Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Street Census Redone



When Project Esperanza first came to Puerto Plata as a Virginia Tech student organization in the summer of 2006, we conducted a street census with the understanding that the results would be submitted to Integracion Juvenil, a Dominican foundation, that was opening up a home for boys on the streets. We created 140 profiles over the course of one month and submitted the information to Integracion Juvenil. We were told that Integracion Juvenil rejected the profiles as 96% of them were of Haitian youth and adolescents, and they did not intend on receiving Haitians into their home.



This is where our work began. The average age reported was 14. We were told that some of these kids were living with “bosses” who sent them out selling and then took their money at the end of the day. Very few reported living with family, and those who did reported living with a brother, a cousin, or an aunt, but not their nuclear family (mother, father, and siblings). The original profiles were lost in a damaged hard drive before we could collect the exact statistics, but it was remarkable to us that 0% of the Haitian youth reported currently attending school. Some had reported attending school in Haiti before coming to the Dominican Republic, while others reported never having gone to school before. Probably 85% reported living in the barrio of Padre Granero, where we began running a school shortly thereafter, whereas the other 15% reported living in the barrio of Agua Negra on the other side of town. When asked why they came to the Dominican Republic, they all said, “to search for life”. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, so it makes sense that so many venture over to the other country that shares the island with them in hopes of finding “life”.



At the end of the month long census, some found out where our volunteer house was located and they began coming by in groups asking to see the photos we had taken of them for the census profiles. We were sad that the home we thought we would be able to lead some of them to through Integracion Juvenil was not going to be a reality for them. So we began a lunch, tutoring, and recreation program at that time from noon to 4pm. We began learning much more about them and over time, some did disclose their stories.



Someone in Haiti, normally a neighbor, had convinced them to come with them to the Dominican Republic. Sometimes it was with a parent’s consent, and sometimes this person had convinced them to come in secrecy even when the parent did not consent. They promised the boy that life would be better in the Dominican Republic. They would find bikes on the ground easily that they could have and ride, radios as well. They would go to school and eat better meals. Then when they arrived, they were often made to live harsh street vendor lives where they wake up early, search for wood to build a fire, and prepare sweets to sell on the beach. They were taught a route they would walk all day long to sell sweets on the beach. When they arrived home, they would turn their money over to the person they live with, and do an accounting. Some reported harsh punishments if they did not sell all of their sweets. Some showed scars where they reported being hit with machetes. We went with one to the hospital where the doctors found he had internal bleedings from beatings.



Some boys had even reported during the census that they lived with their father, and then we came to find out that the man they lived with was not their father, but someone who had brought them here in this manner. Over time, we found out certain men who were involved in this trafficking business. Women were involved in the kidnapping and enslaving that was going on here as well. It was a quite common practice. It is for this reason that we sent close to 50 youth back to Haiti to be reunited with their families who they reported being tricked. Their families thought they were doing a good thing for them. The adults running these operations said that their parents knew what they were sending their kids to. They didn’t want them or couldn’t take care of them. That is why they sent them.



We did not do the street census again until this year, 2015. I had thought about it in the past and quite frankly the idea scared me. The need and sadness we found during the first census was overwhelming and running an organization that was attempting to respond to the need had taken over my life. We have some great success stories from the first street census. Some young men who had never attended school before are now close to graduating from high school. Some have steady jobs. Some have started families. Some have been more responsible in starting their families than others. Some are here in the Dominican Republic while others have settled in Haiti. But we have lost some as well. Others spend time in and out of jail. 

Anol
I wrote a tribute to two we lost, Anol and Etienne, in the book I published, but since then we have lost two more. We have lost two of the first three who we offered mattresses on the floor to in 2007 when they reported sleeping on the beach or on someone’s porch. Both were scarred and problematic boys but had they had the chance to be given a permanent and loving caregiver and secure home and family, they could’ve done great. I am talking about a foster or adoption situation. Yes, they were a part of our group home, but both fell back into the streets as they needed much more individual attention than we were able to give them at the time. Here is a group home video from 2015 memories. The last slide which mentions Michael and Tina Reeder is actually out of date. For family and health reasons they unfortunately were not able to stay for the year they had hoped for.


I won’t neglect to say that it saddens me that so many volunteers (although not all volunteers) came and met these boys and then returned to their lives in the U.S. without doing anything to better the boys’ lives. Maybe these volunteers had other things going on in their lives that kept them from doing that, but I just think that if I have dedicated pretty much my whole life, then more could have at least written from time to time to ask how so and so was doing. I am not saying this to pat myself on the back or put others down but it is truly something that I have a hard time understanding. We all (volunteers) have our nuclear families, quality education, secure housing, food security, and job opportunity. I don’t think anyone can say that their problems have been too great to spare an occasional check in. Anyway, what is done is done and I hope we can only move forward for a better future. 


Alin did not last long in the group home. When there were 18 boys in the beginning (we tried to help everyone) and lots of fighting and power struggle, he requested to be sent to Haiti to visit what family members he had there. Upon returning, we did not allow him back
into the group home because he had many accounts of stealing and
Alin
other vices. However, had he expressed extreme interest in coming to school each day as others did, he may have been given a second chance. He did not. He continued to come to soccer practice some. Then I didn’t see him for quite a while. A few years ago, Jonel told me that Alin was in jail in Santiago and needed someone to sign for him or represent him at his hearing. I said that I could not. I was just overwhelmed with responsibilities and he had not maintained contact as others had to the point that I felt like I could vouch for him in any way. 


It was maybe a year later that I asked Chinaider about Alin and he said that Alin had been shot and killed in Sosua. The police shot him as he ran away from a theft. In law school, I learned that deadly force cannot be used to stop someone from theft or anything that doesn’t create extreme deadly risk to others. Someone running away from a theft should not be shot. However, here you hear of this sort of thing without repercussions to the shooter. I did not learn about this until after he was buried. Chinaider thought that he was buried in Sosua. 


