The delicate woman sat beside me with her hands lying limply in her lap. She wore a nurse's smock and a faded skirt — her nicest "going out" clothes. Christa's mother had kindness on her face.
She placed a hand on mine; so gently that I could barely feel it.
"Morgan," she said, "I want to thank you so, so much for all you've done for Christa. Thank you so, so, so much. God will thank you for this."
Christa was one of 75 exploited children I came across in a corrupt and abusive Haitian orphanage. But she was the first of these children I reunited with her family through the not-for-profit organization Little Footprints, Big Steps.
That was in March of 2011.
The orphanage system in Haiti is largely used to exploit children — not to protect them. Most orphans have living families. Extreme poverty drives parents to give up their children so they can pursue a better future; there is an assumption that orphanages are full of opportunity.
In reality, most orphanages in Haiti are for-profit. Children are barely fed enough to survive — regardless of how much food is donated. Shoes intended for the children are sold, forcing them to walk barefoot.
Instead of attending school as parents envision, they are often enslaved. These children are beaten, burned, and made to sleep outside. Their parents have no idea.
Christa's mother gave her up when she was 10 years old, in 2006. This gentle woman, whose fatigue is clear, is illiterate. She makes about $1.25 for a day's work, cutting down crops in Haiti's countryside. Overwhelmed by the physical, medical, and educational needs of her children, Christa's mother gave her up to an orphanage, not knowing she'd sent her daughter into slavery.
Christa's mother is homeless — sleeping on the floor of a friend's house — yet she had the strength to stand up for her child and insist that the orphanage relinquish her.
In 2011, I spent five-and-a-half months living alongside Christa and other orphans, learning the local language, and discovering they had families. One day Christa was badly beaten for slacking on her cleaning duties. In tears, she told me she didn't want to stay in the orphanage.
I asked if she knew her family. She nodded.
I loaned Christa my phone and she called her mother — explaining the abuse, and demanding to go home. A week later, her mother took Christa home.
Through Little Footprints, Big Steps, we've ensured Christa is in school and receiving private tutoring while living with her family.
Yet Christa has a sister. Her mother gave up Christa's and her younger sister, Nadia, at the same time, but Nadia quickly disappeared from the orphanage. For eight years, Christa and her mother had no idea where Nadia was – until a few months ago.
In May 2012 I helped Christa's mother make a police declaration and an arrest warrant for the orphanage owner, who we believe sold her daughter.
Unfortunately, the trafficker has been able to avoid police for two years, and thus avoid sharing any information about Nadia's whereabouts.
Then, this morning, Christa's mother came to see me.
"They told me where my other girl is," she said. "They found her, but where she is, they said that we could visit her once per month if we pay 2,500 Haitian gourdes (CAN$62.50) every month."
Nadia is at another exploitive orphanage.
International organizations see the severe, unhealthy conditions of children and make donations to "help" them – yet these donations provide income for the owners and encourage them to collect more children.
Often, these orphanage owners claim to be religious leaders; adding to their danger.
"It's in Port au Prince; I can't even afford the money for a bus ticket every month," Christa's mother said. "There is no way I can get 2,500 Haitian gourdes every month. So I decided, I will just take her home."
There it was; this woman's astounding courage.
Other parents she knows have gone to this very orphanage and been brutally beaten — kicked in the head and back — for asking to take their child home. Other parents have been blatantly lied to about their children's whereabouts.
Still, Christa's mother was determined.
But how will she care for her family?
That is where Little Footprints, Big Steps comes in. Aside from supporting Christa's education and medical needs we'd like to help Christa's mother start a small business.
Once Nadia comes home, we will seek a sponsor to secure her education as well. Education is a right of every child, and so is the chance to live with his her family — yet in Haiti, one of these rights is often sacrificed in search of the other.