‘We can’t forget Haiti’
After volunteering at an orphanage last summer,
Phi Sig collegian Laila Shad has become an advocate for the country and its children
April 17, 2010
IT'S NOT EVERY YOUNG WOMAN who sees something on TV that moves her so completely, and speaks to her heart so strongly, that she picks up the phone and changes her life forever.
Then again, not every young woman is Phi Sigma Sigma sister LAILA SHAD, a 21-year-old health sciences major at Chapman University, where she’s a member of our distinguished Epsilon Delta Chapter.
Laila, who spent nearly a month last summer working at a Haitian orphanage, got the idea after watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel in which an orphanage, called God’s Littlest Angels, was featured. The children she saw on the show bore their way into her heart, then her brain, and made her do something her sisters and parents almost couldn’t believe.
She researched the facility to ensure it was legitimate, made a call, spoke to its managers, and arranged to raise the necessary funds to travel, alone, to Haiti so she could work for one month at that very same orphanage and live there among the people.
Experience of a lifetime
“I can’t explain it. I was compelled. I felt I was supposed to go there,” says Laila – who, for a time, was considering a trip to Paris (she speaks French) to take courses over summer break. But that idea was short-lived, especially after watching the documentary – a rerun she’d seen before but hadn’t actually “felt” until then, as she explains it.
“It just spoke to me. I’m so glad I didn’t wait, that I went. It was the experience of a lifetime,” Laila says. “I’d do it all over again.”
Except the irony is she might not have been able to go at all – or, at least, she wouldn’t have had anything like the same experience – following the earthquake that devastated the nearby capital of Port-au-Prince earlier this year.
As it turns out, the orphanage – atop a hill in Pétion-Ville, about 20 minutes outside the capital city – was fortunate and sustained very little damage. Laila knows this because she’s remained in close contact with those who run it, as well as a tight-knit group of volunteers from around the globe who, like her, have worked there and fell in love with Haiti, its tropical paradise, its generous people and, especially, the children.
“I love my kids, and I miss them,” says Laila, who still keeps in contact with the parents who adopted the eight toddlers she worked with day in and day out – nurturing critical developmental skills to help them learn to speak, interact and play with others, preparing them for adoption. The bonds she made with “her kids” and the Haitians were strong. “I want to go back so much,” she adds.
If this sounds odd, especially in light of the earthquake (never mind relentless media reports about the risks lurking in Haiti for travelers even before the 7.0 quake hit on Jan. 12), it’s because you haven’t been to the country and experienced it for yourself, she explains.
“There’s this perception about Haiti being a place you wouldn’t want to go,” she confesses, saying she was “very nervous” about flying there alone, leaving the capital airport and finding the driver who would take her to the orphanage. She even acknowledges that, after arranging the entire trip, she had second thoughts. (Her parents were concerned, too.)
Those thoughts couldn’t be further from her mind now – especially knowing the dire needs of the population, struggling to deal with the earthquake’s aftermath.
“These are some of the best people on earth,” Laila says. “Here in the United States – in California – everything is so fast-paced. People walk right past you and don’t even acknowledge you exist. But there…. Not one person who would pass you would not say ‘good morning.’ Not one. They love life so much. They’re so grateful for life, and they have so little compared to what we have…. They’re just happy to be alive and healthy and living in the here and now. If right now is a happy moment, it’s perfect. They’re content.
“That’s what it’s like to be in Haiti,” she adds “Who wouldn’t miss that?”
Laila is a natural caretaker (evident to any sister who learns, for example, that she recently served her chapter as Sisterhood Development Chairman). So it’s not surprising that since the earthquake, she has become a campus spokesperson and community advocate for the Haitian people and the orphanage.
This May, she and concerned Chapman students (including her Phi Sig sisters) are organizing and participating in a huge carnival with Haitian performers, food and other activities that will raise funds and awareness for the plight of that country.
“We can’t forget them and go back to our daily lives as if this never happened,” she says. “This isn’t a ‘few months’ thing. It’s not even a ‘few years’ thing. It will take them years and years to recover. Everyone needs to understand we must do all we can to help.”
Laila is understandably passionate about this cause. Returning to the states – so consumer-focused, with vastly more resources than the Haitians could ever dream of having – was very difficult to handle last summer, she says.
“When I got off the plane, it was such a culture shock – how much we have and how much they need – that when I met one of my sisters who was driving me home from the airport, I collapsed and was bawling,” Laila says. “She just held me and said, ‘It’s going to be OK, it’ll be OK.”
It took a week for things to feel more normal – during which time sisters called and visited to ensure she was adjusting. “They were there for me 100%, and with my parents living in northern California, I needed my sisters more than ever before. My advisor, too (CKA Erin Patterson). They were all there. Phi Sig was and is my home away from home.”
Still, in a way, things will never seem “normal” again, Laila admits. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because now she’s more aware, she says. She’s more engaged in her life and in philanthropy. “I have a greater appreciation for my place in the world,” she says. “I know I can make a difference. I want to go back. Someday, I hope to adopt.”
Courage to face the future
Laila says all the children in the orphanage who had been waiting for clearance to be adopted (a process that, sadly, can take 2 years) were sent to join their families shortly after the earthquake as an emergency measure. The orphanage’s operations were temporarily suspended, but have since resumed – especially as more and more parents realize they cannot care for their children following the earthquake.
“The needs are increasing,” Laila says. For now, all donations to the orphanage are going right back out to the community – but it’s unclear what will happen in the future.
“The rainy season is about to hit,” Laila explains. Because of the infrastructure damage, most people are living in tent cities. Some reports indicate there is one toilet for every 1,000 people. “The next big hurdle for Haiti is disease,” she says grimly. But there’s a determination in her voice. She wants to return to help “her kids” and the people – and soon.
Some might call that crazy. But she calls it courage – and says, without her Phi Sig sisters, she might not have it at all.
“My sisters and family were so supportive of me, and that made all the difference. They gave me the confidence to do this – and without them, I’m not sure I could have or would have,” she says.
“I mean, you can always find an excuse not to doing something,” she adds. “You could be doing something else. But if you feel you’re supposed to do it – then do it. You’ll never regret it. Because if you don’t, you may never get that chance. Look at me: If I hadn’t gone before the earthquake, would I think twice about going now? Probably. But I did what my heart told me to do. And it’s changed my life forever.
“So I say, if you get that feeling, you have to follow it through. If you do, you’ll always have your sisters to back you up – no matter where you go in the world. I know that firsthand. Your sisters will never let you down.”
UPDATE: See the new video posted on YouTube about the orphanage,
featuring several shots of Laila with the children.
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