Growing up in South Florida, Michele King Soffer enjoyed the shock factor that came with telling friends that despite her blond hair and green eyes, she was Haitian.
“I grew up in Pinecrest. I went to Palmetto and most of my friends were Jewish Americans. They were like, ‘What is all of this stuff?’’ Soffer said. “We had all of these Haitian paintings at my house and I remember my friends would come over and ask, ‘Where are you guys from?’”
But even as Soffer, 47, proudly claimed her Haitian roots, the country itself remained distant, known only by the colorful paintings, her grandmother’s flavorful cooking, and the rich, unfamiliar Creole vocabulary her father and his brothers spoke when recounting tales of their Haiti upbringing.
That all changed, however, after Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake. The devastating disaster brought Soffer on a journey of discovery that has evolved into a personal mission as the co-founder and executive director of New Hope 4 Haiti, a Les Cayes-based orphanage, and vice chair of The Ayiti Community Trust, a newly created endowment fund in partnership with the Miami Foundation.
“There is a lot of relief work where you come, you drop off and you leave. It doesn’t do the country any good,” Soffer said of Haiti. “There needs to be some relief after a disaster; I understand that. But there also has to be a way to have some kind of sustainability so that the country can start thriving and not depend on everybody else all of the time.”
Soffer’s evolution on giving and Haiti began in 2011 when she, her sister Jeannette Glber and husband Donald Soffer, developer of Aventura, visited Haiti for the first time.
For years, Soffer had been quietly supporting an orphanage in Les Cayes, a southwestern Haitian city battered last year by Hurricane Matthew. The home was being run by Josette Baker, who was caring for Michele Soffer’s ailing father, Gordon Robert “Bob” King, Jr., in Miami while taking in children from all over Haiti.
It was only supposed to be a quick visit to satisfy her curiosity, said Soffer, a former model, who as a child was told that Haiti was too dangerous to visit.
“My eyes were opened,” she said as she recalled being taken aback by the country’s beauty and rawness, and the sense of connection and familiarity she felt in Les Cayes. “I was like, ‘I’m all in.’ It was like a sign because this is where my dad was born and raised.”
Still, Soffer, had no idea how to run an orphanage. Then one day, while attending a friend’s funeral, she met a priest who had orphanages in Vietnam. His advice: “Don’t focus on what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do.”
“And that just clicked in me and I said, ‘You know what? I can get them food. I can get them healthcare. I can buy them beds — they were sleeping on the floor. I can get them toilet paper because they were wiping their butts with leaves,’” Soffer said. “One Christmas when I went down, we sat all of the kids around and I wanted everybody to talk about what they were grateful for. One little boy said, ‘I’m grateful we don’t have to use the banana leaves anymore.’ ”
But that’s not all the children are grateful for. They are also grateful for Soffer, whom they call Mimi. Her photo graces a wall in the home’s living room next to the children’s handmade decorations. A photo of King, who passed away in 2014, is also nearby.
Soffer’s grandfather was a U.S. Marine deployed to Haiti during the country’s U.S. occupation, 1915-1934. He married a Haitian woman and made Haiti his home. Soffer’s father , was born and raised in Les Cayes. He eventually move to Miami after meeting his future wife, Soffer’s mom, Jeannette while on a Caribbean vacation.
Though Haiti is mostly a black country, some Haitians trace their heritage to Lebanon, Portugal, Germany and the United States.
“I really wanted to own my Haitian heritage because I never got it in a way when I was a kid,” Soffer said about her decision to partner with Baker and form New Hope 4 Haiti.
Last year, the children moved into a new 14-room home that Soffer had built. When the pickup truck died, brother-in-law Patrick Gleber, former owner of the Miami legendary bar, Tobacco Road, ran a half-marathon to raise $25,000 to buy a new van.
“We are so grateful to God for sending Michele to us,” Baker said, during a tour of the Les Cayes orphanage.
In front of the house, freshly planted trees lined the yard.
“They each planted a tree,” Baker said of the 34 kids. “We have more than 30 trees; several varieties of mangoes, Spanish limes, bananas, coconuts.”
Baker and her husband had struggled to operate the home, which she founded 10 years ago. She worked multiple jobs as a caretaker in Miami to feed and clothe the children, and pay off menacing gangs. It was Jeannette King, who learned about Baker’s orphanage after asking her why she was working so hard .
After Baker told her, King suggested she tell Michele about her home.
“Writing a check is the easy way out,” Soffer said, explaining her hands-on involvement. “If I am going to invest my time and energy, I want to know what’s going on and I want to be in it.”
Soffer, who is also involved in Donald Soffer’s biomedical stem cell company, Longeveron, visits Les Cayes about four times a year.
“Whenever I come back from Haiti I go on a shopping diet,” she said. “I see something for $250 and I say, ‘I can pay somebody’s salary with that, feed the kids for a few weeks.’ ’’
Baker, meanwhile, sets a tight schedule at the home. The children must be in their beds by 8 p.m. and sleep under adult supervision in their rooms. On the Sundays that they don’t go to church, the children lead each other in Bible study.
“If you are preparing children to live in a society, there are a lot of principles you have to instill in them,” Baker said. “They need to be trained.”
Both women are mindful of the negative reputation of orphanages in Haiti, which lack government supervision and often filled with underprivileged kids whose parents can’t afford to school and feed them.
Soffer said she would eventually like to replace the model with something similar to a boarding school.
For now, her more immediate goal is to change the view of philanthropy involving Haiti by through The Ayiti Community Trust, which is seeking to raise $20 million to provide grants to Haiti-based grassroots organizations involved in the environment, entrepreneurship and civic education.
David Lawrence Jr., a member of the Ayiti Community Trust and former publisher of the Miami Herald, says of Soffer: “When she speaks up, she always has something valuable to say. She shares great gifts —wisdom, energy and a frequent smile. Her commitment to Haiti energizes us all.”
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