Babies … and mothers. Tears of joy… and pain. Destiny … and delivery, through childbirth and from bondage. The priceless gift of giving … and receiving.
It’s what Christmas is all about!
We marvel at the birth of our Savior, the tiny King, born in a humble cave to a young, newlywed couple who delivered this infant; possibly (or even probably) without a midwife or attendants to help. We are left on our own to imagine the childbirth and delivery experience of little Jesus, He who was sent to deliver us from the bonds of death and sin.
We know little about the childbirth and delivery practices at that time, other than the fact that childbirth is the most basic natural experience for women. It started with Eve and it is ever the same. Our modern medicine and practices have made it infinitely better and safer. Our lovely hospitals, trained physicians and midwives, expert prenatal and medical care for mothers and newborns are the norm for most us in 2017.
But not all.
There are many women at this very time, in impoverished countries, who do experience childbirth in a way that is similar to Mary’s in Biblical times. It is without the aid of medicine or trained attendants. It is without sufficient housing or sanitation. It is without adequate clothing, diapers or supplies for their newborns and infants (or even enough milk to nourish them.)
This is hard to believe until one visits with someone who has been there to witness, observe and help. Yes, it’s almost impossible to fathom that this is the reality of many women and babies in this very day and age. Especially in Haiti.
Haiti is a small, impoverished country where the devastating earthquake of 2010 left upwards of 230,000 dead and a half million homeless. Illness, scarcity, ignorance, death and desperate times are the norm. (Meridian sent a large team to help in that time of immediate, greatest need. It was a life-changing experience for the whole team of medical and service volunteers. It’s something they’ll never forget.) The Gospel is being taught and an LDS Temple is being built. There are a couple of beautiful, somewhat modern cities, but the majority of Haitians live in densely populated villages, without medical help, education, adequate housing or food.
Kristen Van Wey, a member of the Church in the Jackson, Tennessee Ward (Memphis North Stake) knows it all firsthand. Her first trip to Haiti was in 2013. It was born out of a need of non-profit teams seeking immune support and holistic options while volunteering in Haiti. Kristen educates teams and individuals in holistic preparation and immune and emotional support for international travel.
She went eagerly and returned having discovered what our Heavenly Father’s life plan is for her in order to fulfill the measure of her own creation. It is to help the men, women and children in Haiti. Since then she has made many trips and has created a non-profit organization that I’ll tell you more about in a future article.
As the tender-hearted mother of seven children, she, of course, saw first the impoverished babies and children of all ages. She donated countless hours in the Tree of Life Orphanage and saw both sides of a terrible problem: mothers and how little they could do for their oh-so-many, way-too many babies. It broke her heart and deeply affected her. It is not uncommon for a Haitian woman, starting in her teens, to bear up to six or more children. Conceived in generation lack, there is simply no way to care for, protect or even feed the little ones they have brought into the world. The mortality rate is high in these areas.
While it is hard for us to imagine that in this day and age, men and women have not been taught the facts of life and reproduction, a visit with Kristen is a wake-up call to the contrary.
“These beautiful people have no knowledge of how their bodies work. Abstinence, though taught, is not a cultural value. It may take years (or generations) to change that mindset. There is little in the way of education or recreation, and the result is babies, babies and more babies. Family units are not always the norm and a woman may have multiple fathers for her children. Unable to support their many children, they are often forced to turning them over to overflowing orphanages, giving them away or selling them into lives of servitude, or the worst of all, the rampant sex-trafficking industry.” In Haiti these children are called “restaveks.”
This is a hard thing for most of us to read, the week before Christmas as we marvel at the birth of the Savior, who was also a tiny helpless baby, infant and child. Then we add to that tenderness, the love we have for our own well-cared for and much wanted little ones.
Yet this is a story for Christmas! It is a story of how we can love and help!
From that time forward, Kristen has gone back again and again to Haiti, determined to help and find new ways to create sustainable change. Foremost among her goals was a way to educate women and the men they love in such a clear way that they would understand how to plan and manage their pregnancies. She knew this would be a primary route to impacting poverty and the restavek culture. “Protecting children and preserving families is possible with team work and by using easy tools to help these very fertile women who often have their first babies as teens and do not stop until they reach menopause,” she says earnestly.
