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Haiti faults orphanage run by well-off US church

Wednesday - 12/18/2013, 6:40pm  ET

In this Nov. 22, 2013 photo, store manager Jim Digiacoma is reflected in a mirror at the Olde Good Things antique store in New York. 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. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

BEN FOX
Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- 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.

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