Podcast Transcript: An Interview with Anne Marie Stern. – 3/27/2018
In Episode 7, Jacklyn is talking to Anne Marie Stern, the Director of the Family Empowerment Program at another fantastic organization in Haiti, myLIFEspeaks. She shares about she first went to Haiti, the work she is doing, and what she means about Haiti’s orphanage, not orphan problem.
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[0:00] JVB: Hello, everybody. And welcome back to another LiveBeyond podcast. My name is Jacklyn Vanderpool Barnett, and today we’re going to be doing something just a little bit different than normal. We have started a new series where we’re going to interview and showcase other organizations and the work that they’re doing around the world. And today, for our very first one, we’re interviewing Anne Marie Stern. She is the Director of Family Empowerment for myLIFEspeaks in Neply, Haiti. She’s going to be telling us a little bit about what her day-to-day looks like, what the Family Empowerment Program is doing, and what myLIFEspeaks is doing in Neply Haiti to change the world. So, without further ado, let’s go ahead and jump right in. Anne Marie, thank you so much for joining me today. We’re so excited to have you here.
[0:45] AMS: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here as well.
[0:48] JVB: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your story? And how did you get to Haiti?
[0:53] AMS: Well, I’ve lived in Haiti full-time for 6 years now. I started, I started working with myLIFEspeaks when, when they started about 7 years ago. And, I really went down to visit my niece, and she’s from Nashville, and I went to visit her. She now lives in Spring Hill with her husband and family, and I live in Haiti, so I don’t know how, I don’t know how that worked out, but she’s back and I’m still there. And, and I had worked in child welfare in Michigan for 15 years, doing foster care and adoption work, serving in a non-profit that licensed foster care and adoption. And after 15 years, I was really kind of burned out on all of that and really was looking for a change and so, I thought I was moving on to something completely different, and ended up visiting Haiti and, and seeing the need. And, and God really showed me that I was, I was needed there, that I could, I could do it. You know, I never dreamed that I could live there and do the work, but I was kind of made to stay there a little bit. I got, I tell people I wasn’t called to Haiti, I was tricked into Haiti, really. It was, it was all a big ruse. I mean, God really pulled a fast one on me by getting me there, and then having me stay and then, you know, turning my heart. And so, you know, I was only there for a couple weeks and got an entirely different capacity, you know, helping on the ground, on-site director, kind of helping run teams that were coming to visit, and that kind of thing. But even during that time, we had begun bringing children into our care. I hadn’t even been there a week, and I ended up facilitating a visit between, you know, a child and a parent. And that’s exactly the work I’ve been doing in America for fifteen years. And I said, “Okay, well, well played, Lord, well played. I see you what you’re doing”. So yeah, I, I served that first summer 7 years ago, and then realized that that it’s really where I needed to be, and just things after that fill into place as they do. And, and so for 6 years, I’ve just been growing and developing our model of orphan care at myLIFEspeaks, and, and I’m just still doing that.
[3:20] JVB: Well, one thing that I admire so much about myLIFEspeaks is the way that you do see the orphan care system. And so, tell me a little bit of what that looks like in Haiti, just the orphanage system as a whole, because I want people to really understand that.