“Education is greatly lacking in every subject, including health and human reproduction. Since poverty is rampant, Haitian women in the villages have no money for monthly sanitation needs, even if it were available. That alone causes them to miss school, work opportunities, etc. as they deal in any way possible with menstruation. Sometimes it means living on a piece of cardboard or using old rags or t-shirts for those days of the month. There are large misconceptions, fear, embarrassment and very little communication around this topic. It is the goal of the Renand Foundation (Kristen’s non-profit organization) to take the mystery out of menstruation and fertility.
“I was introduced to Days For Girls, an organization that provides unique and practical hygiene kits and immediately began bringing some with me on every trip. These are luxuries that provide dignity and allow women to continue to go to work and school. They come with soap and the women are taught how to care for the kits so they last up to three years. Seeing the difference these kits and my training were making with the women defined where my passion would be: striving to help women understand their bodies, how to better manage conception, and how to live lives of dignity every day of the month.
(You can learn more at www.Daysforgirls.org and even get involved as a seamstress there.)
Knowing the culture and education level, Kristen sought for something tangible that would help them conceptualize what she was teaching with the goal to empower them.
She went to her Heavenly Father in prayer. She soon had a vivid recollection of an article she had read many years prior about a natural family planning method and a string of 32 beads. (The method works with cycles ranging between 26-32 days.)
On the bracelet is a little charm that moves each day to the next bead throughout the cycle. On her wrist, with the bracelet, the woman and her partner can easily see the exact days of when she is most likely to conceive a child. The bracelets empower awareness, wiser choices and better lives! And fewer children born into abject poverty and lives of servitude.
As a delightful bonus, the bracelets are pretty and lovely to wear. These women, as all women everywhere do, love wearing anything that makes them feel special and pretty.
Kristen was thrilled with this revelation and went to work. Where could she get these bracelets? Could she create them herself? Bring the supplies from the United States and let the women help? The first trip with this idea, she did just that. She had the women make their own bracelet after the class. This took a very long time, was difficult to explain, and as the classes grew to up to 100 women, it just wasn’t practical.
One day she and Andis, her non-profit partner, were talking about it and they realized that this was a perfect opportunity to create industry in Haiti and to use the local resources. Kristen again prayed and almost immediately found the Haitian Bead Project, www.HaitianBeads.org. Gina Watham, Co-director, saw the potential and the need. She was excited to participate and assigned 50 of her artists in Haiti to take on the job.
Haiti is overflowing in trash since there is not a system for recycling. “Trash, cans, plastic bottles, cardboard and other trash is everywhere since there are few places to put it!” says Kristen. “It’s staggering how much recyclable trash abounds. ”
The good news for Kristen and the Haitians is that converting those recyclables into something useful through art has started to become profitable. For Kristen and the Haitian Bead Project, it means an unending supply of the gorgeous colorful, hand-rolled beads made from recycled trash.
The women from the Haitian Bead Project collect cardboard from their local area. It is cut into long triangles and then rolled like croissants. The rolled beads are covered with glue and set to dry. Sometimes cardstock is donated and sent from the United States. With the addition of tiny glass beads, a bracelet is created. The colors all vary and make each bracelet unique and individual. The income this provides for these women and families (newly able to feed, care for and provide education and healthcare for their children) makes this entire project worth it.
But it doesn’t end there! As the bracelets themselves are changing lives across Haiti and America with the stories they tell.
As her plan and passion evolved, Kristen merged her non-profit with that of the Renand Foundation. Andis Tamayo had created a non-profit that perfectly aligned with Kristen’s own goals of protecting families and empowering individuals through educational opportunities and programs. The Renand Foundation is funded through the love and donations of many volunteers, family sponsors and a full-time volunteer staff. One hundred percent of everything they do goes into serving their village of Bassinbleu, Source Matelas, Jacmel, (Jacmel for short) and eventually all of Haiti. There are no fancy offices or salaries. It is operated from their homes with volunteer time and service.
Her own family has become involved, even with her teen sons helping to create a special teen-ambassador program that provides resources and jobs for families in dire need. They choose one family at a time for educating and providing work skills. Each of the original seven teens fundraises $21 per month, which provides enough income to hire a parent and provide a full-time job. Since August, this amazing group of teens has earned enough to buy land, build a house, pay for three kids’ educations and provide food for two meals a day for one family. On December 27, 15 youth and their families will travel to Haiti to serve their selected families, including painting the new house.
