By Bob Lupton
Shelley and Clay Corrigan have big hearts. When they saw the plight of thousands of abandoned orphans in Haiti, they simply had to do something. Something radical.
They packed their essential belongings, cashed in their very modest life savings, bought plane tickets, and headed straight into the most destitute place in the western hemisphere. They signed on with an orphanage, immersed themselves in the language and culture of the Haitian people, and took immediate steps to adopt one of the orphan children.
During the adoption process, the director of the orphanage asked them if they would be interested in meeting the child's mother. The question stunned them. They had assumed that the child’s parents were dead or missing. In fact, the little tyke’s mother came regularly to visit him. Of course they wanted to meet her!
“Why do you want to give up your child?” they questioned the mother when she came for her next visit. “I don’t want to give my baby away,” the young woman responded emphatically. But she had no way to care for him, she explained.
She had no job, could barely find scraps of food for herself, squatted in a make-shift lean-to beside a disease-ridden dump. This was no place for a child, she said with obvious emotion. In the orphanage, at least he would be safe and fed and maybe have a chance for a decent life. But, no, she really did not want to give up her baby.
This was an entirely different reality than Shelley and Clay had pictured when they first arrived in Haiti. They had assumed that the many orphanages run by mission-minded westerners were overflowing with abandoned, parentless children who would likely die on the street from disease or malnutrition or neglect if someone didn’t come to their rescue.
That’s what orphans are, right? Children without parents. But the deeper Shelley and Clay explored the histories of the children in their orphanage – and in other orphanages around the country – the more disturbed they became.
Their research exposed that at least 80% of Haitian children labeled “orphans” actually had living parents! The overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of children in Haitian orphanages were not orphans at all! They were children whose parents could not support them because they had no jobs.
Jobs! That’s what was needed! Not more orphanages or more adopting westerners. Shelley and Clay began to scour the area for any available means for a young mother to generate some legitimate income.
One resource that lay scattered in abundance was trash. If they could create beads from waste materials, perhaps they could produce necklaces and bracelets that would be marketable to their contacts back in the States. It was worth a try. Their experiments led them to a simple, labor-intensive method of fashioning attractive, brightly colored jewelry that had appeal to their American friends.
Corrigan’s first full-time employee was a mother who was desperate to keep her baby. She was soon earning enough income to rent a small room suitable for herself and her infant son. More experimentation. Then another mother hired. And another.
By the time the enterprise had registered an official name – The Apparent Project – 29 young mothers were crowded around tables and benches in the Corrigan’s home, producing saleable jewelry products, all reunited with their children. The project expanded into the Corrigan’s garage and then into a larger building.
Fathers who had been unable to support their families also joined the workforce. At last count, 220 parents were employed, some of them managing their own teams of workers. All were making livable wages and producing quality products being shipped to international markets. Shelley and Clay dream of employing 1000 parents.
There are still many true orphans in Haiti whose parents have died or disappeared. Good orphanages are certainly needed as are good adopting families. The Corrigan’s have adopted two of these orphans themselves.
But something is quite wrong when the prevailing non-profit orphanage system – mostly faith-based – “creates” orphans by mis-labeling them and markets them as abandoned, yet does little to correct the underlying problem that forces their parents to give them up. It is a classic case of rightly motivated people rushing in to rescue the perishing, establishing emergency ministries that do in fact save lives, but failing to shift to empowerment strategies as the crisis becomes chronic.
When poverty becomes an industry supported by misinformed donors that enables professional workers to maintain a western lifestyle under the guise of alleviating poverty even as they perpetuate dependency, that industry must be challenged. Shelley and Clay Corrigan are doing just that. And in the most productive, self-sustaining, family-strengthening way.
Photo credit: DVIDSHUB