A few weeks ago I posted a teaser of the journal I wrote documenting my trip to Haiti. If you haven’t been able to get your hands on a copy of the issue of FLARE magazine where my journal and Behati Prinsloo’s photos were printed, here is the text in full. Please do read it:
LETTER FROM HAITI
By Coco Rocha
I first saw the reports of the massive earthquake in Haiti a little over a year ago. I was sitting in an airport and I’ll never forget the shocking scenes of destruction, death and chaos. I knew I had to do something. Since then, I’ve been helping raise money in New York for a non-profit organization called LakayPAM (“my home”). It helps provide more than 500 orphans in Haiti with shelter, food, medical care and education.
Despite our success with fundraising events in New York, I still felt very distant and disconnected from the people and the children I was trying to help. What I really wanted was to actually see the children of Haiti. My husband, James, and I started planning our trip last year. The first person we enlisted to join us was my good friend and fellow model Behati Prinsloo. I asked Behati because she has such a big heart. A few years ago, I had a great time helping her at her dad’s soup kitchen in Namibia, Africa. She gladly signed on as our trip’s photographer. The next person we called was Gilbert Le, the filmmaker who created our beautiful wedding film last summer. He and his cinematographer, Ben, were on board to meet us in New York when we headed down to Haiti in mid-January.
As I started gathering the toys I wanted to give to the children, I thought about what they really needed. It occurred to me that many of the orphans had lost so many people in their lives that what they probably needed most was the love of another human being. I decided to create a pen pal program to deliver these children messages of hope and love from other kids. I put the word out on my blog (oh-so-coco.tumblr.com) and letters immediately started flooding in from every corner of the globe. In the final week before our trip I spent most evenings hunched over my computer, reading, editing and translating every letter into French - the language most children are taught to read in Haiti.
A final batch of letters arrives from a French school in Canada - they make my translation job that much easier. They are from very young school children and are absolutely adorable. Most start by saying their name and grade, and then explaining how many brothers and sisters they have, or how desperately they want a dog. They talk about their favorite sport, color or how they love to dance, read and write. All of the children explain how they’re thinking of the Haitian children, thousands of miles away, and that although times are rough, they will eventually get better. They all end with “Please write me back.” I hope they do!
My agent, Micki, and Behati are downstairs waiting at 6:30am, and we all head to the airport. I am surprised by how close Haiti is - it’s just a three-hour flight from New York. As we descend, I see what looks like a tropical paradise: beaches, blue sea, lush greenery and, in the distance, a massive city in the bay. As we get closer, I begin to make out the details of Port-au-Prince. What I thought were houses are actually makeshift tents, thousands of them, one stacked on top of the next.
Moments before we land it becomes clear to me that what looked so perfect from afar is actually in total chaos. Stepping off the plane, I’m immediately hit by a wall of heat. At the airport, we see our first example of the earthquake’s power. Most of the terminal is cracked and zoned unsafe so the customs and immigration have been moved to a makeshift hangar a bus ride away. I say “makeshift” but a year later this is probably as permanent as they can expect. We leave the airport for our first trip through Port-au-Prince. People are everywhere, and piles of rubble are heaped in the middle of what were once major roadways. There are no rules to the road as James learns to navigate the madness of the streets. To my right we pass a massive tent city in what was once a beautiful city park. All I can see are tents and the smell is of rotting garbage and unsanitary conditions. I see a woman bathing her baby in the gutter. The sheer number of people living this way is staggering. Across the street from the tent city is the former Haitian Palace. It looks like it was once the size and grandeur of the White House but now appears to be a giant heap of stones - as fitting a symbol as I can imagine for this country’s state.
After breakfast, we head to Oeuvre Notres Dames Des Victoires, an orphanage with a school in the heart of Port Au Prince. Before the earthquake, the complex consisted of two buildings: a school in the back and an orphanage in the front. The earthquake destroyed one of the two buildings so now all 400 children are crammed into half the space. Some classes are being held in what would have ordinarily been hallways. The cafeteria is now home to about five different classes and we hear the teachers reading the words off the chalk board and the children repeating them in a haunting chant.
