Organizers behind the inaugural “Run to End Restavek” 5K couldn’t be happier with the results.
It wasn’t about winning.
It wasn’t about losing.
It wasn’t about this trophy or that finishing time.
It wasn’t even about the proceeds.
It was about public awareness and signaling a call to action against a crime being willingly committed in a small Caribbean nation not so very many miles south of America’s southern coast. The catch is that Restavek is an accepted part of Haitian culture, but most modern societal values — including America’s — say otherwise.
That’s why a slew of churches, missionaries and nonprofits like the Restavek Freedom Foundation are working together in the field to change this Haitian system that is exploiting as many as 300,000 children, most of whom are girls ranging in age from 5 to 15.
One of the newest mission workers to join the cause is Tammy Rockwell, a professional photographer who has teamed with the Cleveland-based RFF to work toward ending the Restavek way of life — and not by mass condemnation of an existing culture, but by education and providing improved opportunity for the poverty-stricken Haitian people who are still reeling from the devastating earthquake of January 2010.
“In theory, [Restavek] is a practice where children are sent to live with others so that they can have a better life,” Rockwell, who uses her camera lens as a tool of global awareness, told the Cleveland Daily Banner in a previous interview. “[But] the reality is different than the theory. The reality is children living in horrible conditions. They are often beaten until they bleed, and many are raped. They are not treated as children of the Creator; these children are slaves.”
Rockwell, whose international mission work over the past three years has included endeavors in Cambodia and Africa, was drawn into the Haitian campaign through her work with the Church of God Headquarters Women’s Discipleship Department — one of four key sponsors of the Restavek Freedom Foundation which was founded in 2007 by Ray and Joan Conn.
Others include Lee University, Perry and Pam Stone, and the North Cleveland Church of God Women’s Ministry Department.
“For restavek children, insults, beatings and rape are the norm,” Rockwell said. “The Restavek Freedom Foundation is fighting for these children, and by doing so they are fighting for the development of Haiti, because as Joan Conn said, ‘Haiti will rise when all Haitians are allowed to rise.’”
Returning to her Cleveland home of 10 years following a recent mission trip to Haiti that left her emotionally drained, Rockwell committed to taking an action that would raise money for the RFF cause, but more importantly raise community awareness. Education is a tool for change, she cited — and making people aware spurs the moral conscience that supports education.
She chose a 5K “Fun Run” as her vehicle, and that’s what brought a small army of participants, volunteers and supporters together on a cold Saturday morning that shared the Cleveland spotlight with an array of other activities on Veterans Day Weekend.
Sixty advocates answered the call. Some walked the “Fun Run.” Some strolled. Most ran.
One was 17-year-old Collin Gwaltney, a Bradley Central High School senior and member of the Bears track and cross-country teams.
Gwaltney heard about the “Fun Run” from his girlfriend who is a close friend to Rockwell. He had heard about Restavek, but he didn’t know a lot about it.
“I thought this was a good cause to run for,” the teen said after crossing the finish line. He was the first male runner to do so with a time of 18:29.
He enjoyed the run, as he does most 5Ks, but he supports the cause even more.
“I like running 5Ks, but really the cause is what helped me to decide to run on a cold day like this,” Gwaltney stressed.
Rachel Tarver, an 18-year-old senior attending Walker Valley High School who was the first female runner to finish at 21:54, agreed with her Bear competitor.
“I heard about this from Lindsey [Gwaltney’s girlfriend], so I thought it was a good cause to run for,” she said.
Of Restavek, she said she was aware of it through conversation.
“... I’ve talked about it to people who have gone on mission trips [to Haiti],” Tarver said. “I realize it is a serious issue, and it needs to be stopped. I think this is a good way to raise money to stop it and to raise awareness.”
Sierra Green, a 14-year-old freshman who also attends WVHS and who finished as part of Tarver’s immediate shadow at 21:55, said running is a personal joy, but her decision to join the Run to End Restavek was exactly that — a commitment to help make a difference.
“I love running, but I think this is a really great reason to run,” she said. “I really believe that this whole thing [Restavek] needs to be stopped, and I’m really glad that I got to support it today.”
The younger crowd dominated the finish line, but others were just as vocal in their support of the RFF’s mission work.
“When this race was announced to raise money to end Restavek, I just wanted to get involved,” said Brian Conn, director of Public Information at Lee University.
He is a member of the same Conn family that is dedicating its time, energy and resources to helping the Haitian people to rise above third-world traditions like Restavek. Conn, who has run 5Ks for the past decade, praised Rockwell’s initiative in drumming up support for her impassioned cause.
“I feel good about being a part of this ... in whatever kind of small part that I can play,” Conn said prior to the start of Saturday’s race. “I think Lee University and many of these other organizations are all about ‘making a difference.’”
