With a painfully heavy backpack in tow, hauled all the way from Richmond, through airports and mountain roads, along dusty city streets I had finally arrived at Maison Fortune Orphanage. I had been planning this trip for months, raising money and supplies to teach art to these kiddos. Knowing from the beginning that there would be about 50 kids who owned no supplies, I needed to create a project that could be done by ages 5-17, and was quick and easy to complete. A project that I could put in my backpack along with my clothes and toiletries for one week, plus all the materials to paint with the staff of Midwives for Haiti. I also had in tow fifty hand-beaded bracelets as gifts for the girls that my daughter and I had assembled.
I decided they would create torn paper collages……that way I would not have to add the weight of forty pairs of scissors. My backpack was already painfully heavy with many pounds of high-quality watercolor paper, tissue paper, glue sticks, watercolor pencils, paint brushes, and cups. Wanting to have a project that the children could relate to, I decided on a mountain landscape, or simply an abstract collage. I purchased brightly colored, artist’s quality tissue paper, for ease of tearing even among the tiniest of fingers, and because cheap tissue paper has color bleeding issues.
On this day four years ago, I bounced through the city streets of Hinche in the back of a range rover with my interpreter, her toddler, and my volunteer coordinator. We arrived at the orphanage, and I was nervous at the idea of kids using glue in the dust and dirt. I knew I would not have access to a classroom or tables or chairs. I was not looking forward to the idea of dirt filled collages, but I figured I would deal with whatever problems arose as best as I could. Much to my relief, the MFO matron actually offered me an empty, covered room! I was so excited to have a cement floor for the girls to create art on and I relaxed a bit more after that.
I had been a public speaker in the past, but this was my first time speaking for a group who spoke another language, with a completely different culture than mine. Feeling butterflies again, I began to instruct the children on how to create their collages. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember thanking them for the opportunity to share art with them. I shared three examples of collages that my daughter and I had made as examples and gave basic instruction. Tear, glue, stick. For the older girls I demonstrated tearing with control to create pieces of paper that looked like mountains. I don’t think any of them created mountains.
After the demonstration, my interpreter and I passed out all of the materials and the girls began to create. The older students got right to it. The itty-bitty children either didn’t know how to tear, or they just kept ripping. So, I stopped and opened the glue sticks and put them in their hands, showed them how to apply the glue to the paper, then showed them how the colored papers stick to the glue.
When I got to the big girls…
…I learned that we had a comedian in the group. Now, I do not understand the Kreol language or it’s derivative, French, but boy, I sure do understand the language of being made fun of! There was a young lady who looked about 16 or 17 years old. I could tell by her interjections, the smirk on her face, the way she looked at me side-eyed; I knew she was making fun of me. And her little entourage provided her a fantastic audience for her taunting. What could I do? Knowing that despite me being their teacher, I was also the lowest man on the totem pole. I remembered being a naughty kid in high school, and I chalked this taunting up to karma. We met eyes, I grinned, and just kept going. I also made sure to praise her work as much as possible. She needed the attention, and I needed to let her know her taunting didn’t bother me.
My volunteer coordinator had the brilliant idea of making a gallery for the girls which I hadn’t even planned for since I never expected to even have a roof! She obtained probably the only roll of masking tape in the whole orphanage. It was incredibly old, very gummy, and almost out. But we tore off tiny gummy bits and managed to hang a whole gallery of collages on the wall. The young artists loved it and were eager to create more art.
Our collage project went by super-fast. Luckily, I had taught a watercolor class the night before and had some paper and watercolor pencils left over. So, after the collage art was hung, the students received some watercolor pencils and more paper. They were allowed to freely create, and those lovely little paintings ended up on the impromptu galley wall as well. The girls seemed to enjoy painting three petaled flowers that grew in Haiti. Bougainvillea.
At the end of the class, I finally distributed the bracelets. The girls lined up and I chose at random one bracelet for each child. They were excited to receive these gifts, especially the little ones. As the sun went down, the windowless and doorless teaching space became darker and darker because there was no electricity. The children noticed me taking pictures of their art. They became thrilled at that concept and flooded me with requests to take photos of them. “Take a picture of me… take a picture of me”, they seemed to shout, with huge smiles on their faces. Even the taunting teenager hammed it up for the camera. When she and I were taking photos together, she broke into English and made fun of me for being so short. I responded with laughter and agreement as we smiled for our photo together. I snapped a ton of photos of children’s art and wrists because I wasn’t allowed to photograph the children’s faces. Luckily, my interpreter was a local and allowed to take photos and she shared a few with me.
It turns out…
… that when there are foreign guest teachers at the orphanage, they usually provide English lessons. I was the first art teacher to visit with the children. That evening, the matron called the house where I was staying. The girls wanted me to come back for another lesson the next day! Unfortunately, I had run out of supplies, and I was concerned about exhausting myself in Haiti and becoming sick (I had quit coffee a month prior and had been boosting my immune system to prevent illness). I don’t regret my decision, but I do feel sad that I wasn’t able to do more with the girls. I also feel sad that after I left Haiti, the country fell into chaos again and has been unstable ever since. Sadly, it has prevented me from returning.