kids here are protected from harm and are getting an education and some food. The rooms are barely recognizable as bedrooms...the babies are on mats or in beds… the older kids are on the floor. Sanitation at the orphanage is non-existent. Toilets are being constructed and amidst that construction is one commode in a quasi outhouse with a door swung open. I couldn't resist taking photos of: the toilet that likely is draining into the open grounds; four new sites with the PVC tubes up from the ground; and then potties in the back filled with kaka and flies buzzing about. I didn't get too close because I gagged just from looking...
Then there was an area of dusty earth covered with those reinforcement bars still connected to pieces of concrete. I stood and photographed this and wondered where this mesh of horror came from. It was certainly the same mesh of death that filled the streets just months ago, and was what was left after the earthquake. In many horrid ways, it symbolized for me those moments when 200,000 to 300,000 human beings were killed in just a flash. So I really stared and was stuck with the memories I had a year ago when the streets were unpassable and the bodies were still being pulled out of the rubble. I needed to contrast that with the beginnings of a new Haiti. I see a new Haiti. Unlike the media, I think that for a country with such a dark history, they have survived a tough year well. The kids in the orphanage are happy when we arrive. They are loud and physically crowded together to meet and greet us. I am in there touching faces and making Bronx cheer noises and gesturing to them to look at themselves on the iPhone camera. If you click a little icon it allows the child to see themselves like in a mirror. It’s such fun when they can see themselves in the photos. They squeal and want the camera. I run away, but am chased and surrounded. Toddlers have their mitts in my pockets pulling out my pens, my passport, and my earphones. I move away and tuck these items deeper into my pockets and distract them with a ball that Harry has brought as a gift. Let the fun begin! I start hitting the ball like volleyball and they catch it and throw it back to me. They don't know the game of volleyball, but they love the back and forth...and then the kicking begins. They finally start playing soccer. More to come...
Dr. Aronson in Vietnam - Journal #3
Credentialing of Orphanage Staff and Increase in Vietnam’s Social Workers
We end up in Ms. Tien's office eating TimTams, our favorite Australian cookies, where we exchange lots of ideas. I learn from Tien that orphanage staff are now required to be credentialed. This is good, but training is required, and she is eager to fulfill the requirements for her staff. She will utilize the Catholic church across the street to help with the training. I am very impressed by how resourceful she is and am grateful, but the big picture for all of Vietnam is to have a strategic plan to train staff in institutions. Frankly, it would be best to create smaller group homes, foster care and community care systems so that orphanages could disappear.
I see the beginning of all of this because the growth of social work in Vietnam is explosive. The opening of social work programs at university campuses across the country is striking. Dozens of new social workers are graduating and populating communities in cities, creating the needed infrastructure to build capacity in the community. That is what WWO is part of: strengthening a network of community based organizations (CBO) that are helping people to rebuild their lives especially if HIV/AIDS has affected the family.
I heard about staff training coursework that has already been created at the Open University. The coursework is in Vietnamese and I advise Ms. Tien to have it translated into English so that it can represent a “best practice” in staff training for others to learn. I told her about the Better Care Network (Unicef) and how it reaches hundreds of NGOs around the world who are focused on OVC (orphans and vulnerable children); she feels my excitement and recognizes how such translations with the Lin Xuan authorship, in collaboration with WWO, could benefit millions of OVC around the world.
We have a wonderful meeting of the minds and take many photos as a group. We are all inspired to work harder for the children. I am genuinely enthusiastic and hopeful even though it is very hard to forget how lost those children are upstairs as they continue to stand vigilantly in their cribs holding onto the rails or lying flat out on their backs on their mattresses, delayed and lethargic.
I was very inspired at one moment during the meeting with Ms. Tien when I looked up above our meeting table and noticed a color photo of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader and former Vietnamese prime minister, at a desk writing outdoors, but I can’t tell exactly where. He is in a white tunic with leather sandals and his hair is short and his classic beard almost appears trimmed; he is focused on documents and working hard. I point to it during the meeting because it symbolizes the vitality and drive for literacy, industry, independence, and success in Vietnam. I took a photo of this photo; it is likely an old black and white photo that has been colored and used commercially all over Vietnam to celebrate their hero, Ho Chi Minh.
Lunch at restaurant/Reflections on Orphanage Visit
We left the orphanage for our lunch at Brick restaurant, which was quite a treat, and then for my afternoon visit to the Family Resource Center. “Brick” is the English translation for this architecturally-handsome building, which was built by an architect and eventually turned into a restaurant.
At the restaurant, a goldfish pond is situated in the middle next to toilets and stone sinks. The tables are cut from large tree trunks and left natural except for some stain. There is a Christmas tree made of swatches of colored cloth; and the restaurant’s front doors are holes filled with pretty colored cloth designs. The food was fresh, tasty and spectacular for $5 each person. We enjoyed rice, peanuts and cilantro, spring rolls, chicken and noodles, and salad with fennel. And as we filled up, we were never overfed and full, just comfortable and happy.
My visit to the WWO office was amazing. The employees who I have never met were enthusiastic. The space was neat and organized. Each person had their own desk and laptop. The open space allowed for laughter and lively conversation as they all solved problems together as a team, and then there was silence as they worked and focused.
I loved the loose-leaf binders with the financial statements and praised the finance associates for their great work. I adored the kitchen where they cooked or heated their lunch and joined one another each day to relax and chat. The esprit de corps is obvious. I photograph them all at their desks happy and satisfied to be working for WWO.
PACCOM, Vietnam’s NGO Licensing Office
Tam next took me for the very important visit to PACCOM (Vietnamese NGO licensing bureau) where I met Anh, who heads the organization and gives us our annual NGO license. She is elegant and gentle. Her English is perfect and kind. She is dressed simply and casually in slacks and a more formal blouse. Her hair is classy….shoulder length and straight….black and shiny. I am fascinated with her beauty, smart conversation and grace. She went to the opening ceremony for the Family Resource Center in August 2010 and also visited WWO’s Camp Vietnam. Her investment in our work is obvious and she takes the licensing seriously. It is her personal stamp of approval and I show her how grateful I am by bringing her a traditional basket of fruit. She is very appreciative. I wrote her an email of thanks last night along with other thank yous for the kindness that people in Vietnam have shown WWO.
Family Resource Center in Ho Chi Minh City
Finally, the day ends with my visit to the WWO New Partners Initiative (USAID) Family Resource Center. The Family Resource Center (FRC) serves as a training site for service providers and social work students, as well as a model site in providing quality case management, psychosocial programs and direct services to orphans and vulnerable children and their families. This initiative has been a labor of stress, challenges and love for us. We’ve experienced fits and starts and stops and a grind on all sides, but it is the most worthwhile effort of all of our programs around the world….I am overwhelmed emotionally by what this program looks like.
All I could do was cry once I entered the room with the families, children, social work student volunteers, and the WWO staff. The actual activity room is maybe 10 by 15 feet. There are contiguous offices that are separated by a sliding door for volunteers and NPI staff, and a counseling room for families and social workers. The room was jam-packed with children reading and playing with their family members and the volunteers (social work students and NPI staff). The room was hot and humid, but everyone was happy, eager and loud. The resource room has a library with books and families have library cards. There are some toys, but we should consider creating a Toy Library like we have in six orphanages in Bulgaria…A map highlights the locations of communities where we’ve conducted outreach, a list of activities, and the scope of work. All of that preparation over the last few years has paid off in my opinion. I wish that there was less paperwork involved because it takes valuable time away from programming and service, but frankly, the program is rich with substance and is changing the lives of children. WWO has created a way for families who would have been destroyed by HIV/AIDS to be recreated and preserved.
During the visit, I met Dinh who is an aunt to four siblings who lost both parents to AIDS. She is tiny and sweet and likely not much older than me…in her sixties, but she looks older and yet happy to meet me and shake my hand that day. Dinh’s 6 years old niece, Mai, is HIV positive and is enrolled in the local public school for first grade. Dinh is grateful to WWO for FRC. I learned that she has a 13 year old nephew who was doing drugs and running with a bad crowd. Yet once he found support at WWO’s FRC, he stopped taking drugs and actually told the social worker that he turned his life around because of the support from WWO.
I also met Yen (pronounced E and then N), a social work student, who will graduate soon after Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. She has worked for WWO as a volunteer for two years, and is also a camp counselor for Camp Vietnam. Yen is eager, caring and working hard with the kids when I first meet her. I met all volunteers and the NPI staff. They are young and happy to be in this very tiny space full of vitality and hope.
Powerpoint Presentation on Family Resource Center
A presentation of how the FRC works is then given for me personally in Vietnamese and English on Powerpoint by Nguyet, our Psychosocial Program Manager. I’ve known Nguyet for a long time and she is such a fabulous speaker that day -- enthusiastic and proud as she points to the slides and photos. Music accompanies the slides and it evokes my tears. Tam gave me a copy of the presentation to take home to show others. [I watched it again when I returned home to the U.S. I am completely mesmerized with the content. I see more now because I have time to focus. I love the photos of kids learning life skills….washing and brushing teeth.]
During the presentation, Nguyet tells us a funny story with accompanying photos about how one of the NPI staff was on a country road and his bike went off the road; he is photographed calling for help to get himself out of a ditch. We all laughed. And then there were photos of counseling given to family members and adolescents.
We need to grow FRCs all over Vietnam as a partnership with the Vietnamese government through the Schools of Social Work. This could potentially be the foundation for community organizations all over the country. Is there anything like this?
I would love for WWO to meet with Vietnamese government officials to propose this very large project. I am dreaming already. The project is just amazing and brilliant; I feel so proud of our organization and the way in which the Vietnamese students and staff have made this all work so well.
Following the presentation, I’m introduced to Nhan, a university professor who is involved in mentoring for FRC. She is a mentor to Nguyet and is from Open University in HCMC. I admire her scarf and ask where she purchased it from; she answers and then gives it to me as a gift. I am so grateful…and will share it with Diana who adores scarves.
We finish up the afternoon by taking a photo of all the children, family members, volunteers, and NPI staff....That night we all go out to a restaurant where you can pick your food before it is cooked. The place is packed and we are lucky to get a table. Tam had made a reservation; otherwise we would have waited at least an hour judging from the number of people waiting to be seated as I left that night.
Final Reflections from Vietnam Mission Trip
I sit at my desk at the Sofitel Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City and am writing about the day. I finished the journal at my home in New Jersey at 4:39 am on Mon., January 3. Although I am still jet lagged, I feel re-vitalized and clear about my vision for transforming the lives of orphans all over the world. Family Resource Centers would change communities and prevent children from being placed in orphanages. Families would be strengthened and kids would be given a chance to have a successful, productive life. This would be the best bang for the buck. And so much of what we do at WWO would fit into this effort in all countries. Global arts, education, sports, toy libraries, medical services, psycho-social support would all nest in these FRC. More about this in the future……….
Dr. Jane Aronson
Dr. Aronson in Vietnam - Journal #2
Monday, December 27
A year can go by and Vietnam looks shockingly different. I imagine that when I return at the end of 2011 for my next visit that it will look different yet again. The growth of Vietnam is magical and confusing….communist/socialist/capitalist. Foreigners are present everywhere on the streets and in the stores. Business investment from outsiders is obvious and appears to be overtaking everywhere you look. Korea, China, Japan. All are building bridges and roads. Russian ferries took us to Vung Tau, a bustling port city in southern Vietnam. Even the airport is not the same. New construction at Tan Son Nhat airport was shocking...gorgeous and organized and easy to get through in a matter of minutes after arriving arrival from Australia.
And yet antiquity is everywhere as well which pleases me and all tourists who dominate city life everywhere you go. I saw more new hotels than I saw three years ago. The glittery skyline with lights for Christmas and our New Year (not Tet, Vietnamese New Year) abound…A sixty-something story business building that looked like Citicorp was located just across from the ferry station and was visible from Sofitel Hotel where we stayed this visit. Searchlight beams of light rotated through the sky every night to highlight the coming celebration of the secular New Year.
My kids were enthralled and looking in every direction because there was too much to see. Their last trip to Vietnam was in June 2007 when we were here as a family for Ben's first trip back since his adoption in summer 2000.
As we drove from the airport, we saw endless examples of industrialization and modernization. The motorbikes filled the streets as usual, but this time, even my kids noticed that the biggest change was that the new helmet law was being enforced. Two years ago, helmets were required by law, but I have to tell you that this time was visibly shocking. As we rode in taxis through Ho Chi Minh City, often referred to as HCMC, last Tuesday, Dec. 28, we noticed that some children were still not wearing helmets, but most were. The traffic was intense in all parts of the city, but I hear that only 20% of city dwellers will remain here for Tet (Vietnamese New Year). I was told that the traffic will actually just disappear fort that time because most people who live in HCMC will go home to be with their families. I hope that I can come back during Tet just to see this phenomenon.
