One woman's mission in Haiti to build back better

Karen Huxter is a woman of many names. Helicopter. Little Red-haired Firecracker. And perhaps most fitting of all, holder of the Creole title, Fe Tout Bagay, meaning "She who does everything."

Karen Huxter is a woman of many nicknames. Helicopter. Little Red-haired Firecracker. And perhaps most fitting of all, holder of the Creole title, Fe Tout Bagay, meaning she is one who "does everything."

A petite redhead with a big heart, the Newfoundlander rarely sits down. She's constantly buzzing from one Spartan building to another at her orphanage and school compound in central Haiti's rural Artibonite Valley. Hence, the "Helicopter" nickname bequeathed upon her by the all-Haitian staff.

The Hands Across the Sea, or HATS, compound is located a short drive along a narrow stream, near Deschappelles.

Before even entering the compound gate of the non-profit, the thump of hammering and rasp of shovels digging into sand can be heard, a fitting symbol of the hive of activity within.

Ever since the Jan. 12 earthquake shattered the already struggling tiny Caribbean nation, construction on the compound has been non-stop — not only to fix the buildings cracked by Haiti's worst quake in 200 years, but to put up new ones and improve the old.

Tracking the money

Karen Huxter takes pride in her organization's transparency. "I send out photos constantly," she says. "I want to report everything."

One of the examples of the donations Huxter received after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake was a $50,000 gift from St. John's City Council. As with many of her donations, she is documenting everything carefully and sending reports, including pictures and detailed spreadsheets, to the council.

Here’s a summary of the work she has done with the $50,000: 


Cost of cleaning up and building a cement fence to enclose a third piece of land intended for school and community use.


Repairing the quake-damaged administrative building.


Half the cost of constructing a new Water Tower Building after the first was damaged in the quake.


Remaining money to be spent on another project.

'Build Back Better' is a tagline bandied about regularly in talk about the recovery of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and among the poorest in the world.

Non-stop construction

Whereas signs of the earthquake are still visible across the country — pancaked buildings, including the presidential palace, and large piles of rubble (only five per cent has been transported to landfills) — here on Huxter's small property, recovery and construction has been swift.

The list of completed construction projects is long: rebuilding a cracked wall at the school, constructing a new water tower to replace the damaged one, an addition for potential live-in workers and cleaning up a piece of land for community and school use. A new residence for the children is also under construction.

Port-au-Prince is almost at a "standstill" by comparison, says Huxter. "It is really frustrating. It's frustrating for us in my little corner of the world, trying to help people. I can not go to Port-au-Prince without crying … because I don't see any advancement. I don't see where things have really changed for any of the people. So I'm asking the same questions: Where is the money? What is done with it?"

Keeping donors informed, via blogs, photos and emails, is a key part of what the non-profit does, says Huxter. As important is that the money stays in the Haitian community, with an all Haitian staff.

When our CBC crew enters the large compound gates, Huxter, adorned with children clinging to her every limb, greets us and says, "Before you go any further, the kids want to show you their house."

Guiding us to the nearest building, an all-purpose structure housing the children, a dining room and a newly built apartment for a couple Huxter hopes will join the mission to help run it, she highlights even the smallest improvements.

"We ran out of fabric for curtains. The team that was just here painted inside the house. My daughter and her group, so the kids are really proud of the paint on the walls," she says, as she whirrs from one room to another.

Her voice is hoarse. She lost it a day prior but that doesn't stop the stream of words, Haitian Creole to the children and English to us. "This is the mother's room. We have two mothers sharing one room until the other house is finished," she says.

The mothers are two Haitian women who act as caregivers for the 15 children, aged one to 15, now living at Huxter's orphanage. The term caregivers seems too clinical. "Mothers" seems apt.

Filling a need

Huxter, too, is a mother, not just to the children here. In fact, it was her daughter who first lured the feisty 65-year-old to the tiny island nation.

"She came down to Haiti to visit me — sort of to visit me. To visit her first granddaughter," says Liette Wilson, 39, of Calgary. The granddaughter was an adopted Haitian.  
One of the 15 children living at Karen Huxter's orphanage. Huxter keeps the numbers low so she can spend time with each one. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))
"She came to meet [her] and kind of fell in love with Haiti and came back six weeks later and hasn't left since."

