An American woman helps keep Haitian families together

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

Because Haiti requires a two year wait for international adoptions, Clay decided to move in to the orphanage where her future son lived. Over time, her perspective on international adoption began to change. She talked to young boys who recalled stealing eggs from their equally poor neighbors because they were so hungry. She talked to single mothers who wanted work but couldn't find jobs. One day she approached the director of the orphanage.

"The moms who drop off their kids here, would they keep them if they could? Or do they simply want to be free of them?"

The director didn't hesitate. "Of course they'd keep them if they could," she answered.

And that's where the idea for the Apparent Project began to take root. Clay's husband had recently inherited the fortune of his father, who had died in a plane crash. What if they could build something in Haiti with that money, something that would give life? A deeply religious woman, Clay saw powerful symbolism of redemption and rebirth in this possibility. "I could spend another $20,000 to adopt another one of these kids, but I started to wonder about the mothers that dropped them off. What if I could find a way to keep families together instead?"

With her husband's inheritance money they bought a house in Port-Au-Prince, began collecting garbage from the streets, and opened the Apparent Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, for business.

On a recent spring day, Clay stood in the lobby of the Apparent Project, chatting with a woman from Mississippi who, like Clay, had come to Haiti to adopt. The woman came every six months to visit the boy she hoped to adopt, and this morning she had brought him along to shop for souvenirs before she returned to the United States.

Clay said these types of visits to her store are common. American church groups, some of which are building orphanages or volunteering in them, stop by as well.

"I'm not anti-adoption, or anti-international adoption at all," Clay said. "I adopted my son here. But I think it should be a last option, after everything is done to keep mothers with their children."

Her Haitian son, Zebedee, was sitting on the couch in Clay's house, which is right next to the building where her artisans work, watching TV with his brother, one of Clay's two biological children. Shortly after starting the Apparent Project, Clay and her husband decided to move to Haiti permanently and say they have no plans to go back. Clay's husband is working on a documentary about restaveks, the Creole term used to describe the estimated 300,000 children in Haiti who live in some form of slavery. Abandoned by their parents, most work as indentured servants for family members, but some end up in the sex trade.

When the Mississippi family left, Clay went upstairs to check in with a group of artisans assembling necklaces for a bulk order placed by the designer Donna Karan. For this type of work, Clay pays three times the Haitian minimum wage, and when jewelry sells through home parties, the artisans get a cut of their necklaces and bracelets that sell. She feeds her workers every day and provides portable cribs for those who want to bring their children to work with them.

"It's hard to measure the difference we're making here, but you see it in the faces of the mothers who work here, you see it in the faces of their children. They're healthy," Clay said. "They're going to school."

For Clay, no one illustrates the power of the Apparent Project more than Malkaline, the woman she found on her doorstep three years ago. Today, Malkaline is Clay's top producing artisan. Not only are all of her children with her under the same roof, Malkaline has bought her own house and is sending all four of her children to private schools, a rarity for Haiti's poor. She also plans to marry an artisan she met at the Apparent Project, which Clay says is a sign of wealth and status in Haiti because the poor can't afford weddings.

"Malkaline will tell me, 'It's all because of you that I have this, and I say, 'No, I didn't sit down and work that hard.' She's the one that did it and it makes me incredibly proud of her," Clay said. "When you give people the opportunity to rise up and be who they're supposed to be, it's something you can never give, it has to come from themselves. There's a dignity that comes over people when that happens. They just glow. Their clothes look better. Their skin looks different. They begin taking care of themselves and it's just priceless."

Email: jhyde@desnews.com

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