Reggie Jean (tallest man in the back) and Leslie Hobbs (woman in the back) are surrounded by the orphans they're working to save.
DUNEDIN – Kids are problematic in Haiti. And plentiful. Girls have children very young, but many cannot afford to raise their children, so many are just left at the hospital.
Other mothers keep them around for a little while. As babies, kids add a sympathy bonus, making it easier for their mothers to beg for money and food. But then they get older. Around age 4, the kids become a burden and have lost the begging edge.
“Whatever she gets, she has to spend the money to share with the kid,” said Claude “Reggie” Jean, in his thick French accent. “So what she does is when they sleep at a public park, she wakes up at 2 or 3 a.m. and leaves the area so the kid finds himself alone at the age of 4 and has to survive. Has to beg like his mother used to. And the chances to survive are very small. But if they happen to survive, they get in a bad way. Criminals. You have to be tough to survive on the street.”
In Haiti, the average lifespan is 43, and 50 percent of the population is under 18 years old. There are 4 million children. Even before the 2010 earthquake, one in 10 children there were either abandoned or orphaned. That number only increased significantly after the earthquake. Only 1 in 3 children in Haiti go to school because the cost is more than most people make in a year. The country and schools have become corrupt, Jean said.
Haiti’s children are in trouble. And Reggie Jean’s mission is to help.
Reggie’s family has a history of philanthropy, and he and his two brothers, Harry and Lyonel, have taken up the cause. Over the years, the Jean brothers have helped about 100,000 people, both children and adults. Reggie has a special passion for the children.
Reggie is from Port Au Prince, Haiti, though he now lives in Dunedin with his three children. His parents are from a mountain village in Jacamel called Blockhauss. Reggie was an engineer and a schoolteacher. As a teacher in Haiti, he saw bright, promising students suddenly disappear. Very early in his career he set out to investigate why one exceptional boy stopped coming to school. He found out that the boy wanted to come to school, but his parents could no longer afford the tuition, so the school kicked him out. Reggie was upset. A boy that talented needed a proper education so he could ultimately give back to and benefit their country. So Reggie dug into his teacher’s salary to cover the boy’s tuition. Thus began his habit of supporting promising young students through school. He has done so for about 1,000 kids over the years “so they could have a life,” he said.
One of those children was like no one Reggie has ever seen. You could pick any topic that the boy had no knowledge of and ask him about it. Of course, at first he did not know any of the answers. But then after a single lesson, he could recall everything he had been taught. A perfect memory. Like the others, Reggie helped him through school as well.
“The genius of the country is being wasted on the streets,” Reggie said. “The brain of Haiti. I have confronted these kids. … For that specific kid, that was the perfect kid. He never got anything less than 100 percent. No matter what I gave him, even if it was a subject that was difficult for myself to learn, he was incredible. You say it once and he gets it and tests 100 percent.”
Thanks to Reggie’s support, the boy is now an engineer working for the Xerox company.
For years, Reggie had helped support orphanages in Haiti – supplying them with food, clothing, supplies, anything he could get a hold of. It had always been his dream to have an orphanage of his own, but the timing had never been right.
Then the earthquake shook the country.
Reggie ran all over the city, helping anyone he could. One pregnant woman needed a ride and then suddenly went into premature labor due to shock. He helped get her aid so she could be taken to a hospital. He provided transportation to people and aid workers in his car for those who needed it. Whatever he could think of, he did.
One of the orphanages that he helped had crashed down.
“Some kids died. Others panicked and ran away,” Reggie said.
The kids took off out of fear and never came back.
Others were dying simply for lack of basic needs.
“People were dying simply for (lack of) water,” Reggie said. “Because they had all the dust in their system. They just wanted water and they couldn’t find any. So I took my car to take doctors to the hospital and people to come help. They were so human. They went to the hospital, and people were in such bad shape. Ater three days with a crushed leg, they start getting gangrene, and oh the smell – to touch that, you have to have a heart. And they cared for them with their bare hands.”