[3:34] AMS: Sure, yes, well, it was, it’s been a huge learning process for us. We went into it kind of blind. I mean, we had a vision: blind, but with a vision, a vision, really, really God’s vision. Blind to what we’re supposed to be doing. God showed Mike and Missy Wilson a long time ago that he wanted them to be caring for kids that were orphaned and abandoned. But to do it in, where, a family setting and to integrate kids of special needs. It was very clear integrating special needs kids, typically developing children in a family setting. And so, when they started bringing children into their care 7 years ago, they were licensed as an orphanage in Haiti. But when they, we started bringing kids into our care, we were placing them in a home with with Haitian parents, and when I came along that’s all I knew. My experience in foster care was just that: taking children from all different circumstances and putting them together in a loving home, where they would grow up together as a family. And that’s just what we’ve done since the beginning. And we had no idea that that didn’t exist in Haiti. We had no idea what the reality in Haiti was. And the reality is, is that there’s a Haiti for the tiny country that it is maybe about the size of New Hampshire. There is over 750 known orphanages, with around, the estimate is around 65,000 children, living in those orphanages. And a lot of people would hear those numbers and think, “Wow, Haiti has a really orphan crisis.” And it’s not. Because what we found out and learned is that most of those children, most with to the tune of 80% of those children, have living parents, at least one. Probably 95% of them have living families that could be caring for them and would be caring for them, given the opportunity and the resources. And so, Haiti doesn’t have an orphan crisis, they have an orphanage crisis. And so, there are thousands of children, children languishing in orphanage care, needlessly that, that have families. It’s sad enough for a child that’s been legitimately orphaned or abandoned to be growing up in an institution. But, it gets a lot sadder to know that that child knows darn well that they have a family out there, a family that’s living on without them. They have siblings and parents out there and extended families and community that they’re missing out on and, and, so it’s, it’s a, it’s a really big problem. So, little did we know and moving forward with the model that was shown to us that that we were becoming part of, a part of orphan care reform in Haiti. And so, that’s that sort of where we’re landing these days, as the discussion is taking place in Haiti about how to make change.
[6:32] JVB: That’s so incredible. So, what, what are the steps to your Empowerment Program? And specifically, I’m very curious about the screening process for the family.
[6:42] AMS: Yeah, for the parents that are caring for kids, we have 22 children currently living in 5 homes in our village, in our community. And I mean it really does look, I hate to use the word foster because our children are in, in permanent placements with our families, they’ve been legitimately orphaned or abandoned, so they’re not, you know. The foster care model is supposed to be temporary, with a focus and goal of returning a child home once the family has gotten through their, their challenges potentially, or to an adoptive home. And so, I don’t want to use the word foster, but it resembles that model in America. You know, I’m, you know, I look like a foster care worker, I have 5 families that I’m overseeing. Making sure the children are getting what they need as far as their education and medical needs met, and therapy and all those things. But the day-to-day care is happening in the home, and then I provide support education to the parents. We are very fortunate living where we live in Neply. It’s an incredible community of incredible people, and so we’re also very fortunate to be living so integrated into our communities. That’s ultimately the key. We know the people in the families of our community, and so we know we know the great families, we know the great parents. We know the people that would just do an incredible job caring for kids and that have a heart for it. We know the people that wouldn’t honestly, and so really, I’ve, the parents have kind of been handpicked. They’ve been prayerfully picked and considered. They haven’t done like, recruitment, like “Hey throw your head, and who wants to be a parent? “That doesn’t really work. I mean, it doesn’t even really work here in America, I don’t believe. But so, they’ve been, that the process that starts with prayer first and foremost, praying that God would lead me to, the next family that He has selected. And then having conversations with people in our community that are just our friends and community members about their families and about, you know, asking them to prayerfully consider if they would care for children that aren’t their own forever in their homes and potentially children with special needs. And, and, that’s how it’s worked so far. And then as they express interest or agree that they would do that, comes some training. I really base a lot of my training on the foster care training that I have from America, but a lot of it, a lot of it comes from, especially with their kids of special needs, it’s learn-as-you-go. Because, I can’t possibly teach on every possible scenario and on every possible special need. And so, as children are placed with us, we educate as we go the needs of a, a particular child. And as the program has grown, as we’ve had one, two, three families in the community, other people see this model and they see they don’t honestly see just like the benefit, like, “Oh, you get to be parents for myLIFEspeaks”. They are legitimately seeing the joy and the richness that these families are experiencing, and they want in. And so there has been there just growing interest. There are more and more people in our community that have approached me, not just saying I want a job or something like that, but they’ve legitimately said, “You know, my husband and I have been praying, and we want you to know that if you need new parents, talk to us, you know, like next time.” And so that’s just a mentality that has changed. We’ve seen that mentality change regarding children with special needs, and families willing to care for them and then with our Best Buddies program. So just, that it’s just, that’s just how it’s grown.