Luis did not return to the group home after he stole a laptop from the administrative space he broke into in a separate building in 2008. He lived in town ever since and lived a fairly calm life. I never heard of any more problems from him and he did not seek any more help from me or any teachers or employees. He seemed to play a lot of Nintendo and eventually found a job with the trash truck. He even attended the public night school in town regularly and would have started 8th grade this year. He was very scarred. I wrote about him in this blog post. Luis is the boy I was referring to who was said to have been used by the police for violence in Port-au-Prince.  


Jeres told me this past summer that Luis had gone to Haiti and was very sick. I was busy and did not ask and was not told anything further for over a month. Then one day recently we drove through the area of town where he lived and I asked Chinaider, who was in the car, for an update on Luis. He replied with, “Luis died”. He said that someone had taken him to family members in Haiti and he died within a few days. When I asked what sort of sickness he had he said that he became extremely thin and had no appetite. That is all I know.  


Rest in peace Alin and Luis. 


Bobby is someone who was in the group home until 2009 when we made contact with his mom and heard of the true story that he was pretty much kidnapped. We sent him back to her and she was so grateful. He came and went after that. He basically lived in between our group home, his mom’s house in Haiti, and another area where he had contacts in the country and worked in agriculture. Every time he came he had a really hard time living in a group setting and managing resources in a humble manner. By this I mean that he always ended up getting into a conflict because he owed someone money or took someone’s stuff. He is an extreme people person and makes friends everywhere but gets into conflicts when he owes money, etc. He didn’t deny his involvement in drugs from a very young age before he was ever in the group home but I do know he was clean for the most part before we sent him to his mom’s house in 2009. But it looks like at some point he fell back into that. 

Normally when he would go to work in the country, people would then report him buying drugs and stealing things. So this may be the root of his problem. 


The last time he was here and left was not even a year ago but without going into too many details, I didn’t want him to come back and didn’t plan on talking to him when he did come back. He turned 21 in January which is the age that we completely kick someone out of the home. At 18, they stop receiving aid with food. However, we had not let him back in the home for quite a while because of these reasons. He stayed with another young man who had graduated from the home, named Biby. Biby knew I did not want to see him, but nonetheless, came with him to my house when he arrived again. My house is next to the group home and was just one street over from Biby’s house at the time. I did not go outside to talk to him when they called me. They eventually left. Biby then saw me leaving later on that day and approached me. He said that he was not planning on accompanying Bobby to my house, but had done so because he sees that Bobby is now crazy. He arrived this morning and isn’t making any sense. It also seems like both of his thumbs are paralyzed. I listened, was surprised, and went on my way. 

The next day Bobby approached me when he saw me on the street and I was able to converse with him and see what Biby meant by “crazy”. He made some sense and remembered everyone, but did seem handicapped. A day later he had a tank top on backwards… one with a scoop neck and high back that was very apparently on backwards, but he did not notice. He speaks quietly and is unable to completely convey his thoughts, which seems to frustrate him a little. He walks around during the days and looks for work. He was caught stealing a bag of bread at a colmado down the street but they went easy on him when people told them that he was crazy. So we’ll see what happens. I am not sure what I can do for him unless someone really wants to take on his case. And even then, I don’t think I should personally be too involved with him directly as I would not like to give him any sort of welcome into my personal space. But someone else in the organization could perhaps help. 

9 years after the first census, I realized that it was time to delve in again. We started with winter break volunteers sitting in spots around town with a clipboard and a camera. This time we gave out bags of rice, beans, and a packet of oil as a thank you for participating in the census. Spring break volunteers participated as well up until May. Our summer volunteers did other activities but I still got a few profiles going around town in the summer as well. The results are quite different than 2006. In 2006 we divided into two groups and did it for one month, so probably 22 weekdays. We conducted the census in the afternoons. This consists of 44 half days. This year we did 15 half days and then I did a bit independently. Therefore, more time was spent on this in 2006. But it was very clear that in 2006 there were simply more youth working on the streets. Tourist police have completely banned two touristic areas to such street vending among youth: the Malecon or Boardwalk, and Central Park. Also, attempts have been made by the government to eradicate child labor in general. Of course we find many teenagers street vending and do profiles on anyone who reports being 18 or younger, and those older ages don’t count as child labor. But there was a significant lower amount of 10 and 11 year olds on the streets during this census. Additionally, it might be due to the fact that we did send around 50 kids back to their families in Haiti and started registering kids in school, and rewarding them with things for going, but the men who were highly responsible for the child trafficking in Padre Granero when we first began seem to have stopped doing that altogether. I haven’t heard of such activity in years.
The most alarming thing we saw during the 2015 census was not kids who were estranged from their families and living as servants, but two cousins and a sister. They live with their parents and say they go to school, but they can be seen often in the dark far from home selling peanuts. I drove the two boys home one day as it was dark and they were at La Sirena when they live far away from La Sirena. They fell asleep in the car and I made it to the area where they said they lived, then asked people on the road if they knew where the boys sleeping of my car lived. We eventually found their family. I talked to them about why they sent their kids out to work on the streets like that alone and until very late at night. They said that an adult usually went with them and would go with them in the future. They have financial needs. I said I would try to find some help to get them some groceries each month. And not to send the kids out anymore! Especially alone! I still see the kids very often, sometimes accompanied by an adult, and sometimes not.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Published Book!

This post will be short and sweet. I've gotten a lot of requests throughout the years to publish a book. I have gotten these requests in reference to my many updates from the ground here in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. I wrote 29 posts on the La Vida Idealist blog on Idealist.org but it was shut down about two years ago. I finally was able to retrieve my posts and decided this would be the perfect opportunity to publish!



I have set the e-book for free for 3 days (as of yesterday). My only request is that people who receive it for free write a review, which can help me sell more. Here is the link to the e-book. 

