BY JENNIFER RAWLINGS      ( originally published in Change.org) ( photos courtesy John Fugelsang)

I woke up at 6:00 A.M to make my way to the porta-potty. The sun was already blazing hot. It was my third and final day on one of the most meaningful trips of my life.

There was a long line for breakfast that morning. It was one of the last days they were going to be serving a hot breakfast at the base – steak and eggs was on the menu. Pretty soon it was going to be dry cereal, pop-tarts, or MRE’s scrambled eggs that have a very unnatural shelf life of three years and don’t need to be refrigerated.

There was no breeze in the chow tent and I was already starting to sweat. I picked at my eggs and sipped my coffee. I wasn’t at breakfast for the food; I was there for the conversation. John Fugelsang and I were eating breakfast with a large group of soldiers and airmen.

I asked the men and women sitting at breakfast what the most meaningful part of their deployment had been. “The chance to help others” was the universal response from everyone at the table. The other common thread was the pride in the work they were doing in Haiti.

John and I were going with a group of soldiers to an orphanage. Our leader  was “Chief Jerry”. He is Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force- the highest enlisted rank. Jerry goes to the orphanages as often as he can to help out in any way that he can. He brought along several bags of candy to give to the kids.

In square miles, Haiti is about the same size as Maryland. The population is approximately 9 million, slightly larger than New York City. However there are a staggering number of orphanages: well over 120 full time/licensed orphanages. This does not include all the makeshift orphanages that take in children. Sadly, the number of orphanages is not nearly enough to meet the need. Most orphans are forced to live on the streets by themselves.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of orphans in Haiti. It was estimated that before the earthquake there were 360,000 orphans. Many experts believe that the number of orphans has doubled since the devastating earthquake.

A cheery thirteen-foot wall with a simple gate was the first indication that I was visiting someplace very special in Haiti. The New Life Children’s Home (est.1977) was a short distance from the Port-Au Prince airport.

A large, shady fruit tree is one of the first things you notice when you arrive on the property. There are several plantation style buildings with open doors to greet you. The first building I walked into was a large assembly room with a stage and a ramp to the stage for wheelchairs. The soldiers built this ramp as well as the railings. This room is used for assemblies, church, and for medical and dental clinics.

Next was the kitchen. It was spotless, despite serving three meals a day to over a hundred children and the staff. Many of the staff members grew up surrounded by these walls as orphans themselves.

The kids all go to school on the premises; I walked into an art class where five teenage boys were painting with watercolors. The paintings were beautiful and diverse. Each boy was working on a different landscape or setting. The boys worked peacefully side by side with one another absorbed in their art.

In the back of the orphanage is a playground and a large shady area.  Young girls played on the slide and boys were chasing one another on the merry-go-around.  Several children in wheel chairs sat on the porch in the shade. New Life does not turn children away due to medical needs or conditions. Sadly, many of these children are profoundly handicapped  with problems that could have been addressed at birth with simple antibiotics or other treatments. But since there is no basic medical care in Haiti a simple problem at birth manifests itself into a life long struggle.

There was a young girl about six years of age. She was lying on a stretcher against the wall. Her limbs were curled and brittle, like that of an old woman.  She couldn’t speak, but she communicated with me by pulling on my necklace. I shooed a fly away from her face and she tugged at my necklace to hold me there.

Two of the boys in wheelchairs had severely swollen heads. I am told that in most countries this condition would have been treated at birth with antibiotics. Years have passed and now it is too late to treat them. They will spend their short lives confined to a wheelchair.

Another boy, ten, in an orange shirt and a huge smile gave me a hug. He lost both of his parents and his right leg to the earthquake.

Daniel, probably nine months old, is a success story at the orphanage. He was born with webbed hands and webbed feet, his eyes are crooked and cannot track. The day after I held Daniel he was flown to the United States for surgery. He cannot be adopted at the time but the Haitian government has given him permission to leave for medical treatment,

Time was flying by too quickly. I wanted to spend the whole day with the kids but our flight was leaving soon so we had to start saying our goodbyes.

Chief Jerry took out the candy and the kids clamored around him waiting to get a piece. They pulled on his jacket and hugged his legs. It was  apparent from the smile on Jerry’s face that the orphanage and seeing these kids has been the most meaningful part of his deployment.  The kids came back for seconds and thirds embracing a moment of “normal” in their world that has been painted with grief.