We arrived in Vietnam about 4 pm on Monday afternoon, Dec. 27, which was 8 pm Australian time. Our kids were expectantly tired, but still excited. We were greeted at the Sofitel by the hotel manager which was quite special (thanks to Altour and Kristine our travel agents) and we went up to our room and settled in quickly. We took the boys to the outdoor pool on the 18th floor so that they could enjoy a view of the city and some well-needed downtime. The view was exciting....all these very tall buildings with gorgeous designs and lights. The skyline is forming in HCMC, not tombstones like New York, Sydney, Melbourne, .etc.... One day soon, I will come back and there will be a skyprint of skyscrapers, for sure.
The night was warm, but there was a gentle and cooling breeze. The temperature here is 31 degrees Celsius, which is 87 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the weather was generally in the 70s and below in Australia, I was happy to be a bit warmer.
Tried as I might to get to sleep, I was too hepped up to lie down. The kids and Diana fell asleep easily and then I checked my emails and read "Vietnam News". Key for me was the news about new laws to allow more foreign investment in banks and businesses along with tight regulation. And there were articles on education reform with an emphasis on how class size would be changed from 40 children in a class to 20 children. There were even some comments about individualization in learning as a new approach to improve the quality of education. These are notably shocking changes in a socialist/communist political system.
Early on Tuesday, Dec. 28, we ate a fantastic mix of traditional Vietnamese breakfast of sticky rice and soup and the typical fabulous fruit and breads along with the American style of breakfast. The kids enjoyed waffles and syrup and chocolate croissants (French influence is still strong); and I ate a lot of fruit and Vietnamese noodles.
Diana said the coffee was fantastic. Coffee in Vietnam is often made with condensed evaporated milk and is quite strong. We will look for this coffee again. “Highlanders” coffee is like Starbucks here. I will check and see where this business comes from because the stores are ubiquitous.
Dr. Aronson in Vietnam - Journal #1
My arrival in Ho Chi Minh City is likely the same each time I come to Vietnam. I am always excited because my son Ben as born here, and because WWO Vietnam is growing and I am eager to meet the team and see the children and how they are changing. Finally, I am surprised because Vietnam is like an infant growing and changing miraculously fast.
Off to visit WWO Vietnam programs, countless motorbikes on the streets
Tuesday, December 28
The day after our arrival, Tam, acting director of WWO Vietnam, and the team greeted us in the hotel lobby at 8:15 am; and we were off to start our day at Lin Xuan, an orphanage formerly called Tam Binh 2. Lin Xuan is now independent and has been named after an area of Ho Chi Minh City called Lin Xuan. I loved our 45-minute ride in the morning rush hour traffic. There is so much to see and learn about the city and its people. The life that abounds along the streets is simply mesmerizing. There are short, discrete motorcycle beeps punctuating the scene of the lives of millions of people along the streets (7 million people reside in Ho Chi Minh City, often referred to as HCMC). Men still squat at the curb cooking traditional Vietnamese foods or carry a baby on their back. Others wait for a bus or a pick-up by a family member on a motorbike.
The flow of the throngs of motorbikes is eye-filling and almost relaxing visually. Some motorbikes are out of the flow, but they make their turns and end up back in a new pack. Helmeted drivers and their families push forward to their destinations....all focused. Their eyes are not readable. I try to make eye contact with the drivers, but there is none. However, the lack of eye contact doesn’t mean that people are not friendly because they are very friendly and kind when you meet them in other circumstances. Even at traffic lights, there is little to no engagement from the drivers. They look in our vehicle and then quickly look away and continue on their journey. And that seems fine. We are strangers. They have a plan for their day and it is busy and productive. Families of three, four, and even five are on a bike. At each stop, a family member goes off to their day--school, daycare, nursery school, a job. Along the routes, thousands of bikes are parked at businesses and parks. They are lined up and waiting for their owners to return for another trip. Sometimes I think about how I would love to be on the back of a bike with that family to learn about their adventures.
I watched a very unusual Vietnamese movie on the Vietnam Airlines’ flight to HCMC and learned a lot about the conventions of daily life in Vietnam. So, by the time I arrived in Vietnam, I actually had some sense of the daily family culture. The movie was narrated in English by the same person who translated all parts as the actors spoke in Vietnamese, but are not heard. Very odd, but the movie was a common story of how people behave and misbehave.
Visit to Lin Xuan Orphanage
Back to the trip to the orphanage.... In Vietnam, a lot of government buildings display banners in red and yellow with Vietnamese writing everywhere, including the banner that fronts the orphanage entry. The banner reads: this "institution is for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS". It’s right out there for all to see. When we finally arrived, I was saturated with the driving experience and ready to see the children. Ms. Tien, the director of Lin Xuan orphanage, is someone I known for a while; for many years, she was second in command when the orphanage was run by Mr. Trung. She is now in charge and has grown in her experience. She could not have been more welcoming and eager to show us the children and spend time talking about our future together.
We first enter two separate classrooms with the familiar faces of teachers who I’ve known for years. These dedicated and devoted retired women have appeared in the films of WWO. They have been teaching at the orphanage for years despite their family and community disapproval -- and even threats -- because the children are HIV positive. The kids in the two classrooms are wearing traditional blue uniforms from the community schools and they look well-dressed and eager. There are school desks and each student has a writing tablet with lines so that they can practice writing their letters perfectly like the teacher has done on the chalk board…..and her writing is artistic and gorgeous.
The children are happy and enjoying the teachers’ conversation. They are well-behaved and studious when we peer over them and smile and praise them. Even in English, it is obvious to them, that we are delighted. The fact that HIV positive kids are not able to enter public school until years later looms large and is a thorn in our side. We have worked relentlessly change this. A law exists requiring that the children go to school, but implementation is left completely up to the provincial government and orphanage directors. We learned that some of the older children are in school and that our advocacy work in Lin Xuan and in the north at Ba Vi is gradually having some effect…..but not enough for me. Destigmatization is a must for both children and adults living with HIV; and we must continue to forge ahead on this front.
We scrambled up the shiny tile steps to each level and greeted the children in classrooms, and then we visited the babies and the toddlers in their cribs. Where to begin first....?? I am so enthusiastic to tell you about how lovely the care is and has always been actually. The staff, dressed in light blue uniforms, is busy and engaged in their exhausting daily tasks to keep the children clean and fed.
The babies and toddlers have had their morning baths and smell sweet. There is not a soiled diaper to be seen or smelled. The toddlers stand in their individual metal cribs holding onto a railing with one hand and another hand in their mouths due to teething pain. At first, they are not connected or engaged with us, but as we all come into the room and take off our shoes and begin to “coochie coo” them and pick them up, they are coming alive. Some take a longer time than others, while some kids don’t ever connect. They are depressed.
If I look back at this scene, I am sad and broken-hearted actually. I see their sad and empty faces. Yes, they are clean and fed and loved in a way, but they lack unconditional love and commitment, which is the core of what makes a baby happy, healthy, and developing on target. Some kids came alive with our sweet voices, but they fall back to their baseline instantly. Some kids just can't make that jump and are lost inside. These children tightly grip your finger, but look down or away -- or worse, they tremble with fear. Some become irritable and cry, for no reason, other than that they are blue, sad and depressed frankly.
No matter how nice Lin Xuan is, we are all aware -- even my sons -- that in the end the kids are not happy. How can they possibly be happy lying on their backs for hours or standing in a crib for hours with nothing to do and no one to be close to and relate to? We come up with a quick answer: WWO has an early intervention program at the orphanage called Hieu Roi Thuong, which means “understanding through compassion” in Vietnamese. And we just start saying what comes to mind -- they need "Aunties".
The early intervention program at Lin Xuan is well-established and successful. This program trains and employs “Aunties”, who are retired schoolteachers, child care providers and nurses, to work in orphanages to enhance the growth and development of orphans. It only costs $30 a month for a baby to have an "Auntie". We meet the Aunties shortly after we leave the infant and toddler room; and we see the happy children and their happy Aunties.... After a conversation with the WWO team, we figured out that the reason not all children have access to unconditional love from the volunteers and community is due to space and perhaps some politics...but mostly space.
The orphanage has a new "psycho-motor" room so that kids can exercise and get physical and occupational therapy. It is a great moment to have created this space to now provide another level of stimulation, but the room is small and not every child will get these services. Upstairs, as we discover who is cared for by an Auntie, we realize that there is a triage system in the orphanage. Like in Bulgaria, the orphanage director makes decisions about which children get intimacy and stimulation. The decision is guided by psychologists in Bulgaria, but I’m still mystified by how these decisions are made at this orphanage. Some directors of the orphanage decide that the neediest kids will get "Grannies" (as they are called in Bulgaria), while other directors decide that the healthiest children will get Grannies. And here in Vietnam, I see the enthusiasm of the staff about more Aunties being utilized, but mathematically speaking, there is not 100% coverage for all the children at Lin Xuan and that breaks our hearts as outsiders seeing the bigger picture. These children are growing up unattached and depressed. It affects their potential physical growth and causes failure to thrive and impacts their ability to learn and become intellectually successful. The results are disastrous. Kids who age out of orphanages often end up on the streets depressed and succumbing to drugs. Many are trafficked as child prostitutes. The cycle of poverty continues….
2010 Dr. Jane Aronson's Mission Trip to Ethiopia - Journal #8
Return to New Jersey and the last days in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
I‘ve been back since 12:30 p on Wed, August 3 and have just about settled into the usual daily routine. I am jetlagged and after 6 hours of excellent sleep; I popped up to pee and to work.
I met Des (who is likely on my same crazy jetlagged schedule) in the bathroom, but he is 12 years old and went back to sleep because his body has won and is taking care of him well.
On the last day in Addis, I met with the four students who are Orphan Rangering in Addis this summer. I have written about them already, but that morning I really understood their amazing and awesome value to WWO.
Sharing Experiences, Lively Discussions with Orphan Rangers
We met in Dr. Sophie’s office and had a marvelously lively sharing experience for two hours. The students each presented their work thus far for the summer program and we discussed what we thought of the work. We were free to ask questions and to play with ideas so that we could improve the work and learn more about how our conclusions can help the children that WWO serves. Both Dr. Sophie and I eagerly participated in contributing our life experience as parents and as pediatricians.
Where to begin, as they say? What most fascinated me was the discussion about culture. The two students from Mt. Sinai, Thao and Elizabeth, worked very nicely together, reinforcing that Orphan Rangers work best in at least pairs. In this case, the four students were so compatible that you would have thought we designed their work beforehand. Alas, we didn’t, but in a way everything that we endeavor to study at WWO in each country is inevitably about child development, mental health, and academic performance. The way that orphans look in each country -- based on their unique experiences -- is what we care about. How we help them to grow up to be independent in their own settings is the final question, and we approach that question in many ways.
The discussion ended up focusing on the lack of cultural congruency in Ethiopia when administering the Denver Developmental Screening Test to our population of children at WWO clinic. More than 90 assessments were performed by Thao and Elizabeth and although they didn’t yet have the statistical analysis, they knew the challenges and strengths of the tool.
What was most interesting was our discussion about Ethiopian parenting. Much of the test does not reflect how Ethiopian adults parent their young children. Dr. Sophie volunteered personal experience as a child growing up in Ethiopia and her own parenting of two lovely boys, Didi and Kiki who are currently now in college in the US. The sum of the discussion was about how Ethiopian parents do everything for their children and that raising them to be independent is not a goal or objective. We learned about how impoverished children in Ethiopia often don’t learn their colors, and how there are many items on developmental screens used for orphans and vulnerable children that are not applicable and not relevant….What’s a lake? Who cares what a lake is? WWO is currently involved in a long-term project to ensure that standardized tests for developmental assessments are relevant and translated into the language of every country where we are working. We are currently translating the Bayley III into Bulgarian and Vietnamese…next stop Amharic.
Then I contributed my passionate belief, based on child development theory (at least for American children), that children hunger for independence from the minute they are born; I have bought into this body of literature and parent in this fashion. I boasted about how my boys can do laundry, shop, cook, go to the movies on their own, eat pizza out with friends at a local bistro in town, make their own play dates, walk or bike to those play dates, shower and wash their hair, pick their own clothes, and even plan for long term projects (with some parental guidance) from school. And they can pack a suitcase on their own for a trip after a simple discussion led by the two of them, even picking which piece of luggage they prefer. I am proud of Ben and Des and want them to be capable and proud of their good self-care and freedom that comes from having the skills to be independent early on in life. I guess I don’t want them to be as I was -- a bit delayed emotionally in my ability to go away from home and take good care of myself. There you have it….I admit often that what finally gave me the independent life skills I needed was likely from sleep away camp and also trial by fire in the Sixties….