“For our own young people to experience first-hand the reality of poverty and servitude and to be able to make a difference by working with the teens and families in Jacmel is incredible and life-changing for all of them! They will never see ‘first world’ problems the same way,” she says with enthusiasm. They have also connected with the LDS Ward in Jacmel and are serving together on projects as well as attending local Sunday meetings.
But for Kristen, it’s all about the bracelets that serve her dear sisters in Haiti not just now, but into the next generation as they gain respect and understanding of their bodies. The men are catching on too, and it’s a joy to see them listen and respect their partners, Kristen, the classes, the bracelets, and the principle of what it all means.
The bracelets are the path through which she can provide powerful tools (i.e., the bracelet itself, hygiene kit, and the education) that make a daily and a lifetime difference that truly empowers.
“I thought these classes would be for women only, but soon I had men and boys listening in the windows and at the doors! They want to know. They need to know! So I began asking the women to invite all males and females over the age of 12 to the classes. It has proven to be one of the best program decisions I’ve made. When you take the mystery out of it and start healthy communication, all relationships are positively impacted.”
Her classes cover what it looks like to have a healthy mind, body, spirit and planet. As a passionate teacher, educating men and women on health and reproduction, she provides knowledge, empowerment and dignity. And freedom.
“I will never forget the day after teaching a class, when a tall and beautiful woman stood and said, ‘I am 40 years old! I have six children. Five of them daughters. This is the first time that someone has explained to me about how my body works. I feel angry, frustrated — and yet so grateful! I feel like I can go home and empower my daughters and son so they won’t continue this pattern of poverty!’
This was a profound moment for me as I realized that the work we were doing could literally change poverty, abortion rates, as well as slave and sex trafficking. I felt personally overwhelmed with the amount that needed to be done and the help I would need to accomplish it. It’s humbling work. With the realizations of the difference it makes, it drives me every day.”
Kristen has a vision that is much bigger than classes today. For her, it’s the next generation that she is also hoping and praying to help. “Our Haitian staff is now able to teach the classes independently so the work continues when we are unable to be present,” she reports.
“We have to look beyond the seemingly endless task on what is right now before us and break the cycle to create a better future for these families and their children, both born and unborn. That is our goal. The fact is that the work will span the globe and we are deeply impacted by this topic here in the United States. As I began to sell the bracelets and educate on what we’re doing in Haiti, I learned that there are at-risk individuals right here in the United States that need this.
“While I was not the original creator of these bracelets that have the power to change the days and the future for these dear people, I have been blessed to turn them into something very special with mass manufacturing and a website that makes it easy for anyone to learn about and purchase them for their own personal use. The purchase price of the bracelet funds a very meaningful donation to some of the world’s neediest individuals.
“With these bracelets, I can teach the Haitian women how to count the days of their cycles. They love how pretty they are! They will wear them, pay attention in the classes and be proud to use them every day. They’ve become a symbol of education and empowerment for both men and women.
By purchasing a $20 bracelet you get to keep one for yourself (or to give away) and we have the funds to provide a bracelet, ‘Days For Girls’ Hygiene Kit and a two hour class.”
You can learn more at www.letsempower.org.
As I learned about it all in a special presentation from Kristen, I was overwhelmed with our Heavenly Father’s plan and love for each of us. These little bracelets are beautiful, charming and fun to wear for every woman who loves pretty things! Whether you’re from the United States or Haiti! I quickly bought five to give to my sisters. What a wonderful thing it is to know that to wear (or give) this little bracelet is a gift that gives in many ways. It’s a gift that changes a day and changes the life of a woman who will receive the bracelet, sanitation kit, knowledge, choices and power!
I’ll be doing another article in the near future about Kristen, her work and how to volunteer and even go to Haiti, but the important part today is that it’s CHRISTMAS!
It’s not too late to order a bracelet for a loved one right now! Kristen and her team are standing by to fulfill orders immediately from her website. If it doesn’t arrive in time for Christmas Day, then it’s a lovely story and message to provide in a greeting card with the promise that the bracelet itself is on its way … to both you and a very fortunate woman in Haiti.
Please note that the hygiene kits are greatly needed and prized by the women in these villages. They aren’t available unless others bring them in from outside the country, and most women cannot afford them anyway.
Of course, you can always buy for yourself or for gifts throughout the year.
So, this is a story for Christmas! For it is in giving that we receive. And in loving, that we are loved.