Here is the link to the paperback. 

In a few weeks, both should be available on Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, and more. I am excited and have many more ideas for more books to publish in the future! Thank you! 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Understanding Restavek

The other day I ran into a young man selling sugar cane out of a wheelbarrow on the street in Puerto Plata. As I passed him, we made eye contact, and I then recognized his face. We both stopped, smiled at each other, and then broke into dialogue. A few seconds of reflection and I remembered his name: Jamile. He was one of the first boys living as a "restavek" we ever sent back to family in Haiti. This was in January 2007.

"I don't know where you live," he said. "That's why I haven't come to see you. I wanted to come thank you because what you did for me was a really big thing." He said this several times. I'm not saying that to brag, but am just telling the story as it happened. If you don't know, restavek is a name for a Haitian child slave or really a system of child slavery in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic among Haitians. Most Haitians are descendants of West Africans who were enslaved by the French who used to run the country. In 1804, the slaves revolted and gained independence. But when you examine the country, or at least when I do, I can't help but to think, "Well you didn't like it when they did that to you, why are you doing it to others??" But maybe it was just a way of life that was learned and a different way of life has been difficult to adapt to?


Anyway, I have the most insight on the situation here in the Puerto Plata. We both are quite poor. Let's say I'm your neighbor in Cap Haitien but I move to the Dominican Republic. I see that selling sweets on the streets in the DR can make some income, and if I can have 5 people working for me, I could have a little operation going. So I go back and ask you if you would like me to take your 12 year old son with me to the Dominican Republic. I promise that he will eat better and go to school. To the child, I make him believe that he will find bikes and radios on the ground and things will be fun. You entrust me with your child and we make the journey to the Dominican Republic. Two others entrust me with their children as well, and I convince two street kids two come with me too.

Then once we get there, I use the same tactics that are used on slaves anywhere to get them to work. I treat them bad.. and maybe the ways of doing that very from person to person. They are little and have lost contact with their parents in Haiti. This can go on for years. This is what was going on with Jamile and his two other housemates. And this is why we sent them back to their mothers in Haiti, against the will and despite threats of their "owner". I had seen their previous "owner" around town since and he, like many others in the neighborhood where he lived and where we first began supporting a school, stopped doing this, or at least did it a lot less.

"Ronald (fake name) was making me suffer and you took me out of that," Jamile said.

"Do you see him nowadays?" I asked.

"We live right by each other," he answered.

"But he hasn't done anything to you since then?" I asked.

"No," he replied.

So this was 7 years ago that we had sent him. He eventually made his way back to the Dominican Republic to search for work and ended up living nearby "Ronald" since they have a common circle of acquaintances, being from the same area in Haiti. And the slave and slaveholder relationship is a thing of the past. Did we do things as we should have? I'm not exactly sure. I believe God's hand was over the situation and it seems to have turned out better than it was when it began. But I have formed lots of thoughts over how such situations should be intervened in, because I don't want to be an example of an American who came in and intervened in someone's home without having the authority or the experience to do so. Now I do have the experience. At that time, I don't know that me and the others who were behind that did have the experience. But we did at least speak Creole, and I think the language barriers and assumptions in communication are sometimes the biggest things to get people in trouble!

If you look up restavek through organizations such as this one or this one, you can read that the scenario is typically a little different in Haiti, but this is how I have seen it play out time and time again here in Puerto Plata. Here is a testimony of one young man who has been with us for 7 years now.

A few months ago I was contacted by a woman who was, along with her daughter, working on setting up an orphanage in a town in Haiti. They were attempting to rescue a group of kids from an orphanage that they deemed to be a restavek operation. She asked for insight as far as setting up a non-profit and the paperwork involved with that, but also thoughts on the situation. I was grateful to be able to share a lot of what I learned with her, and now will share with you. Below is what I shared with this woman.

I do have thoughts about this and am happy to share. Forgive me if I offend you in any way since I am ignorant as to everything other than what you have shared in this e-mail and you may have excellent replies to my concerns of which I am happy to read. Here are some things I strongly believe and stand behind. 

First, working with kids at this level is largely about working with adults...and even more so when the financer (you all) is in a separate country than the kids. I know how disturbing it can be to discover kids in restavek situations.. but I have come to see things very differently after living here for 7 years than I did when I first came and witnessed this. This is so very much due to cultural differences and judgments that we can't help but to make coming from a compleeetely different world. I have come to see the people who force or have forced kids to work in very different ways than I did initially.  Sometimes these people are heartless child abusers, that's for sure. But sometimes they are ignorant, are doing what they know, are doing what they think is best, and actually do care for the kids much more than it would seem, and are very open to change. There is one family that used to have several kids living with them and working for them, treating them very differently than they treat their own kids, sending the kids out to sell on the streets all day, every day, never giving them days off, etc. They were definitely restavek kids. We took one in and he is now a leader of our group home and a star among others in the program. He said that they never hit him and he didn't experience other abuse, maybe some verbal, but they hit other kids sometimes who were less obedient. This family has changed a lot over the years in reference to housing kids and forcing them to work, as have others who used to do this in the community where we work, because of the attention that it received. No one was prosecuted, but the kids were definitely liberated and the people doing this were looked down upon. 

But this family still had one boy living with them. I knew that this boy's mom had visited the area the year before. She knew where he was living and how he lived. She asked him to return to Haiti with her when she left and he chose to stay with this family rather than go back with her. He did help the mother of the household out significantly with food she made and sold, but he also went to our school, and had a large amount of freedom. He is now sixteen. A group that recently began working in the community were told about this situation and quickly made the decision to remove him from the home. I stepped in and had a lot to share, and honestly was undecided as to which would be better for this boy - the life he was living with the family where he did do a significant amount of work, or the life he would live after they removed him from the home. One, I knew that the people who had brought this to their attention had their own motives for doing so, and I didn't believe their motives were pure. They ended up renting an apartment and this is supposed to be an apartment for him, as well as paying someone to give him extra lessons, but the group funding this are not here permanently, plan on visiting quarterly, but do lack the language and cultural skills. I have more insight into what is going on and to me it looks like these men have gotten the group to rent an apartment and are benefiting from it and now instead of being in more of a family setting, he is staying with fairly young men and lacks real guardian figures as far as a family structure is concerned. Hired men as caregivers in the past have done things such as frequented prostitutes and come back to tell boys in the home about this, and just give other poor advice and examples. So which home will turn this young man into a more productive member of society? 