So there we were in Yeka subcity of Addis discussing what we finally need to teach orphans to be completely independent and successful citizens in Ethiopia. The student projects were about discovery and we were able to piece a story together that morning to figure out how to work with orphans as they grow up. And the kids served by WWO are growing up fast. They are no longer babies and will age out. We must focus on life skills now so that they can be safe and secure as they leave us. They are not ready to leave at this point, but the information that we are learning from our assessments show the challenges. The children at Des’s Village are sweet and socially adept in their world. They are charming and know how to connect and attach to their caretakers and to one another. This is a great feat in my mind because it has made them strong and content. Anyone who meets them comments on their confidence and warmth and easy engagement.
Are they overly friendly? Yes, for sure. They are orphans and that is one of the significantly sad moments for orphans…Because of the lack of secure attachment with a parent early in life, they become very clever at connecting superficially with parent figures in their world. Some of these relationships can develop and be quite substantial if the child is in a family-like setting such as group homes like Des’s Village. The great success of SOS Villages and other similar organizations is the family-like setting where there are caring adults committed to a few children in a small dwelling. In this setting, they must have ample food and can learn and live long term until they are ready to go off on their own. WWO has done a great job with these kids. Earlier, they had connections from Atetegeb orphanage where they lived with [foster mother] Haregewoin and her caretakers until April 2009 when she died suddenly. They bonded as a large family of 42; and now 39 of them (2 adopted/1 death) live together in an environment of trust and security. These children hope to attend good schools so they can graduate from high school, learn a vocation or go on to higher education to become strong adults with families of their own.
What we face now is that they are developmentally delayed. They had no pre-natal care, were malnourished in their primary family homes, and further malnourished in Ethiopia as orphans and HIV has its very deep effects on brain development. Most of the older kids now need substantial investments in special education. They need to be in private schools where the number of students is small and we can provide them with individualized educational plans (IEP). We must strategically plan for job training and education that will finally allow for them to be out of the orphanage and in the community, not on the street creating more orphans or participating in a sub-culture of misdemeanors and crime. Some of the counselors at Camp Addis are already involved in such planning through SOS, Selamta (Human Capital Foundation), Artists for Charity and Hope for Children programs.
We have all done the easy job actually…They have the guarantee of shelter, very delicious Ethiopian food, clothes, soccer uniforms sometimes, new Crocs, camp, and loving caretakers. Dr. Sophie treasures them and knows them. And they have supporters/donors from WWO and other organizations who financially support orphans around the world.
Here, they are in classrooms in the public school with 80 children in each class. The children often cannot learn and be happy in this setting; an Orphan Ranger reported about their difficulties in school this year…Working with student tutors from the community have also revealed their special needs. I am completely mystified and baffled about education in developing nations where kids are stuck in such warehouses and no one distinguishes the children as individuals with their very idiosyncratic learning styles. Most of these children are kids who would be characterized as special needs kids in modern cultures all over the world. I am sure some of you are reading this and thinking that we aren’t much better off in the US regarding special needs kids in the public school system and you are correct to be nodding your heads. This is a pervasive world issue. It is the next frontier for children around the world. Education is as key as environmental protection….and food security and maternal infant health…and on and on.
Not only are there 163 million orphans, there are huge special educational needs that we are not even discussing publicly. It is easy to feed everyone from what I’ve seen in my travels to developing countries. But once you feed children, you cannot just be satisfied; fed children are not going to be able to grow up and be on their own. There is so much work to do that is deeper and long term. I know Tedros and Nahom and Tesfu and Temesgen and Mahlet and Yohannes and Tsaginet and we cannot let them down.
Then we discussed and tackled HIV status disclosure in children with HIV infection. This Orphan Ranger project is awesome in its reach…..As a former pediatric HIV/AIDS specialist in the US for decades, I personally struggled; and we, in the US, still struggle with when and how to disclose this diagnosis. How monumental it still seems to me to discuss a deadly disease with a child and how absolutely unique this discussion becomes in different cultures around the world. The disease is not longer deadly. Indeed, it is a chronic and manageable disease. With good adherence to medication and nutritional regimens, children can live long and healthy lives. What is clear is that People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) must know their status and participate completely in their self-care and health. Policy about HIV disclosure in children from the American Academy of Pediatrics was constantly updated and continues to be at the heart of adherence for children as they become adolescents and young adults. I had no answers on Tuesday morning, but marveled at the discussion and the nuances of this topic in the Family Health Clinic in Yeka, which now has a record 2100 enrolled HIV/AIDS patients and includes orphans from over a dozen orphanages as well as families and their children from local communities.
The work of the young Orphan Rangers this summer (Elizabeth, Mahlet, Thao and Hyeon) is brilliant and practical. The conversations and daily sharing of their results and discussions on next steps was a joy for me to witness. There is no substitution for this kind of collegiality and academic exploration. People often ask me about Orphan Ranger work and I am always proud of what they do. I’m not always able to articulate the details to substantiate the expense of time and money, but with my recent visit to Ethiopia, I am very clear on their value and even clearer about the vision to expand their roles and invest in the growth of the program…Orphan Rangers ask questions and investigate and through trial and error they become skilled. They practice the scientific method in its purest form. I am mindful of the power of this old tool from the wonderful morning this past week.
And the use of this enjoyable scientific tool leads to service wherein students can actively be part of an elegant transformation of children’s lives permanently….in very far off places where poverty and disease threaten and often dominate…But in this case, social ills are not winning – “not even close” as my kids would say.
Back Home in New Jersey
It is 5:59 am on Friday, August 6 and my children are now up watching TV in the basement…jetlagged, but they are dressed and ready for a fun day. They packed their bag for our trip to Connecticut this weekend. I am eager to drive in the countryside and to relax and repair after our long journey home to Maplewood.
One of our pieces of luggage couldn’t be located when we went to baggage claim at Newark Airport on Tuesday, but it was delivered late that night and left in the vestibule of our home…..All of the gifts and Buna (Ethiopian coffee) were safe and sound….post script for travelers who have baggage rage at the end of a long trip….
Dr. Jane Aronson
August 6, 2010
6:05 am Ethiopia journal complete
2010 Dr. Jane Aronson's Mission Trip to Ethiopia - Journal #7
So we are having a day of rest and I must admit that I am very tired, but very happy about the work we did at Camp Addis, Des’s Village, and the WWO-AHF Family Health Clinic.
I have a cold and am sneezing; and I think I might have a fever. I have two special packages in my pocket from children at Des’s Village: one child wrote to my cousin Lucas; and the other child gave a wrist band to my son, Benjamin. The kids really loved one another….that special feeling kids end up having for one another…inexplicable, but very real no matter where they are around the world. The exchange that occurred among the children really makes me proud of my kids. Both Des and Ben loved the WWO kids and with their open hearts, they participated and were fully engaged with the moment. All the Service Ranger children were right there with their hearts open and generous.
It just hailed and rained and the sky is clearing a bit. The weather in Addis has been very dramatic -- sunny and warm at moments with a blue cloudy sky and then within minutes, the gray and menacing sky rolls over us. Wherever we are, there is that threat of a downpour. We were in Shola market and walking over very hard and high rocks and mud, browsing for a dress for our neighbor’s daughter, Gabriela and then we wanted some floor coverings that Andrew Cogan had seen at the restaurant Yod Abyssinia. We smelled the Ethiopian spices and admired the potatoes, radishes, beets, and carrots lined up on plastic tarps. Elderly Ethiopian women in lovely traditional dress were seated along with two generations selling incense and spices. Goats had been skinned and the skins were drying in the now hot sun over barrels. And then those gnarled wooden baskets were turned over to become cages for chickens. The chickens were so still, seeming dead, as an old man sat between two cages holding them down. When I got close and started talking about the chickens, the man lifted up one cage and pointed to the chickens, likely thinking that we were interested in buying these creatures. For sure, I was not interested in them as food, but rather as pretty feathered birds.
Thursday, July 29, 2010.
The day started with a visit to Layla, an orphanage run by Adoption Advocates International. Des, my now 12 year old son, was adopted thru AAI and resided in the old Layla/Wanna in another location. The orphanage is located on a one acre piece of land and is set up in many sections depending on the children’s ages. We saw babies, toddlers, and preschool age children with some Special Needs kids…i.e. Down syndrome and deafness. The place was so beautifully run. The kids were happy and busy and the staff and volunteers were kind. Ivy, one of the administrators at Layla, was so generous with her time by showing us around. I was thrilled to be at Layla and see the love and kindness. Sophie and Ivy arranged for a soccer game between Layla and Des’s Village at 4 pm on Friday afternoon. WWO has an Orphan Soccer League and this was a lovely chance to get the kids together.
WWO Academy presentation
Next, we went to WWO Academy for a wonderful presentation by Ato Berhane, head of the school. We were all wowed by the Powerpoint presentation about the curriculum and goals of the school. Mr. Berhane stressed the difference between schooling and education showing that understanding the psycho-social needs of the children was of paramount importance to the faculty of WWO Academy. We met Daria, the curriculum consultant that Christine Hall, our Global Arts Coordinator, had sent to WWO Academy to work with the teachers on the preparation of teaching materials for the Fall 2010. We viewed a wonderful photo presentation of the kids at work in their classrooms. We were all absorbed in the photos with Ethiopian music playing in the background. It was not a bit different than when all of us go to Open House school nights in the US.
Then we had an opportunity to meet the faculty. I was just overwhelmed with their dedication and enthusiasm. I had the privilege to speak to them and thank them for their complete commitment to the children. I told them that they were the ones who would finally make a difference in the children’s lives. They loved the children and their love and devotion would inspire the kids to do well in school. And I stressed the need for excellence at the Academy. I asked them to make WWO Academy number one in Ethiopia. WWO is about excellence and nothing else is acceptable for the students. I also told them that WWO was committed to helping the faculty learn what they need to learn to be the best teachers possible.
I heard from Daria that the teachers had purchased a sheep and prepared a special traditional Ethiopian lunch to celebrate her work with them. Daria was a bit stunned, but she understood the beauty of this gesture.
I was very impressed with the new workbooks that the teachers made by hand for all subjects and grades. They were very proud of their year long preparation of these materials -- and frankly, so was I.
Children just fall in love
At the end of this very full day, I took 30 minutes to meet with the Service Ranger children up in Lori and Andrew’s suite because it is very important to help the children talk about their attachment to the children at camp and orphanage. This was amazing. The kids were so smart (gobez in Amharic); they, like all of us, felt like taking the children home and adopting them. That is how we all inevitably felt and then I explored their feelings with them and moved them (as I moved myself) to see that what WWO is doing here in Ethiopia is building capacity. We are doing this for staff at the orphanage and camp and teachers at the Academy to provide the children with the instruction and love that would eventually lead the kids to lead resilient and independent lives here in their own country. I facilitated a discussion where the kids spoke about who they had “fallen in love with”; and they all had their favorite friend. Then I suggested that they make a card and write a note to this special friend. The cards were beautiful and written with tenderness and innocence.
Some of the kids at the camp and orphanage wrote to their American friends, by the way, without any prompting and in fact most of notes that were given to the Americans were given before they received their cards…amazing how mutual the connections were. We asked orphanage director, Kidist, to give the notes privately to the kids at Des’s Village so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. I received two notes today when I was at the camp where Nat, the photographer, was shooting the soccer team this morning. One was a wrist band from Nahom for my son, Ben, and the other was from Tefu for my cousin Lucas, who had already left for safari in Tanzania earlier today. I sat with Tesfu as he cried when I told him that Lucas had left this morning. I also cried with him because I was feeling the impending loss of the kids I bonded with this week. I will miss them dearly because I now know them. I have held their hands and kissed them and hugged them repeatedly.
I have watched the children play and be creative. I have watched them play soccer and talk about their lives. I know something about their future dreams. It is hard for me tonight to think about not being able to just drop by and be with them any time that I choose. It is Sunday, August 1 in Addis and I will rest today and then work on Monday with Sophie and Mimi to debrief about the trip and to go over future plans for WWO Ethiopia. The wishlist is long on both sides of the ocean.
Movie night in Addis, Thursday, Jul 29
I would be remiss if I did not include a short vignette about the movies in Addis. There is one movie theater (it seems), Edna Mall. I took the Service Ranger kids and Dr. Sophie’s sons, Didi and Kiki, to the movies on Thursday night. We all had fun, but the quirky nature of the movie theater is totally Ethiopian, according to Kiki. We had a schedule .from the Hilton, which clearly listed the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” at 9 pm on the 29th. So, the plan was to have the younger kids see this movie and then the others could see “Inception” about 9:20 pm. Well, when we arrived to get tickets, the schedule was completely different than the printout at the Hilton…Kiki was not surprised. He told me that this happens quite often and that schedules can change in a second. So the younger kids and I saw “Salt” and the older boys saw “Inception”. It all worked out. We had extra time before the start of the movies and we went to a typical arcade where they purchased tokens and went on rides i.e. bumper cars and played arcade games. They had a very good time and then we all enjoyed the movies. “Salt” was, of course, a bit too violent, but exciting and challenging to follow. Who is finally good and bad in the movie was hard for all to follow, but at the end, there is a clear message that there will be another movie called “Salt 2”.
