PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – At the Olde Good Things antique store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a French crystal chandelier can go for tens of thousands of dollars. A marble mantel sells for more than $20,000 and hand-carved dinner tables are priced even higher.
The store’s Christian missionary owners offer their well-heeled customers a heart-warming story: Part of the proceeds pay for the group’s orphanage in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. What they don’t say is that even though they claim in IRS filings to be spending around $2.5 million annually, the home for boys and girls was so dirty and overcrowded during recent inspections that the government said it shouldn’t remain open.
The Associated Press made an unannounced visit to the orphanage’s two homes, currently holding a total of 120 kids, in November and found conditions a world away from the opulent Manhattan apartments decorated with the store’s antiques. Bunk beds with faded and worn mattresses were crowded into dirty rooms. Sour air wafted through the bathrooms and stairwells. Rooms were dark and spartan, lacking comforts or decoration.
While many other orphanages also failed the Caribbean country’s new national standards, and conditions are far worse in some, the group’s three-story building on the hilly outskirts of Port-au-Prince stands out because it’s run by an organization with such an unusual, and successful fundraising operation. The failure to meet the standards would seem to contradict their financial position.
Wealthy people patronize Olde Good Things, which has five stores in New York, two in Los Angeles and a warehouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania, searching for unusual items for home renovations, much of it salvaged from old buildings. There are antique entryways and doors, porcelain sinks, cast iron bathtubs, stained glass windows, glass and brass doorknobs, and rare pieces of wooden furniture.
Haiti’s Social Welfare Institute, meanwhile, says the orphanage run by Olde Good Things’ owner, U.S.-based Church of Bible Understanding, did not meet minimum national standards during a series of inspections dating to November 2012. It found sanitary conditions were “terrible,” and there were too many kids for the amount of space, said Vanel Benjamin, a senior inspector with the agency. They also found not all kids were going to school and the staff lacked adequate training.
“We made a number of visits to the orphanage to tell them that they needed to make progress, but there hasn’t been any progress,” Benjamin said.
The result is that the orphanage was placed on a warning list, allowed to remain open only because impoverished Haiti lacks the resources to close the facility and find new homes for the children.
A church official disputed the allegation that children weren’t attending school and said he doesn’t believe conditions were so bad that they warranted a failing grade, but he said they are addressing the complaints nonetheless.
“There are ways we are lacking but we try to do the very best we can in God’s name,” said Paul Szostak, part of a rotating staff of church workers who currently manages Haiti operations. “We are trying to improve things and make things better.”
The AP’s November visit appeared to bear out Szostak’s claim that improvements were underway. Although the organization says it employs 60 Haitians at the orphanage, journalists found volunteers from another orphanage scrubbing floors, painting walls and giving advice on infant care to the one church member and several Haitian workers on the premises. Some children attended Haitian Creole classes on the terrace.
Justin Fair, a 32-year-old from New Jersey and the sole church member living on site, explained the group’s mission: “Our goal is to raise them as Christians and bring them up to be productive Haitian citizens.”
The orphanage is two homes, with about 60 children in each, located a few minutes apart in Kenscoff in the mountains above Port-au-Prince where steep, windy roads offer panoramic views of the sprawl and misery characterizing much of the capital. The report from the social welfare agency specifically faults only one of the homes, though both appeared similar during the recent visit.
“It’s not horrible. I have seen orphanages way, way worse … it just needs a lot of work,” said Dixie Bickel, director of a nearby orphanage, God’s Littlest Angels, operated by an organization in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Bickel, who praised the Church of Bible Understanding for sharing food with needier groups, has been helping the church address the problems, supplying volunteers to paint and clean, training the Haitian staff and recently taking in several sick infants.
That the orphanage struggles is a surprise, given that it has a seemingly well-funded operation.
In its Form 990 for 2011, the most recent version available of the document the Church of Bible Understanding must file with the Internal Revenue Service, the church reported spending about $2.5 million annually on its orphanage, according to an analysis by Chuck McClean, vice-president of research at Guidestar, the leading source of information on non-profit groups.
McClean reviewed three years of returns and said it was difficult to determine from the explanations on the forms how much of what the church provided the orphanage was cash and how much was in-kind support such as food.
Church members gave conflicting information. Senior church official Kevin Browne said in an interview that the organization spends about $1 million a year in Haiti. Fair, one of two church members working in Haiti, said: “Basically, a third of all the profits go to our orphanages.”
Asked about the discrepancy, Browne said the group also distributes food in other parts of Haiti, but he said only the church’s pastor, Stewart Traill, was aware of the details of their finances. “I’m not a money guy.”
Browne said Traill has never given an interview and would not comment for this story.
Bickel said her orphanage spends about $1 million annually to care for about 140 kids and received government certification. Gena Heraty, director of the special needs program at Kay Christine orphanage, said her organization spends less to house 386 children and also passed muster.
“They are very basic standards,” said Heraty, who has worked in Haiti for 20 years. “I wouldn’t think they are hard standards to meet.”
Once called the Forever Family, the Church of Bible Understanding was founded by Traill, who lives with Browne and other members in a 12,000-square-foot home in Coral Springs, Florida.
The church was once known for its former carpet cleaning business, Christian Bros., and was lampooned on the TV show “Seinfeld,” when character George Costanza hires the company and gets angry when they don’t try to convert him. Browne said the episode came about because the company once cleaned comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s carpets.
Former members have said they had to work for the church for free or hand over their paychecks if they had outside jobs. They lived in communal homes and sat through long prayer meetings nightly. Browne shrugged off criticism from what he calls “disgruntled” ex-members in an interview at a church warehouse near the main airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“So many people talk so much nonsense about us,” he said. “If someone had some reason or some proof of what they are claiming then I would be glad to listen because I’m interested in truth.”
The church, with about 50 members and 60 non-church affiliated people employed in its business, has worked in Haiti since 1977, ferrying supplies in a private plane piloted by Traill. He said they intend to build a large orphanage for up to 1,000 children in northwestern Haiti, Browne said.
Orphanage inspections by the government’s Social Welfare Institute with UNICEF’s help were instituted after unregulated charities flooded the country after a devastating January 2010 earthquake.
UNICEF says that only 20 per cent of the children living in such homes are actual orphans, the rest having either one or both parents alive, but placed in orphanages because their families cannot afford to care for them.
Inspectors reviewed more than 700 orphanages, rating 36 per cent of them green if they met minimum standards. Forty-nine per cent were rated yellow for below standards and 15 per cent were rated red if they were so bad they had to be closed immediately.
Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin, the social welfare agency’s general director, said the government would like to close the yellow ones, but “to close a centre you need to have the means to remove them.”
“You need a place to put children,” Villedrouin said. “You need to do research on parents, to reunite them with their families.”
Technically, though, the Church of Bible Understanding’s orphanage shouldn’t be operating. “It’s not legal,” said Villedrouin. “They don’t have authorization to function.”