Fergus’ Haiti Mama: Social worker reunites families in Haiti [UPDATED](Fergus Falls Journal) Published 5:45am Monday, February 23, 2015 Updated 7:51am Monday, February 23, 2015
Tausha Pearson was eating lunch last summer with 11 Haitian social work interns after they had finished touring orphanages in Haiti as part of their training, oblivious to how her life was about to change more drastically than it already had in the past few months.“This little boy tapped on my shoulder, pointed at my food and asked me for my food,” said Pearson, a Fergus Falls resident and former Ramsey County social worker.
The boy’s name was Andy, and he would forever change Pearson’s life.
“I gave my food to this little boy and I watched my food take off through this little park,” Pearson said. “I watched 10 boys devouring it with their hands, fighting over rice and beans and chicken like a pack. In about five seconds the food was gone.”
It was in that moment that Pearson knew she needed to do something to help these boys not just have food that day, but receive the care and love absent from their lives.
Thus, Haiti Mama began.
Her journey to that day was both meticulously thought out and spontaneous.
A graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, Pearson was a social worker in Ramsey County focusing on mental health and employment counseling.
“I’m a single mother of two,” Pearson said. “I had the perfect little life and it was great. My kids were in a fancy day care and everything.”
In April 2014, Pearson received a $10,000 tax return, largely in part to her being a single mother of two young boys.
“And into the universe I said, ‘I would do something cool with this money,’” Pearson said. “The second I uttered this out into the universe I literally ended up in Haiti. That is literally all I can tell you. Make whatever you need out of it. The true story is there was a spiritual force that was shoving me to Haiti.”
Even though her decision to move to Haiti was made April 1, April Fools’ Day, it was fully serious.
“I went in blind pretty much,” Pearson said. “I had never been to Haiti.”
To prepare, Pearson studied as much as she could about Haiti’s history, culture and social issues and needs before arriving there only two months later in the beginning of June.
Pearson traveled to Haiti with the intention of working with Haitian mothers and through networking with various organization was connected with a group of 11 young Haitian social work students who needed someone to help them continue their instruction.
“When I got to Haiti I was given on a silver platter 11 social work interns that all speak English and needed internships,” Pearson said. “Thus, Haiti Mama became a thing.”
The name for her organization came as a way of expressing what she was there to do, Pearson said.
“It was the most obvious way to stay focused,” Pearson said.
The students were attending Enstiti Travay Sosyal, a university in Port-au-Prince that teaches the University of Michigan’s curriculum, Pearson said.
The next step in their school was an internship and with her social work experience, it was the perfect situation for Pearson to step in as an instructor.
“We did a month of research and after that month of research we toured 23 orphanages,” Pearson said.
The things Pearson learned about orphanages, run counter to what anyone’s perception of them would be.
Many of the children in Haitian orphanages aren’t actually orphans. They’ve been given up by their families, not because their families don’t want to care for them, but because they aren’t able to, Pearson said.
“We had toured 23 orphanages,” Pearson said. “70 percent of those kids in orphanages had parents and family living in the communities.”
Many parents unable to either feed their children or provide them with an education will give them up to be taken care of by orphanages, a solution which is an anathema to social work methods Pearson has studied and used.
The social work model Pearson had studied and used, Assertive Community Treatment, prescribes a completely different method, which she described as “evidence based.”
“We know through social practice here in the states that it is always better for a child to be with their family,” Pearson said. “It is evidenced based that kinship placements are better for children. It is evidence based that working with a family in the community enables them and empowers them to use their informal support system which is community, friends, family, and coworkers, so when people remain in the community and we support them in the community with their families they rehabilitate using those informal support systems.”
After their visit to the last orphanage, which Pearson described as particularly depressing and discouraging, she purchased a meal for all her students and they went to a park to discuss the issues they had been observing the past few weeks. Pearson was asking her students to think of what they would do differently when Andy tapped her on her shoulder.
Upon seeing a dozen boys devour her meal, Pearson had all of her students give their food and drinks to them. It was then that her experiences as a social worker kicked in.
“What do normal people do in this situation? I’m not quite sure,” Pearson said. “But the social worker started doing intakes. I started asking them intake questions: names, ages, Where do you sleep? How long have you been sleeping on the streets? When is the last time you’ve seen your mom? When is the last time you’ve seen your dad? And I write it all down.”
For the next few hours Pearson and her social work interns fed and talked with the kids.
“I just got their info,” Pearson said. “Every single one of them was sleeping on the streets.”
Pearson knew the situation needed to change.
“So I went back to the park the next day, and I went back to the park for the rest of my life,” Pearson said. “I got them all home.”
The first stage of social work was building relationships with the kids, so Pearson and her interns went to the park each day for several hours.
“We fed them, gave them lots of water to drink and hung out,” Pearson said. “I told every single social worker the object is to get these kids to trust you.”
What Pearson wanted to know next was where the kids were sleeping.
“I asked them where they were sleeping and they kept saying, ‘machine, machine, machine.’ Finally I was like, take me to the machine,” Pearson said. “They take me and they are sleeping under a broken down tap-tap [bus] and dirt and oil and they needed something better. They were sleeping under trucks. They were sleeping under oil. They were sleeping with pigs.”
Finding the children’s families was no easy task, but many of them were able to provide Pearson with a starting point.
“Somebody knew where their aunt lived,” Pearson said. “Somebody knew where their dad lived.
Somebody knew how to get to this place but didn’t have the resources to get there. They didn’t have the $4 it would take for them to get on that bus.”
Some where even out on the streets by choice.
