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An American woman helps keep Haitian families together

SHARE An American woman helps keep Haitian families together

Shelley Clay was walking home one day in the winter of 2009 when she saw a woman sitting in front of her house. The woman had a broad nose, high cheekbones and an air of defeat. Wearing a bright red shirt and a ratty skirt frayed at the ends, she sat barefoot in the dirt, her back resting against the concrete wall that surrounded Clay's house on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince.

It was the sort of scene that would have never played out in Clay's native Washington State. But in Haiti, her new adopted home, it hardly surprised her.

The woman called herself Malkaline, and in her native Creole explained that her husband had left her and her four children. She had come to Port-Au-Prince looking for work, leaving her three oldest kids behind in the countryside with a relative, but after two months of searching she had found nothing and was so hungry she could no longer feed her baby, who she was holding in her arms.

"Is this an orphanage?" Malkaline asked. When Clay told her it was not, Malkaline asked if she could help her find one for her nursing baby, who was covered in scabies.

Instead, Clay proposed something else: Malkaline could come work for her, earning enough to feed herself and her baby. There was just one catch. Malkaline had to go home and get her three other kids first.

"I'm going to help you out," Clay said. "But only if you're all under one roof."

Over the past two years, Clay has helped 220 people like Malkaline through an innovative nonprofit program called the Apparent Project, which she runs out of her house in Port-Au-Prince. The goal of the program is simple: to keep poor families together by providing them work.

"When we started this we wanted to figure out a way to harness the natural resources Haiti has," Clay said, "and one thing Haiti has a lot of is garbage."

Intrigued by the idea of turning something worthless into an object of value, Clay began employing local artisans to transform trash into jewelry.

When Clay met Malkaline she had four employees and wasn't sure if the project would work. Today, the jewelry her artisans make sells through home Tupperware-style parties and partnerships with stores like the GAP and designers like Donna Karan. Last December, the Apparent Project sold $100,000 worth of jewelry, helping Clay's artisans move from what most Americans would consider extreme poverty in to what Haitians think of as the middle class.

"Haiti has a lot of problems, but we were looking for something that could make a difference," Clay said. "In an orphanage or feeding program or food aid you can never stop giving, it will never correct itself. You can give and give and give and it will never fix it. But if you can give jobs then you can fix the problem."

When Clay first came to Haiti in 2008 she knew little about the country or the issues surrounding international adoption. She and her husband, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, had struggled with fertility issues for years and had decided that if they were going to add to their family, they may as well adopt from a country where thousands of children are abandoned each year.

At the time, there were about 380,000 orphaned children in Haiti. As Clay began visiting orphanages with her husband she was surprised by what she found. In many cases, the parents of the orphans hadn't abandoned them — some came to visit their children. There were so many orphanages in Haiti — Clay counted 20 on one block alone — that they had become a viable day-care option for parents living in poverty. "At that point I realized that a lot of the people who had come to Haiti looking to make a difference had actually created a problem," Clay said. "They had built these orphanages out of a really good impulse, but what was it accomplishing in the long run?"

Because Haiti requires a two year wait for international adoptions, Clay decided to move in to the orphanage where her future son lived. Over time, her perspective on international adoption began to change. She talked to young boys who recalled stealing eggs from their equally poor neighbors because they were so hungry. She talked to single mothers who wanted work but couldn't find jobs. One day she approached the director of the orphanage.

"The moms who drop off their kids here, would they keep them if they could? Or do they simply want to be free of them?"

The director didn't hesitate. "Of course they'd keep them if they could," she answered.

And that's where the idea for the Apparent Project began to take root. Clay's husband had recently inherited the fortune of his father, who had died in a plane crash. What if they could build something in Haiti with that money, something that would give life? A deeply religious woman, Clay saw powerful symbolism of redemption and rebirth in this possibility. "I could spend another $20,000 to adopt another one of these kids, but I started to wonder about the mothers that dropped them off. What if I could find a way to keep families together instead?"

With her husband's inheritance money they bought a house in Port-Au-Prince, began collecting garbage from the streets, and opened the Apparent Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, for business.

On a recent spring day, Clay stood in the lobby of the Apparent Project, chatting with a woman from Mississippi who, like Clay, had come to Haiti to adopt. The woman came every six months to visit the boy she hoped to adopt, and this morning she had brought him along to shop for souvenirs before she returned to the United States.

Clay said these types of visits to her store are common. American church groups, some of which are building orphanages or volunteering in them, stop by as well.

"I'm not anti-adoption, or anti-international adoption at all," Clay said. "I adopted my son here. But I think it should be a last option, after everything is done to keep mothers with their children."

Her Haitian son, Zebedee, was sitting on the couch in Clay's house, which is right next to the building where her artisans work, watching TV with his brother, one of Clay's two biological children. Shortly after starting the Apparent Project, Clay and her husband decided to move to Haiti permanently and say they have no plans to go back. Clay's husband is working on a documentary about restaveks, the Creole term used to describe the estimated 300,000 children in Haiti who live in some form of slavery. Abandoned by their parents, most work as indentured servants for family members, but some end up in the sex trade.

When the Mississippi family left, Clay went upstairs to check in with a group of artisans assembling necklaces for a bulk order placed by the designer Donna Karan. For this type of work, Clay pays three times the Haitian minimum wage, and when jewelry sells through home parties, the artisans get a cut of their necklaces and bracelets that sell. She feeds her workers every day and provides portable cribs for those who want to bring their children to work with them.

"It's hard to measure the difference we're making here, but you see it in the faces of the mothers who work here, you see it in the faces of their children. They're healthy," Clay said. "They're going to school."

For Clay, no one illustrates the power of the Apparent Project more than Malkaline, the woman she found on her doorstep three years ago. Today, Malkaline is Clay's top producing artisan. Not only are all of her children with her under the same roof, Malkaline has bought her own house and is sending all four of her children to private schools, a rarity for Haiti's poor. She also plans to marry an artisan she met at the Apparent Project, which Clay says is a sign of wealth and status in Haiti because the poor can't afford weddings.

"Malkaline will tell me, 'It's all because of you that I have this, and I say, 'No, I didn't sit down and work that hard.' She's the one that did it and it makes me incredibly proud of her," Clay said. "When you give people the opportunity to rise up and be who they're supposed to be, it's something you can never give, it has to come from themselves. There's a dignity that comes over people when that happens. They just glow. Their clothes look better. Their skin looks different. They begin taking care of themselves and it's just priceless."

Email: jhyde@desnews.com