By Fiona Soltes
Mid-morning, several times a week, Suzelle Pierre Louis sets out on the long, dusty and rocky road to her family’s rural property. It’s just under two and a half miles from the house where she stays to the field outside Saint Michel de L’Attalaye, and some days, the journey is harder than others.
It’s not the heat, reaching near 90 even in the spring, or the humidity, which drenches and parches the skin simultaneously. This morning, it’s the woman who calls out to Suzelle as she passes by. She’s seen Suzelle walk this road for months now, and she asks if Suzelle will take her infant child.
The father is gone, and at least with Suzelle, the mother reasons, the baby will eat.
Her question is neither impassioned nor desperate, but matter of fact. The plain truth is that life here is hard.
The children, standing at the property line and watching for Suzelle’s approach, begin to jump when they see her. “Tante SouSouze” smiles broadly, and the group quickly grows from six to 16 to 40, babes in their mother’s arms to late teens. They come to see, to listen, to learn, to play.
“They need a chance,” Suzelle says, “to just be kids.”
These children are more than just Suzelle’s people. They are her heart. Born in Saint Michel herself, she recently returned with great vision after 15 years in the U.S. “LakayTimoun” (lah-KAI-tee-moon), which translates to “Children’s House” in Haiti’s native Creole tongue, will one day include a school with more than one grade. There will be skills training for single mothers, and biblical instruction, recreation and food.
But for now, there is this seed. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Suzelle arrives with books, games, stories, sports equipment—and hope. She stays from about 10-2, a little longer on Fridays since she brings the kids some food, potentially their only meal of the day.
Several parents from nearby dwellings—modest, small structures without electricity or comforts most of the world takes for granted—come to watch and to help. Jedline, for example, is a willing assistant with a welcoming smile, as eager to walk a half mile to the river’s edge to collect water for the group as she is to hand out brightly colored plastic blocks for playtime. In between, she breastfeeds her young son.
As for the children, they’re curious, excited and—for the most part—patient. The older boys kick around a soccer ball, a donated gift that replaces a wadded and tied up piece of plastic. Others sit on Styrofoam mats, at time playing and at times listening intently to Tante SouSouze. Her lessons range from the gospel story to the importance of telling the truth. But always, always, there’s a message of value, hope and possibility.
“More than 60 of these children don’t even have birth certificates,” she later explains. “They don’t exist. How can they have a future? How can they do anything, if they don’t exist? In Haiti, even cows and goats must have papers.”
The time at the property, much of it spent beneath the shade of an avocado tree, passes quickly. Mid-afternoon, Suzelle sends them on their way, ensuring that those fortunate enough to be in a half-day school program elsewhere have time to do homework and travel to the river to gather water, wash clothing or do other chores.
Despite their ages and schooling, she knows of only a couple in the group who can read.
It’s here that Suzelle reflects on her own childhood in Saint Michel, a different time in a country that has been plagued by political upheaval and corruption, dictatorship, a heartbreaking earthquake, misguided though well-intentioned relief efforts, and an ongoing inability to break free of challenges that have become more complex over the decades. For many Haitians, there seems to be no way out.
Suzelle, however, has experienced a way herself. She recognizes that she can’t change an entire nation—but in returning to her homeland, she can deliver hope to as many as she can personally reach.
“The needs here are so many,” she says. “But I’m not alone in this.”
The same Jesus who safely led her out of the country when political unrest brought danger is the one who now brings her back, armed with further experience, insight, passion and desire to make a difference.
“How can I not?”