[10:55] JVB: I was reading through one of the stories on your website yesterday, and just one of the things I think that touched me so much was, you know, you obviously think about it, and you see these children truly have been orphaned. You know, they don’t have families, they don’t have parents. And obviously you see that this is going to benefit and impact them positively in the long run. But one of the stories that touched me so much, it was about the parents who couldn’t have any children, and they always wanted a big family. And then they, you know, I don’t know how the process happened, but now they have this beautiful large family, and it’s benefitting them so much. And so, I just think it’s such a beautiful thing. You’re not just saying, “This is an orphan. He needs a home.” You’re saying, like, maybe these are parents who want children and can’t, and, like, getting to bring those two together and just, I think that’s something that only the Lord could do. And I think it’s amazing that myLIFEspeaks and you, in particular, are taking that and carrying that forward. And so, Anne Marie, what does your day-to-day look like?
[11:58] AMS: Well, it’s been changing, but day to day, you know, starts the day with, our staff meets every morning. We meet every morning so that we are unified in in what we’re doing, in our focus for the day and keeping communication up, that’s just so key. And so, we’ve always really valued communication and being together and unified. We are all spread all over the country right now in America, in Haiti, in Nashville, in Texas, in Indiana. And we still have a morning meeting, all of us from all over the place to come together, first of all, under prayer and under God’s word every time we meet, and then to inform one another on what’s happening in our areas. After that, I typically visit, we have 5 homes and there are 5 weekdays, and so that works out pretty well that I usually get around and, and just make a quick visit around the homes. Our village, you know, is really small, too, and so you can walk it and, and, you know, just take a take a minute to check in with everybody and make sure everything’s great, you know. And if there are any needs in any of the homes any concerns happening and just to get an eye on things, you know just, to just daily drop in. I tell our visitors when we if, if we go visit a family home, I tell them I say, “I can’t guarantee what you’re to see behind that gate.” Like, you know, I mean, it could be anything, because the reality is that family’s messy, you know, family isn’t perfect, and that’s what I really love about it, going into our family homes is that you see imperfections. You see a mess sometimes. But you also see family happening. You see life happening. You see kids running around. You see arguments happening. You see, you know, parents getting after the kids, “Do your homework. Do your chores. Why did you hit your sister?” You know, I mean all those kinds of just family things and, and just getting to see them, and there’s a lot of joy in our family homes to just, I mean, it’s hard to tear away, sometimes. I, you know, I’ve got other things to do, and I really like just hanging out and being with them, and seeing them and how they operate together. It’s, it’s always a lot of joy. From there I mean, there’s, there’s a lot of work I’ve been doing lately on finding out more about how we can fit into the global orphan care reform, you know, movement. We are involved in CAFO that happens annually, the Christian Alliance for Orphans, and so, and, and researching other organizations that might be doing similar work and how they’re doing it. Because, you know, we’re not perfect, and, and if anybody’s doing this similar, similar things, you’re doing it better, I want to know about it. So, things like that, and then there are nuts and bolts of, you know, receipts, and budgeting, and all of that kind of fun stuff. But, that’s generally when it looks like, and, and life in Haiti moves pretty, at a pretty slow pace, you know, we have an office on the campus, but, we’ve got all of our programming going on throughout the day. You know, our kiddos are in school at our campus, and then we have a feeding program, and we have an elderly program, and everybody’s always having fun doing something. And so, it’s hard. It always distracted doing, you know, jumping into those…
[15:32] JVB: It’s always hard to get to the receipts into the nuts and bolts when you have some exciting things going on.
[15:35] AMS: Yeah, yeah. And then, and then you have just any trip to the store for supplies, could just, you know, take hours. And you think I’m going to run into, yeah, I’m going to run into Leogane really quick. You know, hours later. So, there’s, there’s that too, there’s that too. So…
[15:54] JVB: What is your dream for Neply and for Haiti as a whole? I mean, what would you just, how do you want to see it transformed?
