Change has come slowly to Haiti. But Gladys Thomas has spent more than three decades helping its children live through impoverished conditions and seen many of them thrive.
“For the past 33 years I have been working with families and children, looking at what life requires — love, health, shelter, education. It’s a calling I’ve had since I was a child,” said Thomas, president of the Foundation for Children of Haiti, who was in Richmond this week to meet with members of the the Rotary Club of Richmond, the Rotary Club of Richmond Sunset and the Richmond Firefighters’ Society, all of which have agreed to offer support to help build a new school in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.
With room for 300 students, it will allow the foundation’s orphanage to increase its capacity and include more room for special needs children. Total cost of the project is $500,000.
The Rotary Club of Richmond Sunset has $10,000 in its reserve to fund the project. Plus, there is a $20,000-commitment from Rotary District 3500 (Taiwan) to participate as the sunset club’s international partner.
Thomas said her calling to help was something she was born with. As the seventh of 11 children, she remembers growing up in need, but remembers watching her parents who were always willing to give of themselves and share what they had to ensure no one was left wanting.
It’s a way of life she has adopted and carried with her ever since.
“I learned that this is what life is all about — you receive and you give,” Thomas said. “You feel this within yourself, that this is the right thing to do. When you see the successes or the failures, it comes from the heart. And it’s the most wonderful work anyone can do. And I feel very privileged to have been able to touch the lives of so many children in Haiti.”
Thomas started her work when she was 26, taking over a rundown orphanage where 45 children lived.
“My heart broke when I saw how they were living,” said Thomas, who at the time had three young children of her own. “I prayed and said, ‘God, help me to offer to these children what I wanted for my three.’ And I started working towards that.”
She knew the goal was not reachable by herself. Soon, she was able to enlist the help of friends and then other agencies.
“It’s not my work,” Thomas said humbly. “I am just an instrument in it, just a servant. But so many people have come along to watch these children bloom and grow.”
From that one orphanage, there are now three schools, and a hospital she started building with donations of $2,000.
Today, it’s a multi-million dollar facility that has operated for the past 20 years.
“Poverty is all over the world and Haiti wasn’t getting any better. But now we have reached a level where education really should be the priority,” Thomas said. “The government is trying, but with corruption, it is very difficult.”
A catastrophic earthquake in 2010 did not help, either. But through it all, Thomas said she remains very positive.
“I am the last one to say there has been no change, because every little change can become something big for us. We need to honour that,” she said. “It’s a constant struggle. Nobody can say that they’ve made it. We have got a long way to go.”
It’s a mission that almost every day bears fruit as Thomas sees how some of those children, who were in poverty when she started, have grown up to become successful and free from the cycle of hardship.
“I know that if it wasn’t for this work, if someone had not responded to this call, what would have happened to this child,” Thomas said. “So, we have a motto which is ‘making a difference, one child at a time.’ And that really helps us to limit the big picture and allows us to help one child, then one more, and one more after that until there are no more.”
For more information about the Canadian Foundation for Children of Haiti, an offshoot of Thomas’ organization in this country, visit cfchcanada.ca.