March 27, 2012

Johnson ’13 Films Documentary About Orphanage in Haiti

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For the past two months, Cornell student and avid filmmaker Jamie Johnson ’13 has been working on a documentary film that he hopes will result in the closing of a Haitian orphanage that he says is abusing and selling children.

Johnson said he was a sophomore when he heard about Morgan Weinberg, a then 19 year old who was working in Haiti to provide a safe house for abused children in the orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Inspired by Weinberg’s work, Johnson decided to take a leave of absence to work on the documentary, which chronicles Weinberg’s efforts to fight child exploitation.

Along with Weinberg, Johnson has been running an international development organization, Little Footprints Big Steps, which aims to provide a place of transition where children can stay while waiting to be reunited with their families.

The orphanage also houses many children who are not orphans, but have been sent there by their parents, who are unable to care for them.

“The owner of the orphanage manages the operation like a business,” Johnson said. “She uses the kids as bait to bring in donations from foreigners and takes that money to travel and throw parties to demonstrate her wealth and convince parents to part with their children.”

Johnson accused the owner of the orphanage of keeping the money she receives from international aid while selling children for adoption or as indentured servants.

“The only money that makes it to the kids is a meager ration of food, just enough to keep them alive,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he hopes to help reunite the children with their families.

Little Footprints Big Steps has tried to prevent child abandonment by giving parents the opportunity to work at the safe house and by sponsoring their children’s education.

Johnson and Weinberg also work with communities to educate parents and children about family dynamics and family planning.

“In working to make local authorities more efficient, we hope to improve Haiti’s ability to monitor and protect child rights,” Weinberg said. “There is a disgusting awareness of the abuse children suffer here … and an even more disgusting lack of action. I want to change that.”

Despite their efforts, Weinberg and Johnson said that trying to shut down the orphanage, move the children living there to the safe house and reunite them with their families has been a frustrating and slow process.

“Working with Haitian Social Services has been eye-opening as to how dysfunctional government can be,” Johnson said. “We are sitting on a mansion, with beds for all 80 kids, toilets, electricity, running water, enough money to send them to school, thousands of pounds of food and all kinds of love. It’s just sad on so many levels.”

While waiting for assistance from the government, Johnson has been working to raise awareness and funds for the organization. He said he is trying to find grants to support its work, recruit volunteers and set up a scholarship program that will help children receive higher education.

“The goal of all of these projects is to give the kids opportunities to realize their potential,” Johnson said. “This is something that is necessary for happiness but is quite absent in much of Haiti.”

Sidney Madsen ’13 was among a small group of Cornell students who traveled to Haiti during winter break to volunteer for Little Footprints Big Steps.

“When I went down, I thought I was going to help move the kids, but I wasn’t able to because everything was delayed,” Madsen said. “The stuff I did was mostly insignificant, but what I can do now is to spread awareness, which is more important — doing small fundraisers, getting people involved at Cornell.”

Madsen praised Weinberg’s willingness to take action on an issue that she said many people are unwilling to confront.

“[Weinberg was] one of the few people who saw a problem that needed to be fixed and did everything she could to address the issue, regardless of the fact that so many people said, ‘[This] issue is too big for you to address,’” Madsen said.

Original Author: Lucy Mehrabyan