Thursday, July 22, 2010

Grave Digger

BON REPOS, HAITI -- "My life has been very bad. Very bad," Mirlande Joseph explains as we drive away from Ruuska Village, a home for unwed mothers and orphanage where she works.

Her car thuds and convulses as she passes over the rocky dirt roads while sharing her story about losing both of her parents when she was eight years old.

Her aunt raised her and nearly a half dozen other children.

There was never enough food; there was never enough anything.

So, her life began to follow a path that like so many other young women in this country.

She didn't get an education.

She got pregnant young.

That baby died.

She got pregnant again.

That baby was born very sick.

The paternal grandfather heard that Barbara Walker, an American, ran a village in Bon Repos where they might find help.

He brought the baby there and begged Walker to try to save the boy.

Walker was willing, but she wanted to meet the newborn's mother.

Joseph reluctantly came to Ruuska Village.

That day changed her life.

Walker offered to let Joseph live in the village while the baby was treated.

Joseph, who spoke no English, began working for Walker by washing clothes, making a few dollars a day.

While she spent her hours working, the baby was well fed and began getting better.

Even healthy, Joseph knew she couldn't give the child the care he needed, so she put him up for adoption.

When the baby left for the United States, Joseph continued working for Walker.

She was alone, and missing her son.

But as she fell back into the feeling that all was lost once again, she found a new spark of hope.

Walker approached her one day and asked "Would you like to learn English?"

The two played word games together every day and after a year, Joseph could speak almost fluently.

Joseph began learning the adoption process and was promoted to assist Walker with the process of getting other needy children in into safe, loving homes all over the world.

The 31-year-old even saved up enough money to buy a house.

Then, the earthquake struck while Joseph was out dropping off paperwork for several adoptions.

Walker immediately called her cell and said, "Either a bomb just hit or it's an earthquake."

The line cut out and Joseph rushed back to the village, knowing there was a chance the children may be dead.

Incredibly, there was only some structural damage.

No deaths.

No injuries.

After a long evening of calming the frazzled children, Joseph returned to her home to find it leveled.

After working all of these years, her one possession was gone.

In the six months since the quake, she's been busier than ever at work.

Sleeping there, eating there, spending countless hours a day trying to get the babies, who are still abandoned at the orphanage on a regular basis, out of Haiti.

The car we're in comes to a loud stop as Joseph pauses in her story.

"This," she exclaims, "is my new house!"

She saved up part of the money needed to rebuild.

Walker is helping her with the rest.

In a time when hardly anyone is rebuilding, Joseph, who started her life with nothing, is building her own palace.

A home she'll share with her youngest child, Ruth.

These kinds of fairytale endings are what Barbara Walker is all about.

She is hardly the fairy godmother you might picture.

Take your vision of a missionary: even tempered, soft spoken, smiley - and reverse it.

That is Barbara Walker; she is as rough and tough as they come.

Before she became a missionary whose favorite self-portrait is a toss up between the one of her with a giant snake around her neck and the one of her crouched down with a bible in one hand, a huge gun in the other - she was a grave digger in upstate New York.

The 66-year-old laughs as she shares darkly humored stories over breakfast about rotting skulls falling out of caskets.

She's quick to shout an order, and even the most macho men stop to listen.

The day after the 'quake, I got into her beat up truck that rattled past the fallen buildings of Port-au-Prince.

We came to a bridge that was blocked off and a man came to the window saying it was damaged, so we couldn't cross.

She said, "Screw that!" and hit the gas, driving across the bridge anyway because she was certain the men blocking the bridge were only trying to divert us to a group of thieves.

It's that tough attitude that's helped her survive numerous muggings, having guns pointed at her, and the struggle that is every day life here in Haiti with no running water, no air conditioning, and dozens of women and children to feed.

She started this village a decade ago with a donation from the Ruuska family.

She was just a missionary at the time who helped that family adopt a child.

When they later had money left to them in a will, the family gave her $10,000 and told her to do anything she wanted with it.

She could have gone home to New York to be with her children and grandchildren, but Haiti had already grabbed onto her heart so hard it tied her here.

She knew she wanted to give women in Haiti a "hand up, not a hand out," so, she built Ruuska Village: a home for unwed mothers and an orphanage.

Behind the blue concrete wall and gate is a tiny gravel road with small concrete houses on each side.

Each woman accepted into the village gets free rent in one of those homes, job training, and an opportunity to earn money by working at the village doing things like washing clothes, as Joseph did.

They also get free child care and financial aid to send their children to school and pay for their uniforms as well as supplies.

And, after completing the job training they get money to help pay for a home of their own.

There are a few rules here at the village.

The main one: no men.

"Which means, no brothers, no fathers, no uncles, no male cousins, no male "companions" men!" Walker explains.

She considers this, a type of "birth control," while she educates the women about things they wouldn't learn otherwise including the risks of unprotected sex.

Plus, Walker explains, they don't, "need a man to pay their rent anymore."

Walker goes on to say, "God has blessed them with a new home better than they could ever have dreamed of. They must use this as a stepping-stone toward the beginning of a whole new way of life."

In helping women build these new lives, she gives all of hers.

Walker's life is tough.

Instead of enjoying her retirement years, she stays up late at night organizing adoption papers.

Her desk - is her bed.

The tiny twin sized mattress is in the corner of her office and volunteers parade in and out of the room throughout the day to use her computer.

She has zero privacy and zero time to herself.

The roosters outside begin crowing long before dawn - telling her it's time for another grueling day of running errands, buying food, gasoline, supplies, facilitating adoptions, taking phone calls, answering e-mails, organizing volunteers, taking care of children and making sure their mothers are on track.

She is known throughout town for her blue dresses (she has an entire closet full of blue floral dresses - it's ALL she wears) and for her no-nonsense attitude.

When she drives through town, people on the street call out, "'Ello Barbara!" and around the world children are with their new families, living safer, healthier lives because of her.

Walker could walk away now and know that her life has been incredibly impactful.

She could say her work is done and return to her family in the U.S.

But she won't stop.

She is rebuilding what was damaged here in the quake while buying more property to expand the village.

And while much of Haiti is crumbling, her heart and her mission continue to grow.

She knows not every story will have a happy ending like Mirlande Joseph's, but she believes each one like it helps dig Haiti out of its dark grave.

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