YMCA New York Offers Cabins of Hope for Haitian Kids

In the days and weeks following the catastrophe that rocked Haiti to its core - taking down entire villages, robbing families of loved ones and changing lives forever - individuals and organizations, small and large, set out to lend a hand in whatever way possible. The YMCA of Greater New York was no exception.

"We thought, what can we do that's really unique? How can we help? We're a helping organization," Wheaton Griffon, Executive DirectorYMCA New York tells Tonic. "So we thought, this camp experience is unique. Let's give that. So we reached out to the Haiti YMCA and they were very receptive to our idea."

The idea? To change the world one child at a time through Cabins of Hope, a scholarship program providing ten children from Haiti YMCA with a summer camp experience at the 1,100 acre safe haven that is the New York YMCA Camp in Huguenot, N.Y.

Thanks to the generous support of individuals and companies like UnitedHealth Group what was a good idea, has now become a reality. "People from around the world were moved by the resilience of the Haitian people. Despite unimaginable destruction and devastation they continue to persevere." said Bill Golden, CEO, UnitedHealthcare of New York. "We are proud to support a program that aspires to help some of the children of Haiti enjoy a few weeks at camp. Providing what we hope to be a stress-free vacation for these remarkable children is part of our deep commitment to help people live healthier lives."

A Special Place

Tonic had the pleasure of spending the day with five of the Haitian campers shortly after their arrival in upstate New York.

As we ride up from the camp base in the Silver Streak, a souped-up utility vehicle, Griffon gives us the lay of the land, talking excitedly about the new arrivals, the camp's history and a slew of statistics - 85-90 percent of the kids are from the five boroughs of New York City, and the rest hail from 30 countries and 17 states. We whiz past the YMCA values signs, each in its own bright color: Caring, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility.

"Our CEO has a very unique vision for this camp. To have a world class camp, as good as any camp in the whole world, and have 70 percent or a large majority of kids receiving some kind of financial assistance. That's what you have here. Most people associate financial assistance with some troubles and 'this is gonna be hard,' but not here."

As we continue winding up the hill, we're met with enthusiastic waves and shout-outs, and when we stop, packs of campers rush the Silver Streak, approaching Griffon with celebrity-grade fanfare. (It is well-deserved. You'll be hard-pressed to find a happier or more dedicated camp director.) Whatever the YMCA is doing, this bully-free zone is working. "There used to be a lot of hazing at camps. It was not good to be the lowest kid in the cabin, and they made sure everybody knew who it was," says Griffon. He goes on to explain that upon the arriving at camp, the kids are told that this is a special place. And, after the expected eye-rolling, they all come to see that indeed, there is no need for bullying here. Of course, there are the handful of kids each summer who can't seem to do it. "We know how to look for it and find it, and the subtleties of one-upmanship." says Griffon. "But you can do it gently and you can do it with care. And then once you get the kids to be empathetic, it stops."

The Kids Are All Right

Griffon turns us over to the good care of Douglas Ridley, the camp's communications coordinator. The YMCA veteran and town local brings us to a classroom, where five kids from Haiti and a few other international campers are studying English. We're first meet Alberte, the kids' chaperone and translator from Haiti YMCA before she introduces us to Sandiany, Shaina, Gaëlle, Vanessa and Mick. As expected, they're all a bit shy, but seem eager to participate in the story.

We make our way into the dining hall, and it's exactly the kind of scene you might expect. Outside kids wait anxiously, listening to counselors make announcements such as, which cabins were ranked cleanest and messiest of the day, and quirky nutritional information about the food awaiting them. Inside, the kids on duty for the day buzz about setting up benches, filling pitchers of water (long gone are the days of bug juice!) and laying out silverware. And, despite any language barrier or second-day-on-campus jitters, the Haitian campers already look surprisingly at ease in their new environment.

After lunch and a brief siesta, everyone is off to their first of several afternoon activities, and we decide to tag along with Shaina and Gaëlle. Although the kids are generally separated from one another to maximize opportunities to make new friends, the girls are in the same archery group. Shaina, the more talkative of the two, says that while she's here, she'd like to learn to swim, make crafts and improve her English, which according to some of her cabin mates, is already quite good. Gaëlle tells me she wants to be a doctor.

The other campers who've had a chance to meet Shaina and Gaëlle are all too eager to chime in about how much they like their new friends. In addition to enjoying "a new experience being with someone else from a different country" and having fun learning that "French and Creole are two different languages but very similar," the kids overwhelmingly express a sense of gratitude for the experience of helping the people of Haiti, if only a few. Several of the girls agreed that "it helps you remember that Haiti is a country."

Sandiany, Mick and Vanessa each tell me they're happy to be here and feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to come to the New York YMCA. Sandiany says that ever since the earthquake, she gets headaches and stomachaches, but since arriving in New York she hasn't had any. This comes as a great relief for the 12-year-old. And while there are surely moments of lightheartedness and joy, there are also the unmistakable distant stares and forever-changed eyes. Mick (pronounced Mike) says very little. Perhaps not strange for an 8-year-old boy, but his innocent face bears a certain sense of gravity. How could it not? He shows off a necklace he made a day earlier. He plans to make more and bring them home for his friends.

The same goes for Gaëlle whose thoughts seemingly, and understandably, wander as Shaina talks about how difficult life in Haiti has been and how much help they need to rebuild. When the earthquake hit, Gaëlle's mother was out buying groceries. The store collapsed and she didn't survive. The tall and lanky Vanessa, who lost five of her close friends, says newspaper is her favorite activity so far. She wants to take portraits of everyone she sees and wants to tell stories about her country.

If Sandiany, Shaina, Gaëlle, Vanessa and Mick are as happy and at ease as they appear to be during their first week in a new place, one can only hope that a month's time will bring long-lasting, transformative effects. The Cabins of Hope experience intends to offer the kids the summer of a lifetime and a much needed break from the harsh realities that await them back home. But it also aims to rejuvenate and connect them with life-changing skills that they can bring home to share with their friends in the efforts to rebuild Haiti's YMCA. The center was completely destroyed on January 12.

The road ahead for Haiti remains long, and recovery promises to be slow, although not impossible. Cabins of Hope isn't a feel-good summertime story, it's a model for affecting big change one small person at a time.

Photos by Tara Germinsky.