An American woman helps keep Haitian families together

Published: Wednesday, July 25 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Through the Apparent Project, Shelley Clay has created jobs for 220 Haitians. In a tent city not far from her home she inspects the work of one of her artisans.

E.W. Ristau

Shelley Clay was walking home one day in the winter of 2009 when she saw a woman sitting in front of her house. The woman had a broad nose, high cheekbones and an air of defeat. Wearing a bright red shirt and a ratty skirt frayed at the ends, she sat barefoot in the dirt, her back resting against the concrete wall that surrounded Clay's house on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince.

It was the sort of scene that would have never played out in Clay's native Washington State. But in Haiti, her new adopted home, it hardly surprised her.

The woman called herself Malkaline, and in her native Creole explained that her husband had left her and her four children. She had come to Port-Au-Prince looking for work, leaving her three oldest kids behind in the countryside with a relative, but after two months of searching she had found nothing and was so hungry she could no longer feed her baby, who she was holding in her arms.

"Is this an orphanage?" Malkaline asked. When Clay told her it was not, Malkaline asked if she could help her find one for her nursing baby, who was covered in scabies.

Instead, Clay proposed something else: Malkaline could come work for her, earning enough to feed herself and her baby. There was just one catch. Malkaline had to go home and get her three other kids first.

"I'm going to help you out," Clay said. "But only if you're all under one roof."

Over the past two years, Clay has helped 220 people like Malkaline through an innovative nonprofit program called the Apparent Project, which she runs out of her house in Port-Au-Prince. The goal of the program is simple: to keep poor families together by providing them work.

"When we started this we wanted to figure out a way to harness the natural resources Haiti has," Clay said, "and one thing Haiti has a lot of is garbage."

Intrigued by the idea of turning something worthless into an object of value, Clay began employing local artisans to transform trash into jewelry.

When Clay met Malkaline she had four employees and wasn't sure if the project would work. Today, the jewelry her artisans make sells through home Tupperware-style parties and partnerships with stores like the GAP and designers like Donna Karan. Last December, the Apparent Project sold $100,000 worth of jewelry, helping Clay's artisans move from what most Americans would consider extreme poverty in to what Haitians think of as the middle class.

"Haiti has a lot of problems, but we were looking for something that could make a difference," Clay said. "In an orphanage or feeding program or food aid you can never stop giving, it will never correct itself. You can give and give and give and it will never fix it. But if you can give jobs then you can fix the problem."

When Clay first came to Haiti in 2008 she knew little about the country or the issues surrounding international adoption. She and her husband, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, had struggled with fertility issues for years and had decided that if they were going to add to their family, they may as well adopt from a country where thousands of children are abandoned each year.

At the time, there were about 380,000 orphaned children in Haiti. As Clay began visiting orphanages with her husband she was surprised by what she found. In many cases, the parents of the orphans hadn't abandoned them — some came to visit their children. There were so many orphanages in Haiti — Clay counted 20 on one block alone — that they had become a viable day-care option for parents living in poverty. "At that point I realized that a lot of the people who had come to Haiti looking to make a difference had actually created a problem," Clay said. "They had built these orphanages out of a really good impulse, but what was it accomplishing in the long run?"

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