July 31 and August 1
Started 10:41 am EST (5:41 pm Addis) - continued 6:36 pm EST (1:36 am Addis)
2010 Dr. Jane Aronson's Mission Trip to Ethiopia - Journal #6
Last Day at Camp Addis, Friday, Jul 30
The final day of camp for the Service Ranger families was truly fabulous. The colorful lunch area/ performance center was filled with counselors and campers and each group performed their respective skits. The skits were all in Amharic and we understood a lot of the action because the gestures, dancing, and singing were universal. My sons were in a skit where they teach the Ethiopians about their dancing style in the US. Ben and Des danced well without any shyness….like they dance at home. Another skit with Jed and Caleb where they had pigtails in their hair and funny furry hats was again about Americans and Ethiopians meeting and trying to understand one another…very funny and cute.
Each camper group came up to perform and dance typical Ethiopian dance routines almost identical to the ones seen at some local restaurants. It is clear that dance and music play a central role in the education of children in Ethiopia, and I was proud that both the camp and academy are focused on global arts.
Orphan Rangers meeting at Des’s Village
I met with the four Orphan Rangers who are working on projects at WWO-AHF Family Health Clinic. It was a real treat to have met some of them in New York when they trained at my pediatric office and learned how to do developmental assessments of young children. They were assigned the task of conducting developmental assessments in the clinic. I think that they did over 90 assessments. Other volunteers were also involved in health projects at the clinic. The group was quite diverse: a student from University of Rochester who has family in Addis; a student of Korean heritage from Princeton with a global health fellowship; and two students from the Global Health Center at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. The students from Mt. Sinai included a medical student and the other is working on a Masters in Public Health and is of Vietnamese heritage.
We sat on the porch of the orphanage and talked about their experiences. I wanted to give them a chance to express their feelings about the emotional effects of working with children and adults with HIV/AIDS. They had done a good job of sharing thoughts and feelings with one another and noted that the head nurse at the Family Health Clinic and Dr. Sophie had been available to them while they worked. It was obvious that the need to have psychological support while working in this setting is key to effective work and good mental health for the volunteers. I was so glad to get to know the students and receive feedback about what WWO needs to provide for staff and volunteers. As we grow, there will increasingly be a need to support staff and volunteers because they hear very intimate feelings in their work with families and children at the Family Health Clinic, the camp, and the school. Every employee and volunteer needs to speak to professional staff about their feelings so that they don’t get burned out. I will convey this feedback to Dr. Sophie and Mimi in my meetings with them before I leave Addis. It was a privilege to spend time with the student volunteers who are called “Orphan Rangers”. The OR program was the first program of WWO in 1998. I sent Lydia Stickney, now an internal medicine specialist at Yale School of Medicine, to work in three orphanages in the Udmurtia Republic ie Izshevsk, Votkinsk, and Glasov after she had graduated from American University. Lydia spoke Russian and played the violin and did developmental assessments in each orphanage, teaching us how infants and toddlers lived in Russian orphanages in the summer 1998. WWO has sent well over 125 ORs to many countries to study orphan life and to do service for orphans in the orphanages.
Gourmet Corner, Mimi’s favorite eatery in Addis
When you are on a service project for WWO or any organization, you usually end up in a van traveling from site to site and having wonderfully spirited discussions in the traffic. For this trip, we had many such moments where we reflected on our day and posed questions for the group. The discussions were always lively and an opportunity for the sharing of different points of view. On several occasions such discussions continued or started in eateries in Addis. I especially loved Gourmet Corner which also has a bakery in it. Mimi shared this bistro with us as she enjoys it often during her workweek. I understand why because it is like any quaint restaurant in the US. In fact, Andrew thought it was like a typical restaurant in southern California i.e. Santa Monica. There was some vegetation that was identical to plants I have enjoyed in LA.
Anyway, we all had lunch there one day this past week and had a lively discussion about the challenge of showing donors and stakeholders about the WWO’s work. Here we are in Addis observing and intimately experiencing the work and its effect on children’s lives; and we were talking about the difficulty of showing the work so that people really understand the impact and outcomes for orphans and vulnerable children served by WWO in our countries. Everyone had such wonderful ideas….But, for me, this is a very old issue for as long as I have been working as a doctor in international development. From the time I went on my first medical mission in 1989 (Athens, Greece), I have always had trouble talking about the lives of orphans and impoverished children. I used to take a lot of photos and video while on the trips. When I would show clips and photos to people, they might say, “Gee, that doesn’t look so bad”. It was very bad actually and I knew how I felt and how others felt on those trips. It was a secret experience in many ways…only to be understood by those who examined the children and who got to know the children. It is inexplicable maybe how we would travel in stressful surroundings, below zero or over 100 degrees, and in places that smelled really badly. Often kids had little clothing and very poor physical hygiene: rotted teeth, traumatized bodies, and severe malnourishment and failure to thrive. I recall adolescent girls who were likely at least 13, but were the size and sexual maturity of 7 year olds. We often didn’t know who were boys and who were girls until we completed the exams, particularly in Romania, Russia, Bulgaria and many other Eastern European countries.
Here in Ethiopia, we have sweet and vulnerable children living in orphanages. Some of them are HIV positive, and live a good life because we have provided sustenance --physical, medical, psychological, and educational. The children are thriving without the benefit of parental guidance because they have well-trained staff, doctors, teachers, and counselors who understand their needs and are committed to them as individuals. They wear clean clothes and eat delicious Ethiopian food daily and are taught to talk about their feelings no matter what the feeling. They can be sad and needy and they can be happy and exuberant. They can be securely attached to the adults who are devoted and committed to their right to be successful and independent in the years to come.
We must tell the story of the children without parental care, abandoned for one reason or another, HIV positive, and HIV negative so that everyone knows how essential it is to provide them with the support they deserve to become leaders in their communities around the world. The lively discussion continues outside of Gourmet Corner in Addis, in other restaurants, and in the many van trips that are so fun and idiosyncratic when you are doing a service project in a far off land. By the way, the food is excellent here with fresh grilled vegetables, sandwiches and anything else you might want…i.e. baked cookies. I will be back….
Hands in supine position parallel to one another moving them gently back and forth…..
I am reminded of the how the children at Des’s Village dance in a circle while one of them plays that very large and heavy Ethiopian drum (I tried to put it on and play it and failed). One day this past week, we were all inside as the rain poured yet again; and we, as American adults, watched peacefully as the children moved in a gentle cadence to their own voices singing the rhythmic and repetitive Amharic songs that we never understood, but found so comforting. Their voices rose and fell…high pitched and yet very soothing. I insinuated myself between Yohannes and Tesfu and walked and swayed with my hands supine parallel to one another, gently moving them back and forth. That went well, but when I tried to clap with the children, I didn’t seem to be able to keep that beat even though 3 year old Mahalette clapped in perfect rhythm. I guess you have to be Ethiopian! In any case, I find myself turning my hands up and moving them back and forth without even realizing it so that I can feel that comfort again.
Football, the way to friendship, harmony and great self-esteem
So the Layla vs. WWO soccer game was a triumphant moment in the week for me. WWO arrived at the orphanage dressed in red and black with soccer cleats and everything so very soccer-like…thanks to a donation from Linda Ford, an attorney in New York with two adopted kids from Ethiopia, maybe through AAI. The uniforms she donated were in some very heavy luggage and were transported back and forth from one place to another in New York and then ended up finally at WWO. I am very grateful to see how the jerseys, shorts, and socks looked on our team members as they stepped on the concrete soccer field on Friday afternoon. The home team advantage for Layla didn’t matter. We cheered on both teams and the game was spectacular. The disappointed “ohs” and the mighty screams for a successful kick to goal were equally as resounding. All the elements of a game were there -- the players, the referees, the coaches, the cheering crowds. The game was thrilling and made me cry. After all, this is part of my dream for the Orphan Soccer League, which was started by Melissa Fay Greene’s son, Lee Samuels, many years ago when he volunteered for WWO. The teams grew into a league and international organization Right to Play partnered with the league so that the children could be coached. They are gone, but we support our own coaches and the games continue as the schedule allows and a field can be located.
Layla triumphed and the boys all lined up and shook hands. Ivy from Layla presented a soccer ball to the captains of each team. There were only winners on Friday, July 30, at Layla. And we will hopefully grow the Orphan Soccer League to fit the vision….more teams, uniforms for all, play on dirt and grass, coaches, referees, and travel to other parts of Ethiopia and other countries in Africa and around the world.
Everyone from the Service Ranger family trip left tonight to return to New York. The photographer, Nat Welch and his wife Jessica Stark and the documentary filmmaker, Barbara Bickart returned to the States as well. Brian Lerner, our Junior Orphan Ranger, reluctantly boarded his plane a couple of hours ago. And the Aronson-Leo family retired to room 618 to watch “Harriet, the Spy” and settle in for the night. I am missing everyone and ready to go home frankly, but there is still a lot of work to be done…meetings and some excursions to see some new sites for the growing WWO programs. We will enjoy some down time at the Hilton and return to New Jersey via Frankfurt and Berlin care of Lufthansa on Tuesday night, August 3.
I will likely have another journal entry after I return to New York, but for now, goodnight.
Dr. Jane Aronson
August 1 at 3:26 am Addis time (8:26 pm EST)
2010 Dr. Jane Aronson's Mission Trip to Ethiopia - Journal #5
Camp Addis Rocks
What an amazing day today! Our kids went off to camp and we went to WWO-AHF Family Health Center to listen to a presentation by Dr. Sophie. We met 27 staff at the clinic and took a tour of the facilities. It was a very proud day for me. I have been to the clinic many times over the years, but this time, the place was so busy that as we toured we had to maneuver around staff and waiting families. This is was a nice problem in my opinion.
So we learned about the almost 2100 patients enrolled in the clinic in the last three years….and then everyone met the fantastic staff who have been promoted and moved up the ladder. Many have attended professional classes to boost the level of skill in their respective jobs such as nursing, pharmacy, lab technician, pediatrician, and general practitioner. We even met the accountants and we toured the chart room and by the way all the charts are also completely in the computer database. The pharmacy was very impressive with the anti-retroviral drugs for the patients all in their boxes.
I was able to see a 7 year old boy who was breathing very fast and had a fever for a week. He has AIDS and is on three ARVs. He was already treated for tuberculosis in the past. His mother, a patient at the clinic, brought him to the clinic. She looked well and healthy. I examined this sweet boy and then Dr. Sophie worked with the clinic doctor to order blood work and a chest film. It was really special to help out as a doctor!
Dr. Sophie told us many stories on the tour as she introduced us to her employees. Some started as volunteers after graduating from nursing school, for instance. They were hired by Sophie on a volunteer basis so that they could get on the job training, and we would not incur any expense for this training process. Then the volunteers became bona fide employees and joined the professional staff with their title and salary. Some patients with HIV/AIDS have been hired and Sophie introduced those folks to us as well. It was truly touching to see how comfortable the employees with HIV/AIDS were about their story being told openly by Sophie. They were obviously proud to be working for WWO and grateful that Sophie had supported them and nurtured them. Sophie even paid for one employee’s course work personally. Awesome!
Then I went off with Sophie to the Children’s Home Society Hospital to see one of my clients from New York who was in Addis for the first trip to meet the baby boy who she would finally adopt in the next few months.
The baby was less than 6 months of age and had serious diarrhea and vomiting. He was admitted to the hospital for intravenous fluids and antibiotics. The mother had contacted me a couple of days ago and was very concerned about his care. He was much improved from what I could tell from the very nice doctor who was caring for him at the hospital. I examined him and found him to be responsive and alert. He was even able to engage with me although he was obviously very tired. I was satisfied and contacted the mother by phone and let her know that I had seen him and that I was encouraged by his appearance and physical exam. Dr. Sophie -- who I believe knows everyone in Ethiopia -- did in fact know the pediatrician at the hospital. It turns out he had remembered her from when she was chief resident and he was an intern. He recalled that she helped him with an important presentation when he was just starting out in his training. Not a surprising story! Dr. Sophie has likely trained most of the pediatricians in Addis!
Experiencing the “Super Camper” Celebration
Off to the camp for the wonderful “Super Camper” celebration. We arrived on time and entered the camp cafeteria where we stood and listened to the loud and enthusiastic Amharic mixed with a camp language of very cute explicative introduced by a prior camp consultant. Each camper was honored with chants, songs and praise for their enthusiasm and cooperation at camp. The build-up was filled with love and joy. The campers were thrilled to be chosen and proud to be the attention of the entire camp. We clapped and smiled for them.
