The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 19, 2013

Rosaline's eyes

By Taylor Allis
Special to The Free Press

---- — In February, Wells native Taylor Allis made a life-changing decision.

After taking a semester off from her studies at Augustana College to make good on her intent to teach abroad, Allis accepted an invitation to travel to Haiti with a team from Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Preventive Health Strategies that included co-founders Dr. Annette Bosworth and her husband, Chad Haber. Among other efforts that include freeing slaves and establishing water purification and food distribution systems, PHS is working toward establishing an English immersion school in Haiti.

After spending two months in the impoverished island country still reeling from the effects of a massive and devastating earthquake in 2010, Allis has pledged to return to the school as a founding teacher when she graduates.

What follows is a first-hand account of Allis' experience in Haiti and the heartwarming bond she developed with a little girl who never seemed to smile:

During my first week in Haiti, I met a precious little girl named Rosaline.

We rode into this little village and about 50 vibrant kids chased after our tap-tap and started cheering, "The whities are here, the whities are here!" It was quite the scene that unfolded. We sat in the back of this pick-up truck and witnessed how riled up people could get just by our presence. I was laughing with them, smiling at them, and waving to them. Their happiness and joy were infectious. But then I saw these unforgettable pair of eyes staring at me. Rosaline's eyes. They were the biggest, saddest, eyes I've ever seen. I was hoping that she'd snap out of this glare she was giving me, and soon be as happy as the rest of the children. This was not the case.

When we got out of the tap-tap, we made our way into a building where school is held. This shack is also where the orphan children have to sleep, using coconut leaves as beds. While we were talking to the people in charge of this makeshift school, I looked over to the corner of the room. There was Rosaline sitting all alone. She was perched on a bench, just gazing at us with those cold eyes again that rarely blink. While all the other kids were outside playing and laughing, Rosaline secluded herself and just sat and stared. I couldn't help myself, so I went over and held her.

I painted her nails and made silly faces at her. I tickled her, sang her songs, bounced her on my knee, gave her toys -- anything and everything to make her smile and get that incredibly heartbreaking expression off of her face. I’m normally great with kids, so I didn’t understand why she wasn’t responding to me. I just wanted to make her happy and then go out and play with her and the rest of the kids. But Rosaline isn't like the rest of the kids.

I got back to our hotel that evening and couldn’t get the image of Rosaline’s expressionless face out of my mind. I had nightmares thinking about Rosaline and wondering just what was so “off” about her. Had she suffered abuse? Did she have some form of mental disability? Was she just not feeling well that day?

After learning and doing a little research about worms and parasites in Haiti, everything clicked. Rosaline is the prime example. She has a swollen belly, yet her arms and legs are very thin. She looks and acts as if she's had the life sucked out of her. From the little food Rosaline receives every day, the parasites steal about 20 percent of that food intake. This leaves her malnourished and it also affects her brain. These parasites actually alter the chemistry of the brain, which contributes to slower development and a much lower performance in school.

How do children like Rosaline get these parasites in their system?

Just imagine the dust after the earthquake three years ago. Michael, our Haitian translator, described to me how the entire city of Port-au-Prince was fully covered in a cloud. The parasite spores live in the dust and in the unclean drinking water. There was no way to protect yourself from ingesting them once the earthquake hit. Now, the spores from the parasites are still everywhere. If you already have a weak immune system, just sitting in the dirt is a way they can be ingested. It's still hard to prevent even though the Haitian people know they are supposed to wash their hands, keep their fingernails clean, wash their food, fully cook their meat, and avoid the dirt. That would be easy to do in a developed country. But not everyone has access to clean, running water, and I can tell you firsthand that dirt isn't always the easiest thing to avoid in Haiti.

We went back to the school a few days later and about 50 children again warmly welcomed us. Rosaline was there wearing not only the exact same outfit, but the exact same expression on her face. I immediately gravitated toward her and just held her and held her. I could sense all the other school children getting irritated that I was putting all my attention into this little girl and not as much into them. Another thing I sensed was that Rosaline remembered me.

Last time I held her, I could tell she was scared that some strange white girl was forcing a pink hue onto her nails and toys in her face. But this time, she held onto me. I could seriously hold this child for an entire day if that allowed. I tried again with every nurturing bone in my body to make Rosaline’s expression change, but I soon discovered that I had to throw in the towel. Without fail, she just stared back at me with those big, sad, glossy eyes. Her teachers told me that is the way she’s always been. To get some shade, I went and sat back down in the tap-tap with her on my lap. It was then that Michael starting telling us more about her story.