Another thing I strongly stand by and I think it's proven is that the best environment to provide orphans or kids estranged from their families is.. a family. The closer to a family structure, the better. And the closer relationship and loyalty between the caregivers and the financers, the better, because that is more realistic to a family. Sometimes paid caregivers can just view their role as a job and not respect the funds that are being spent, etc. We now have a system where boys who have grown up in the program are leaders of younger boys and have no paid caregivers. Their motives have to be in the right place or it just doesn't work and money just gets in the way of that, whereas if you provide someone with meals or a food stipend, housing, schooling, and a family relationship, and they have a responsibility within their family to care for the younger family members, that is very different than money. I also see that this boy that has been removed from the home, well at least at first, I'm not sure about now, the financers thought he was staying in this new apartment whereas he was really staying with the family who had him working, and it was because he was comfortable there...and we have seen this a lot in the past.

Another thing I will say is, restavek is really a spectrum..the exact conditions vary from case to case, the amount of work the child does, the age of the child, the amount of liberties the child has, the amount of emotional connection there is between the child and the authority in the house, between the restavek child and the biological children of the authority, as well as other restavek children in the house, whether or not the child goes to school, the amount and type of abuse inflicted on the child, etc. But I will say for a child's development, there are arguably worse situations for an orphaned or abandoned child in Haiti or a Haitian child in the DR who is forced to work a lot and kept under strict discipline, and removing children from one home can put them in danger of falling into worse situations. In my opinion, kids who grow up in the streets are often worse off development-wise than a restavek child, but that may also depend on the amount and type of abuse a restavek child undergoes. The reason why I say this is because from my observations through housing, schooling, and working with kids from the streets and from restavek situations mixed in a group home setting beginning in 2006 is that kids who grow up in restavek situations turn out to be more obedient, respectful, and honest than kids from the streets. Kids from the streets often have serious problems with authority as well as attitudes that really inhibit them in life and I have seen far too many end up in prison, whereas I have seen many kids with a restavek background succeed, commit themselves to their schooling, and respect people who are willing to help them. There is also a large difference between restavek kids who are forced to work in the streets and restavek kids who work in the home. Kids forced to work in the streets are still exposed to the dangers of the streets, one of which we have seen here in Puerto Plata is pedophilia, whereas kids working in a home are more protected from that, assuming they don't experience such abuse in the home.

Now, you might say that you in no way intend that kids who are removed from the orphanage in Haiti end up in the streets and of course that is not your intention and I don't know if there is a very big street kid population in that area but Port-au-Prince is not far away and I know there is a very large street kid population there, even girls which I haven't heard of anywhere else. I have seen many times where kids who get to pre-teen or teenage years are not kept on a tight reign or are not occupied with enough activity throughout the day and they end up in the streets. We have made many attempts to locate and upon locating him, force a son of someone in our community to come home and stay with his family, and he always refuses and runs away. They have tried chaining him several times. It's very sad and it has now been over a year since they have seen him. This is so even if food and shelter is provided for them at their home, and it seems to be an extra large phenomenon in Haiti. Parents go looking for their kids and the kids run and hide from them as they come to enjoy the street life. Kids spend years doing this and seem to realize their stupidity in their older teenage years, generally, but have already been exposed to so much and estranged from their families for so long. It does seem to happen the most where the parents may have a drug problem, violence in the home, extreme poverty, single moms, lots of kids, so anything where the kid lacks attention, but really, first, at least one of these conditions fit most families in Haiti, I'm sure, and also, an orphanage is a very difficult place for a kid to receive attention as well, and as far as an orphanage that can occupy 17 kids all day long...well that's a large monthly budget. I have seen people give kids lots of chores to keep them occupied to keep them out of trouble, and without the financial means to pay for extra curricular activities, it's the lesser of two evils.

So these are just some things to consider. I am curious as to how it was determined that the current orphanage was a restavek operation, what the social services that are intervening plan to do with the kids once they are removed from the home, since it sounds like you all are not yet prepared for that, the sources of information for you all, etc. I think that is all that I felt the need to share. Again, I hope it does not come off as offensive as there is obviously a lot more to the story that I have not heard, but this is my two cents from doing similar work. If you can take a child who is used to working, not receiving school, and being abused, out of the home and put him or her in a home where they are nurtured, schooled, and their already developed work ethic celebrated and rewarded, then wow, of course that is a life transformation and a new life altogether. But if the new home is not yet prepared, I think it's important to be aware of some potentially unpredictable side effects of removing a child from such a home, and some potentially wasted attempts as well. 

Also, one more thought, collaboration is key in this line of work. My initial thought was that you all first try to collaborate with the current leaders of the orphanage rather than separate from them altogether. They must already have resources they are devoting to this, and could potentially be doing the best that they can with those resources and with their life's experiences. It has taken some working with the young man I mention who is now a group home leader so that he doesn't treat younger boys the same way he was treated when he was their age. But he has learned and changed. I would like to think that the same is true with the leaders of the current home. This can be done by attempting to lay down certain rules such as at what age a child can start doing chores, and what a healthy daily schedule would be. A financer has the right to enforce such changes for the better of the orphanage. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

About the School Shootings in Connecticut



I feel compelled to write about this, the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that took place on Friday morning. Many people on Facebook are wondering why this has happened and why it keeps on happening and people have been posting great thoughts and articles written by people like Maya Angelou and Morgan Freeman. I have been interested to read all such discussions and have developed my own thoughts and opinions as well, which I want to share. I don’t know if I will be able to share in a complete paragraph form… I feel like in some parts I may just list off thoughts.