Then we went off for a snack at a local eatery called “Gourmet Corner”. We had cheese melts and grilled vegetables. It was all divine.
Back to camp to see some of the activities and finally I had a chance to meet with some of the counselors from the various partner organizations such as Selamta, SOS Village, and Artists for Charity. These young people are finishing high school and going onto the university to study and become doctors, psychologists, teachers, engineers. They are living on their own alone or with other young people like themselves, with support from their organizations. They were articulate and proud of themselves. I was overwhelmed with a sense of peace that it is possible to have orphaned children grow up and become independent and successful in their own country.
Finally we had some wonderful photo opportunities. The end of the day is marked with circle time and singing and dancing. I will do a bad job of explaining a game where camper and counselor are free to sequentially choose a person to dance with front, back, side accompanied by a ditty. Then, one of the pair runs around the circle to stop and choose the next “victim”. It was silly, sweet and rhythmical…. I had a sense of satisfaction seeing that everyone enjoyed the game and the game was more than a game. It was obviously yet another skill that the campers could develop -- being out there and not shy. Nat Welch, the photographer, took photos of all of us at circle time from the second floor of the school.
I loved the water trough which I had not seen as yet. Eric Stowe from A Child’s Right had installed this wonderful cleansing water system for each of our sites and some orphanages from adoption agencies. So everyone could go to the tiled trough with many spigots and wash their hands and faces and drink clean water as well…very nice indeed!
Meeting with Camp Counselors
I ended my day with a meeting with the many counselors who I had watched all afternoon teach art, music, volleyball, soccer, basketball and hand printing on T-shirts. These young people were so vibrant and confident that I couldn’t help but feel a little shy with them. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I was feeling so close to them and so appreciative for what they were doing for the children. I was proud to be in some photos with the counselors. That will be a very special treasure for me to have on my desk at the office.
With Lemlem translating, I told them that I loved camp since I was a little girl growing up in the US. I explained my camp experience as one of homesickness to start with and then I attributed my ability to be independent and on my own in life to camp skills that I had learned many years ago.
I thanked them for giving the children a chance to grow and learn and be on their own some day. I told them how much I appreciated their commitment to the children. The love and devotion that they showed the children would provide them with the self-esteem to be strong and successful. I ended my talk by telling them that they gave the children a feeling of belonging that would last forever.
Finally, I mentioned that my children were at camp and that I wanted them to know that the camp would be a beautiful memory for them. I told them that my children knew how wonderful they were to these children.
The counselors then did a water balloon toss that ended wildly with lots of wet counselors running around the camp, looking for more opportunities to throw water on one another. Everyone was mostly wet by the time I left with Million, the driver, on the WWO school bus.
Tonight we stayed at the Hilton and had pizza and other snacks at the “pizzeria”. The kids ate together at one table and the parents at another table…this is what has evolved in the last few days. The kids have really bonded as if they were a bunk group at camp. And we, the adults, have had the special opportunity to get to know one another and share our thoughts about each day.
I was dazzled by Camp Addis and started thinking about how it would evolve in the future so that there might be robotics, mad science, writing, poetry, playwriting, field trips, hiking, and much more. We must keep up with the growing and eager need for learning and enrichment as the children get older. And they will grow up….no one is sick anymore.
Dr. Jane Aronson
July 28, 2010
2010 Dr. Jane Aronson's Mission Trip to Ethiopia - Journal #4
Mahlet and her Secret Life as a Dancer in a Band
So it is about 11 pm on Tuesday night in Addis. Feels like I have been in Ethiopia for weeks. So much has happened that now I can’t keep track of everything. The days are packed with activities, adventures and emotional challenges.
If you read journal #3, then you know about the little girl, Mahalette (I may have spelled her name incorrectly) who was dancing while doing almost everything at the same time...I even sent a photo of her which may already be up on Facebook and the WWO website.
There is a funny story I need to tell you about Mahalette....a secret about her that was not revealed to me when we were at Des's Village on Sunday and Monday. So here is the story… WWO has a consulting social worker, Eleanor Hartzell, who recently did a Community Development Assessment in the Yeka community in Addis where WWO has most of its programs in Ethiopia. Eleanor lived in Addis for a couple of months and of course became very acquainted with many of the children served by WWO, including the kids at Des's Village. Eleanor read the journal I wrote which included the "amazing Mahalette" and she emailed me today to tell me the following…. Mahalette is the lead dancer in a “band” that two of the youngest boys at Des’s Village, created. Abraham and Brahini (could be the wrong spelling) sing duets and she dances. Eleanor recommended that I ask them to perform “Merengue-Cha” for us. And so I will definitely beg for this performance asap. I looked up this song on the Internet, but it is too late to listen to it as the whole family is sleeping. This song is salsa and cha cha music and would clearly awaken the entire 6th floor at the Hilton. I am very eager to see Mahalette and the boys perform.
What Happens When you Start to Know an Orphan?
What I would love to share tonight is how we are all feeling after two days in Addis. Children and adults visiting Addis have fallen in love with the orphans at Des’s Village. We have gotten to know them quickly. We enjoy working and playing with them -- and just looking at them. The names are becoming pronounceable and each child has become a very real person who we love and want to be around. That boy in the pink sweatshirt is Yohannes Tesfaye. He was very happy on Sunday and now on Monday, he seems very sad…The boy in the striped red and white shirt is Nahom, Tedros’ brother, and Rahel….she looks older than when we saw her in the WWO film from the camp when she was “Super Camper”. And Mamush whose photo I showed at the Gala 2009 is so real now…He is a very small young man…almost an adult who as an orphan is dedicated to helping others like himself.
We are holding their hands and hugging them and we have become attached to them…wanting to take them home with us. …. wanting them to have all that we have and more. And they are becoming attached to us.
We see that they are loved at the orphanage and that they have the potential for all the same things that our children have potential for. We presume that they would be better off in the US and imagine them adopted by us. We are conniving to take them home with us. That cannot be the solution to the very, very large number of orphans around the world. It would be ideal for them to have permanency, but we need many options and solutions for all the orphans around the world.
The children at Des’s Village have a decent life and they are happy and successful in Addis. Their lives are full of fun and learning. And they are well and healthy, thanks to Dr. Sophie, WWO’s Ethiopia Country Director. And yet, we think that they need more…and they do need and deserve more, but they need more right at Des’s Village in Ethiopia. So what we need to do now is take the next step up and provide them with the best education possible so that they can be free and independent some day and have families of their own…We want them to be proud Ethiopians with the strength to become all that they are capable of becoming. We need to keep loving them and remembering them every day after we go home next week, so that we can all work harder to get them what they need.
And How and What Should We Do? .....
Tedros aka Teddi is 14 years old and the size of an 11 year old, maybe. He has the biggest and roundest bloodshot Ethiopian eyes. He is kind and nurturing. His brother Nahom is in the orphanage with him and they are loving brothers. I interviewed him on Monday afternoon as part of the film work with our consultant, Barbara Bickart, and he was very shy and tense…..not at all as I thought he would be, frankly, since he emanates charm and confidence among his peers. He answered all of my probing questions about his life and his thoughts, but the answers were very short. I wanted to know him, but this context was not right for him. Interestingly, I did discover some important aspects of his life. He has a 20 year old sister who visits him and she lives with a family member. His parents are dead, but he has some family…..this is so much often the case for orphans…they are social orphans rather than true orphans…no family at all. And he wants to be an astronomer, not an archeologist as had been presumed from an errant translation. And he is at grade level, a sophomore to be in high school in September. When I asked him about homework and who helps him, the orphanage director, Kidist who the kids call “Mommy” told me that there are college students who tutor him. One of the most challenging aspects of maintaining orphans in community schools and helping them be successful in those schools is that there is no support for their daily homework and studies at the orphanage. So to hear that Tedros is getting the same kind of remediation that my kids might have was a great moment for him and the kids WWO serves all over the world.
The kids at Des’s Village need to all be at excellent schools, have the opportunities to take college entrance exams, and to attend universities and/or have vocational technical training.
Last entry tonight….Yod Abyssinia Restaurant
Don’t ever miss this place if you intend on going to Ethiopia. The food is delicious and the traditional Ethiopian dancing is fantastic. The kids ate before we went, though…because …well, you know the drill with kids…they just love French Fries.
Special thank yous….Dr. Sophie and Mimi were able to get the video cameras out of customs so that Barbara Bickart could film the programs by Monday afternoon…Yay!
Welcome to Nathaniel Welch, photographer and Jessica Stark, his wife and an amazing resource for WWO from a Public Relations’ point of view. She is responsible for getting three pairs of new Crocs for each child in Des’s Village donated by Crocs. And she forged a new relationship for Lufthansa and WWO. Nat came over free and there is a roundtrip ticket donated for another trip in the future. And more to come…
Look for the journal entry #5 tomorrow. Wednesday, we will visit WWO-AHF Family Health Center and learn about how we are caring for 2100 HIV/AIDS patients, including 600 orphaned children. Our children will go back to Camp Addis and I will talk about my meeting with Dr. Tedros, the Minister of Health of Ethiopia -- an extraordinary man and a miracle worker for his country. Ethiopia currently has 180,000 patients in treatment for HIV/AIDS.
1:00 a.m. – Wednesday, July 28
2010 Dr. Jane Aronson's Mission Trip to Ethiopia - Journal #3
Body Tracing at Des’s Village
We slept in this morning and I am just up with a headache. The very cold air and jet lag caught up with me last night. Even so, I want to share the feeling I have this morning. What we experienced yesterday at Des’s Village will be hard to express because I am not sure I have gathered it all up yet.
We arrived at the orphanage and the kids were milling about, excited to see us again. We were very excited to be back because this was a chance to really get to know them all. We immediately went to work laying out the brown kraft paper and gesturing the instructions. All the adults divided up and began the body tracing by helping each child lie down on the paper and then cutting the sections at the feet and so on. The kids were eager and happy to do anything frankly. They began to really be close with us physically. As I traced someone or helped a child decorate their body, they sidled up to me and leaned on me. And I leaned on them. I looked around that small living room with all of us crowded together working very diligently at our task and at the same time we were all about closeness. And the teamwork was just amazing. There were adults cutting together and some tracing together. We were all eager to make the kids happy and they felt it.
The bodies were like ET figures and ears were sticking out or cut off slightly. Feet were missing or pointy. Fingers were fat and skinny. Legs were bumpy and knobby. We had a quick snack break where the kids had crackers and tea and then we quickly went back to finishing the bodies. Everyone was industrious. And it was as if they had all done this before even though they hadn’t. What was very sweet was that we all realized that the work was hard -- bending down and tracing and cutting and focusing on the task. We were joyfully exhausted at the end of it all. But the kids were just happy and proud of what they had done. Then Diana brought out the Mancala [a "count-and-capture" board game] and went from group to group teaching them. It was very funny though….they didn’t need much teaching. They caught on in a moment and were very clever at this game. They were eager again and swift to enjoy the fun of it.
After lunch, we hung up the bodies and that was very funny. The tape didn’t work so well, but we again worked as a team, adults and children, and finished in no time. Looking around the room at all those funny brown paper bodies was a rush for me. The creativity was in the air and the kids were so proud of seeing their work around them. Then something happened that was truly special. I had given out pipe cleaners thinking that this would work for hair and other decorative aspects of the bodies. But…no, the kids began to create and run with this. At one point, I could see them busy twisting and bending the long fuzzy colorful sticks and just enjoying the physical fine motor activities. Then suddenly I saw what was happening; they were making eyeglasses. My blue glasses were working their magic again! All around me, kids were wearing eyeglasses with different colors for the lenses and the tails of the glasses. Some were blue like mine and others were multicolored….It spread in moments and was so humorous that photos began to be taken -- some kids alone and then in groups. I will ask Andrew to send some for you all to see at some point. (The Internet is very quirky in Addis so we shall see.)
Then this very young child…some said she was two and we, as parents, decided that she was three when we saw her fine motor skills and sheer confidence. Her name is Matunette (I will check on this for you later). She was curled up in a ball on the floor listening to music; with her butt in the air rhythmically moving to the music, she was drawing on the scraps of brown paper. As the music grew louder and the beat gathered momentum, she continued to move her body and then she stood up and danced the way that Ethiopian children dance…completely uninhibited….shoulders moving up and down, hips following and feet in yet another cadence. I was transfixed as we all were. She had made a pair of pipe cleaner eyeglasses and was completely focused on her dancing. We all started to move with her a little bit while we just watched mesmerized by her gift to be in perfect relationship with the Ethiopian music.
