Haiti - Orphanage
Young Haitian girl, left, keeps a close eye on a toddler, right, who is temporarily under her care at the Tytoo Gardens orphanage in Carbaret, Haiti. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald) Slide show
Children in the hands of God

On a balmy summer night, as a group of armed thugs paddled a boat toward this fishing village, 26 orphans slept through an ordeal that would make their already tragic lives more difficult.

In the morning, as the sun heated the sand, one of the children noticed a shattered window at the home of the director of the orphanage, a man they regard as a father and fondly call "Tytoo."

"There was a rock through the window. We called out for him twice, but he didn't respond," recalled Lorca Masenat, 19, who has lived at the orphanage for five years. "When we went inside the house . . . Tytoo was gone."

Ed Hughes, a Canadian who runs the Tytoo Gardens orphanage, had been abducted by kidnappers operating from across the water in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. For more than a month, children as young as 1 would have to rely on each other - children caring for children in a country with the highest rate of orphans in the Western Hemisphere.

Children greet orphanage director Ed Hughes as he returns after his kidnapping. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald) Slide show

Hughes was released after paying a ransom and has since returned to his orphanage. But the case shed a heart-breaking light on Haiti's most fragile and innocent victims.

In a nation of 8.5 million, where one of eight children dies before age 5, orphanages often are the last refuge of hope. Some 610,000 Haitian children are orphans, according to U.N. estimates. Port-au-Prince alone has an estimated 2,000 street children, many of them orphans.

While Hughes was gone, the nearby Mission of Hope orphanage - home to 44 boys and girls - arranged to have food delivered, and a cook stopped by daily to prepare meals. But most of the time, the kids at Tytoo Gardens were alone.

"We did everything we could to help Tytoo's kids," said Travis Smith, co-director of Mission of Hope. "But the older ones really stepped in to take care of the younger children. They looked out for each other."

At the time of the kidnapping, school was out for the summer, so the children spent their days much like most kids on a school break, except without supervision.

"We sleep, we watch TV, sometimes we go swimming in the sea," said Lorca, who was left at the orphanage by her father when she was 14. "My father could not care for me. He was not working. So Tytoo took me in."

A young girl doing her chores in the laundry area of the orphanage. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald) Slide show

It is not known exactly how many of Haiti's children are housed in orphanages, but a government agency known by the French acronym CENH has estimated that some 200 orphanages serve about 200,000 children.

"If this orphanage wasn't here to help the children, things could be worse, they would probably be on the streets," said Paula LaRose, 52, a neighbor and frequent visitor to Tytoo Gardens.

Thony Durand, now 21, could have been among the street kids. He and his brothers Rony, 16, and Berthony, 13, were taken in by the Mission of Hope after their mother died in 2000. Their father had died two years earlier.

"It was kind of hopeless for me because in Haiti even when you have your family to take care of you, life is very hard," said Thony, who learned English at the orphanage. "Sometimes [parents] don't have jobs, but at least they are with you."

The Mission of Hope, run by an evangelical organization headquartered in Oklahoma, is regarded as among the most professional in Haiti. Founded in the late 1990s, it is dedicated not only to housing orphans but also to providing a K-12 education to children from several surrounding villages.

Orphans gather in the shade to talk and play. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald) Slide show

"The attempt was to get only kids who are truly orphans, but we have some kids whose parents could not afford to take care of them," said Smith. "We've found kids in the ditch, beaten. Sometimes, parents come to the gate and try to drop off their children."

The gated compound sits on 75 acres and educates some 1,200 children, including those from Tytoo Gardens. Classes are taught in Creole, but English is part of the curriculum.

The mission's anchor is a large church with wooden benches, a tin roof and no walls that also serves as a community center, bellowing out as much music as prayer.

There are at least four other orphanages in neighboring villages that house another 200 children, Smith said. Tytoo Gardens is the oldest, opened by Hughes a decade ago after hungry children began showing up on his property to beg for food.

The building where the orphans now sleep was supposed to be a nightclub for tourists. Hughes landed in Haiti following a 1981 conviction for running a brothel in Canada. His encounter with the hungry children, friends said, changed his life.

"Yeah, he had a troubled past," Smith said. "But he had a conversion, and God is in his heart. Haiti is in his heart."

Inside the spartan sleeping quarters, a young girl tries to keep the toddler, Jessie, ententertained as she takes her turn looking after him. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald) Slide show

Tytoo Gardens is a two-room rock and mortar structure with concrete floors. Outside, there are picnic tables, a tiny banana farm and plenty of run-around space under a shady tree. But the inside is dark and cramped.

The 26 children share 12 bunk beds with thin mattresses stacked up in a single bedroom. Hughes sleeps at a house across the way.

Most of the children at Tytoo Gardens have lost both parents. The youngest is Yolaine, a 1-year-old girl with dry skin who likes to suck her left thumb. The oldest is Lorca.

On a recent visit, most of the children were barefoot, a sink was clogged and the bedroom was littered with shoes, dirty clothes, book bags and paper. Yolaine slept on a barren mattress on the floor. Out back, one of the girls tried to sweep away puddles of water from dripping laundry.

Tytoo Gardens was a stark contrast to the Mission of Hope, where boys and girls sleep in separate dormitories and on individual beds. The rooms are bright and tidy, white tiled floors sparkle and stuffed animals and colorful drawings crowd corners. Outside is a field large enough for a soccer match.

When the children from both orphanages come together for school or church, it is hard to tell them apart. The girls wear ruffled dresses and ribbons in their hair. The boys have tucked-in shirts and belts. Shiny shoes cover their feet. Smiles brighten their faces.

Macline, who lives at the Mission of Hope. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald) Slide show

"Our goal isn't just to take a kid off the streets, it's to provide them with the tools so they can help change Haiti," Smith said. "This is a long-term vision. This isn't a quick fix."

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is fraught with gang violence that has spilled over to rural communities. A history of political instability has virtually kept progress hostage and elevated the level of suffering among the most vulnerable.

"The children are the ones who are going to change Haiti," he said. "We plant the seed."

If it wasn't for the orphanage, "I'd probably be in the street and forget about God and do bad things," said Thony. "I might be dead now."

"There are many, many young men like me, children, who are hopeless, homeless," Thony added. "I have no problem anymore. I have a house to live in and three meals daily. And I have good clothes. They take care of me very, very well. They are my family now."

On the afternoon of July 28, as the children of Tytoo Gardens prepared for another night without their guardian, they shrieked with delight at the sight of an unexpected arrival.

As Hughes approached, the children ran toward the 72-year-old man who lost most of his right arm after being shot during a December kidnapping of a Haitian-American missionary. Accompanying Hughes was a newly-hired armed guard.

"It'll certainly take some time to get things back in order," said Hughes. "The future rests with God. We do our own little bit."

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