MIAMI (Reuters) - Morgan Wienberg, a slight 22-year-old from Canada, was only 18 when she joined the wave of volunteers who flew to Haiti to help out after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010.
Unlike most volunteers she has returned, putting off a medical career to fulfill what she now calls a life mission to rescue abused Haitian children exploited by unscrupulous orphanages.
“I am flabbergasted by her story. It’s simply outstanding what she is doing, and nothing fazes her,” said Alison Thompson, an Australian nurse and veteran relief worker who ran a camp for earthquake victims in Haiti and now runs rape clinics there.
Wienberg was living in Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon, Canada’s westernmost territory, when her plans to study medicine at McGill University took a detour.
She had considered spending the summer working with animals or children in Africa, but quickly signed up as a volunteer to teach English to earthquake victims and help in a prosthetics lab.
“I had never really thought about Haiti. The earthquake drew me to thinking it was the place I could make a difference,” she said during an interview in Miami where she was overseeing medical care for one of her charges.
In Haiti she also volunteered at an orphanage. Appalled by the conditions, she quickly discovered that almost all the children were not orphans but were being used to milk donations from unwitting charities, including American churches.
“There were 75 children, all starving, lying in vomit and diarrhea,” she said. Beatings were common for petty infractions; a deaf boy was abused constantly.
When groups of Americans visited with suitcases of toys and clothes, the owner made sure the children were washed and clothed. They never received the donations, which were sold.
“The real turning point was when I realized the children all had families,” said Wienberg. “They were there because their families were so poor they couldn’t afford to look after them.”
Wienberg discovered that the orphanage owner recruited children on trips to impoverished rural areas where parents often were willing to give up their children for the hope they might get a better life in the city, and perhaps an education.
“Many orphanages in Haiti are primarily a business,” said Wienberg. “They use the children to make money from foreigners.”
She gathered evidence and went to the police and Haiti’s social services institute to report the abuse.
Legitimate children’s homes exist in Haiti, such as NPH International, which operates a children’s hospital in Port-au-Prince and a chain of orphanages across Latin America. But the government of Haiti has begun to crack down on the corrupt places, working with UNICEF to create an official registry of the 725 orphanages and child-care centers.
Of these, 40 have already been shut, including the orphanage where Wienberg worked, though officials say the social services institute, which has a staff of 200, lacks the resources to properly monitor abuses. So far there are no reliable figures for the total orphan population.
Terre des Hommes International Federation, a European umbrella group dedicated to children’s rights, is working with UNICEF and the Haitian institute to replace orphanages with a nationwide host-family program. It seeks to prevent separation by helping the most vulnerable parents find a sustainable source of income, such as training women to sew and helping fishermen with nets and boats.
The initiative also includes a “family tracing and reunification” plan to help remove children from orphanages and place them back with their parents.
After Wienberg quit the orphanage, she decided she could not walk away from the children. Back in Canada she worked three jobs to save enough to return to Haiti.
“Every day I was working to get them medical treatment and trying to close (the orphanage) down,” she said. Often she had trouble sleeping, remembering she had shared the floor with kids who had no beds.
With that money and what she had put aside for university Wienberg set up her own charity in late 2011: Little Footprints, Big Steps offers safe places for children to receive care, while their parents are traced.
Morgan’s mother, Karen Wienberg, 57, serves as chairman of the board. A Canadian civil servant in Whitehorse, she organizes additional fundraising.
So far Morgan has rescued 86 children and is helping their families provide for them at home, while also paying to educate 156. She herself currently looks after five boys and five girls at one of two safe houses in the southern city of Les Cayes.
One boy, Yssac Jeudy, was 12 and illiterate when she rescued him from the streets. Known to his friends as “Big Cheek” because of a tumor growing beneath the right side of his face, he is now in second grade and at the top of his class. Wienberg became his legal guardian this year in order to bring him to Miami for surgery (the tumor was benign).
“Our focus now is on helping the children stay with their parents and build stable lives,” she said. That involves teaming up with other charities to build houses and help with vocational training.
The charity has an operating budget of $175,000 and shuns luxuries, such as a car, preferring the money go for food, education and medical care. Only eight local staff draw a salary.
Wienberg, who taught herself to speak fluent Haitian Creole, travels everywhere on public transport, despite the five hours by bus that separate Les Cayes from the capital, where she must frequently go.
“Morgan doesn’t have any interest in material things. She is probably the most incredible person I have ever met,” said Sarah Wilson, a Canadian paramedic in Ontario who cofounded Little Footprints with Wienberg after they met in Haiti.
Once painfully shy, Wienberg has since delivered a TEDx address (a freely licensed version of the more global TED talks) at McGill in Montreal, and last year she was invited to speak at the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York.
Some of her admirers worry about the risks she runs in Haiti. “All my friends who are nurses have been assaulted or raped at one point,” said Thompson. “But her kids really love and protect her. She has won the respect of the community, and that counts for a lot down there.”
Karen Wienberg doesn’t worry about her.
“A mother’s job is to open every door for your children so they can find their passion,” she said. “If I had a child sitting on the couch I would worry more.”
Despite her present involvement, Morgan hasn’t necessarily given up on medical school. “I spent all my savings,” she says with a laugh, “so I’d probably need a scholarship.”
Additional reporting by Amelie Baron in Port-au-Prince; Editing by Prudence Crowther