Saint Aaron

Page 6 of 9

"The water came inside our house," Ritchy recalls in Creole. "It came in, and people were killed. Houses floated away." Ritchy says his house was spared. His father, a watch repairman, kept the family safe until American soldiers arrived to save them. "They are still alive," he says of his parents. He tells the story with a bright, toothy smile. It's a grin that gives away nothing of his refusal to believe what really happened to his family.

Speaking in English, Dieubon says their father was the first to drown in the flood. Then their mother washed away. A grandfather took in the boys but couldn't afford to feed them. Dieubon heard their story and took them to the orphanage in December. "They watched their whole family die," he says.

Clarence and Ritchy are rarely out of arm's length of each other since they watched their parents wash away. They share a bunk bed and crowd together on the wooden bench when they report for morning lessons. So when Clarence heard that Ritchy was leaving in the morning, he burst into tears that streamed down his cheeks. Accede picked him up and cradled the 6-year-old in her arms like a toddler, but nothing could make him stop. Ritchy, meanwhile, changed into a striped polo shirt and a pair of dress pants that were two inches too short. He piled into a Toyota van Dieubon had borrowed, and for the rest of the day, Ritchy would see what life would be like if Jackson hadn't taken him in.

Out the rutted road from the orphanage, Dieubon headed southwest into the places foreigners aren't supposed to go. He angled the van through a roundabout and onto a potholed, two-lane boulevard nicknamed Airport Road. This strip is where thugs often pull motorists from their cars and torture them until their families can come up with tens of thousands of dollars in ransom. Abandoned airplanes rot in a field off to the left. Stripped cars lay forgotten on dirt paths that serve as sidewalks. Few people are walking, which is rare in a city with little public transportation, a clear sign of the dangers that lurk down this road. Even though 8,500 peacekeepers from the United Nations patrol Haiti, they are rarely seen in the dangerous parts.

Jackson is perhaps one of the only foreigners for miles. He's a clear target riding in the front seat. "Yes," Dieubon admits, "it is not so OK here."

But Dieubon says they have little choice. They must travel this road or feel personally responsible for the suffering of the children at the end of it, who could starve or die of malnutrition without his regular visits. They're headed to one of Port-au-Prince's poorest orphanages, the Centre El-Bethel House of Children. It's common to find the orphanage with no food. The road dumps onto a truss bridge covered in mud that spans the swollen Riviére Grise, or Gray River. Then the road thins as it enters another of Port-au-Prince's ramshackle and unnamed neighborhoods. Vendors lined everywhere on the road hawk lottery tickets and buckets of charcoal made from the trees stripped off the hillsides.

Along the way, Jackson tells of his first foray trying to help people. It started when he got a calling when he was 17. It wasn't something as profound as a sign from God, just an overpowering notion to go to the bus station in Destin. "I just went," he recalls. "And I just bought a ticket to anywhere." Anywhere ended up being San Antonio, Texas. There, he found a homeless man who had been shot in the leg. He invited the man to stay the night with him. "After we got there, I thought, 'Who is this guy I just invited back to my hotel room?'" He could've killed me in the middle of the night." The next morning, Jackson bought him medicine, clothes, and food and gave him whatever money he had in his pocket. Afterward, Jackson says, he realized how foolish his idea was. He wanted to continue helping people, but he needed to figure out a better and safer way to do it. "I didn't know what it was going to be," he says, "but I knew after that that I wanted to help people."

Dieubon turns down a dirt road, and a mile into a neighborhood built from tin and cinderblock scraps, he blares his horn at a gate propped up with a tree branch. The gate swings open, and Dieubon takes the van into a courtyard criss-crossed with full clotheslines, despite the downpour all morning. Under a lean-to built from discarded metal and rotting wood, a group of girls washes clothes in a bucket. The younger kids play on the dirt floor nearby. Unlike the children at Jackson's orphanage, these look troubled. Their faces look full of an adult-like worry, perhaps the concern that comes with wondering how they'll find their next meal. Ritchy looks out of place next to the other orphans. Few of them have shoes, and their hair is uncombed and spiraling in knots. Looking a bit afraid to be left behind, Ritchy clings to Jackson's pants leg.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton