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Newton woman brings hope to orphans in Haiti

Filis Casey had never seen need like she found in the country

KENSCOFF, Haiti — Filis Casey pitches and rocks in the rear seat of a slow-moving sport utility vehicle, lurching up a corkscrew mountain road until she reaches her destination: a cluster of dusty buildings with leaking roofs and unfinished walls that hold one crude toilet, dank rooms crammed with bunk beds, and 52 orphans with little supervision and little to do.

From her home in Newton, Mass., Casey has traveled the world, lifting children out of the shadows and suffering and into adoptive homes. But she has never seen anything like the problems that plague Haiti, where the overwhelming misery can easily make an orphan’s plight invisible.

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“It broke my heart to see where they live,” says Casey, 68, executive director of the Alliance for Children Foundation. “You can’t even breathe in there. It’s dark. I felt that nobody should live that way.”

For Casey, who has helped place 6,000 children in adoptive homes since 1974, feelings quickly become actions. As a result, the orphans of Kenscoff are on the verge of a dramatically better life: new, safe housing; a chance at education; and regular attention from dedicated caregivers.

In the calculus of post-earthquake Haiti, these children would ordinarily be marked for lives of destitution. Some lost parents or siblings in the 2010 earthquake, others were abandoned on the side of the road, and some were brought here by sobbing mothers who said they could not afford to support another child.

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“I feel that Haiti is much more needy than any place I have ever been,” Casey says. “The chaos is so unrelenting.”

But here, buoyed by money from the Needham-based foundation, a new orphanage is rising a few hundred yards from the children’s squalid home. The shell of a medical clinic and crafts workshop takes shape nearby. And a vocational school, where Kenscoff youth would learn a trade, is the hoped-for capstone to the vision developed by Casey, her American partners, and Kenscoff community leaders.

“Every single day will be a better day than they’ve had before. They will have a future, and that’s what it’s all about,” Casey says.

For the orphans of Kenscoff, a farming town nestled 4,300 feet above sea level amid mist-shrouded mountains, the world is an unforgiving place where children learn from their peers instead of adults.

On one recent afternoon, dozens of young children ran unsupervised around the concrete-and-dirt home where they have lived for 18 months, trundling up and down an uneven outdoor stairway without railings, lying on tables in a dusty classroom, and leaning out an unfinished window 15 feet above the ground.

Next to the entrance to a claustrophobic kitchen, a large poster cautions against cholera, which has infected some half-million Haitians and killed more than 7,000 since late 2010. The only adult at the home this day, the wife of its owner, sits in a ground-level courtyard making beads, absorbed in her work as the children race around her.

“We can’t wait to get these kids out of here. It’s not healthy,” says Bob Casey, Filis’s husband, who accompanied her to Kenscoff.

There is little prospect that many of these children will find adoptive homes, Filis Casey says, because their age, 3 to 13, makes them unattractive to prospective parents. They will probably remain in Kenscoff, living with others like them, until they set off on their own as adolescents.

Without help, their prospects are grim in a country that held 380,000 orphans before the earthquake, according to a UNICEF estimate. Now, that number is believed to be considerably higher, and the need exponentially greater, for children who appear thinner, frailer, and years younger than their peers in the United States.

Alex, an 11-year-old boy from the pine forests of southwest Haiti, wears a Cookie Monster T-shirt this day, avoids eye contact, and speaks in a barely audible voice. The horrors of the quake, more than two years later, still terrify him.

“I get sad. I have flashbacks,” Alex says. “When that happens, I don’t want to play with the other kids.”

Alex lost a brother in the earthquake, but he does not know his name. He also does not know what became of his parents, and he has no desire to return to them.

“I don’t miss home at all,” he says, his speech trailing to a melancholy whisper.

In Kenscoff, however, life gains a sense of purpose. Alex and other orphans play an eager volunteer role in the construction of their new home. Local workers do the heavy lifting, but the orphans help by spreading crushed stone on a leaching field, filling buckets with shovels of sand for a churning cement mixer, and pushing a cart heavy with water up a steep, rutted hill.

The orphans, all smiles and wide eyes, clearly relish the chance to contribute. “If you don’t work, you can’t live well,” Alex says.

With that, he is off to resume digging. Renelus Maxime, the local pastor of an evangelical church, supervises the construction with a watchful but weary eye.

Maxime moved the children here, to the home of an uncle, after the quake damaged his orphanage in Port-au-Prince. His vision: to build a refuge for them away from the congestion, disease, and violence of the capital.

“I started this all, with the help of God, by myself,” Maxime says, gazing around the site.

