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Habitations of the heart: Alumna fosters childhood dream in Haiti

05/23/2018

The orphanage was full of laughing children – and for a moment Marie Morris might have forgotten that she was in Haiti, that there were kids outside without clothes or food, others roaming the streets alone.

She might have thought, instead, of children playing in the cool shade of maple trees, while a middle-aged woman watched contentedly on the front porch of a large house, the lintel above the front door reading, “Marie’s Foster Home.”

The vision was a familiar one: Morris drew it with crayons throughout her childhood – imagining herself, in years to come, as the cheerful matron of a bustling foster home. She took her cue from her own foster mother, who, Morris estimates, has taken in around 200 children over her lifetime. 

“Social workers would bring infants to my house, and I thought that’s how life worked,” says Morris, a Canton native who, of those 200 or so children, was one of six to be adopted by her foster mother. “When one of my friends told me she wasn’t adopted and none of her siblings were adopted, it was like my world had flipped upside down. I thought that’s how every child was, how everybody’s family was!”

The orphanage, called Danita’s Children, was one of several places visited by Morris and eight other students from The University of Akron last December on their weeklong service and learning trip to Ouanaminthe, Haiti, where they spent most of their time teaching English at Institution Univers, a nonprofit-supported school for students from pre-K through grade 13.

 

Marie Morris with students

Marie Morris talks with some of her students at the Institution Univers in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.

 

Morris, a senior psychology major who just graduated in May, hopes to work in child counseling. She signed up for the trip – offered through the College of Business Administration’s Institute for Leadership Advancement – to acquire firsthand experience interacting with children in a foreign and challenging environment.

It was much more challenging than she had expected.

One of the first scenes Morris witnessed upon arrival was a group of kids playing dangerously, without supervision, on the roof of a building.

“I just wanted to take all of them, and be like, ‘Hey! Come here!’” says Morris, who jokes that she was “cursed” to have inherited her mother’s protective instinct and a heart that is sometimes “too big.”  

Confronted with extreme poverty

That heart was again troubled when, on a hike up a mountain to the historic Citadelle Laferrière (a fortress built after the Haitians gained independence from France), Morris encountered swarms of desperate children selling homemade trinkets – including a little boy, acting as their tour guide, who she later learned was an orphan living alone in a shack.

Marie Morris with young student

Marie Morris shares giggles with a young student as a photographer takes their photo.

Morris struggled to resist giving whatever she had to those who asked, whether it be money, toys, snacks or the precious water that sustained her in the oppressive heat.

She gave of her lunch to one little girl who persisted in following Morris wherever she went, tugging on her shirt, sitting next to her at the dining table.

“She ate all of it so fast,” Morris says, adding that the girl had walked miles to Ouanaminthe, a few dollars in her shoe, on a shopping errand. “I really wanted to take her, to drive her home, because I didn’t want her to walk by herself. But they said that’s normal, and that’s what they all do, and that was really hard.”

Morris wanted, like her mother, to take all the hungry and naked children and gather them under her wing, safe beneath the roof of some magnificent home, with maple trees in the front yard and dinner waiting on the table.

Hoping to make a difference

“It was hard not to tell them all, ‘I’m going to bring you to America one day,’” says Morris. “I just want to go everywhere and adopt children all over the world!”

She wished she could provide some grand, miraculous solution to the Haitians’ problems — money and food falling from the sky, buildings springing high, refuse wiped from every street and tears from every eye.  

“I am someone who gets an idea and I really over-glorify it,” she says.

Yet, despite their poverty, Morris noticed that the Haitians were some of the happiest and most loving people she had ever met. She marveled at their joy when, in their worship service, they shouted prayers of thanksgiving for all their blessings. Morris, looking out the church window at piles of rubble and trash, discovered in that moment the secret wealth of the Haitian people.

Gratitude, joy and love — these were the coins, the incalculable currency, in which they dealt.

Acts of kindness paid forward

Although Morris could not relieve their material burdens, she could give the Haitian people that which they gave each other, and which her foster parents had lavished upon her. For it was not the house, however well-furnished, that made their dwelling a home, and neither was it the mere fact of her adoption that made her a member of their family.

It was “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love,” as the poet William Wordsworth called them.

She could not save the swarm of children on the mountain – but she could be there, if only for an hour, at lunch with that little girl who tugged her sleeve, or with a boy who draws pictures of his own, in which he wears a white coat and stethoscope.

“Just seeing how sitting in the classroom with one kid for an hour, teaching him how to write body parts in English, just seeing his eyes light up with excitement, made me realize I really can impact somebody’s life, even if it’s with something this minute,” Morris says. “I can make a difference. I originally thought, ‘We’re not doing anything that big,’ but every little thing we did was so big. It can literally be just sitting down and having a conversation with them, and it can change their whole day. People forget that sometimes it is about the little things.”

Lasting impact of time in Haiti

Indeed, it is precisely those “little things” that are the stock-in-trade for a child counselor. Morris hopes to attend graduate school, after which she plans to work as a psychologist in a middle school – gathering, day by day, the students under her wing, one little act of love at a time.

Her experiences in Haiti, she adds, have been excellent preparation for this – especially when it comes to working with poor children.

“I can say to kids, ‘Hey, you might think this is rough, but I went to Haiti.’ I would have never been able to talk about it the way I can through reading articles online … you have to go there to understand, you have to see it.”

That old picture of “Marie’s Foster Home” remains in her mind – albeit with the words “and school” added to the lintel.

Of course, the crayon markings of the original remain – children playing in the yard, the cheerful woman on the porch.

“I have a goal of adopting five,” Morris says, smiling.

Perhaps there is room for extravagance after all.


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