So obviously many people are pleaing for more gun control. Others are saying that it’s not the issue of gun control but of mental health. Could we not agree that both probably need attention? Someone who would do this was obviously mentally sick, but will it be the end of the world for people who like to use guns if guns are harder to come by? I think it is a sacrifice people can make. I think both issues should be worked on, for sure, but I wonder how more attention on mental health would go… and I know that I don’t agree with some of the ways that it could go.

I enjoyed Morgan Freeman’s thoughts about the way that the media sensationalizes people when they do such things but don’t like the line where he says, “You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem.” Because what research really needs to be done? Nothing that would demand much money, I don’t think. I feel like it is just a matter of executing what already works.

Okay, again, I don’t know how to organize these thoughts but will share a little bit about myself. I was a very sensitive kid. My family can tell you about this. I was pretty composed at school and sports. I got along well with other kids, did well at school, etc. But at home where I had less limits, I would get upset often. Things just set me off and I felt unable to control myself. My family can attest to me doing things like beating my head against the window in the car and telling my mom that she was making me do it. My mom used to tell me often that I was too sensitive. I had strong emotions and I didn’t always know how to control them.

Around middle school, I believe, I started doing obsessive compulsive sorts of things and my mom would try to break me of them. After learning to type, I typed everything said in conversations on my hands, without a keyboard in sight. I would have issues about standing on the same floor as the toilet when it flushed, the same floor as the microwave when it beeped, and certain things like that. But again, my mom kept me in check so it didn’t get too out of control and I eventually stopped. I could go on, but my point is that if I hadn’t grown up in the environment that I did, or under different circumstances, I’m sure I could’ve been diagnosed with something at some point. Also, if my father didn’t give us the counseling and wisdom from the wrong paths he took with drugs and alcohol, then I would’ve likely gone down that path as well to alter my state of mind as I often found myself burdened by my emotions.

Now, in college a lot changed. In a TED talk I recently gave at Virginia Tech, I talk a bit about my Freshman year of college and how I found a plan to read the Bible in a year, which I followed. During this time, I searched my heart and laid it all before God, which if you are reading this and don’t have a relationship with God and weren’t brought up that way or haven’t been in a crowd that talks this way, then that may sound foreign to you, but please don’t judge the foreign or different and just consider. I laid my heart before God as it was broken because everything I had done to try to fill it with the joy that only comes from him had failed me. He showed me that it had guilt and self-hatred harbored in there. He showed me that neither of these came from him. How did he show me? Through his word…through learning his character in the Bible, and through prayerful revelations which again, if someone has not done this then they may not understand, but don’t judge or write off. One of the things I hated about myself was that I was so sensitive. When God shone his light on this harbored self-hatred, he turned it right around.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    before you were born I set you apart. (Jeremiah 1:5)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

I read about how I was made in God’s image. And I read about how God was good and God was love. I realized that he had made me very sensitive. He had made people other ways that also reflected his image but he had made me sensitive… and I just didn’t know how to handle that because I hadn’t asked him how. He was the manual and the maker. And he would show me how.

Around this time is when I started dreaming about what would become Project Esperanza and it was all over from there. This organization has been my way to use my sensitivity to serve God and to serve humanity.

Let me go back. When I was a Junior in high school, a tragedy happened that completely floored me. This was two years after the Columbine shootings, which I watched on TV as a Freshman in complete confusion. I was sick that day and caught it on TV as it happened. This was when I believe this craziness began?

Well, it was Easter break. I finished track practice and as I was leaving, ran into a friend and his brother on a practice soccer field. This friend and I went to school together up through high school graduation and had the same group of friends. We were good friends. We kicked the ball around together a bit and talked. His brother went off on his own. As we kicked the ball around, he talked to me about his brother and expressed his concern for him. He said that he often wonders what it will be like when his brother is in prison because he knows he will end up there. He just does crazy things, etc.

A week later, someone told me on instant messenger that my friend’s brother had murdered someone. I didn’t believe it. Our friends had just had a get together that evening and although I hadn’t gone, I had heard that my friend was there. I called to confirm and they said that he was, although he had left by the time I called. So this wasn’t true. He wouldn’t go to a get together if his brother had just committed murder. I went to track practice the next morning, as we were not yet back in school and continued hearing the rumor but was determined that it was not true. When we left, I passed by the soccer field to see if my friend’s brother was there. When I saw that he was not, although my friend was, if I remember correctly, I broke down. I accepted that the rumor was true. I went home and it was in the newspapers. I just remember feeling uncontrollably upset and sick. I couldn’t stop crying. I spoke to other friends who were surprised, but no one was crying uncontrollably. What was wrong with me? I don’t want to go intotoo many details, but it was a horrific murder where he just went into a neighbors house and stabbed him and his wife, although his wife lived. They later diagnosed him as schitzophrenic.

The week went by. My friend was at school, normal as ever, trying to not let what his brother did, what he couldn’t control, what he knew from before it happened that he couldn’t control..he was trying to not let that affect his life too much, apparently. He wasn’t this calm, cool, and collected forever, and we did see him deal with it later on, but at this time, he was not dealing with it at all. I, on the otherhand, felt like I couldn’t get through the week.

So I have some other stories I could share but this was the most heartbreaking thing for me where I felt like I looked Satan straight in the eyes. Among the other incidents I observed following this were the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. I was tutoring in the stadium, maybe 200 meters from the first building where there were shootings, and on the other side of campus where most shootings took place. So I was not in the same building but was on lock down on campus. I think that we have to realize that Satan is responsible for this and we have to look at these things this way. We have to recognize Satan’s existence and that he is the enemy. A friend used to have a quote on his IM profile:

“The biggest trick Satan ever played was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.”