[16:01] AMS: Well, of course. I mean, my niche is specific to, you know, the orphanage crisis, and so I mean, my, my hope and prayer for Haiti is just that they will begin to recognize their own potential and what they’re capable of. You know, one of the biggest compliments we ever got that I personally heard as an organization. You know, we have visitors that visit sometimes every year. But we’ve been there for 7 years now. And if we have visitors come and years have passed by since they were there last, we get to ask them, like you know, like “So you know, what do you think like is think? Have things changed? Or what do you see? What’s different?” And I got to ask a visitor, a team member, and I said “So, you know, just out of curiosity, like, what do you see?” And he could have said anything, you know, because we do employ 160 people in the village. And so, the economic structure of the village has improved dramatically. People are building homes, you know, quality of life has simply improved, there are more goats and chickens and cows and, and you know, more little shops and things like that. But he said he saw a difference in the people. He said, “It’s like they think, it’s like they know they can do it.” And I was like, I mean, that’s what he saw just from his interactions with people. He just saw a growing confidence in people and, and, and, like, they were empowered, which exactly, you know, what we’re trying to do. And aside from our families, that are, the kids that are in our care, it’s those families that are at risk of not being able to care for their kids, or, or risk of falling into the temptation of relinquishing their child into a restavèk [child, typically household, slave] situation or an orphanage. That we really empower them to say, “You can do it, you can do this.” And so, but overall in my area, what I would like to see is a Haiti void, with no orphanages, a Haiti without orphanages and every child living in a home and a family growing up in a family in a community. I’d like to see a domestic adoption take hold, and the adoption process domestically, change and grow, and yeah, that, that’s, that’s it. I mean, they’re the 20%, that 80% of children sitting in orphanages, that have families that we want to get back to those families. But the 20%, you know, the kids that have been legitimately orphaned and abandoned need to be growing up in loving homes and families. And so, that’s my dream for the future of Haiti.
[18:53] JVB: Well, that’s amazing. And Anne Marie, we want to come alongside, we want to partner with you. So, give us an idea of what we can, what we can do for you and for myLIFEspeaks.
[19:05] AMS: Well, I think speaking that same truth to educating, educating people about Haiti when, you know, when, when you live in it, you it becomes so commonplace to you. But getting the word out and explaining and sharing with people those statistics, the numbers, the issue, the crisis. And referring to Haiti, you know, as having an orphanage crisis, not an orphan crisis, and, and encouraging people to invest their resources in organizations that are empowering families, teaching, growing. That we’re not just throwing money at orphanages because it’s just not working. I tell people all the time that the church’s response, and America’s response to Haiti’s poverty has been to build orphanages, and there’s a lot of money involved. There’s so much money pouring into Haiti for orphanages. There’s some estimates that saying like 75 up to 100 hundred million dollars. I feel like Dr. Evil, like “100 million dollars,” like it’s like it’s an astounding amount. And to know what that that’s like 10 times the budget of any child welfare. I mean, they could fund public education for 100 million dollars a year. And so just encouraging people, and educating people to support organizations and movements that are changing that system. That’s, that’s what I would just, you know, I’m just letting people know that we’re just not, myLIFEspeaks isn’t just some organization in Haiti. We are not an orphanage, please, #wearenotanorphanage and, and let them know why, you know, and so just, just becoming a partner and educating and that that movement. I had the opportunity to go to Kenya recently to visit a ministry there, called Agape Children’s Ministries. And that was all, that was all part of a new initiative called One Million Home. It’s a new movement, a new initiative and a new organization that just launched about two weeks ago, and their goal is to get one million children home in the next 3 years. And so, so encouraging more people to be part of that.
[21:17] JVB: Anne Marie, thank you so much for joining us today. It was such a pleasure to learn more about the work that you and myLIFEspeaks are doing in Neply, Haiti. Please feel free to go online to mylifespeaks.com to check out all of their programs and learn a little bit more about their Family Empowerment Program. Don’t forget to go to livebeyond.org to learn more about what we are doing in Thomazeau, Haiti. You can check out our 2019 and our 2020 mission trip dates. And if you feel like it has been placed on your heart, you can either make a one time or a recurring monthly donation. Thank you so much for listening today, and don’t forget to go out and LiveBeyond!
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