I was so happy at this moment. I could feel my face tiring from smiling. Then more fun began to unfold. She made a hat out of some of the paper scraps and I taped the hat closed. Next thing you know it, she was wrapping paper around her waist and there you have it….a skirt. All this time, she continued to dance….other children began to reach out for the scraps of paper lying neatly on one of the couches. I was relentless in my efforts to save all the scraps knowing that this paper was not available in Addis. I had conspired to bring it “by hook or by crook” for weeks before the trip. We purchased it online from Staples after quite a struggle to figure out what it is called…can you imagine! All of us have grown up in the US using this brown paper for school projects and we couldn’t recall what it was called. Brown paper. That should be enough to put in the Internet to find it….Then we found it as “butcher paper” and “kraft paper”. We ordered 900 ft of it and when it arrived it was so heavy I could hardly lift it. I tortured my children on the day of the flight to roll it out in our living room repeatedly so that we could make a smaller package for transport. We tried our hardest to guess how much was needed. In the end, we were wrong, but the package was easy to take in a duffle bag and that is what mattered.
So we had enough paper for 20 bodies and the kids were happy as they viewed these funny creatures on their walls which were empty except for a dazzling painting of Jesus Christ. That should be a photo that I can put up at some point when we have some decent technology.
Back to this fabulous moment of spontaneity and creativity. More and more children began to make hats for themselves and others made vests and skirts. The various combinations of paper scraps took lovely forms on the children’s bodies and they were enraptured with themselves… And the dancing continued with Mantunette at the head of the pack. Pipe cleaners went from glasses to rings to bracelets. I was adorned with various creations given to me as gifts the rest of the afternoon. Even though the metal ends from the pipe cleaners were digging into my skin, I dared not take them off…they were gifts generously made and given.
Finally I went outside to find WWO Service Rangers Andy and Nick with the boys lined up in soccer drill formation. All of the boys were stepping up the ball thrown to them so that they could run and bend the ball to the left toward Nick at the goal (which was the compound gate). It was just fantastic. They worked like this for a very long time, improving each time and eagerly working harder and harder at any task that was given. Andy and Nick were relentless in their coaching of the boys. I was beaming with pride. The kids were simply alive and engaged and full of nothing, but the moment.
Within all of this constant activity was the exchange of touches and hugs, leaning and lap sitting, and just pure closeness. I collected as many names as I could. I was charged with the task to know them…really know them. And many, I have known for years from my visits to Addis….but those were visits. This was not a visit. This was so very special because we were all bonding and connecting and getting to know one another. The evolution of those connections throughout the day was just a miracle. Sad finally, as we left, knowing that each and every one of these precious children deserved so much more. I am happy that they have a really nice home with great caregivers and wonderful opportunities to go to school and camp, but it isn’t what they finally deserve which is permanency….families of their own.
More later…..We are up late this morning and want to return to Des’s Village to play soccer and see our children who we now love and are attached to.
Dr. Jane Aronson
9:44 am Jul 27, 2010
2010 Dr. Jane Aronson's Mission Trip to Ethiopia - Journal #2
Being here with the families is so fun. We are getting to know one another and our kids are really having fun. They are so focused on just doing whatever is in the moment like swimming in the pouring rain. It rained all morning on Sunday and it was very cold…maybe in the 50s and I was layered up, but wet and cold every time I went outside. I had to change my wet sneakers, socks and jeans.
The Hilton pool is the magical part of the stay at the hotel. Every time I am here I am reminded about how people just love this pool. It is filled with people starting early each morning even in the dark and now even in the rain and cold
The life guard is dressed in pants, a coat and wrapped up in blue terry cloth as he sits perched in his chair above the pool under an umbrella. I can’t see his face, but he is fixed there most of the day except when he comes down for a break. How would he save anyone all layered up like this? Is he really able to see the children and adults in the pool?
Anyway, our kids all raced to the pool dressed and they peeled off their clothes poolside, with swim suits underneath, and then jumped in the very hot steamy water to play for hours at a time on Sunday. I touched the water and marveled that it was indeed so hot…90s for sure. The pool is fed from underground hot springs is the story…one of these days, I will find out if this is true, but in any case, the water is emptied out of the pool on Monday and then the cement is scrubbed and then the pool is refilled all day. It is almost impossible to be in it for long by Monday’s end because it is so hot, but indeed it is filled with people. Diana took the kids to the Sheraton 4 yrs ago when the pool was refilled because it was too hot. So yesterday, the kids were in and out of the pool many times. Every time we came back from some activity, they wanted in.
And I stood by watching all dressed, but very cold and finally wet. It poured in the morning and no matter what umbrella I stood under poolside, I got wet. The kids played tag and dove under the water and had absolutely no idea that there were miserable adults along the sides of the pool. There was one elderly Ethiopian man who swam along the plastic beaded rope separating parts of the pool wearing a plastic hat with a long sun visor. He persisted in his task for hours stopping occasionally to rest.
Every year that I come to Addis, I look out of my Hilton window in the early morning and see the ritual of many people who love doing laps. From time to time I have joined them and taken a dip and though it has been fun, I hate the cold air so it is hard for me to stay too long.
Anyway, last night as I put Ben to sleep he jumped up and said, “I want to go swimming.” I said, “now?” and he said “yes”. I promised him that he could swim every day -- no matter how cold or rainy it was -- and he was happy.
So on Sunday, we started the rigorous schedule of the time in Addis seeing the work of WWO. By 2 pm we were all at Des’s Village for Children. WWO has been managing the small group home for children with HIV infection since April 2009 when Haregewoin died suddenly of unknown causes. There are 39 children ranging in age from 3 to 18 years old, and they live in a very sweet home with devoted caretakers. They are a very happy bunch of children who from my first meeting yesterday consider themselves a family.
We pulled up in the vans and I saw the huge red sign “Des’s Village for Children/Worldwide Orphans Foundation” immediately. It was red and beautifully lettered and I immediately was in that moment feeling such pride for all involved. The kids were inside and we were greeted by Sophie who has just returned from Vienna from the International AIDS Conference. I was so happy to see her and we both squeezed one another tightly. I missed seeing what Des had experienced, but I heard from Diana that he was just so excited and happy. I will catch up with him on this today perhaps if we have a moment. We are just so busy that it is very hard to even reflect on anything.
Inside this very sweet building that even has outside green space with grass and trees, was a lovely living room where the kids were seated at tables where they eat and sit and laugh and commune with one another daily. They greeted all of us in unison and welcomed us with great enthusiasm and pride. They were so warm and loving…and happy to meet us and they knew who we were….Americans who come from WWO in America…..Americans who help them from very far off to have a healthy life.
And we then witnessed their education as they sang some American songs, including Yellow Submarine. How cute was this! And we sang along loudly, but the best songs were their Ethiopian Christian hymns with accompaniment of the largest drum that I have seen in my life. Many children took turns using the drum and the hymns lasted a very long time….I loved how the children swayed and used their hands to express their pride and enthusiasm while they sang. They were focused and their concentration was evident in their facial expressions. I know many of these children over the years. When I have come to Addis long before they lived with WWO, I met them at Atetegeb and they were young and some were sick before their treatment for HIV had begun. The “Miracle Boy” was among the group. Yohannes is now 8 years old and when he came to Atetegeb, he was emaciated and cachectic and close to the end of a very short life at about 3 or 4 years old. His eyes were sunken and vacant; and he was always held and not able to get around on his own. And within weeks he was plump and happy and we nicknamed him “Miracle Boy”. Now years later, I know him from my yearly visits. He became a healthy young boy and then he became the “naughty” boy who couldn’t sit still and whose space was always his own no matter what and that inspired him to hit and bite and not be able to concentrate. The teachers were so overwrought from his challenging behavior, though they also liked him because he was bright and charming. And there you have the story of many children with HIV infection who are orphaned, whose brains are damaged, and who end up with behavioral issues, learning disabilities and ADD, ADHD, etc…. He is, after all, a special needs kid. What can help him here in Addis where there is only one child psychiatrist in this city and no real resources for such children? That is what faces us all over the world with orphaned children who have been malnourished during pregnancy and then affected by continued malnutrition after birth and then on top of all of this, those with HIV infection, have more insults.
WWO is committed to all of these children and in the countries where we serve; we must find the resources and create the capacity to help these children reach their potential.
I watched Yohannes on Sunday afternoon as the kids all sang and gestured and danced in their seats; he was one of the pack, much more mature and steady and directed. He was the beneficiary of a referral to the one child psychiatrist and the faculty development that WWO invests in at WWO Academy. We have been teaching the teachers to understand child development and behavior so that there is no more hitting in the classroom. This instruction helps to address their anxiety and frustrations so the kids can learn more effectively and they can teach more comfortably. And Yohannes is just one of the kids who has improved with this love and support and academic initiative. I looked at him and acknowledged him at one moment and he smiled and looked right back at me. I went over and gave him “five”, and he never missed a beat of his singing, but was completely focused on me as well. How proud I was of him -- and all of these very happy and healthy kids.
We went to their rooms to see their beds, bags and cubbies. The girls were so neat and proud of their little areas. They each have a proper carrying bag that is packed neatly with clothes for residential camp in some cases. And their beds are made neatly with proper sheets and warm blankets. Every room has windows with light that flows in and fills their space with the sun’s protection. Each child was dressed in clothes that are their clothes; these kids don’t get dressed with whatever is around from a generic pile. Their clothes fit them and are picked by them. What a difference this makes to a child!
We all went outside at some point and watched how kids formulate a spontaneous plan to play….the children of the families joined the children from Des’s Village and set up jump rope games and a wild soccer game. The sun was out and we all watched the kids be kids, shouting and running and smiling. The fact that none of them spoke the same language made no difference. As we mix kids with HIV with healthy kids from the community, we were now mixing kids from an advantaged world from another country with HIV positive, healthy children. That mixing is magical…miraculous in way, but not really. Children connect very fast and without much judgment. They have a common language of play and fun. That is what happened on Sunday afternoon, July 25, 2010. And yes, I am realistic about the differences, but they will figure it all out on their own and that is what makes me so proud of what we do…what WWO does. We dream to have children be themselves no matter what their social status and no matter where they live…with families and without. ….they have the capacity to be with one another and make this world a little easier to manage.
We were served fresh popcorn and hot tea as we watched our children play. We just enjoyed the moment of sun as the clouds seem to disappear and the air warmed. My shoulders were less shrugged and I was smiling a lot on Sunday afternoon. I especially enjoyed Des as he ran and jumped wildly over a stone while playing soccer with his new friends from Des’s Village. He was once an orphan kicking a ball made of old socks tightly wrapped with rubber bands, dressed in clothes from a generic pile, trying to get that ball away from a playmate as he maneuvered his feet in flip flops. We have those clothes and that pair of yellow flip flops on a shelf in his closet. I looked at the t-shirt the other day and remembered him as he was the day I met him on May 30, 2004. He was tiny and fragile and gentle and sweet. Now he is 5 ft 1 in. and strong and broad and glowing with the strength of a 12 year old boy with all the promise in the world. That is the inspiration I leave you all with today.
Orphans are strong and proud and able…resilient and ready to belong in this world.
Dr. Jane Aronson
5:55 am July 26, 2010 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
2010 Dr. Jane Aronson's Mission Trip to Ethiopia - Journal #1
So Diana, myself, Ben and Des started out our trip to Addis at 3 pm on Friday, July 23, 2010. We were picked up by the limousine and it was on time, but it was the wrong vehicle. I had arranged the pick-up earlier in the week and requested an SUV because we have 4 huge bags and backpacks…Anyway, Ben sat on Mommy’s lap and Des kept his bag on his lap and the driver put two suitcases on the front seat next to him. I called the company to register my disappointment and they apologized and promised the proper vehicle for our return on August 4th.
Trips anywhere in the world could be a dedication to Murphy ’s Law which is …. “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. Frankly, if you want to travel and enjoy the trip, you have to be ready for the adventure which includes challenges. So we have a few in our essentially 24 hour trip to Addis. The improper vehicle to take us to the airport wasn’t a big deal because as you can see, we got over it very quickly and were successful in our mission to get to Newark Airport even with a little inconvenience, but I was reminded about the fortitude that one must have to go long distances for vacation or business.
So we flew out of Newark to Munich and did fine. Everyone settled into a routine of DS Lite, games on the airplane, music/video system, and movies. I slept like a baby. And the kids slept here and there as well, but Diana never slept….and then we arrived in Munich early at 7:15 am Munich time which was 12:15 am in New York. We then got through immigration and proceeded to our flight from Munich to Frankfurt…unfortunately we were unable to get the direct flight to Frankfurt. So in Munich we had a snack and the boys played electronic computer soccer on the floor near a toy store in the airport around the corner from the bathrooms and the flight gates. That was a moment…..Ben and Des and another boy who spoke German took turns playing “World Cup Soccer” on the floor. I enjoyed a very nice ham and cheese sandwich on a slightly salted baguette…so delicious that the kids shared one as well.