I don’t know if he came up with it or who did but I’ll let him contact me if he would like credit. J And the quote is true. I am married to a Haitian man and have lived with Haitians in the Dominican Republic for about five years now. Haitians view what Americans would call mental disorders very differently. Many Haitians view them as demon possessions. In 2007 there was a boy involved in our program who..well you can read about what he did in this post. A few volunteers took him to the doctors where they said he had epilepsy, but the Haitian pastor and church we worked with at the time to run a school said that we were wasting our money at the hospital. He needed prayer. I helped out with him one night when he was having a fit.. not a seizure, a fit. And we took him to the hospital to get a tranquilizer shot which was supposed to knock him out.

We brought him back to the house and it seemed to have no effect. He was biting sheets and trying to bite people. We held him down and prayed and prayed and prayed. At one point he called the name of the man next to me praying and told him that he had a demon walking around in his head. When he said this, a gust of wind blew my face to the side and as I looked to the side, the man whose name he had called looked back at me, his face having been blown to the side as well. These afflictions were something that this boy had gone through for as long as he could remember. After this night, he has not had one. He went back to Haiti for awhile and returned to the Dominican Republic, reporting to have never had that happen again. I spoke to him a few months ago.

This is not the only time I have seen this happen here. Something similar went on with a neighbor girl a few months ago. So there is some free research for those who want to invest in mental health research.

Many boys in the program we run would’ve likely been diagnosed with a mental disorder, had we taken them to a psychiatrist. Many would’ve been/would be diagnosed with ADHD, for sure. I have always felt the utmost empathy for these boys when they have emotional fits and have taken joy in showing them that I will not laugh at them or get annoyed at them but will talk to them and deal with them the way that I wanted someone to talk to me when I used to react in such ways. And I’ll admit that being around this has been a little therapeutic for me, letting me know that I was not the only one who felt this way at times! We have really only intervened with attempts to provide the best discipline, example, prayer, counseling, and biblical teaching, as possible, although it is, of couse, a work in progress. And here there is an easier way to punish where you can sanction someone from the housing and meals you provide and they go through a time of reflection and punishment without being, say, put in jail. But sometimes this is tricky as well because it does cause them to join up with other criminals and be further negatively influenced. 

Let me change gears for a minute. I believe it was my Sophomore year of college. I was home for Christmas break and I was upset. I needed to learn more about love. I prayed for God to send someone to teach me, because I felt dark. Things were going on around me that I didn’t understand. I remember a pastor and his wife and the warm way that they hugged me and looked in my eyes whenever I went to their church. I called them up and asked if we could meet. They told me a time to come by their house and gave me directions.

Now, as I pulled into the driveway, an idea popped strongly into my mind. “They are going to tell you that you are a prophet.” Okay. It was just as I pulled into their driveway that I thought/heard this. I didn’t have time to think about it but parked, got out, and went to their door. But while reading the Bible, I had felt that I had a lot in common with the prophets.

I also did a class that the church I attended at Tech offered. It was called e4 and was seminary integrated into your college life. They had us look closely at this verse:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. (Ephesians 11, 12)

We talked a little about the qualities of these five, typically, discovering which you are, and talked about how one can also have qualities of all five, etc. We didn’t really have to figure out which one we were, but the verse was introduced and discussed a little. So it’s a different way to look at people and personality differences. God made each person differently for a purpose and different roles work together to form his body.

So, I sat down and talked to the pastor and his wife. I tried to explain what was upsetting me and told them what I was looking for. I cried as I told them different things going on. They saw how sensitive I was. Not long into the conversation, they looked at each other and mentioned to one another that I seemed like a prophet. They talked to me a bit about different prophets and their qualities. By the end of the conversation they were declaring to me that I was a prophet. I, of course, had not told them about my strong thought in the car.

So I am not going to write that I am a prophet, but will just say that I once sought counseling from a pastor and wife, had a strong thought while going in that they would tell me that I am a prophet, and then they did indeed tell me that I was a prophet. I will also admit that I often have visions pertaining to next steps for Project Esperanza. As our organization has moved to different rented houses, as well as our family, I often envision the house and then search for it. This has happened three times that I can think of and we have found what I had envisioned, without knowing it was there beforehand. I also sometimes have felt so stronglt that I have to write a letter to someone that I can’t eat or function properly until I write it. After I write it, there is immediate relief.

Now please no one think that I am claiming anything more than I should. I have learned to be very humble in things I say because even if someone may have a prophetic gift, you are a part of a body and your gift is not necessarily any more important than the apostle’s or evangelist’s, and your mind is still a battlefield which can cause you to say wrong things and appear crazy. I think developing our gifts is a life long process. Again, if you are not used to studying the Bible in this way, etc., then this all sounds foreign to you. Please don’t judge, but consider.

So I have just given a few examples to make the point that I grew up very burdened by an extra-sensitive nature which others, I know, have as well, but when I found my purpose and calling from my maker, I learned to use this extra-sensitive nature in a good and healthy way. Sort of like X-Men! And I think this may be the case for many others.

I have a good friend from high school who went through depression her Sophomore year of college. We spent lots of time together over Christmas break that year and she was not in a good state. She had, like me, tried to find joy in things other than God and found herself, like me, heartbroken. She was also, like me, very sensitive. We had many similarities, in fact, with the ways we had felt growing up, but of course, were different as well. We prayed and prayed together. I shared with her a lot of what I had learned through Bible study, etc.

At the end of our time together that break, she was thinking a lot about the time that she had spent with me and others in the Dominican Republic the summer before. She had felt very settled there and relieved from some burdens she felt in the US and at school. We did some researching together and she ended up spending the next semester in Costa Rica. Well, after that, she was, like me, not often in the US, but always in Latin America, and often doing service. We haven’t kept in touch as much as we should, but I do believe that she, like me, found her calling and found a positive use for her extra-sensitivity.

