Just after the earthquake, people wanted to help in Haiti so badly. The country had been decimated. Everyone had lost someone and half of the population in our area seemed to be living in tents.
The eye of compassion on Haiti from the rest of the world was the sweet spot in all the tragedy. Every country was rallying with empathy to help this once stigmatized country in hopes for a better future.
We were in the middle of a paradigm shift about how to help the poor and were focusing on job creation instead of handouts. We wanted to see people rise out of poverty and stay there. We wanted to see babies in their mother’s arms instead of orphanages.
It was in this setting that I found a diamond in the rough.
A fifteen-year-old girl lived close to our artisan facility in a tent with her mother and brother and a few random other relatives. She was a smart girl who had been given the opportunity to go to a missionary school that had taught her English.
She had heard that we were hiring bead rollers and decided that it was up to her to try to get a job. The crowd outside the gate of the artisan facility nine years ago today was a mob of people trying to get work in such a precarious time, but somehow, she slipped through the gates and took a place in the line up of workers.
She was quiet. For days she sat and did her work and said nothing.
I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, having barely gained control of my new language- Haitian Creole- and was having such a hard time communicating with all the new artisans about what needed to be done.
I had an intern from America helping me at the time and one day she came to me and said,
“Do you know there is a girl sitting on that bench over there who speaks English?”
“What?... really? Bring her over here!”
I looked her up and down. She was thin and looked at the ground. The confidence that was inside her was hiding behind the layers of trauma that she and everyone else around had just experienced.
“Hi there! What’s your name?” I smiled and tried to shake her hand.
“Shirley” she replied quietly.
“Shirley, I hear you speak English?”
“Yes, I do.”
I didn’t know how old she was at the time. A fifteen-year-old in a poor country is expected to do what they can for their families the same as any other adult. Children grow up fast when they have to.
She spoke English and I knew I needed her help.
For the next nine years, Shirley has been my right-hand woman. She moved from bead roller to translator. From translator to manager. From manager to adoptive mother and wife. And from there to director of production.
Shirley is now 24 years old. She is my right arm and my left arm , my legs and my feet. She is part of the heart beat of Papillon and she shares the same passion for children not having to go to orphanages because of poverty. After all, she spent some time in an orphanage herself when she was a child and her mother couldn’t make ends meet.
She has grown into something that I don’t think she or I could have ever imagined. She is the epitome of someone who takes whatever life gives her and triumphs over it. She has risen from a young quiet girl living in dire poverty in a tent to the manager of a large fair-trade company in Haiti- in just under a decade.
Today marks exactly nine years since the first day she entered my life. As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, I want to personally salute Shirley and the so many women like her working for Papillon that are changing their own story right in front of our eyes. They are my heroes.
Happy NINTH anniversary Shirley!