As children around the world wait for the arrival of Santa Claus on Sunday night, 55 orphans at the Foyer Renmen orphanage in Port au Prince, Haiti, will be snuggling into their beds with happy memories of a visit two weeks ago by Pere Noel, the French version of Santa Claus.
Pere Noel visited the orphanage at the end of the most recent medical trip to Haiti by members of the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps. A member of that team, Jessica Hanson, an operating room nurse at Flagstaff Medical Center, reached out to fellow operating room and emergency room nurses to gather toys for the orphans. With the help of other members of the Flagstaff community, Hanson collected 55 toys, each costing less than $15 and each weighing less than 7 pounds, that she could pack and take to Haiti.
To personalize each gift and increase the connection between the donors and the children, Hanson printed out photos of each of the children taken on a trip to the orphanage the previous December. Each gift donor was given two photos, one to keep of the their orphan and one to use as a gift tag to ensure that the right child got the right toy.
It took four suitcases each weighing 50 pounds to get the brightly wrapped gifts from Flagstaff to Haiti. After a full week of surgery by the medical team at the Bernard Mevs hospital in Port au Prince, everyone loaded up into vans for the hour drive to the orphanage. After arriving and being greeted by the children, it was time for dinner and to prepare for the arrival of Pere Noel.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bull Durham, who leads the medical trips to Haiti, performs the role of Pere Noel each year. After strapping a couch cushion to his stomach and donning a musty Santa costume it was showtime. Fifty-five orphans ranging in age from one to 21 were patiently waiting on the roof of the orphanage.
The tropical sun had already set and in a country where electricity is sporadic, the children sat in the dark lit by a spotlight powered by a softly humming generator in the yard below. While waiting, the orphans broke out into a capella Christmas carols, and the sounds of their voices carried across the rooftop to the nearby room where Pere Noel was putting the finishing touches to his outfit.
Whispers and giggles turned to squeals and shouts as the children watched Pere Noel walk across a covered walkway from the building next door to the rooftop where they were sitting. For some of the children this was a yearly tradition filled with excitement and anticipation. For others this was their first Christmas and their first time ever seeing Pere Noel.
Among the smiling and laughing faces were nervous glances as children held their brothers and sisters hands waiting to see what all of the excitement was about. Each and every child, from screaming babies to embarrassed young adults, got to sit on Pere Noel’s lap and talk with the jolly figure before receiving their gift.
Once every child was sitting back down with their gift, it was time to see what Pere Noel had brought them. There were soccer balls, remote controlled cars, dolls that blinked and talked, glittery purses with art supplies and makeup, stuffed toys and fashion clothes. The children were as excited to see what their brothers and sisters got as they were to open their own gifts.
Growing up as children in the orphanage they understood that everything was shared. While the nurses of Flagstaff Medical Center and fellow community members may have been picking a toy for one child, on this balmy night deep in the Caribbean 55 children realized that they were receiving an avalanche of toys and love that they would share and play with for the coming year until Pere Noel once again returned with suitcases full of brightly wrapped gifts from a foreign land.
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