So here are my thoughts after witnessing this ridiculous school shooting. I do not mean that the lives of anyone involved were ridiculous in any way. What I mean by ridiculous is that the US has turned into one big tower of Babel and I say all of this out of love. What is ridiculous is that something or lots of things are obviously wrong because the country tries so hard to protect itself and takes such great measures, but this was an atrocity in what should be a completely safe and innocent place. This is quite a wake up call, if the past incidents haven’t been enough. And I see that lots of people are trying to define what exactly the cause is so that we can work on a solution. Someone at a church I shared with in Winchester in November, a few weeks after the TED talk, gave me a few wonderful new Children picture Bibles in English and Haitian Creole! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading them in both languages with kids here and the kids have enjoyed it to. Here is a quote from the tower of Babel chapter:

“ Yes! they said. We’ll say, ´Look at us up here!´ And everyone will look up at us. And we’ll look down on them. And then we’ll know we are something. We’ll be like God. We’ll be famous and safe and happy and everything will be all right.”

“But God wasn’t pleased with them. God could see what they were doing. They were trying to live without him, but God knew that wouldn’t make them happy or safe or anything. If they kept on like this, they would only destroy themselves, and God loved them too much to let that happen. So he stopped their plans.”

I will say “we” even though I don’t currently live in the US. We think that we are God!!! We think that we can control everything!! We think that money is security!! We think that jobs are security. This incident seems to be a culmination of incidents that proves those thoughts wrong. We think that we know what our hearts long for when we really don’t. We think that we can judge criminals justfully, but how many innocent people have DNA tests shown were convicted and punished harshly? But we feel better to have convicted someone and hurt someone else and another family, nonetheless, rather than feel as though we lack control when we don’t actually know, or leaving the judgment in God´s hands. We are concerned a lot about global warning, something that may have effects in the future, but not concerned enough in my opinion about children who die often from very preventable things. In researching causes of global warning, we can probably learn a lot about a lot, true, but what about the simple things that affect and kill our fellow humans on this earth right now.

The solutions are simple, it just takes some investment. Not just money, we know that if we throw money at problems, it often gets mismanaged and the problems continue. But it takes being present, careful, and consistent, as any loving parent would. This is what I do. People who want to save the lives of kids can invest in Project Esperanza. Here are 10 reviews from people involved who attest to the value of the organization. Or you yourself can go to another area and do what I do. Or you can find someone else who has been proven trustworthy, who is doing what I do, like this girl and her organization, or this woman and hers, and invest...if the death of children burdens you. I don’t mean to be smart there as I know that what is so upsetting about this event is more than the death of children but the violence, the place it occurred, the unexpectedness, etc. But there is a point to be made that we should be equally burdened about the lives and deaths of children around the world.

I actually think that a large part of this craziness has to do with a lack of balance globally, and we know that balance coincides with health. In this article, a mother pleas for help for her 13-year-old son who is a gifted child, but has started showing signs of violence and mental illness. Mothers here in the Dominican Republic plea for help often because they don’t have the means to get proper shoes for their kids to go to school. They can’t properly feed their children. They don’t often say this but I observe that that they have no yard for their kids to play. I have seen some recent Facebook posts about video games..the violent ones where you have a gun and kill everything that moves. I know from high school and college that they are extremely popular among young males. The mother in this article mentions punishing her son from video games after he acted violently toward her. What if all of the money spent by US parents on brain wasting video games was responsibly transfered to the mothers who have trouble paying for the basic needs of their children. This is much easier said than done, but we are smart, developed people and we can figure it out with repeated effort. Would this, by chance, help both mothers? And both families? I think it actually would. Without video games and computers games, family relationships would be stronger or just more existent and kids would do more natural outdoor activities...they would be more alive. They would be healthier.

I actualy stood in line for several cold hours outside of Toys R Us in 2005 when a new X-Box came out. I had planned on purchasing one and then selling it on e-bay, as there was a limited supply. I would make a few hundred bucks, I was sure. Well, I was the 9th in line and there were 8 of them available, so I was not successful. But I did write a letter to the editor of the Roanoke Times afterwards, sharing the comments I had heard and the irony of it all as I realized that the woman in front of me, for example, was purchasing this for her 6-year-old grandson who already had every other system she saw on the wall, she let me know. I was trying to make a few hundred bucks to support our efforts in the Dominican Republic, where the kids lacked such basic necessities, and did not own even one system. Anyway, it was not published in the newspaper and I have not been able to find a copy of the letter I wrote. But I am just sharing this to say, I’ve been trying to channel video game money to serve underpriviledged children for a long time!! J

Let me also say that if I were to talk to the woman who wrote this article, I would say more than “use all of your video game money to serve kids who need their basic needs met”. That was a broad point. I would say to her – “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. (James 4:7) Seek God. God is love. (1 John 4:8) There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out all fear. (1 John 4:18) I believe that God is the only one who can truly help you with this situation. Seek him 100%. Don’t give up. Maybe Satan is attacking your son because he is threatened by him, knowing a wealth of potential he possesses to do God’s work and therefore foil his own plans of death and destruction.”

Back to the issue of video games and one mother losing while the other gains to create a healthier balance, I have always been a lover of sheep, as my family raised sheep and I learned much from them. I also love the fact that Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd and refers to people as his flock. (John 10) I observed on a few occasions when sheep got into a bag of corn that was mistakenly put in a place where they could reach it. My father used to give them a limited amount each day, especially in the winter. But the bag was not to be left where they could reach it. Both times I remember it being left in the wrong spot, we found a dying sheep the next day. They are unable to stop themselves from eating and literally eat themselves to death. The shepherd has to protect them from this. Jesus is the good shepherd and we are the sheep. I pray that he protects us from the excessiveness that actually harms us. And I pray that we seek wisdom that teaches us to think like the shepherd, rather than sheep...who are really quite dumb.

