Here I am, living in Maine, making friends and generally having a ball, while so many people in the world live in poverty and misery. Shouldn’t I be doing some serious service work in, say, Africa or Guatemala? I know I can be of service to others wherever I find myself, simply by opening my heart. But still.
I’ve met a number of people who have changed lives through their work: the director of a program for homeless women in Portland, Oregon; another who moved to the Peruvian Amazon and found a way to deliver safe drinking water to indigenous jungle communities; another who works with street kids in India. Why haven’t I sunk myself into something like that? The obvious answer: I like my comfortable existence, a lot. I’m scared that if I leave it, I’ll never get it back. But if I did jump into the fire, if I upended my life and took that chance, would my efforts really make a difference? How would I ever know?
This is the point at which I start thinking about Gwenn Mangine.
Gwenn’s story began in 2005, when she was at a church service in Carey, North Carolina. That day a group of visitors were giving a presentation about abandoned children in Jacmel, Haiti. As Gwenn listened, idly at first, it occurred to her that she’d been wanting to find a way to help the world’s poor. You might say she was called, which is how she puts it. Four years later, after numerous mission trips to Haiti, Gwenn and her husband, Nick, moved to Jacmel to take over a children’s home run by a Christian organization.
It was not an orphanage but a real home where the Mangines lived with their biological son and daughter, an adopted Haitian son, and the nine Haitian children for whom they had been given legal custody. These were kids who otherwise would have been begging in the streets or living in restavèk, the Creole word for slavery. “The statistics about Haiti are sobad,” Gwenn said. “Twenty-two percent of the kids are orphaned, abandoned, or in restavèk.”
The first time we spoke, over a long cup of coffee, Gwenn told me mind-boggling stories about her and Nick’s experiences in Jacmel. The challenges of running a household with 14 people were myriad, even with plenty of domestic help. And while the Mangines could keep the children in their care safe, their hearts hurt for those they could not. Once they tried to rescue an enslaved girl who bore long scars on her face from a whip. She also had a bad burn from an electrical cord, inflicted as punishment. When the girl escaped and found her way to them, the Mangines petitioned a local court to grant them custody. The judge told them he had no choice but to return her to her mother, who immediately gave her back to her abuser. “Children have rights in Haiti,” the judge said, “when their parents grant them rights.”
The Mangines found they had to concentrate on the children they could help and try not to tie themselves in knots about those they couldn’t. Every day new challenges arose. Among their charges were kids who had lost families in the 2010 earthquake, who had been neglected and, in some cases, sexually abused. One boy had lived on the street for four years. With the Mangines the children found stability and safety—most of the time. One summer night Gwenn and Nick awoke in their bedroom to find bandits pointing guns at them. They surrendered their cash and beefed up security at their home. “Are we missionaries or are we humanitarians?” Gwenn mused during one of our conversations. “I really believe a mix of the two is the sweet spot.”
But in time the Mangines began to question their decision to live in Haiti. They increasingly wondered if their Haitian children would ever be able to reintegrate into the local culture.
Time was passing; the children were growing up. To prepare one of the older girls to live on her own, Gwenn decided to help her start a business selling fresh juices. One day when they went to the market to buy fruit, Gwenn realized that the girl didn’t know how to barter, an essential skill in Haitian society. She had never had to shop for food before. All her meals had been provided at the home.
Unlike traditional Haitian families, the Mangines celebrated each child’s birthday with a party, and they put on a fairly typical American Christmas, with gifts and lots of food. They had flush toilets and a constant supply of electricity. How could Nick and Gwenn prepare them for the typical Haitian life they’d face when grown?
Their decision was forced when, after six years, Nick became gravely ill with acute appendicitis. He had no choice but to have surgery in a Port-au-Prince hospital—not something anyone would elect to do if there were other options. Afterwards the Mangines made the excruciating decision to move back to North Carolina with their two biological children and the two Haitian boys they’d fully adopted. They found stable homes for the other eight children with relatives in Haiti.
“We really thought we would be there for twenty years,” Gwenn said. “There’s been a lot of grief.” But with distance, she and Nick have come to see that coming home was the right decision. “There’s a lot of debate right now about exactly what a Haitian orphanage should be.” Her tone was more thoughtful than in our previous conversations. “We were able to help these children do a lot of healing, a lot of growing, and we were able to show them what a normal family life looked like. But we were seeing kids from traditional orphanages turn twenty and have to leave. They’d end up on the streets, not knowing how to live.”
More than anything, the Mangines’ time in Haiti taught them that there isn’t just one thing that children in poverty need. “They need everything,” Gwenn said. “You can’t give them that. You need to partner with others who can do different things than you.”
“If someone asked me today, what’s the best way to do this” — to give neglected children a chance for a good life in a poor, utterly dysfunctional society — “I’d say, this is my current theory.” Give them stability and a home, but make certain to help them learn the skills they need to live on their own. Create a network of people to help them, because no one person, or couple, can do it all.
Listening to Gwenn, I thought about how profoundly six years of life under her and Nick’s care must have helped those children. And I thought about the lessons her story holds for us all.
The calculus of serving others is infinitely complex. Over time today’s solutions may turn out to be no more solid than smoke. So a willingness to change course is one of the greatest traits we can cultivate.
Also, it’s absolutely fine to do as much as we can for as long as we can and no longer.
As I look for ways to involve myself more deeply in service, in my new home or elsewhere, I need to remember this. I can take my turn fanning the coals, so that the healing smoke of love wafts toward the heavens. But when my arms tire and I’m struggling to breathe, I must find the grace to let others take over—which is often the most difficult but vital step of all.