The worst day of Francois Peterson's life was not the day his parents abandoned him at the age of 12 in the hills outside of Port-au-Prince. It wasn't the day he first started sleeping on the steps in front of St. Peter's Church, or even the first time he found himself roaming aimlessly on the city's streets.
Francois' worst day was when he was reduced to begging for money to eat. "It was humiliating," he says.
It's a life Francois shared with an estimated 5,000 others who live on the filthy, sewage-strewn streets of Haiti's impoverished capital, Port-au-Prince.
Today, Francois finds himself just a few miles from the streets where he slept: in the same city, but in another life. A year after he was reduced to begging, a year after the worst day of his life, Francois had the best day of his life. He arrived at Timkatec Children's Center, a house run by Father Joseph Simon, a 79-year-old retired priest who began working with Haitian street children more than a decade ago.
Timkatec is funded by the Friends of Timkatec and Catholic Relief Services. Patrick O'Shea, who lost both his parents when he was a boy, created Friends of Timkatec to raise awareness of the situation facing disadvantaged children in Haiti and to act as a conduit for financial help through its website. The money raised by Friends of Timkatec and CRS goes directly to Father Simon's mission.
CRS has been supporting Timkatec Children's Center's efforts since 1998 by regularly providing food, as well as training for children and staff on topics including children's rights, HIV and health, hygiene and nutrition, and psychosocial support.
In the Beginning
Father Simon left his job as a secondary school teacher and opened Timkatec in 1994. He started slowly, with 40 children. Today, there are 125 children, along with their plants and pets. In June 2006, Father Simon opened Timkatec 2, a training center for boys 14 and older to receive further vocational training.
For Francois, having "a bed, an adult who cares for me and other kids to play with" has made all the difference. But Father Simon's work is much more difficult than simply providing a bed to sleep on. Most of the children arrive at the center illiterate and angry.
"When kids first get here, they can be very upset and aggressive. They're not used to rules or structure," Gaythier Myrleine, a teacher at the school, says. They also can't understand why they have been treated worse than the houseplants and dogs that rich people own.
Essentially, Father Simon had to introduce society to the children; he had to teach them how to live together. First, he bought some houseplants and taught the children how to care for them.
"Now you have a home," Father Simon says, recalling how he introduced the children to their new life. "So take care of your plants. The rich take care of their plants and flowers, and that's why they have a beautiful house."
After a while, he brought in the dogs.
"Before, they threw rocks to agitate the dogs and I wanted to teach them how to take care of them," Father Simon says.
But his biggest challenge was teaching the children how to live with each other.
"After the plants and the dogs, I told them they had to take care of each other and become a family," he says.
For the first months, there were few rules. He introduced them to basic hygiene and to the inside of a classroom, a new sight for most. "There was a big focus on water and brushes back then," he says. He also forced the children to sit for a half hour at a time to build their attention spans. He preached patience and compassion to his staff of teachers, who were still adjusting to working with street children.
Teaching New Skills
Slowly, more rules were introduced. Father Simon had the school's curriculum translated into Creole, one of Haiti's two official languages and the one spoken by the bulk of population.
He started busing the children to vocational training centers around town, but that became expensive and cumbersome.
So last year, with funds raised by Friends of Timkatec and CRS, Father Simon bought a second house and turned it into the Timkatec trade center, which offers training in tailoring, home electricity, plumbing, masonry, metalwork and shoe cobbling. About 200 children are currently enrolled at the center. The students are pulled from those of age from the Timkatec Children's Center as well as other street children living in the surrounding area.
All told, more than 1,000 children have come through the Timkatec school over the years. A good number of prior students are now part of the labor force, working in garages and carpentry shops around town, says Father Simon.
"The past 12 years have been the toughest in the country. If Timkatec didn't exist to keep these children off the streets, the rate of criminality would be a lot higher," Father Simon says. "But the parents can't pay and we're here fighting on our own with [the help of] organizations like Catholic Relief Services."
Still, Father Simon's face beams when he talks about the hundreds of children who have come through his door through the years.
"A lot of these kids are now more open and more apt to learn and do something else."
For his part, Francois will start vocational training next year.
"I want to become a top-notch mechanic," he says.
Robyn Fieser is CRS' regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean based in Guatemala.