Now I will list a few thoughts that I can’t seem to weave in in paragraphs and I really want to post this and move on to doing some other stuff.

1.                              I saw someone mention and think I have heard the idea in the past of giving teachers guns??? Wow.. I definitely don’t think that is a good idea. A teacher having a gun in her drawer with her stapler and stickers? This is why I used the word ridiculous previously. Now guns would be accessible to students in every classroom! I think that more parents maybe should consider homeschooling. Or the whole institution of school should be a bit questioned. Is it a safe place? I feel very protective over my kids and have always been aprehensive about leaving them. I have only really done so when I feel I have built a strong trust with the people and place that I am leaving them. Do we have too much assumed trust in the public schools and the faculty? I do not mean to blame the family of this young man who did this.. but... well did the mothers of the students really know the teacher and the family? We trust the institution because it is government run... why do we trust the government so much? Why don’t we trust ourselves more? And why don’t we make more effort ourselves rather than putting all of the responsibility on the government?

2. I said this to a friend about two years back and she got really angry. So maybe you will too. I’ve said it to a few other people who have agreed. I have noticed large differences between the use of media here and in the United States. The media doesn’t have such a large power and influence over people here. I have always been disgusted by the destruction of lives of people growing up in the media. I think one main reason why the influence and presence of the media is stronger in the US is because of the size of the country. I think the country is actually an unhealthy size. I wrote about this some in this post as well. I think that this also causes many Americans to be irresponsible, ungrateful, and unhealthy. I think they are this way because they simply don’t have enough responsibility over their lives and society. Too much power lies in the hands of too few people. I think that a solution would be the country dividing into several smaller countries. This would allow for many more people to be leaders and would allow for much more originality rather than uniformity. Unity is good, I agree, but uniformity, I don’t think is always the right solution. It doesn’t respect natural and healthy differences. Countries can have unity without being the same country. I think it may be healthier that way. And I did hear that after the election, many states signed a petition to secede from the Union. I don’t actually think that would be a bad idea or should be viewed as a failure.

3. This will also likely make people made. And I say it out of love. I love people to the point that I don’t care if they get mad at me if I believe I am saying something that is good for them and us all and I appreciate others who do the same with me when the time is right. I believe that this surge of homosexuality that seems to be going on in the US is another lack of balance. I believe that people who are living as homosexuals, even those who are Christians and have tried to be obedient to what they have learned in the Bible and abandon homosexuality but have been unsuccessful in doing so, do feel a very strong lack of control over the issue. And I believe that this is due, at least in part, to an unbalanced world in general. I think homosexuality is outside of God’s will and unhealthy therefore in the long run, whether or not we have good evidence of that shared often currently. I have more so seen arguments that homosexuality is healthy and unharmful, etc. I have not seen evidence that it is harmful posted on Facebook or anything like that. And I am a bit disadvantaged in the argument since you see so little of it here in the Dominican Republic. The way I have observed it here has been pretty much always a pedophile male homosexual relationship, so that is most definitely unhealthy. But as far as the norm in the US – long term, same sex, sometimes married couples, I have little observation there because of my time away. Some may say that this is a stretch to link homosexuality to a global unbalance and call it unhealthy, but I think that the same people who would find it to be a stretch are the same people who can’t understand how something that happens in one part of the world or country affects something in another part, and they don’t understand much God talk in general. This is because they are ignoring the spiritual world and looking only at the physical. But I think anyone who ever has dreams while they are sleeping or has an imagination has to realize that the world is not just physical, and that there is a lot that we can’t necessarily see...and it is a stretch to write too much off as we understand it through brain activity, sensory activity, etc. That being the sole explanation is us wanting to be in control, and we are not, actually, in control.  

4. I think some or many people who face mental illness such as the young men who commit these horrible murders are estranged by a life that is actually meaningless and lacking challenges, and they likely are also wallowing in self pity. I think more focus in schools and society in general on international development and life or death challenges faced in developing countries would give everyone more meaning and challenge. And it would cause those who are wallowing in self-pity to get over themselves or to be stronger in overcoming. I think open talk about the existence of God and Satan would also teach people to blame Satan for certain afflictions rather than their parents, society, or whoever they blame. Not that people and society aren’t to blame as well, but I do think it is important to recognize the mastermind and people and society should see that there are two competing forces and use this as a base to judge which of these forces their actions are in line with – knowing that the will of one is life and the will of the other is death. Again, this is something that people who don’t believe in or pay attention to God and the spiritual world in general will disagree with, but I think it is very important.

5. I feel like there was one more thing I wanted to say but I can’t remember. So I’ll just close with this. We better get radical. Satan has been getting radical so those of us who are on God’s side better get radical too. Sure, lots of discussion over God, didn’t mean to open up another door there too. But let’s just put the discussion aside and seek him together by serving those in most need in the world – not just our country - and being grateful rather than viewing our excession as anything other than what it is – lacking absolutely nothing and having too much. Here is a song I like along the lines of being a radical and I didn’t mean to bring up Jesus right after saying let’s leave the discussion about God aside, but this is my blog and obviously I am a Christian and serve because Jesus served but just meant, let’s not let our differences about God keep us from serving together. Let’s just focus on a loving God first. So this is a song I like and I can’t find the artist but may edit it later to give credit:

Two thousand years ago
The greatest radical
Walked the earth and said we are forgiven souls
Have we forgotten him
And made religion king
When love and grace is what we should be offering
You know this is serious
We’re forgetting things we’ve done
You must be delirious
Thinking it’s new under the sun

Do ya wanna be a part of the solution?

So it is important that we recognize the existance of Satan and define him as the ultimate enemy but it is also important that we envision the kingdom of God...and collectively ask for his will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10) May your kingdom come.