Apparently, many babies have begun showing up at orphanages in the last few months - the result of rape in the madness following the earthquake. Half of them are sleeping, a few are quietly playing, but one just keeps crying. I’m told that he arrived today and doesn’t understand what is going on. No one is holding him - he has a painful rash all over his body. I try to comfort him, brushing my fingers against his little fingers. It’s devastating to see him suffering like this, so alone.
Outside, hundreds of children are leaving their classes. Behati and I spend an hour playing, dancing and taking lots of pictures in the hot midday sun. There is nothing as contagious as the happiness of a child. After a very depressing tour of the city, this visit is exactly what we need.
After leaving the school in Port-Au-Prince, we head up the mountain to a tiny orphanage, Orphelinat Souer Solange, of 22 children that LakayPAM supports. We give them all gifts: model airplanes, yo-yos, bouncy balls, art supplies and stickers. Once they realize that they can keep the toys, they are ecstatic. A circle of about eight girls forms around me as they immediately get to work on their drawings.
Before we leave, the children get together to sing a song they have made up. At first they are a little shy but by the end they are belting out the tune. I get goosebumps and can’t stop smiling.
We wake up before dawn and head back to the orphanage up in the hills. Our little friends are already either eating breakfast or standing in line to have sunscreen applied. I learn that all children must wear a uniform in order to attend school. I think of the children living in the tent city I saw yesterday. How could they afford a uniform? I spin one little girl around in the backyard. Putting her down, another little girl waits with her hands out. Next, every child wants to be spun around again and again and again. Behati joins me and we spin until we can’t see straight.
After our good-byes we travel back to the big school in Port-au-Prince. Today, we’re giving the children the letters. We bring a map of the world and explain to the five- and six-year old kids that these letters are from children all around the world. I don’t think they understand my pen pal concept but they love having us around. As we hand out the letters - mainly drawings with few words - they excitedly show them to each other. The teacher promises that the children will draw pictures in return. The next room is packed with more than fifty children who listen carefully as I explain the concept of the letters. Once they start reading - and can see that strangers care about them - I can see the excitement in their eyes. My hours of translating are worth every thrilled little face.
Today we walk around the city. Every street is full of people selling and trading random things like fruit, cups or shoes… sometimes all three on one table. We walk around the outskirts of a tent city - it’s too dangerous to go much further. A lady takes us into her tent so that we can see how she lives. I see a bed made of a flat tin sheet elevated off the ground (and out of the rain water) with a few old blankets. Clothes hang from the ceiling and a small hot plate is tucked in a corner.
Our final stop of the trip is a soccer camp that LakayPAM funds. It’s a long drive and when we arrive, about a hundred young boys are practising. For many of these boys, the food they get at camp is the only real meal they will get that day. Behati and I start kicking around a ball with some little boys off to one side and before I know it, I’m drawn into the game. Before leaving, we hand out 15 soccer balls that Micki has brought. They are so thrilled to have extra balls to practise with.
As we leave Haiti, I’m struck by what I did not see. Other than a few old women trying to sweep piles of rubble and dust, I didn’t see any significant clean-up efforts. I can remember just one occasion where I witnessed any construction and that was at the school in Port-au-Prince. If you asked the average Canadian, I suspect they would think that the worst of Haiti's troubles are over - but it seems like nothing much is happening. A year has already passed since the earthquake struck; I just hope that we don't allow an entire generation of children to grow up in this chaos.
Haiti has to stay in our minds and hearts. If this trip proved one thing to me, it’s that the children still need us, and I will not give up.
By Coco Rocha
*Flare has donated Coco and Behati’s writing and photography fees to LakayPAM. For more information and to donate, visit Lakaypam.org