Reggie worried about the orphans. He ran into a group of people who were also helping in the aftermath of the earthquake. He didn’t have monetary assets, but he had plenty of land, he said. So the group teamed up and started a makeshift orphanage with tents on some of his land, which is about the size of a football field. Reggie went to the U.N. base to ask for tents, and one orphanage gave them three generators and water filters. His tent orphanage was beginning to grow.
But there were no schools available, and Reggie worried about his four children of his own. He moved his family to Dunedin and enrolled them in a private school on a scholarship. His three kids (one of his twins later died in a tragic accident) now attend Washburn Academy in Clearwater, where his kids receive a scholarship in return for Reggie teaching French and Spanish. His children are Marie, who turns 16 in October; Phiteas, 13, who plays soccer and football; and his remaining twin daughter, Anabelle, 11.
Reggie travels back and forth often between Dunedin and Haiti to help his orphanage, called The Future of Haiti. As the rainy season approached after the earthquake, he became concerned about the tents and the possibility of the field turning to mud. They needed a new plan.
Reggie had planned to rent out his Haiti home to help support him living in Florida, but he realized the children needed it more. He moved the children into his six-bedroom, four-bath house that is on three acres of land.
Unfortunately, for a while, the group he had partnered with had usurped his orphanage, even though it was in his house on his land. First he didn’t fight it because all he wanted to do was to help the kids – he didn’t care who took the credit. But then he saw what was happening to the kids.
Reggie had left Haiti in July 2010 to go back and care for things in Florida. When he returned to the orphanage in October, he saw that his 130 kids had lost half of their weight in that short amount of time. He went into his room and cried. He decided to take his orphanage back after that.
Reggie has his orphanage back now, and his organization, GRODYSH International (Group Dynamic for the Survival of Haiti,) is a registered nonprofit group.
Clearwater resident Leslie Hobbs has now taken up the cause and is a passionate supporter of the orphanage. Hobbs’ and Reggie’s kids attend the same school, and once she learned more about the work he does, she became intrigued. Then, last Christmas, she learned that the orphans had been practicing singing and dancing for weeks for a special Christmas party, inviting all the neighbors as well, but the money Reggie thought he had coming fell through. He was crushed and felt he had let the kids down. They would need $500, and that seemed impossible.
But Hobbs had a plan.
Immediately, she started calling around to her friends and started raising money.
“I went to my other friend who said, ‘Why did you come to me? I’m broke,’” Hobbs recalled. “I said, ‘Because broke people have big hearts.’ And he handed me $40. Halfway through the day, I had around $375.”
She called Reggie and they rushed to have a three-way call with his friend in Haiti to let them know that the party was back on. At 2 a.m., Leslie wired $500 to Haiti.
“They had the party the next day, and they had a sign on the wall that said, ‘We love you Leslie!’ and I was like awww. I was hooked,” Leslie said.
With Leslie’s fundraising and public relations help, they set about with new plans to make the orphanage more self-sustainable. Food and money are always in short supply, but they have developed plans that can change that. They raised money to buy a chicken coop with high yielding chickens. They installed the coop this summer with 120 chickens, all which produce an egg a day. One day the kids will have the eggs to eat, and the next day they will sell the eggs so they can buy feed for the chickens.
“The way we operate was kind of walking on a tightrope,” Reggie said. “Any slip, you fall and it could be fatal. So we have been thinking about doing something that would make it more self-sustainable and create more food for more people.”
The next goal is to install 10 more coops, each which cost $2,000. According to Reggie’s calculations, that would allow them to finally be able to pay the teachers who have been teaching the orphans for free for more than a year. It would also ensure three meals a day for not only the orphans but also a meal for the children from the outside neighborhood who come there each day to go to school. Most of them are below poverty level; they may not get another meal that day.
The ultimate goal is to have a miniature farm, with a cow, fish in the ponds, goats, rabbits, and a vegetable garden. Reggie has the land. They just need the funds. He also wants to build a bakery on-site so they could bake their own bread, pastries and cookies to feed the children and to sell. The bakery itself would cost about $10,000, plus they would need a generator because electricity is intermittent at best.
