O – L – T – C – H

Founding a Haitian orphanage on a prayer and a shoestring: Greg, Nicolas, and Jasmine Martinson

Founding a Haitian orphanage on a prayer and a shoestring: Greg, Nicolas, and Jasmine Martinson

It stands for Operation Love The Children of Haiti.

It’s the name of the orphanage that Greg and Jasmine Martinson founded on a prayer and a shoestring in 2006, and have hung onto – through unimaginable hardships, an ineffectual government, and a catastrophic earthquake with aftershocks – to sustain ever since.

Jasmine visited Oneonta for two brief days last week to meet with members of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship. The church has supported the orphanage by giving money and by sending workers on three occasions this year to help with teaching, cleaning up, and building.

“That reminds me,” Jasmine tells Amy Smith of Cornerstone. “When you come next time, I need your group to help dig trenches around the showers and latrines. Water is standing in puddles, and we’ve got to get it away from there.”

Maybe that will happen, maybe not. The Cornerstone group was planning a trip to Haiti late this month, but as of now, all air travel into Haiti has been closed because of rioting in Port Au Prince. Who knows when it will be safe to go there again?

With a staff of about a dozen workers, including the Martinsons and their 14- year-old son Nicolas, the orphanage currently “houses” 42 children, all under 7 years old. Several are infants. Almost all came to the orphanage severely malnourished, some on the verge of death. Some are refugees from a form of slavery common in Haiti in which children are given to other families as servants – and treated as slaves – because their own families can’t feed and clothe them.

‘We live in the field’

The orphanage began with a house as home base – a house that had to first be cleared of a herd of goats, with all that entails. The house lasted until the earthquake. but it is no longer safe for habitation.

So what does the orphanage use for shelter now? “We live in the field,” says Jasmine. “It’s like when you go camping here,” said Jasmine. “But here you can go home. We have nowhere else to go. It’s like being in permanent camping status.”

After the earthquake, a Canadian army unit established a tent camp for the orphanage. For several months they lived in tents. During that time, she said, she and her husband managed to build four 16 x 24 bunk-like buildings they use as sleeping, eating, and classroom areas. But it’s still a lot like camping.

A typical day begins at 6 a.m. with preparations for breakfast. Not as simple as you might think if you’re fixing for over 50 people. And cooking on homemade charcoal stoves, made with rebar and a crude grill surface. Like the lady said – it’s a lot like camping.

“We eat a lot of rice,” Jasmine says. “I try to cook beans with it a lot of the time, and we do have meat, but not a lot.”

Kids get up at 7, wash up, have a prayer time, and eat breakfast. As they finish, Jasmine goes into the classroom area and gets ready for school. She teaches pre-kindergarten (for the kids under three), kindergarten, and grades 1-3. Also a seventh grader, and Nicholas, who is a home-schooled ninth grader – but that’s not until after lunch.

Teaching on the fly

The elementary curriculum includes three languages: French (the official language of Haiti), Creole, the common language of the people, and English – along with the other common subjects. That includes algebra, calculus, and the higher disciplines taught in high school. Is Jasmine trained as a teacher? No. Then how does she do it?

“Well, if it’s something I don’t already know, I get the books and learn it myself, then I teach it to the others,” she says with no evident sense of irony. Nothing really to it.

After morning classes, there’s homework to assign for the afternoon, lunch to plan and cook, and classroom instruction for seventh and ninth grades in the afternoon. Late afternoon is triage time – everyone gets checked for cuts, bumps, sickness and any other medical needs – then everyone bathes – in homemade, gravity operated showers – one for girls, one for boys, one for adults.

What about the cholera epidemic? They’ve had a case. The child recovered. The orphanage is still adjusting. They had to completely wash down everything. All dishes are sterilized. All food is washed with anti-bacterial soap. They completely converted the water supply from the cistern water they were using to bottled water for the foreseeable future.

“Cholera is bad, but it’s only deadly when it’s not treated immediately,” Jasmine says. “As soon as I heard we had cholera in Haiti, I got on line and learned everything there is to know about it. You have to hydrate the person thoroughly and immediately and keep them hydrated until the body’s defenses shake off the disease. People die from dehydration in a matter of a few hours. That’s what makes it deadly. But it’s not invariably fatal. And it’s not as contagious as people think. It’s mainly spread through the water supply, so you’ve got to protect your water supply, and of course your food supply, too.

Will the day never end?

Dinner time presses near as the afternoon wanes. Everyone is fed by 6:30. Praise and worship time is from 6:30 to 7. Then the younger children go to bed. The two older kids get to stay up until 9 and play video games and do other somewhat normal activities for their age.

Jasmine does her administrative work during this period, planning the next day, planning for trips to the market – no picnic in Haiti, with a 40-mile round trip to the big market being a half-day affair, complete with roadblocks and other interruptions. She also does her internet correspondence during this time, and husband and wife get the day’s first and only waking hour or two together.

For those wondering what Greg has done all day, he keeps the generators and automobiles running, repairs everything that breaks down and builds new facilities needed.

Jasmine’s major concerns are the chronic problems of funding and the permanent camping status. “Imagine going camping and never being able to go home and get some real rest,” she said.

She said about half the orphanage’s funding comes from individual churches, about a dozen around the country, like Cornerstone in Oneonta. They pick up some contributions from individuals, and precious few from businesses.

It costs about $5000 a month to run the operation, much of which is for food. The orphanage manages on a budget of $2.38 per day per person for meals.

“The worst part about the money is the unpredictability,” Jasmine says. “Some months we take in enough to cover costs, but some months, our income may drop drastically to $1000 or even less. That’s when we just say, ‘Well, God, here we are’ – to survive.

“People who knew us when we left to found an orphanage in Haiti knew we had no money, no training, no major funding support. They expected us to fail and come home in a matter of months. But we’re still here – what? – going on five years later. But there’s never any relief from the needs. You wake up some mornings thinking, ‘How much longer can we go on?”

How much longer, indeed?

They must plan on hanging on. Projects for the future include the following:

•expand to at least 10 acres from the current two

•build a cafeteria

•build classrooms and play area building

•build an infirmary, with an apartment above for the Martinsons

•build a church or chapel

•plant a garden to grow vegetables to reduce dependence on the local market

•acquire and build pens for livestock; currently they have goats and a duck; working on a flock of chickens.

How to help

How can anyone help? Go online to www.operationlovethechildrenofhaiti
Read everything there and satisfy yourself as to the organization’s bona fides. You can make an on-line donation, sponsor a child, make a monthly gift. It tells you how.

If you would like to provide supplies, (or donate diesel generators, professional grade cookstoves, or other major hardware) check with Amy Smith through Cornerstone Christian Fellowhip, 625- 3883. She can help you identify what’s needed and how to get it there. She might even take it herself.

If you would like to lead a mission group to the orphanage to help dig trenches, build buildings, help with the children, or perform other tasks involving unremitting labor, Jasmine says they will welcome you. But she can’t pay all your expenses while you’re there. You’ll have to pay your own way, plus $40 a day per person will cover your expenses while there. But they can use your help and will be forever grateful if you’re game for the program. E-mail Jasmine at
if your group has a serious hankering for a hard-working but possibly life-changing experience.