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Needham foundation expands orphanage in Haiti

Alliance for Children Foundation director Filis Casey visited the old site in Haiti last May.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Alliance for Children Foundation director Filis Casey visited the old site in Haiti last May.

NEEDHAM — The idea was born from a firsthand look at the desperation that enveloped Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010: Build a home for a few dozen of the thousands of children orphaned by the disaster.

That goal was met in late October by the Alliance for Children Foundation, based in Needham, which moved about 40 orphans from a squalid home with little supervision to a modern, fully-staffed building in Kenscoff, a remote mountain village south of the chaotic capital, Port-au-Prince.

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But now, inspired by the foundation’s success, hundreds of thousands of dollars in new donations mean that the group can finish an adjacent community center and a second, nearby orphanage to house infants and toddlers. The center will contain the only medical clinic in the region; vocational training for adolescent orphans and others; and a workspace where villagers can make crafts for sale in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

“One of the things we hear about Haiti is that we never see the results,” said Filis Casey, executive director of the foundation. “But we’re doing it, we’re accomplishing it, and it’s getting done. It’s just terrifically gratifying.”

The second orphanage will separate the youngest children from their older peers, so that they can receive more focused attention. Major donors for this project include Ray and Grace Ciccolo of Lexington, who have committed to pay for about half of the $200,000 project, which might house as many as 40 babies.

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The youngest orphans “require different care and treatment,” said Ray Ciccolo, who owns 10 car dealerships in Greater Boston and also contributed to the first orphanage.

“They’re innocent. They don’t understand, for example, why they were born into their circumstances,” Ciccolo said. “They’re so amazingly appreciative, and dealing with children gives you a very special, warm feeling.”

For Casey, who has helped place 6,000 children in adoptive homes since 1974, the expansion of her nonprofit’s mission is evidence — in mortar, lumber, concrete, and children’s laughter — that Haiti does not have to be synonymous with intractable problems and failure.

Although Casey has traveled the world to connect orphans with adoptive US parents — and to build homes for parentless children abroad — she had never seen a place as troubled as Haiti. Even before the earthquake, an estimated 380,000 orphans lived in the country, according to UNICEF.

After a fact-finding visit, Casey chose to partner with an Arizona group, Chances for Children, and serve orphans in Kenscoff, a farming village perched on narrow ridges 4,300 feet above sea level. The Alliance for Children Foundation contributed $150,000 to the orphanage’s construction, about 75 percent of its cost.

But Casey’s vision extended beyond the orphanage itself, even though its improved safety, food, and supervision meant that the lives of these children, ranging from infants to 14 years old, had immediately improved. Casey wanted to give them a chance at success once they ventured from the orphanage at age 18.

“We’ll teach these kids to have something to support themselves with,” Casey said.

Vocational training will include agricultural, computer, and leadership skills, Casey said.

Office-friendly skills also might be part of the curriculum, with lessons on “how to behave, how to dress, how to present yourself, and how to speak,” she added.

The desire to learn seems strong. “These kids are like sponges,” Casey said. “If you give them an opportunity, they’re happy.”

Still, she said, the transition has had its bumps. A gantlet of foreign legal, medical, and other bureaucratic hurdles has been daunting, and even the act of moving a short distance can be frightening.

“Kids are human beings, and they were scared,” Casey said.

Eleven orphans remain in the old, dilapidated quarters, located a few hundred yards up a trash-strewn, rutted road. Six of them might move to the new building, Casey said.

In Casey’s vision, safe housing is just the first step toward better living in this corner of impoverished, disease-prone Haiti. The medical clinic, the only one within 30 miles, will play a big role in that plan. Sitting in her Needham office, Casey scanned blueprints that showed examination rooms, an X-ray area, and a pharmacy.

“They don’t have any of this,” Casey said.

While foreign governments and charitable groups have funneled billions of dollars to Haiti since the earthquake, results have often lagged behind hope. For Casey and the foundation, a small project made sense, providing more control, more results, and more satisfaction.

The scale of the Kenscoff project also seems attractive to donors, she said, because they feel that “an individual person can make a difference.”

Ray Ciccolo can relate. He and his wife plan to revisit the site in the next couple of months, when construction on the second orphanage might have begun. For them, investing in the children of Haiti is a decision made from the heart and not from the checkbook.

“We’ve been very, very blessed and done very, very well in the community, and it’s an opportunity to give back,” Ray Ciccolo said. “When you see the need, it’s just easy to say, ‘Sure, I’ll be glad to do it.’ ”

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