Reggie scraped together money for four bunk beds – two kids on top, two kids on bottom – but with 130 kids in the house, most sleep on the floor on foam mats. But the conditions are far better than they were living on the streets. Kids on the street are forced to beg and steal, become criminals, and get into sexual activities as young as 7 and 8. There is no protection. Many die.
But at the orphanage, they have food. They have love. They get to learn.
Education has always been a priority for Reggie. He and Hobbs believe that if they can educate the children of Haiti, they can change the future of the country. Already he sees the benefits of the earlier children he helped through school. Like Noe (pronounced NO-wee.)
Years ago, Reggie had taken a walk in his parents’ home village when he heard babies crying from a miniscule mud shack. He knocked on the door, and a 4-year-old boy answered. There were 12 kids in the family, packed into an unimaginably small space. The parents were out, and Noe, the 4-year-old, had been left in charge of three children younger than himself.
“I could tell he’s a very bright 4 year old and responsible,” Reggie said. And they have nothing. No food, no bottle or formula. They don’t have anything. And the kids are crying, and he was trying to sing or do something to stop that.”
Reggie asked around to find out more about the family and found the parents to ask them if he could support Noe’s schooling. He put Noe up at Reggie’s parents’ house so he knew Noe would be well fed and cared for but would still be close enough to visit his family. Reggie paid for Noe’s schooling all the way through university, where Noe studied engineering. Noe was at the university when the earthquake occurred. He managed to escape, but a concrete block fell on his best friend who was running next to him, killing the friend. Noe escaped with just a serious gash on his arm from the concrete.
Now, even though he has an advanced degree, Noe insists on helping at the orphanage, teaching the younger children. He wants to follow in Reggie’s footprints, caring for and educating the impoverished and orphaned children of the country.
Noe isn’t alone. One 16-year-old girl in the orphanage, Lilina, is also very bright and is in high school now. She wants to become a doctor and to have an orphanage of her own when she grows up so she can get more kids off the street. Future of Haiti took her in after they found her on the street begging with her mother and five siblings. Hobbs said the girl was very weak and would have died on the street if they had not helped.
“We like to think big,” Hobbs said. “Lilina is 16. In 10 years, she could be in government. We could create the next leaders just with love and shelter and food and training in ethics and morals. Maybe we could make a real change for the country by replacing those people in there now.”
Another orphan, Jeff, wants to become a pilot, Hobbs said.
“He wants to make a lot of money and then have his own orphanage to get kids off the street,” Hobbs said. “So if you can help 200 kids and get them off the street, those 200 kids help another 200 kids It’s not an unreal target to get all these kids off the street eventually.”
Reggie and Hobbs hope to get the orphanage completely self-sustainable so it can become a model for other orphanages throughout Haiti.
The orphanage needs help again. Reggie and Hobbs are in Haiti again, and though they had raised enough money for a second chicken coop, they had to use all of that for emergencies, such as food for the children and charcoal to cook with. Usually small amounts of rice and beans are donated to the orphanage, but that is only during the school year. School had been scheduled to start in September, but due to issues with the government, school has been postponed until October. On top of that, their food source has written to say that they will be reducing the already-insufficient amounts of food that it was providing, Hobbs said in an email from Haiti. All this increases their demand to install the new coops as soon as possible.
Other things always are forestalled for lack of funds. The orphanage was given a water filter system, so they can drink treated water, but they can’t afford the $150 for a battery. They even have a solar panel to charge the battery once they have it. An organic gardener from Clearwater is willing to visit and help establish an organic garden, once they can raise the funds for travel and the supplies. A woman from The Community Learning Center is willing to help train the teachers, once money can be raised to get the teachers and trainers all in one place.
One thing at a time, it will get done.
Learn more at www.grodysh.org. Any donations are tax deductible and can be made through PayPal or by check to 1185 Somerset Circle, Dunedin, FL 34698. All the money goes directly to help the kids and the orphanage. The first project new money will go toward is building 10 more chicken coops to be able to better feed the children and to finally pay the teachers. The project after that is to build a bakery on site.