The need for his work is unabating and heart-rending. “Often, we have a baby left by the gate, without anybody,” the pastor says.

Despite his commitment, the project might have foundered without help from the Alliance for Children Foundation and an Arizona group, Chances for Children, which Casey partnered with.

“It’s a gift from God that he sent you to do this project,” Jean-Paul Francois, the mayor of Kenscoff, tells Casey outside the new orphanage.

“These are the children of your future,” Casey says.

One of them, a 13-year-old girl named Figele, says she enjoys her new life. Her parents, who had eight other children, brought her to Maxime because they could not afford another.

“I’m comfortable here, and I’m not being abused,” Figele says.

. . .

When Filis Casey speaks of her work, her voice rises in excitement, or concern, or pride in the children she has helped. It is a passion that has kept her on the move for nearly four decades, since she decided that placing orphaned children in homes was more rewarding than a legal career.

At the Kenscoff orphanage, she often turns quiet as she walks the grounds, smiling at the children, placing a few on her lap, passing out candy. Her composure, however, masks an emotional ache.

“I felt it was even worse, which is really sad to me,” Casey says of her return visit. “It seems they are neglected more.”

Still, she searches for the positive. Passing through the new orphanage, stepping around the remnants of building materials on a floor awaiting tiles, Filis grasps her husband’s hand, looks up, and asks quietly, “What do you think, Bob?”

He reassures her with a smile. “I just wish the tiles were in,” Bob says.

When the Caseys traveled to Haiti for the first time last year, Filis brought a globe-girdling breadth of experience -- from her agency’s first adoption from Colombia, to adoptions from Russia and Ecuador, to the four orphanages that the Alliance for Children Foundation helped create in China.

It was a labor of love born of the simple desire to help a friend adopt a child. Casey, who held a law degree from Suffolk University, had no experience in adoptions, but she explored and mastered the system’s bureaucratic maze and built an agency that is now among the state’s largest.

“I felt I was pointed in a certain direction,” Casey says. “I had found my purpose.”

After facilitating more than 6,000 adoptions, including one of her three children, Casey founded the Alliance for Children Foundation in 2000, whose humanitarian mission includes bettering the lives of orphans who might never be adopted.

On that first trip to Haiti, she and her husband visited four possible projects before deciding that the Kenscoff orphans would benefit the most. They also decided that Chances for Children, a nonprofit from Arizona that had begun construction on the orphanage, would be a superb partner.

The foundation has contributed $150,000 for the orphanage, about 75 percent of its cost. Some funding has come from the thousands of families who have adopted children through the Alliance for Children, an affiliated entity founded by Casey in 1974, which places children for a typical cost of $25,000 to $30,000. Casey left the agency in 2008 to work full time for the foundation.

Other funds for the orphanage have come from donors such as Ray Ciccolo of Lexington, who owns a string of car dealerships in Greater Boston. But business success, Ciccolo says, has not dimmed his memories of a poor childhood, early career obstacles, and the importance of family.

“Regardless of how much money you have, you’re still a poor kid with a ‘poor’ mentality,” says Ciccolo, 74, who visited Kenscoff with the Caseys. “Who knows where these kids would live if they didn’t have this orphanage.”

Bob Casey, a director at the Boston law firm of Goulston & Storrs, also feels an obligation to give. As he sits at a spartan table in an unfinished room of the new orphanage, the strong smell of new concrete and fresh construction around him, Casey recalls one telling moment during his first meeting with Maxime.

A teenage girl, jobless and unmarried, had arrived at Maxime’s door in the middle of the session, seeking a home for her month-old infant. The previous day, a newborn had been brought there.

“This is a man with a heart,” Casey recalls thinking.

“I like my job, and I like my clients, but basically I’m helping wealthy people,” Casey says. “This has given me an outlet to do something other than what I do every day, to do something really worthwhile with people who really need help.”

The orphans of Kenscoff will have needs for years — food, clothing, schooling — which Maxime and his family cannot provide alone. Chances for Children plans to seek sponsors to donate about $1,200 per child per year, which Casey said should be enough for necessities.

The challenges, however, will continue. When they returned recently to view the project, Filis Casey says she felt bolstered in her determination to ease the children’s plight.

“I will try to make a difference in the life of a child,” Casey says, “one child at a time.”

The Caseys know that their efforts, and the work of thousands of foreign aid workers who have flocked to Haiti, can address only a tiny portion of this impoverished country’s needs. But they feel compelled to act.

“When I think of the scope of the problem, it’s so overwhelming. It can be discouraging,” Casey says. “Sometimes I think, ‘What are you doing?’ And then I say, ‘What’s the alternative?’ ”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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