We arrived in Frankfurt quite easily after a 45 minute flight and we felt excited about finding our way to gate B54 so that we could fly to Addis and suddenly we arrived at a passport clearance area and there was a huge crowd in several queues and the louvered doors for the passport check were sealed shut…people were unhappy in every language and I decided to find a nice person who might explain the disaster that was between us and the flight to Addis. A very nice woman with an ID badge explained something to someone on another line and I queried her myself as her discussion was in German with the other passenger.
She told me that there was indeed an emergency because a suitcase had been found unclaimed in that area and they had activated a bomb threat protocol which would take a while to complete. She had no idea how long and she wasn’t sure if we would actually make our flight. I then went to another place where there were specific Lufthansa employees and they explained the exact same scenario and confirmed that we might not make our flight to Addis. And also it was revealed, as I suspected, that there is only one flight daily from Frankfurt to Addis….glumly I returned to my family and let them know what I had discovered. They were sad, of course, but only for a moment because suddenly we saw a security person checking passports for a line that we were not on at the time….we saw our line open a few minutes later, but it was not moving as swiftly so we divided and conquered. I took Ben to the new line which was much longer than our old line and Diana and Des waited on the old line….and indeed a few minutes later we had moved very swiftly to the passport check and Diana and Des jumped lines and we went through with time enough it appeared to get to the gate downstairs. We were so eager to get through that we forgot to stay behind the yellow line (you all know the yellow lines for customs) and we were yelled at by the officer…oh, well…we were frightened for the moment and then all was okay.
Downstairs to the gate we all went gleefully…only to find that we needed to get on a bus….and then we sat on the bus for a half hour and I got off the bus to ask the security guard whether we were going to miss our flight. He reassured me that the plane was waiting for us and others to get to the gate. Back on the bus I was actually a little relieved and then we rode through what appeared to be the entire Frankfurt Airport to get to our plane which was a jumbo jet and we walked up the stairs to enter the plane…passing through Business class, a woman called out to me and identified herself as a client of mine who was going to Addis to meet her young child who she planned to adopt. That was nice and then we went to our seats and put her bag above and sat down to breathe and relax. What was really nice was that our documentary film consultant was on the same flight and was seated across the aisle from our 4 seats which were together finally. The other two flights were an exercise in supplication and reasoning. The four of us were not together and I wanted at least one parent to be with the kids. We were successful in getting all of us together for one leg and I was with the kids for the other…the flight attendant helped with one of the flights and I had to fend for myself negotiating for the other flight. Human nature is very much what it has always been…survival of the fittest and if having the seat you want is what makes you feel safe, then changing is not an option. Then again, there were people who gracefully and generously changed to help the kids…..
I slept during all the flights and also read and watched TV/movies. I am reading Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction work, Guns, Germs and Steel….The Fates of Human Societiesand taking notes. I have read some chapters from this book over the last 10 years, but I decided that I want to really read it from cover to cover to get a better understanding of history, culture and human nature. I read some of it to the kids and they really enjoyed my explanation of some of the issues….especially when I showed Des a map of how human beings populated the earth 7 million years ago, starting in the “Cradle of Life” which is of course his birth country, Ethiopia. He is so excited about this trip that it is just sweet to hear him talk about it….he was saying for weeks how excited he was to go to Ethiopia. And this is with us having gone back 4 years ago, 2 years after his adoption. There is an orphanage that WWO had started supervising and managing in April 2009 because the director had suddenly died. We are still managing the orphanage and Dr. Sophie Mengistu, WWO’s Ethiopia Country Director, had surprised us all when she named it “Des’s Village” after our Des. We are all excited to see the kids and to work with them on Monday on art work and play games.
We arrived safe and sound in Addis a bit later than expected, but I was so well-rested that I didn’t care. What mattered was that we were finally in Addis ready to go to our hotel to have a snack and then to sleep so that we could be up early to go and see Des’s Village and enjoy the company of the other Service Rangers who are three other families.
So you are likely bored and wonder why I am journaling tonight…beside the fact that I am not tired yet and want to keep a rhythm of daily writing…there was a challenge waiting at Bole airport around the cameras that our filmmaker had with her for the week’s work.
It was too good to be true that all of our bags were at the baggage claim and that it took all of ten minutes to find them, put them on carts and bring them to customs to have them screened. Clearance of passports had taken 10 minutes as well…so we were cooking! And then our Deputy Director of WWO showed up to greet us -- after we had adamantly asked her not to come because she works too hard….Well thank God that she was there for the last and final drama at Bole airport. The customs director was not going to allow the cameras to go with us because the brand of camera is commercial and required an official letter from the Ministry of Communications. In the past there have been minute discussions at Bole with our prior documentarian, but this never amounted to anything. So we were quite surprised at the intense reaction of the customs official. And it went on for an hour with a lot of back and forth in Amharic and English with our Deputy Director and the Customs Director and finally there was no negotiating. Monday morning, our Deputy Director will bring a letter back to Bole and they will release (hopefully), the cameras. So there won’t be the filming we expected to do at Des’s Village on Sunday…okay, as long as they get it back all in perfect working order on Monday, we will be happy.
The Aronson family finally left the airport and arrived at the Hilton at about 9:30 pm and we had a snack in the “Pizzeria” that the kids had liked in their 2006 trip. Finally, upstairs and some basic unpacking and sleep.
I am up because I want to tell you all about this trip and don’t want to miss a detail. The journals get edited so that you aren’t bored, but I try and include as much as I can remember each day…and if you don’t journal every day, you tend to forget details.
I am in the room without my iPhone4 working….no iPhone4 in Ethiopia by the way. That said, I am on my MacBook with the Ethernet in my Hilton Hotel and that is fine. And the Business Center is to those without laptops.
I hear the familiar barking dogs of the night in Addis. The dogs are always there late at night…where they are located actually, I don’t know, but they are part of the backdrop at night as are the business people at the Hilton meeting at the bar doing business, eating, drinking and smoking. It is a convivial setting. The Hilton is where everything is happening for travelers and business people, and it is where Ethiopians come to network. And it’s not raining and quite cool in Addis tonight which is a reprieve from the heat spell in New York for the past couple of weeks.
Our room is spacious and clean. The kids went down quickly although Ben was not eager to sleep -- as is always the case even in Maplewood. They were breathing sweetly in minutes. And Diana went to sleep instantly which was wonderful since she hadn’t slept much of a wink since she awakened at 8 am on Friday, July 23.
For you out there who are looking forward to the journal…the week will be filled with excitement. There are 4 Service Ranger families which number 18 in total with 11 children and 7 adults. The children range in age from 3 to 17. We have a well-organized schedule so that most of the children will go to camp daily from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm and the adults will come part time some days to be involved and to observe. Some of the adults are donors and some are board members so it is an opportunity for them to do a “site” visit to see how Camp Addis works. They will also discover firsthand that the camp is a very successful program for bringing together children who are impoverished and living in the community and some who are HIV positive orphans. And we will see the 28 out of 30 returning Ethiopian counselors from last year as well as the leadership team who are our WWO staff who have been trained to run this camp independently…capacity building at its best.
And I will have administrative meetings to learn about the programs. I will see WWO Academy as well as the WWO-AHF Family Health Center where we have 1700 patients in treatment for HIV/AIDS. Half are orphans with HIV/AIDS from orphanages and the remainder are community families who receive free testing and treatment for themselves and their kids so they don’t get sick and die, leaving their children to dwell in orphanages.
There will be many moments of celebration as we all get together for dinner each night to talk about our work in the day and enjoy one another's company in a very different setting. There are other volunteers and students working in the WWO programs this summer. We have a Global Health Center medical student; a public health student from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine; Global Arts Rangers sent to work with faculty at the WWO Academy; and a Junior Orphan Ranger who is managing the camp’s sports program .
At the same time, this week, but in another country will be the launch of three more Toy Libraries in three different orphanages in Bulgaria. The New York-based team of Rosy Evans, Child Life Specialist and Rhonda Davis, Speech and Language Pathologist, along with Jivka Novkova, Bulgarian psychologist from the Bulgarian charity Milossardie; Assenia Panova, Director of Milossardi; Emilia Kardzilova, WWO Bulgaria Country Director; and Simone Sarmet, Communications Associate from the WWO home office will roll out the Toy Libraries through a training program.
Haiti continues to take shape for WWO. We are eagerly reaching out to more orphanages in our efforts to provide more services to children. And we are creating infrastructure for WWO Haiti with key personnel on the ground. Partnering is the most important aspect of organizational work in Haiti and that is where we hope to excel.
Camp in Vietnam was terrific and we have fabulous feedback about the performance of in-country staff. One of the staff is off to Cambodia to help train and build capacity for another "Hole in the Wall" camp partnership in Phnom Penh. So the partnerships are expanding and extending across countries and I am very proud at this moment.
After seeing my children go to camp each summer, I am more and more convinced of the value of this experience. Whether day or residential, camp teaches life skills, leadership, but most importantly it is fun. Enjoyment of recreation and play for orphaned children is just so needed. “it is such a blast” in Des’s words.
I am eager to see Dr. Sophie who just spent an intense week in Vienna at the International AIDS Conference which she has attended for many years. She makes presentations at these meetings and networks with her colleagues, learning the cutting edge technical information necessary to keep WWO HIV/AIDS programs top notch in the world.
I have brought some Ergobaby carriers to Addis to explore their use for infants and toddlers at Des’s Village and other orphanages. I met on the phone this week with Karin Frost and her father Robert to get to know one another and see how we might create a program for the carriers that could show the effects of the use of the carriers by staff in orphanages. We launched a small effort in Haiti and the carriers were enormously popular. The key will be to figure out a way to measure the effect of the carrier on the baby in an objective fashion.
Crocs donated 200 pairs of Crocs for the kids at Camp Addis and the Service Rangers brought them in their suitcases this weekend. And there will be art projects and other games for the kids at Des’s Village with body tracing, Mancala, and Checkers.
Thanks to all those devoted journal readers for your support of WWO.
Dr. Jane Aronson
12:20 am (Addis time ) July 25, 2010
2010 Returning home from Haiti Journal
April 23, 2010
Today was a grand day, and even though I am tired and eager to get home to my family, I loved my last day in Haiti.We went back to La Maison and attended school again. The five and six-year olds had returned to school after the earthquake in late March and are somewhat behind in their work according to Sandy, who conducts the morning kindergarten from 9 a to 12 noon daily.
We met Sandy and the kids earlier in the week, but I really wanted to get to know them and get a better understanding of the curriculum. The children really seem to enjoy the classroom, which consists of two benches with them sitting upright and the teacher in front at an old blackboard.
The curriculum is a mix of basic pre-reading drills with a lot of emphasis on bible stories like Elijah and Joshua. There’s poetry as well….I love the moon and the moon loves me….you get the gist of it.
I did a shapes lesson with the children, repeating what they had learned the other day when we had visited. They had retained the information and were correctly naming the shapes. They were also able to draw the shapes by tracing along dashed lines which I did on the board just as Sandy had done the other day. They were competent and attentive. There was very little misbehavior; they sat quietly and patiently for the most part. I was only there for about 45 minutes; next time I will stay for the entire session and see how their attention and focus holds up.
The style of learning in Haiti is the same as in Ethiopia. The curriculum is based on the bible and recitation is dominant. There is little creativity.
I ended my time with the kids by asking them their names…what a fantastic array of Haitian names….Peterson, Floriana, Gastin, Gabriel, and Gabou (the G triplets)….many names that I couldn’t get, but next time I will practice these names and learn them. I really enjoyed being close to the kids this morning. They were so connected to the teacher and they were warm and affectionate without being too friendly.
They politely waved and said “Goodbye everyone” and we waved and said goodbye as well. I honestly didn’t want to go…my favorite moment was when Sandy, the teacher, gave out little lollipops to reward the kids for their recitation during the bible lesson….it was a lesson about how children must obey their parents….which is curious for young children who are living separately from their parents and cared for by caretakers in an orphanage. I will be very eager to learn their individual social histories so we can address their mental health issues in a more focused way.
Their hands became very sticky and many of the kids were shy when I asked them their names….their little fingers were in their mouths as a way to protect themselves. …so sweet. And I was soon covered with lollipop juice as they touched me and got closer. I was not eager to wash or wipe my hands at that moment because if would have ruined a very special moment….like the ones I have with my children at home, when they are close and covered with peanut butter or honey. There is something wonderful about being dirty with kids.
My plan today was to present La Maison with the Ergo Baby Carrier and teach the staff how to use it for the babies and toddlers. I did one with a staff member so that I would get comfortable with how to teach without using Creole. All the caretakers in the tent were beaming about this new innovative concept for baby care.
The most amazing moments were when the babies who were very, very hot began to bounce and smile in the carrier. So the votes are in…..the carriers are going to be a big success. When Dr. Windsor, our occupational therapist, comes I will ask her to bring more carriers and work with the staff to expand their use with the toddlers who are not quite competent with their gross motor skills.
