Morgan Wienberg was 18 years old when her heart first broke for the children in Haiti suffering in orphanages, separated from their families.
Almost six years later, Wienberg has helped reunite hundreds of kids with their parents and has been recognized for her work with multiple awards, including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, the Rotary International Paul Harris Humanitarian Award and most recently, the Meritorious Service Cross medal, which recognizes Canadians for exceptional deeds that bring honour to Canada.
Weinberg, 24, is from Whitehorse, but her family is originally from Kelowna, where her grandmother still lives.
“When the earthquake hit in 2010, I was just about to graduate from high school and I decided I wanted to go to Haiti and volunteer,” said Wienberg. “I had just planned to go and volunteer for a few months then return to Canada for university.”
However, Weinberg was not prepared for that trip to be the turning point of her life.
“I became introduced to a group of children in a very abusive and corrupt orphanage, and I felt compelled to try and make a difference for those kids,” she said.
“I ended up coming back to Canada, worked several jobs and on my 19th birthday in 2011, I went back to Haiti to live in this orphanage alongside those kids to try and make a difference.”
Wienberg later co-founded a nonprofit organization, Little Footprints, Big Steps, which works to reunite children who have been separated from their parents.
“I mostly work with street children or children abandoned in corrupt orphanages,” she said. “I found out that most of these children had families, but had been given up to this orphanage because the parents couldn’t afford to send them to school and look after them.”
What the parents did not realize was the poor conditions of some of those orphanages, said Wienberg.
“There’s this misconception among most of the parents in rural communities that if their child is in an orphanage, the child will have more support and have a better life,” she said. “In reality, many people use these orphanages as a way to have a business and generate income for themselves, so they’re exploiting the kids.”
Wienberg and her team not only reunite children with their families, but continue to follow up with them.
“I have 11 local employees who are outreach workers who visit the families once we’ve reunited them,” she said.
Weinberg is now looking to expand her organization to help even more people.
“Right now, we’re looking at purchasing land and creating a more sustainable base for our organization,” she said.
“After that. It’s really about developing this focus on family reunification and transitional housing into a model that can be applied throughout Haiti and focus on the institutionalization of child care. I also think that can be applied in other developing countries.”
Little Footprints, Big Steps, is also part of a collaboration focusing on preventing sexual abuse against women and children by training community leaders and elders.
“We were going into communities where people who had murdered or raped others were walking around freely, because people didn’t know how to react,” said Wienberg. “We want to see an increased number of cases reported when it comes to sexual assault, because most of the cases are not being reported.”
While the last five years in Haiti have been full of triumphs for Wienberg, she has experienced more than her fair share of trials and grief.
“To be honest, I think the biggest challenge for me has been the emotional pain of seeing a lot of suffering and a lot of what one human can do to another human and not letting than negativity and pain overcome me,” she said.
“I’ve had children die in my arms, I’ve seen a lot of abuse and corruption. How can a person run an orphanage and let kids die in it just to make money?
“I think the biggest challenge is being able to believe that humans are good and can change and not letting the emotional difficulty take over.”
Knowing the impact she is having on the lives of the kids is what keeps her going every day.
“My motivation has always been my love for these kids,” she said. “My personal connection with each of the children is extremely powerful.”
On March 4, Weinberg will be going to Vancouver to accept the Meritorious Service Cross award.
“Living in Haiti, sometimes I go even weeks without speaking English, and it’s easy to feel kind of on my own or disconnected from Canada,” she said.
“To have the Canadian government recognize what I’m doing sends a very powerful message to me that I feel like Canada is behind me, and just because I’m spending most of my time in Haiti, it doesn’t mean I’m forgotten or any less Canadian. It’s encouraging and it’s a pretty huge honour.”
Weinberg is the 33rd civilian to receive Canada’s Meritorious Service Cross Medal.