(Above Left) Todd Johnson, Hallock, Minn., flew to Haiti to visit with Pastor Joseph Luicen and his wife, Roussemie, and learn more about their orphanage, The Center of Refuge Orphanage. Located in Jacmel, Haiti, the orphanage houses the Lucien family, which includes six children, and 28 other children. (Above Right) Children from the Center of Refuge Orphanage pile into a pickup truck to attend church services. (Photos Submitted)
By Linda Andersen
“The minute you stepped out of the airport you were in total darkness. There were no lights anywhere…There I sat in total darkness looking for a friend I can’t find…I tried to call him and my phone’s not working for international calls.”
Todd Johnson has a new interest – 28 children who reside at an orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti. Adventures and experiences, such as the above, became part of pursuing that interest.
Johnson was introduced to the Center of Refuge Orphanage just last May when his friend Mitch Rhen of Badger brought Pastor Joseph Lucien, who runs the orphanage with his wife, Roussemie, to visit him in Hallock. (Rhen was acquainted with the pastor as he and his wife have adopted children from Haiti).
Johnson says Lucien was “clearly up here fundraising… I was intrigued, but I’m not going to start writing checks to someone I just met.”
Johnson told Lucien that he wanted to see the orphanage and, the rest is history. “We started making plans from that point forward.”
Johnson flew to Port-au-Prince this past November 10th and did eventually meet up with Pastor Lucien at the dark airport. Their three-hour “trek” to the orphanage at Jacmel also became an adventure. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In Port-au-Prince there are absolutely no traffic laws… People make up their own traffic laws…no stoplights… no stop signs. You just fight your way through every intersection.”
They made it out of Port-au-Prince and drove in Lucien’s Toyota pick-up “up through the mountains and down to the beach.”
Johnson provides a handout about Haiti which states that Haiti is the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” The average income is $1,317 a month. Eighty percent of the population lives in “abject poverty” and nearly two-thirds of the labor force work in unskilled jobs.
Johnson says the Center of Refuge Orphanage, which Lucien and his wife operate, is a “pretty modern building,” which houses the Luciens, their six children, and 28 other children. Pastor Lucien also runs a church and school which are located approximately one mile away.
Occupants of the orphanage carry water from a well in the front yard; the building has the “infrastructure” for plumbing, but the orphanage can’t afford to buy water. Also, the orphanage owns a generator, but they can’t afford to buy the diesel fuel to operate it.
Johnson says being at the orphanage feels a bit like being in a “POW camp setting” as the compound is surrounded by a razor wire fence. Unfortunately, that fence doesn’t keep everyone out – thieves put blankets on the fence and crawl over it to steal the goats that are kept in the orphanage yard.
How the orphanage came to be is the “best part of the story” according to Johnson. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 20 orphans who were living in temporary shelters on a soccer field banded together, walked to Lucien’s church, and indicated they planned to stay. Eventually, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church helped Lucien to build the structure at the current location.
Johnson says the most “dramatic” story of a child at the orphanage today is that of two-year old Ephraim who was found in a cardboard box in a garbage heap.
Although adoptions out of the orphanage were common in the past, adoptions have become much more difficult as laws have been passed to prevent people from adopting for abusive purposes.
Johnson experienced life at the orphanage for several days. He observed the residents “doing laundry and pressing school uniforms” after they arose at 5 a.m. and before walking about a mile to school, which begins at 7 a.m. and concludes around 1:30 p.m.
At the orphanage the children constantly hung around Johnson, crawled in his lap, and enjoyed activities such as taking photos and listening to him read stories in English.
Johnson says he has seen poverty while driving through poverty stricken areas while traveling to resorts in other countries. Of Haiti, he says, “I’ve never seen poverty like this.” He says large sections exist where the dwellings can’t be described as houses, but are “temporary type shelters.” He adds that there’s “garbage everywhere” and “clean water is a huge issue.”
The Haitian trip could probably be described as life changing for Johnson. Now, he says, in Haiti, there are “28 children that kind of own my heart.” He communicates almost daily with Pastor Joseph Lucien to keep updated on the ministry. Will he visit the orphanage again? “My guess would be ‘Yes,’” he responds, though he has no immediate plans to do so.
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Johnson is convinced that the Center of Refuge Orphanage is a “worthy ministry” where children need help to meet their daily needs. Johnson’s church has done a fundraiser for the work and he is happy to encourage others to support the ministry.
Readers who are interested in the ministry are encouraged to visit the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod website (www.ministryinmission.org). Donations to the ministry may be made by sending a check to Ministry in Mission. Indicate “Center of Refuge Orphanage” in the memo line. Mail to: Jackie Rychel, c/o Ministry in Mission, 13442 Shady Lane, Chesterland, OH 44026.