Meet the 22-Year-Old Who Skipped Out on College—to Offer a Helping Hand in Haiti

Morgan Wienberg didn't want a car for her high school graduation. She wanted a plane ticket.

Morgan Wienberg in Haiti with Ednel and Echenel, two brothers who were formerly living in an abusive orphanage. (Photo: Karen Wienberg)

Jan 12, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Elizabeth Rodgers is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. She has written about technology, parenting, autism and travel.

Morgan Wienberg will never forget how she felt when footage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake came on television five years ago today. A Canadian citizen and a senior in high school at the time, then-17-year-old Wienberg—a wavy-haired, lanky teen who was valedictorian of her class and had dreams of going to medical school—was so moved by what she saw that she asked her parents to pay for a mission trip to Haiti as her high school graduation gift. Two weeks after she got her diploma, she landed in Port-au-Prince.

“I made a decision about what feels right and what I’m passionate about as opposed to following a plan of what everyone does: going to university, getting a job, having a family,” said Wienberg, 22. “I’m now open to the bigger picture. I want to improve conditions for kids and bring about sustainable change.”

The devastating 7.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and displaced upwards of 1.5 million, according to the Haitian government. Before the earthquake, UNICEF estimated there were 380,000 Haitian orphans. By 2012, that number had gone up to 430,000—and Wienberg was about to witness the circumstances of children left behind.

During her five-month trip, Wienberg worked with Texas- and Haiti-based nonprofit Mission of Hope Haiti, teaching English and taking care of injured earthquake victims in the village of Source-Matelas, about 30 minutes north of Port-au-Prince. During her first week, Mission of Hope Haiti introduced her to local orphanage Orphelinat Bon Samaritain, where she discovered a grim scene. The orphanage was home to 75 abused, malnourished children sleeping on rusty bed springs or on the ground, with no caretakers to look after them.

“Five-year-olds would look after two-year-olds, and 12-year-olds were cooking,” she said. “The children had been stripped of all possessions. They had no self-esteem and no identity. Most children didn’t even know their real name.”

Sarah Wilson, a paramedic and a nurse who was volunteering alongside Wienberg through Mission of Hope Haiti and also visited this orphanage, said, “It was the worst orphanage I’ve ever seen in my life. There were so many kids crammed into one area. Five had severe fevers, and the host mother was doing nothing about it.”

When Wienberg tried to transfer five of the sick children to a medical facility, the orphanage director demanded $800 for each child and called the transfer an adoption. “She was trafficking the children,” said Wienberg.

Once her five months in Haiti were up, Wienberg returned to Canada with a plan: to raise funds, go back to Haiti, and get those children out of the orphanage. However, she needed a way to get into the orphanage and closer to the kids. Acting as a volunteer, she offered to move in and take care of the children for free. It worked—and once there, she witnessed even more abuse.

“The children lived in constant fear of the woman who ran the orphanage,” Wienberg recalled. “She would beat two-year-old children until they blacked out and fell to the ground. This happened in front of me.”

Wienberg also discovered that most of the children were not orphans at all. The owner would speak in churches in the most rural parts of Haiti and claim to run an organization with foreign aid and educational opportunities.

“She told the parents their kids can go to college; their children will finally be well-fed,” Wienberg said. “Hundreds of parents in Haiti entrusted this woman with the care of their children. This woman had been running the orphanage for over 20 years.”

During this time, Wienberg kept in touch with Wilson, and the two began devising a plan to launch a formal nonprofit. In 2011, they founded Little Footprints Big Steps, an organization based in Les Cayes and dedicated to child welfare and familial sustainability.

It was a humble start; they managed the organization themselves with little funding. Initial donations came from Wienberg’s college savings—about $17,000—as well as money she earned from a bakery job in Whitehorse, the small Canadian town where she grew up. The local rotary club was also an early sponsor and continues to be one.

However, she soon began telling her story to the media, which led to a Tedx Talk, guest speaking at the United Nations Youth Assembly, and receiving a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal from the government of Canada. It was a personal transformation for Wienberg. “I was extremely shy and insecure,” she said. “I had anorexia in high school, and I couldn’t even do a presentation to my French class. I was so nervous talking in front of people.”

Wienberg with several boys outside the Little Foot Big Steps safehouse in 2012. (Photo: Karen Wienberg)

Today, LFBS supports more than 170 children with primary education and acts as a transitional safe house where kids without homes can stay while more permanent arrangements are put into place. But the main goal is to reunite non-orphans with their families: Since 2011, LFBS has reunited 94 children with their families by working with Haitian social services. Older children who stay on in the safe house can also receive instruction in skills and trades through LFBS. For boys, there's a mechanic apprenticeship, and girls attend a training program in customer service, food preparation, and first aid. The plan is to make them strong candidates for hire on cruise ships.

In four years, LFBS has gone from a bare-bones budget to raising more than $200,000 in 2014. However, Wienberg and Wilson do not draw salaries from the LFBS donations, and Wienberg lives in the safe house for girls and eats with the children. The remainder of the funding goes to the Haitian staff of nine, supplies, and rent. (Although a donor offered to create a salary for Wienberg, she refused it.)

As for the corrupt orphanage, it closed in 2013, according to Wilson, and many of the children were either reunited with their families, are living in the safe house at LFBS, or are attending school or going through job training. Criminal charges against the director never materialized.

Fluent in Creole after living alongside the children, Wienberg is gaining traction for LFBS within the Haitian community and abroad and has big plans. Her main goal is to see the Haitian staff run the safe house on their own.

“I have been focusing on making the organization, staff, children, and families self-sustaining and less dependent on me,” she said. “Not because I have any plans on not being here, but if the organization is going to last, it can’t be about me.”

Wienberg’s new initiative is to cultivate empathy in the kids she’s working with. “It’s bringing everything that I’m doing to the next level, to see if the kids are really developing. Not just becoming healthier for themselves but becoming sensitive members of the community and seeing how they interact and care for others,” she said. “We’re putting together hygiene kits for other street kids, doing hospital visits, and developing a program for handicapped kids.”

On a recent field trip for disabled kids and their parents, the boys sang a song on the beach—a song about how important children are to their parents.

“I was moved to tears, watching how mature and thoughtful my kids have become—teenage street boys,” Wienberg said. “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever experienced. To see kids step up and help others—this is what I’m hopeful for.”