At the time, in the spring of 1995, Huxter's daughter, Wilson, was just starting a 2.5-year stint in the country, working for Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Deschappelles. But Huxter saw a need for something more in the community — an orphanage.

"I remember thinking 'Oh, she's crazy,'" said Wilson. "She didn't have any funding. She didn't have any backers. She just saw a need."

Armed with $78,000, her entire life savings, Huxter started a small operation, at first in a rented building. Over the years, as Huxter poured her boundless energy into the project, it grew into a full-fledged orphanage and later a school for 303 area children.

"The rest of her life was leading up to this," says Wilson, noting an assortment of previous jobs as a bookkeeper, school secretary and project manager.

Always planning

And from then on, the "tiny red-haired dynamo" was dedicated to one thing, with unparalleled focus, says Wilson: doing "everything she can in her power to make her corner of the world a better place."

One compromise Huxter made in her pursuit of that goal was to limit the numbers of children allowed in the orphanage at Hands Across the Sea.

"I'm never going over 20 [kids] at one time," says Huxter. "When you have too many children, you don't have time for them. And I believe in having time with them. I can't put their care into somebody else. … I need to be part of it."

That said, Huxter does admit she needs help. Right now she's looking for a couple (preferably with a handyman inclusive) who will live on site in a new residence she has built. "I need help. I'm running this whole thing," she says in a quieter, hoarse voice.

The compound is expansive — and still expanding. Huxter is unsure of the acreage, but it consists of three separate but side-by-side properties. One houses the orphanage compound, and another is for the school.

The third property is in the midst of a large-scale revamp. Weeks were spent converting the former cockfighting pen-turned-communal toilet to make it safe and raising a solid, cement fence to keep people out. The plan is for schoolchildren to be able use it to play soccer and perhaps open it to community use.

"I'm the plan lady," says Huxter. "What can I say. There's always something to be done."

Huxter's singular focus on helping children — and her compassion for them — is what first inspired Yarmouth, N.S., resident, Gerry Rhyno, to get involved in Huxter's project.

"She's very passionate about what she's doing and the children," said Rhyno, who serves as chairman of Hands Across the Sea's Canadian board of directors. "It's all about the children for her and that's how it should be."

That said, Rhyno and other board members have been fighting to make sure Huxter also takes care of herself.

Huxter doesn't take a salary — never has — and Rhyno says at one point she was "living off a credit card" for personal expenses and giving all donations allotted for Huxter to the children. The board now insists that Huxter actually use the money donors earmark for her personal expenses.

Rhyno first learned of Huxter's work when he heard her make an impassioned speech at a Yarmouth church. On a trip to Haiti (he travels frequently to help with similar Christian missions), he visited Huxter and offered to help.

It wasn't until a year later that she took the insurance agent up on his offer, asking him to help construct the school that now houses 303 students, 180 of which are sponsored, mostly by Canadians. He has been closely involved ever since.

Defying expectations

An example of Huxter's compassion is nowhere as evident as in the boy called Ti Luckner, or Little Luckner, who lives in her administrative building with her.

In 2005, a hospital employee rang Huxter to tell her a premature and sickly baby, weighing less than four pounds, had been abandoned by his mother and asked Huxter to take him in. It was a familiar request from the hospital. But the difference was Luckner's prognosis. He might never talk or walk and would be extremely handicapped, they said.

Ti Luckner, 5, and Leica, 6, are inseparable friends at the orphanage. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

"She said, 'I mean that's fine that you're making your predictions but every child deserves a chance,'" Huxter's daughter, Liette Wilson, says.

"She's taken him in and loved him ever since. And he is handicapped but he is just a bundle of sunshine. And he walks on his own now and he talks and he's going to school … and is defying everybody's expectations of him."

Huxter is in the process of adopting the five-year-old boy, so she can help him seek temporary treatment for his suspected cerebral palsy. She expects Luckner will live with her the rest of her life.

With the little boy, as with all the children at the orphanage, Huxter's commitment does not end when the finish school. She has big dreams for them all.

"My focus is to get them educated," says Huxter. "To teach them morals and integrity and to bring them up with an education. I'll find money for university if they will stay and go with it. And then try to keep them in their country, to make a difference. That's what I believe in."