Student group funds services to help children in Haiti

Amelia Cooper/Sun Star Reporter
May 1, 2012

The Little Feet Big Steps program has worked to help children that have been affected by the poverty in Haiti. Photo provided by Little Feet Big Steps website.

College students are rallying to support two women in their quest to aid Haitian orphans, one child at a time.

Heidi Brook, 19-year-old music education student, recently created a student group called Alaskan Arts for Little Haitian Hearts. She and about seven other members raise money for the larger organization Little Footprints, Big Steps, by selling hand-made arts and edibles in the Wood Center to support displaced Haitian children. 

Haitian families who can barely afford to meet their basic needs often give their children to orphanages. The hope is that it will give them a chance at having a better life, Brook explained. Most orphanages do not have the child’s well-being in mind.

“This isn’t something that only happens in Haiti,” Brook noted. Corrupt institutionalized care is a common problem in less-affluent countries, she said.

Brook works on the project with her longtime friend, Morgan Wienberg.

Wienberg is the founder of Little Footprints, Big Steps. Wienberg met her co-founder Sarah Wilson during the summer of 2010, when she was in Haiti for a 10-week internship. Wilson, a paramedic from Kitchener, Ontario, was volunteering in Haiti at the same time. They currently work directly with the orphans in Haiti. Wienberg refers to the orphans as her children.

The money raised in Fairbanks is sent directly to Wienberg who then uses the money to pay for food, transportation and shelter for Haitian orphans and their families. “All the money is spent there on local food or local bikes, so the project is pretty sustainable,” Brook said.

Little Footprints, Big Steps’ vision is to reintegrate children into a healthy society, according to their website. “Little Footprints, Big Steps was founded to create an ongoing effort to protect the children of Haiti,” according to the website.

Wienberg’s personal goal is to prevent child abuse and exploitation. “I want to advocate for child victims and their rights, until they are heard, safe, and cared for,” she said in an email.

In February 2011, Wienberg returned to Haiti to live alongside the children she met during her internship. She stayed there for six months. Wienberg volunteered at an orphanage that housed 70 children.

The children there were given only one bowl of rice per day, were severely dehydrated and slept nude on concrete floors,” according to the Little Footprints, Big Steps website. Children often died from treatable illnesses.

The children who stayed in that orphanage are now safe thanks to Wilson and Wienberg, according to the Little Footprints, Big Steps website, but “there is still more work to be done.”

Brook and Wienberg grew up together in Whitehorse, Yukon. They have raised money for Haiti off and on since high school, Brook said. “It was just after the earthquake in January 2010 that I started fundraising for Haiti specifically,” Wienberg said. Brook and Wienberg graduated in 2010.

Little Footprints, Big Steps receives much of its funding from sponsors and partner organizations, Wilson said in a live television interview with CTV ProvinceWide news, March 11. Alaskan Arts for Little Haitian Hearts contributes to the Little Footprints, Big Steps effort.

“I would say that AALHH is one of the reasons we are able to do what we do,” Wienberg wrote. “It helps take a lot off of my shoulders.”

Alaskan Arts for Little Haitian Hearts made $60 at its first sale on March 22. The group sold artful, handmade foods including organic granola, jam and pesto. They have since included baked goods such as vegan cookies. They have a regular booth in the Wood Center, Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m.

The group also meets 8 to 10 p.m. every Thursday in 203 Gruening. “Everyone is welcome to come,” Brook exclaimed, “there’s going to be tea and hot chocolate and snacks.”

Brook said that she’d like the project to benefit the students at UAF.

“We’d like to put together some artwork to sell, or maybe make a CD,” she said.

On Jan 31 Little Footprints, Big Steps opened a transitional shelter, Maison Transitionelle pour la Protection de L’Enfance (Transitional Home for the Protection of Childhood), in Les Cayes. The group deliberately avoids referring to the shelter as an orphanage, instead preferring the term center.The staff provides the hundred-or-so children staying at the transitional home with three nutritious meals a day, tutoring, medical attention and personal attention. 

The care they provide is thorough. Wienberg has spent nights on the street with children, patiently showing them that she can be trusted.

The Memory Project is one of the ways that Little Footprints, Big Steps brought happiness to the orphans. “I was searching for some ways that I could help validate these children and give them a sense of identity,” Wienberg said.

The Memory Project pairs art students with neglected children from around the world. Ben Schumaker founded the project in 2004 after he volunteered in Guatemala. Wienberg contacted Schumaker, and in August 2011 sent him photos of the children from the orphanage.

“Ben Schumaker had art students paint beautiful portraits of each child,” Wienberg said. Schumaker sent the finished portraits to Haiti, where Wienberg picked them up and brought them to the children who previously had no possessions of their own. “This is something that is just for them,” Wienberg said.

Now, Wienberg has photos printed of each of the children. The children looked at the photos excitedly and “then handed them right back to me,” she said. “They had nowhere to keep them.”

So, Wienberg holds on to the photos. If the children want to see them, all they have to do is ask.

Little Footprints, Big Steps is a registered non-profit in Canada, but not in the United States, Wienberg said in an email. She suggested that U.S. registration is a goal.

The money from Alaskan Arts for Little Haitian Hearts is sent directly from Brook to Wienberg. Wienberg then keeps careful watch over expenditures to make sure that the money is used appropriately.

“We do not hand money out to people,” Weinberg said. When she receives $30 for a family, Wienberg or one of the Haitian staff members goes to the market and picks out the most nutritional food. The food is then delivered to the family. Wienberg monitors the children’s weight to make sure the children are eating the food.

Once the children regain some of their strength, Little Footprints, Big Steps focuses on sending them home to their families. They do not cut ties with the children once they have graduated from the transitional home, however. Little Footprints, Big Steps continues to provide financial support to families for food, education, healthcare and transportation.

The first thing that they provide for the children is medical tests for tuberculosis, malaria, worms and HIV, which are not uncommon in Haiti. Each child is taken care of according to his or her situation, candidly and compassionately. Most of Little Footprints, Big Steps’ money is spent on nutrition for malnourished children, educational costs, shoes and medical care, according to Wienberg.

Wienberg is excited, impressed, and touched by Brook’s initiative. “Heidi has gone beyond and been moved to get involved in helping my children,” she said. “It means so much to have a friend share the most important aspect of my life, and I did not expect that.”

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