Published February 15. 2010 4:00AM
Port-au-Prince, Haiti — In January 1982, one of Paula Thybulle's three sons was killed in a drive-by shooting. In September of that year, he came to Thybulle in a dream and told her to stop crying: She would have more children.
It was ridiculous, she says now, because Thybulle was too old and she was done raising children. Her three sons were all grown, all in their 20s. She forgot about the dream until her brother contacted her that November.
Come back to Haiti, he urged Thybulle, who had been living on Long Island for years. Come back and help me with these children.
Thybulle's brother had a government job in a large children's detention center in Carrefour (pronounced Car-FOO), a place where young beggars were tossed and forgotten. Thybulle resisted. Her brother kept asking, and even Thybulle's mother suggested she try it.
Thybulle relented, but there was a caveat: She would travel to Haiti on vacation, not for any permanency.
She came back Dec. 13, 1982.
Thybulle is still here. Hers is a story of a life reinvented, or maybe regained. The detention center, though it was managed poorly and left to rot by the Haitian government, led to something else.
Ten years after returning to Haiti, Thybulle convinced the government to let her take some of the girls with her to a different facility, to lease her own building in Port-au-Prince and start her own orphanage.
Today, she runs a center that had 65 girls until the earthquake but now has only 60, after three girls who had been visiting an aunt were killed, and two more returned to family.
Many children in Haitian orphanages have families who leave them there, permanently or temporarily, because the families don't have the means to care for them.
"I prayed," Thybulle says, "and (asked) God to guide me and tell me what to do. And finally I decided to stay. But in a way, it helped me because I didn't have time to be depressed anymore. I had so much to do. So my life was fulfilled and I was happy to be taking care of all those kids. And this is how I get by."
The orphanage, Foyer des Filles de Dieu — or Home for the Girls of God — houses girls from 3 years old to 18. They sleep there, go to school and do their chores. Thybulle's goal is for the girls to be self-sufficient when they are older.
Girls sleep in courtyard
When the earthquake hit, Thybulle had just arrived at her home in nearby Kenscoff. She couldn't get back to the orphanage until early the next morning, but the staff told her what had happened.
"When this happened, they all ran out — adults, kids, yelling, crying," Thybulle says, "and then they don't come back inside."
The orphanage's dormitory was damaged and is unsafe, as is most of the rest of the building. The girls have been sleeping on their mattresses in the gated courtyard of a neighbor who is a policeman. In the immediate days after the quake, the girls slept in the road in front of the orphanage.
A few weeks after the earthquake, Thybulle conducts business outside. Most of the girls are playing or hanging out in a small cement plaza between the orphanage's damaged offices and the dormitories. A few backpacks, some clothing and pillows are in a nearby alleyway, stacked on a folding table and chairs.
The older girls sit on a picnic table, some doing each other's hair. The younger girls play in pairs or small groups until Emily Smack, executive director of the Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich, shows up. The smallest girls circle around as Smack squats down to eye level.
Small black hands touch her white face, stroke Smack's hair, examine the name tag she wears around her neck.
The girls and Smack giggle.
"Shall we dance?" Smack asks, and stands up. They grab hands and start a ring-around-the-rosie type of song and game. Smack stays for a few songs before bowing out and getting back to business.
Thybulle is in the driveway.
A half-dozen or so plastic chairs, arranged in a circle, sit in the driveway, inside the high gate and past the guard and just outside the concrete offices, still intact but damaged.
Every day, all day, it seems, Thybulle is in meetings here, in the driveway. She sits, arms crossed, listening as a team of doctors from Belgium comes by to talk about setting up for surgeries in the road out in front of the orphanage; another day she tells a man from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the damage.
Kyn Tolson, the development director of the Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich, asks Thybulle what organizations have come to talk to her.
"Everybody," Thybulle replies, "and nobody."
Rainy season coming
Very little ruffles Thybulle, who lost a second son years ago, yet this, an orphanage too damaged to sleep in, and 60 girls who are scared and acting out by being disobedient, is causing her to lose sleep.
She needs money for salaries and rent, and the ministries helps with that. She needs work for her staff. She needs tents for the girls.
And of the rainy season, due to begin any day, she says: "Don't even talk about it."
The girls are traumatized, Thybulle says. The little ones, especially, ask if it is going to happen again, if they are going to die.
How does she answer them?
"No," she says she tells them. "I say no."
She tells them to pray.
As for resuming classes, Thybulle says it is too soon.
"The teachers are scared," she says. "The kids, I don't think they can really focus on anything. … And it's going to be really traumatic: if they hear a noise, they all will try to run out."