He added, “As big as the problems may be [in Haiti], or as unlikely as it may seem that we can do something about it here in Cleveland, I think the prevailing attitude is everybody can make a difference. It’s a good feeling to be a part of things like this.”
Conn acknowledged before his family became involved in the fight against Restavek — Ray Conn is his brother, Joan is his sister-in-law — that he knew little about the moral dilemma facing hundreds of thousands of Haitian children.
“I had no idea,” he said. “I did not know what a restavek was. I wouldn’t have known it had anything to do with the slavery of children. Most of what I know about it has been from their (RFF) work over there, and then coming back [to America] and talking to us about it.”
Jim Welch, social services director for the Salvation Army-Cleveland Corps, and his wife, Zandra, who is no stranger to community causes like Volley for a Cure, worked Saturday as volunteers to support a fellow nonprofit entity. Both are aware of the plight facing Haiti, and both acknowledged they continue to learn more and more about Restavek.
Welch, who has taken three mission trips to Haiti, said “... it’s unreal how many orphans there are in Haiti.” In Port-Au-Prince alone, “... there must be an orphanage on every corner.” Such conditions can become the breeding ground for a system of child exploitation like Restavek.
“... There are so many orphans that people will take them into their homes and make slaves out of them,” Welch said.
And the Haitian government?
“The government there is in chaos anyway,” he stressed. “The political atmosphere there has been crazy for 20 years now. Since the earthquake, it’s even worse.”
Welch acknowledged one of the dilemmas facing Haiti, and foreign missionaries, is that Restavek is an accepted part of the Caribbean nation’s culture. Many in Haiti are beginning to recognize, especially Haitian pastors, that the system is wrong, but the wheels of change still turn slowly.
Zandra Welch, who pointed out her 22-year-old daughter is a missionary, credited Rockwell’s passion for wanting to bring justice to the children of Haiti.
“It just became a mission for her to do something,” Zandra said of Rockwell. “It may seem small to some people, but every little bit helps. We all have different passions, but when it comes to mission work I get it.”
Saturday’s turnout raised funds for a second Transitional House that is under construction now in Port Salut, Rockwell said. The first facility in Port-Au-Prince currently houses 13 young girls who RFF is working to educate and to provide better opportunity than they would have had as abused restaveks.
“I’m really happy with how many we had to turn out this morning,” Rockwell said of the 8 a.m. run. In between cloud-covered shivers, the Pure Light Photography owner added, “It’s cold this morning, so it takes a pretty dedicated person to turn out in this.”
Regardless of the mercury, Rockwell said she is already planning next year’s Cleveland run. Likely, it will be held the same weekend, but the site could change. Saturday’s trail run was more of a cross-country event held on the site of the old Rolling Hills Golf Course, which is now owned by Westmore Church of God.
Rockwell wants the next Restavek run to be a certified 5K. She chose the road race idea because of the popularity of running and walking.
“I’m not a runner,” she said. “But I know a lot of people are runners. So this seems to be an effective way of raising awareness and raising funds. That’s why we chose it.”
Rockwell said she wants to promote public awareness of Restavek among all age groups — not just the young, not just the old and not just the in between, but everyone.
“I think all ages can do something,” she said. “No matter what their age is, everyone can contribute something ... even if it’s just spreading the word.”
Preparing to return to Haiti in mid-January, Rockwell stressed her work in the States is all about awareness.
“It is about raising awareness of an issue that is not far off our own coast,” she said. “Human trafficking and child slavery are growing, and people don’t seem to understand that it’s not far off our coast, and it’s here today. So we’re trying to raise awareness of that.”
Rockwell admits diverting Haitian culture away from Restavek is a long journey. But it’s well worth doing, she said.
“We’re starting to make in-roads with the churches and with the pastors,” she pointed out. Rockwell alluded to a recent email from Joan Conn that credited a Haitian pastor as admitting in a recent conference, “I know this isn’t right. I know I have to bring these children to church. I have to treat them as if they’re my own.”
In keeping with Joan Conn’s philosophy, “... the key is education,” Rockwell said.
“We’re doing a lot of literacy work in Haiti and a lot of education,” she said. “If you can educate them, that’s the key to changing the system.”
In a restavek home, children in bondage begin their work at dawn.
According to Rockwell, “They clean bedpans, careful not to leave traces of feces or urine. They fill [water] pails at the well, struggling under the weight of the water as they carry it home. They cook breakfast, but when the family eats, the child continues to serve.”
The biggest heartbreak is how many restaveks are beaten and many are sexually abused by the same adults who have agreed to take the youngsters into their home in order to give them a better chance in life, Rockwell said.
Of the work by the Restavek Freedom Foundation, and other nonprofits that are sharing in the cause, Rockwell admits it’s a long haul, but progress is being made.
“I think it’s a good future,” she said of the cross-Caribbean efforts.
But it will require a lot more work, and accomplishments will be measured in steps, not miles.
That’s why Run to End Restavek 2014 is already on the drawing board.