“They are in survival mode,” Pearson said. “They are being fed on the streets. Most of the times these kids end up on the streets because they are looking for food because mom is poor, too.”
Upon finding their families, Pearson made a deal with them. She would provide the same two incentives that orphanages give to children: education and food.
But there was one catch.
“I’ll feed and educate them if you make sure they come home every night,” Pearson told the parents. “Every single person agreed.”
Only the beginning
Reunited the families was only the beginning, not the end of Pearson’s work in Haiti. Her goal wasn’t just to see them come back together, but to enable them to stay together.
Many of the kids had experienced trauma during the years they were living on the streets, including one who had been forced into child slavery after being separated from his family during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“Jacky had been displaced from his mom in the earthquake,” Pearson said. “He escaped child slavery and was living on the streets. We found his mom living in an earthquake tent city still and we moved her out of the tent city and found her a place to live and they are back together for the first time since the earthquake.”The boys often did not have an accurate perception of how old they were. The initial ages they gave to Pearson ended up being two to three years younger than they actually were.
“Once the kids hit the streets, they stopped aging themselves,” Pearson said. “They were like the lost boys. JMac told us he was 9. JMac is 12, but JMac hit the streets permanently when he was 9 and never had a birthday after that.”
Seeing the families reunited was an amazing experience for Pearson.
“I am humbled by how much I love them and they love each other,” Pearson said. “It is true, genuine, beautiful love between these families. I’m humbled that I get to be a part of that.”
All of the dozen boys between the ages of 8 and 16 were able to be reunited with their families, Pearson said.
Each one of the boys was enrolled in school by September 2014, which is where help from the Fergus Falls community came in.
Pearson’s parents moved to Fergus Falls when she was 18, and she has lived in town for different stints during her life.
“We had backpacks that came from Fergus Falls,” Pearson said. “My sister came down with suitcases of stuff for the boys for school.”
Part of caring for the boys is providing support for their families. The number one challenge Pearson said she has faced is helping provide jobs for the women.
“They all need to be working and they all want to be working,” Pearson said. “You can’t just fill out a job application in Haiti. There is no such thing.”
One common industry in Haiti is the sale of clothing donated from the United States, referred to as ‘pepe,’ Pearson said.
“Everywhere you look there is American stuff being sold on the streets,” Pearson said. “It is one of the most lucrative businesses because our clothing donations are actually better quality than anything coming in new.”
Each mom was given two suitcases of clothing that they could sell.
It’s a good start, Pearson said, but she wishes she could have the funds to provide a more in-depth employment program for them.
Culture provides challenges
A challenge of working right in Haitian communities and neighborhoods is the fact that she is a white, American woman, Pearson said.
“We have to be very culturally considerate of the fact that I am a white person going into their community and their neighborhoods,” Pearson said. “When your neighborhood ties you to a white person they tie you to money, which can change how people interact with my families.”
Since it is imperative to her work to visit with the families in their homes, Pearson still does that on a regular basis, but she also relies on the four social workers who have permanently joined her team after working as interns for her.
One aspect of living in Haiti that Pearson has enjoyed has been being there as a single mother, as her two young sons, Everest, 5, and Miles, 2, both lived with her in Haiti for almost the entire duration of her stay.
“I like being a single mom in Haiti more than I like being a single mom in the states because we always have people with us. Their entire culture is ‘it takes a village,’” Pearson said.
Her two children have picked up more of the local language, Creole, much faster than herself.
“When they left Haiti the first time, they knew Creole more than I did and they were saying things I didn’t understand,” Pearson said.
Pearson said her children are begging to go back.
Pearson’s journey was also a spiritual one
“I grew up going to Christian schools, Christian colleges and I had been immersed in that faith,” Pearson said, adding that in her late 20s she decided to step back and rediscover truth.
“In my late 20s I allowed myself to take a spiritual journey and say, ‘I’m going to learn the facts. I’m going to pretend like I don’t know anything. I’m just going to learn what’s truth about God and religion. I’m just going to seek truth.’ It is bringing me back. The truths that I’m learning are bringing me back to the Bible. God was able to do some awesome stuff in Haiti.”
Pearson said that God was the only way to explain how she had ended up in Haiti. Her rediscovered faith is what inspires her work.
“God is love,” Pearson said. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
Pearson returned to the United States at the beginning of February. One culture shock now for her is the casual attitudes Americans have toward food.
“I’m culturally in shock that every single solitary person is on a diet,” Pearson said. “When I come from this culture where every single one of my families, every single member of their family was never guaranteed a meal until I came along.”
Her message: “America, if you’ve never been on a diet, you’ve never been hungry.”
From now through when she plans to return to Haiti in May, Pearson is busy raising funds, or people, as she prefers to say it.
“I’m better at people raising than fundraising,” Pearson said. “I love talking to people. I love making friends. I don’t want to ask people for money. It makes me feel weird.”
Since last April, Pearson said she has raised $20,000 for Haiti Mama.
Her goal is to provide a minimal degree of separation between donations and the work that she is doing.
“I love the concept of community members here being involved as an informal support system for our Haitian families,” Pearson said.
Her family has been incredibly supportive of her work in Haiti, Pearson said.
“My parents put off renovating their house and have floors ripped up right now because they bought us an inverter so we could have electricity around the clock,” Pearson said.
Pearson plans to expand and help additional kids become reunited with their families, but first she is going to focus on helping the families she is currently working with.
“I want to take 2015 to grow deep before I grow really wide,” Pearson said. “I want to say that I have successfully rehabilitated these 12 families before I take on another 12.”