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SOS Haiti Alum Returns to Help
"Where are your shoes? Go back and get your shoes on," Nathalie tells a boy who is playing in the grass without sandals. She remembers from her own childhood in Haiti how her SOS mother would never allow a child to walk the village's paths barefoot.
The 25-year-old woman left her Haitian home at the age of 16 and has been studying law for the past three years. But ever since the earthquake hit her childhood hometown in January 2010, Nathalie has been searching for a way to return and help her SOS family.
"I had a strong desire to return and help in whatever way possible," she says.
At first it was a challenge to find flights, as no commercial airlines were flying into Haiti. Now, with her school out of session for spring break and flights back in operation, Nathalie finally secured a way home to see for herself how the catastrophe has affected her friends and family.
Since her arrival, Nathalie has become a valuable volunteer in SOS Children's Villages' Office of Emergency Programs, where her English language skills are in high demand. She has also had the opportunity to visit three of her SOS sisters, all of whom have lost their homes. "Two have lost their homes and stay in the tent of the third, whose house is still standing but has huge cracks," she says, "It would be too dangerous to stay inside. I spent a night with them in their tent. It took some time before I felt relaxed enough to fall asleep."
Nathalie also explains that every person she talks to has a story to tell about where they were and what happened when the earthquake shook:
"They speak of how they had to flee offices, get past blocked doors and tumbling walls ... of holding wounded people. Amongst us SOS kids, it's also a story of how we all try to help one another. One has an 11-year-old son who has already gone through several brain surgeries in a hospital in the Dominican Republic, but he is still unable to use his hands and might need treatment in Germany. We are trying to see what we can do for this family," she says.
Asked about what her country needs now, Nathalie answers, "a big clean up," and acknowledges the window of opportunity for change:
"Now Haiti can begin to create regulations on construction work and enforce such laws. We can improve on urban planning, widen roads and try to stem overcrowding in the capital by paying attention to rural areas and agricultural development. But it has to happen quickly. Otherwise, people will begin to build their own homes again, like before. And many will return to Port-au-Prince for work and aid."
Nathalie has an eye for what is right and wrong and says she has always wanted to be a lawyer:
"I often played the devil's advocate in my communication with others. And having grown up among orphaned and abandoned children makes you reflect about the situation in Haiti. I strongly believe that this country needs much more law enforcement and respect for the rule of law, which would help in the fight against corruption and crime. And think about what an enforced housing regulation could have done to prevent death and destruction."
Nathalie used to say that she would like to stay and work in the US for 10 years after graduating in order to pay her student loans. But, now she says she would like to return to Haiti right away, if she can find a position there.
Nathalie remains close to her SOS mother and still speaks with her often. Now she is hearing more and more children calling the woman, "mom." Currently, 27 children are being taken care of in her childhood home, which has recently been reinforced with two extra "aunts," bunk beds, and mattresses in what used to be her own room. Due to the earthquake, the SOS Children's Village in Santo is taking care of many more children per house than Nathalie would remember.
"Here kids can run around and play -- as a 5-year-old should -- and they get three meals a day, a shower, and much love and care. It's really not luxury; it's just every child's right. But for a girl who is used to toiling the day away at the market where her mother sells small piles of vegetables, I am sure it's quite something."
Reflecting on her life at SOS, Nathalie says, "I really did not feel that I grew up in an orphanage. To me, this is my family. All the SOS mothers are so invested. That's also why I needed to come back again and support my family."
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About SOS Children's Villages
For 60 years, SOS Children's Villages has been dedicated to the long-term care of orphaned and abandoned children. With 500 villages in 132 countries, SOS offers a family-based village model that provides for the holistic needs of a child - family, community, education and support - essential for the successful transition from childhood into adulthood. Through Villages, schools, medical facilities, micro-lending, and family strengthening programs, SOS Children's Villages impacts the lives of over 1 million people each year. In 2009, SOS Children's Villages was honored with the Save the World Award. SOS is also the recipient of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize and the Mother Teresa Gold Medal.