Both of Rosaline’s parents died in the earthquake and she was taken in by her aunt soon after. Her aunt somehow contacted the pastor in her village and knew that he could provide better care for her. Therefore, Rosaline is technically an orphan. She lives with the pastor, whom the kids all call Grandpa. Grandpa also cares for three other orphans, aside from his own kids, and runs the school on his land. By looking at Rosaline's size, we can probably guess that she was born right before the earthquake. We may never know what trauma this little girl endured, but we can make some assumptions based on what she's like today.

Then I was asked what I want to do for this little girl I've become so attached to. I was so overwhelmed and wanted to do so much. The only thing my emotions let me do was cry my eyes out. I couldn't even think rationally as Rosaline sat there on my lap.

After finding out that she wouldn’t be eating that day because their food delivery wouldn't come until next week, my first answer to the question was, "I'd like to feed her." I also said I wanted to give her the medications that would rid her of the parasites. But will that really make her into the bubbly little girl that I wish she could be? Will that cure everything and make her life perfect from here on out? Probably not.

What about a quality education to suit her special needs? What about a variety of nutritious meals every day instead of what she’s eating now? What about giving the whole community some good and consistent medical care? What about a safe and secure place to sleep each night? Grandpa wishes to build a dormitory to house about 100 boys and girls on his land. With some good shelter, we'd not only be helping Rosaline, but we'd be impacting the lives of numerous kids. I felt so naive thinking that a meal and a dose of medication would be of much help in the long run.

I felt incredibly overwhelmed that I was only a 21-year old girl that can’t just magically solve all the problems of the world. As Rosaline fell asleep on my lap, the tears just persisted to stream down my face. But then the question remained, what can I do to help? Long-term goals would be funding a dormitory for Grandpa’s kids, giving her an awesome education, guaranteeing her quality food each day, and building a clinic nearby (all things we’re working on). But what immediate impact could I make?

I found out that the medication that rids worms from somebody’s system for six months is only about $10! It seems like a no-brainer to just treat your children for a whole year with a $20 bill. But there are three main problems. One, the average Haitian makes $2 a day. Two, many people don’t even know about parasites. And three, you usually need a doctor’s prescription to access this medication. It angers me that this simple $10 chewable tablet is so hard for the Haitian population to obtain. And not only Rosaline needed this medication, but almost every single child I saw in Haiti needed it, too. That is what is so devastating.

I found my answer in the form of telling Rosaline’s story and asking for support. I started a fundraiser called ‘Parasites Suck’ at Crowdrise.com. It was our plan that a couple of college friends of mine and Dr. Annette Bosworth, co-founder of Preventive Health Strategies, would come down to Haiti on a spring break medical mission trip. If I could raise money for these parasite medications before the trip, Dr. Bosworth could distribute them to as many people as possible at our daily clinics. So my friends and I joined together and raised over $2,000 from online and personal donations. I was touched by the hearts of those who cared as much as I did and directly contributed to bringing life back into a child. We treated over 400 children for parasites that week, and my ‘Parasites Suck’ fundraiser paid for almost half of those medications. You can donate to this fundraiser at any time to buy more medications to treat even more children.

One of the coolest moments of my life thus far was witnessing Rosaline receive this medication. I was overcome with so many beautiful emotions. It was life changing to see my goal actually be put into action. We now visit Rosaline and her community quite often, and I fall more in love with all of the kids each time. My spirit soars knowing that every time we visit for the next six months, parasites will no longer be a problem for everyone at that school. They can focus more, they can learn better, they can feel healthier, and they can maintain nourishment.

The second most powerful moment in my life was the day I first witnessed Rosaline smile. She was actually out playing, skipping around, and finally just being a kid. I was paralyzed by how beautiful this scene was. I used to doubt that I could really make a big difference in someone’s life. But after seeing Rosaline’s eyes have something other than tears in them for the first time, I’ve realized that a 21-year-old girl can indeed make a difference.

In this moment, my world stopped for a bit while staring at one of my favorite little girls as she once stared at me.

On the web -- For more information about Taylor Alli's fundraising effort to eliminate parasites in Haiti, visit: http://www.crowdrise.com/ParasitesSuck/fundraiser/taylorallis. -- For more information about Allis and her mission to Haiti, visit: http://adventuretohaiti.blogspot.com