I left the orphanage filled with excitement and satisfaction about our work this week. We really forged a tie with the staff and the kids of La Maison. Franckis, the interim director, is a quiet and sweet man. He was very kind to us and made it very easy for us to enjoy the children and the staff.
Finally, I went to the airport with our trusty driver, Pierre and what remains of our team, Jill Vexler, Matt Blesso, and Cathy Chiarello. It was hard to leave, but the team will spend the last night in Haiti with Toni Monnin, who is now a trusted friend of WWO.
When I got through the first security check, I saw that my flight was 3 ½ hours late. As disappointed as I was, I was glad to be at the airport safely and I was actually happy to wait. By the time I went through the 3rd security check upstairs, I heard that a new plane had left New York and that was very comforting.
I found Rebecca Scharf who had traveled with us this week and then I met some wonderful AID workers from New Jersey….a prosthetist, a priest and a board member of their foundation. One of the men was an amputee himself and he had a prosthetic. The priest had lived in Maplewood for seven years in the 1970’s and we c compared notes on my hometown.
Within a few minutes, three young people came over and introduced themselves to us. They were doctors who had been volunteering for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and had seen me earlier in the week at Fond Parisien.
We became fast friends and did a lot of laughing and storytelling. Adam is off to Chicago to take his oral ER medical boards. He is an attending ER doctor at Brown. Charley and his wife (also a doctor, who was at home in Providence), are off to Shiprock, New Mexico to work for the Indian Health Service….not far from Gallup, where I worked in 1992. Ellen is a former physcian’s assistant who went back to medical school at the age of 42 and is finishing her ER residency at Stony Brook Medical School.
Ben and Des don’t know that I am coming home tonight and they will be asleep when I arrive in Maplewood at about 12:30 am….but they will be very surprised tomorrow morning and that is going to be very fun. Saturday is going to be great….sleeping in a little, breakfast at home, baseball for Des, food shopping, errands….a regular fun Saturday…hopefully I will be feeling better and can enjoy my arrival home. Early Sunday, I will go to New York two give two presentations for a yearly adoption conference for Jewish Child Care Agency. The Spring is busy with appearances and workshops, and I love it.
Then back to the office on Monday, April 26, with a very busy day seeing new patients and a WWO board meeting at night, where I’ll catch up with Lori and Matt and we can all tell our colleagues about our trip and the plans for the children in Haiti.
See you next trip, and thanks for reading about my adventures in the field for Worldwide Orphans Foundation.
Best, Dr. Jane
2009 Dr. Jane Reports From Bulgaria (part II)
I met with the 22 students from Wildwood School (in LA) early on Sunday morning. God, are they ever gorgeous, cool, smart and full of desire to do good. I could have been with them all day.
I spoke to them about orphans...children at risk. I talked in great detail about the story of how these children are placed in institutions by birth mothers with no choices and no pre-natal care. I spoke of the daily misery for kids who have no one to love them...and that is the truth no matter how good we at WWO or anywhere else make it.
So the kids went off to Rille to the Monastery and then Mark, Kris, and I met with Assenia, Jivka, her son, Vladimir, and Kristian Katsoris who is the director of Milossardie. We figured out that we met in the early 90s in New York City. We were in Bulgaria together for the first time in 1997 when Milossardie unveiled their first Granny Program and I was invited to teach the psychologists, Jivka and Mitko Novkova how to do the Denver Developmental Screening Test.
We are replacing the Denver after all these years with the Pearson Bayley III which is a very sophisticated psychological/developmental test. WWO has permission to have it translated into Bulgarian in the next few months and then we will use this test to evaluate all our kids and give it toBulgaria universally because they are using tests that are at least 60 years old. Dr. Topher Collier, neuropsychologist, and Dr. Missy Windsor were in London to be certified to train professionals to administer the Bayley lll in December 2008. They also were in Burgas to introduce Jivka and Vladimir to the Bayley lll in September 2008.
We signed an official MOU/contract with Milossardie on Sunday afternoon after a number of hours of talking about the Baba program from their point of view and our strategies to do other kinds of programming for the children (Jan 30, 2009 Bulgaria Strategic Planning session in New York) i.e. Bayley lll, Individualized Educational Plan, Toy Libraries, Pre-school, and Community building through social work outreach (currently being implemented for our children in Vietnam via the USAID PEPFAR NPI grant).
I have to tell you that I learned a lot. I realized the value of really being with people. You can skype and e-mail all you like, but sitting, eating, and traveling in a car many hours really seals the deal....and enriches the friendships which must be about trust.
Mark and Kris came to Bulgaria to learn about the programs and to get to know Assenia and Milossardie and finally and most importantly, they came to show that they are nice people who care about the partnership and the children we all are working for in all our countries. They were successful ambassadors and great supports for me. I couldn't ask for more gracious administrators and colleagues. WWO is in good hands.
I introduced them to other contacts who will be essential for the future programming as we become a fully licensed NGO in Bulgaria. WWO is licensed as an NGO in Vietnam and Ethiopia by the way.
In Monday, we drove 3 1/2 hours into the countryside to Veliko Tarnovo to see our newest Baba program and boy were we wowed....WWO has 20 Babas divided between two sites not far from one another....different ages in each building. There is the baby house (15 Babas) and then a slightly older child building (5 Babas).
Some of the Babas are well into their seventies with 30-40 years of experience in a variety of jobs: teacher nurse, book seller, librarian, builder, tailor, private child caretaker, orphanage staff person, etc. Some had gray hair like me...very rare. I am picked out in Bulgaria all the time because of my gray hair....very funny!
What I love about opening new Baba programs is being there to sit with them all and hear them talk about their lives and why they love the work and especially about how they see the progress and are in awe of it. They talk like professionals. They own this work with pride and expertise.
This program opened two months ago and they all talked about how their child made amazing progress that they felt was due to their relationship and they are so right...stories about how the baby recognizes them when they arrive and how the little one waves or calls out Baba or even their name. And their eyes well up with so much emotion....I love when I can recognize that word...emotional said with a Bulgarian accent....and I learned the Bulgarian word for attachment which they use over and over again in their conversation. They are well-versed in early childhood development and are skilled enough to teach parents and students about how to care for children with attachment disorder.
We need an army of Babas...and we almost have that army. Within the next few months, WWO will have 100 Babas and 200 children in their care. This is something that you should all be proud of … this is big time for now. And the country is aware of WWO and Milossardie and that is important as well.
What was amazing at Veliko Tarnovo were the pedagogues....they were smart and eager and very dedicated. I have never met such idealistic and progressive teachers who want to learn more and do more. They were almost out of their seats with the discussion of the Toy Library.
The social worker at VT described her very sophisticated and elaborate work with parents from the community whose children are in VT because of many reasons.....neglect, abuse, and poverty. She wanted to know how we could help these parents take their children back...this made my almost lose it....she has such wonderful instincts and her knowledge base in social work theory was superb, and then of course her heart was big. I had no answers at all....but we spoke and the dialogue is beginning. We have so much to learn about Bulgarian communities and the Roma culture. Elena will be our teacher for sure here and she began this with Mark and Kris on Sunday night.
We met all 20 Babas and left very satisfied that Velko Tarnovo is a wonderful place for WWO and Milossardie. We drove home on those two lane roads not sleeping because I can never sleep with 140 km/hr driving and trucks whizzing by our little vehicle.
Now, it’s back to the U.S., and more work to make sure we keep our promises.
2009 Dr.Jane reports from Bulgaria (Part I)
So many things to write about. I was in Vrastsa this morning, Friday, April 3...a small town about 90 miles from Sofia. The orphanage doctor was sweet and smart; her name is Dr. Ilieva. She wore a white smock over her clothes that had green trim. She looked professional and medical, but somehow very nice and warm, and clearly, she took pride in her appearance. The staff was similarly dressed and this made a good impression on me.
All the staff is devoted to the children; they appeared warm and were handling the children gently. The orphanage has 110 children of whom 20% at least are multiply handicapped....very involved genetic syndromes, microcephaly, cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, and more, and I fear that these children are not really getting the services they need for their conditions.
The toys are old and not appropriate for the children, but the playrooms were chosen wisely in terms of the architecture. They are large, end rooms on each floor with windows all across and on the ends in some spaces, so the light is spectacular and the view of the snow-covered mountains breathtaking....no child would ever have seasonal affective disorder in those rooms, but they are poorly equipped, and the toys are mostly plush toys that have little developmental value and are difficult to keep clean.
I know from so many visits to orphanages and from reports of Orphan Rangers all over the world that while the toys are kept clean and neat, they are not used to engage the children in interactive play.
If the staff were trained in the underpinnings of early childhood development, there would be a different approach to play and relational issues....this one piece of training could be integrated into the Toy Play Program. Just teaching play can change everything about someone's concepts about the psyche of the child.
I am reminded about how much work we need to do before we can install a Toy Library. There would have to be training on the use of each toy for each age...and we would want to involve the Orphan Rangers, the Babas, and the staff, with the input and approval of the orphanage director.
After the training, we could roll out the daily use of the toys from the Toy Library. Our toys are easily cleaned because they have been chosen with this in mind. Plush toys cannot be properly cleaned...they have to go in the washing machine and that is labor intensive.
The director asked me for my impressions of her orphanage, and I told her that I was very taken with the loving environment. The town has very high unemployment and there is limited money in her budget and I think that what she has done is great. There are local school children who come into the orphanage and there are other groups who visit. The colors of the mats and rugs are all primary colors and the children have very lovely children's bed sheets. The staff watch the children nap and are gentle with them when they cry....there is respect in this place as in many orphanages that I have visited in Bulgaria.
Each of the five Babas I met today had about 35 years of experience in childcare....pre-school and kindergarten teachers. One was a midwife for 37 years. They are all in the sixties, and nicely dressed with make-up and scarves...modern ladies who are very articulate about their personal lives i.e. their children and their grandchildren, and their work in the orphanage. They all are very committed and grateful for the job as Baba.
I enjoyed meeting them very much and I told them a bit about myself and WWO and I thanked them for working with the children.
I then finished with a quick remark about how their work was so valued by me, WWO, and all people who love children. I told them that their work would enable these children to be hopeful and to dream about their futures so that they could go to school, get an education and be good citizens in their country...perhaps leaders in the world....and they all agreed that this is their hope as well. They became as emotional as I did when I spoke about this hope. One Baba told a story about an orphan who she knew who was currently studying at the university.
At the end of the visit, Vladmir, the translator who accompanied me, and I sat with Dr. Ilieva again and she asked for suggestions about what she might do to improve her orphanage. I again stressed that this was only our first meeting and that other people from WWO will come and get to know her and learn more from her about the needs of the children and that we would work together to see what will be our plan for the future.
I praised her work at that point. I wanted to talk about possibilities, but I am learning that my enthusiasm and vision must be modulated carefully so that people don’t expect us to change everything is a flash. This is painful for me....to see what could be and to not make it happen swiftly is very hard and makes me sad now because of the uncertainty of money.
Dr.Ilieva showed me a wedding photo album, which she called a “history of the orphanage.” There were photos of birthday parties and outings. The children were all so cute and happy in the photos....Dr. Ilieva was very proud of this album....I love the personal dedication that this album reflected.
The orphanage in Vratsa is a diamond in the rough, I think...very sweet and tender and also at the same time, very much in need of our assistance.
I see the intense, tender eyes of the Babas right now as I sit at my desk in the hotel room...some very blue, bright, and so youthful....retired women who could be at home, but who passionately love children and answer the call to service. There was a moment when the Baba who was a midwife mentioned that her child already recognized her and called her name out and it was only the second day of the program...she was so thrilled by this that I began to well-up.
The papers for the foundation/branch/NGO in Bulgaria are all signed as of this morning. It will now take two months or so for the registration of WWO.
We are not called WWO in Bulgaria because there is no word for orphans that is respectful. Instead, the Bulgarians say, “child at risk,” or “vulnerable child,” or “child living without parents.” This reminds me of saying Native American, rather than Indian...or Roma instead of Gypsy. In this case, it was not orphans who were able to advocate for themselves so it was social welfare policy organizations that created this change in the designation. So we are Worldwide Foundation for Vulnerable Children. I am glad to be culturally sensitive for our programs abroad. This is part of the WWO brand.
Monday, Kris (WWO Director of Finance and Administration) and Mark (WWO Director of Programs) and I are all off to yet another new Baba program in Veliko Tarnovo which is three hours outside of Sofia. I head home on Tuesday early morning, my head and heart filled with the images of all the children I saw and all the caring adults I met.
Solar Suitcases for Haitian Orphanages
Posted on June 12, 2013
At any hour of the day or night, we in the first world can flip a switch on the wall, and have light to see, to read, to cook, to do homework, to work, to send emails and surf the web, to deliver a baby or do a life-saving surgery. Most of the developing world is without power and there are no switches. There is darkness that causes a lack of education, inability to perform work, and even death. Read more.