Morgan Wienberg now lives in Haiti full-time, working to give Haitian children the support for a good education and a good home. Photo courtesy of Morgan Wienberg

Haitian earthquake a life-changer for Whitehorse girl

By 
  • November 27, 2015

TORONTO - In 2010, Morgan Wienberg’s future was set: she was headed to McGill University to study nursing to specialize in pediatric surgery because she knew she wanted to work with children. But her plans were derailed when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti.

The young Whitehorse-native said she will never forget how she felt watching the devastation on the news, with thousands dead and left homeless, and knew she wanted to help. So five months later, upon graduating high school, the then 18-year-old Wienberg packed her bags and headed for Port-au-Prince, the poverty-ravaged Caribbean nation’s capital city. She hasn’t stopped helping.

“I don’t regret for a second that I didn’t (go back to school),” said Wienberg. “I think I’ve learned so much and had so much personal growth through the experiences that I’ve had.”

For two-and-a-half months, she worked with non-profit Mission of Hope Haiti, taking care of injured earthquake victims in Source Matelas, a rural village about 30 minutes north of Port-au-Prince.

It was through her volunteering she was introduced to the local orphanage Orphelinat Bon Samaritain, and she couldn’t believe what she saw.

“I had visited other orphanages. I visited tent villages where all of the people living in tents were amputees, but the children in the orphanage were just in the worst conditions of any human being I had ever seen,” said Wienberg.

The orphanage housed about 75 children ranging in age from under one year old to 14. There was no staff. The old Haitian woman that ran the orphanage neglected and abused the children.

“They almost had no identity,” said Wienberg. “They were just called ‘little boy’ or ‘little girl.’ What really frightened me was if one of these kids disappeared, no one would even notice and there were days where I would go and visit the orphanage and kids were missing and there was no explanation and there was nothing being done about it.”

When September rolled around, Wienberg returned to Canada. But she couldn’t shake the memory of the children at the orphanage. After witnessing the suffering and the poverty, she knew she couldn’t just go back to her old life.

Wienberg decided to defer her studies and worked to raise money to support the orphanage. She recruited friends and family to spread the word. She got in contact with a fellow volunteer, Sarah Wilson, who was following her fundraising efforts. Together they founded Little Footprints Big Steps (LFBS) in 2011. Initial donations came from Wienberg’s tuition money and savings — about $17,000.

“I really felt that all the plans I had for myself could wait but these kids really couldn’t wait,” she said.

After six months of working and fundraising, she went back to Source Matelas on her 19th birthday. This time, she was on her own. She contacted the Haitian woman that ran the orphanage and offered to volunteer for free for five-and-a-half months. The woman agreed.

Meanwhile, Wilson stayed in Canada to work on turning LFBS into a formal non-profit organization and support Wienberg’s trip with more fundraising. Together, they were going to get those children out of that orphanage.

Wienberg played with the children and took care of them. It took a while for her to gain their trust.

“They were starving. They would be fed one meal of rice per day,” said Wienberg. “I would walk in and there would be a three-year-old lying in his own vomit and people would just walk by.”

Wienberg soon discovered that most of the children were not orphans at all.

“Their families were so poor that these parents couldn’t afford to send these children to school, they couldn’t feed them and people like the woman running the orphanage... would prey on these parents,” she said.

“The orphanage was also corrupt. It was being supported by five or six different international organizations that were bringing food and clothing to the children... The owner had been selling these donations to make a profit.”

As she learned more about the children’s families, she began to get in contact with them. She would call each of the children’s parents and explain to them what had been happening. One by one, the parents came to pick their children up.

Four years later, LFBS has expanded to 12 full-time staff in Les Cayes, Haiti, with several local outreach programs and two transitional safe homes. The organization has saved more than 120 children on the street and from corrupt orphanages.

Wienberg is now 23. She has since been invited to share her story across Canada and the United States. She has spoken at TEDx Talks and at the United Nations Youth Assembly in August 2013. She recently finished a tour across the Durham Region to speak to schools and teachers about LFBS.

She is the recipient of a Governor General’s Award and a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award. She is also working on a documentary about her work at LFBS called Morgan’s Kids.

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