If anyone had an excuse not to be a missionary, it was Danita Estrella. She was young, single, a woman, broke and inexperienced in missions work.
But tomorrow morning, Danita, 36, will wake up to the sounds of happy children rising for their day in one of the poorest areas in Haiti--the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. She'll lie on her bunk bed and stare at the ceiling a few inches from her face as the children whisper and giggle down the hall. She will awaken more than a missionary. She is a mother--to almost 30.
Alone, she has started the Hope for Haiti orphanage.
Her story began as a happy little girl raised in a Christian home. Then when her parents divorced, she began to question the faith she was reared in.
"I moved to California and lived the good life. I had the fancy car, lovely apartment and glamorous job doing promotional modeling. Then my life crashed again, and I found myself running back to the Lord."
She moved back to Florida and became active in church work. "I had been living for the Lord for almost 10 years, and I began to feel very unsettled. Though I was part of a wonderful ministry at Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Florida, I felt there had to be more that God wanted me to do," she recalls.
"As a child my father had taken me to Haiti, and when I got a chance to go there on a short medical mission, I knew something was happening. When the trip was over, I found myself anxious to return to Haiti. Two months later, I packed my bags and moved to Haiti alone."
Danita sought out a work she could help. She found it in the local church and in a concrete block building that was home to a Christian school in the heart of Ouanaminthe, Haiti.
"The condition the children lived in around this school broke my heart. They wandered the streets naked all day. This town has no running water, no electricity, no phones... [and] no jobs.
"The people are hungry, survival is all they know. They leave their children alone all day to try to get food and water. Some parents go to the Dominican Republic in search of a better life ...and abandon these poor children."
Danita spent the first few months without clear direction from God. Then it happened: "I was eating alone in an open-air restaurant when I noticed the homeless children watching the customers eat. One little boy came close to my table and was watching me carefully, trying to position himself to grab whatever food I had left over.
"I looked into his soft brown eyes, and I couldn't give him my leftovers. I told him to wait; I wanted to buy him his own meal." As Danita turned to place the order, a man charged the little one with a huge whip. "The man used the same whip he had been herding cattle with to beat this small, helpless child!
"For a moment, I froze. The screams of the child could be heard up the street. In a spilt second, I was out of my chair and on that man. The people on the street were shocked, but not as shocked as this man was. I grabbed him and shook him in defense of the child."
When the man backed down, Danita gathered up the children and fed them. "I walked away with tears streaming down my face. I knew I would never be the same."
An Unlikely Missionary
The Christian school became Danita's initiation into ministry. Grateful for the help, they gave her a place to sleep--a cot in a classroom. "Those months were hard," she said as she toured the grounds recently, with dozens of school children hugging her. "Back then, the school had no electricity. [It now has a generator.] So when it got dark, it got real dark. The only bathroom was across a dirt 'hallway' and behind a locked door.
"In total darkness, alone in the middle of the night, little noises became big noises. I had no way to know if there was a pig outside or someone who might harm me. If I turned on a flashlight, the bugs would attack the light, so thick in the air, I was almost breathing them."
But Danita had a vision. "I wanted to open an orphanage, to take in only children who had lost their parents, children like the ones begging for scraps at that restaurant."
For many months she lived in that schoolroom, with only her prayer life to chase away her fears in the dark and keep alive her dream to rescue children. Then finally last fall, a building came available. Built by a somewhat wealthy family (by Haitian standards) as a future retirement home, the modest stucco building had more to offer than even Danita knew at the time.
Less than half a mile from the Dominican Republic border, the home offered needed access to relative civilization on the "other side." In the Dominican Republic there are grocery stores, phones, lights and places to eat.
Danita signed a lease for $450 and moved in alone. On Christmas Eve 1999, she spent the night all by herself in that empty dark house. She went from cot to cot, praying for the children she knew God would soon send her way.
"One verse became my mission verse: 'Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy'" (Prov. 31:8-9, NKJV).
By Christmas 2000, the verse came alive as every bed was filled. Happy laughter of children celebrating Christmas for the first time filled the air. There were toys and carols, good food and smiles.
And there was one other sign that the outreach was growing. In the street was an eight-foot panel truck, painted bright yellow with the Metro Ministries logo on the side. Bill Wilson of the well-known Brooklyn, New York, ministry raised the money to buy this truck so Danita could also do sidewalk Sunday school.
"Bill has been my greatest encourager. From day one, he said to me, 'I know you can do this.' He gave me advice that no money can buy. He got us this truck that has allowed me to minister to hundreds of children outside our doors.
"All I have to do is park this truck, open it up and start the sound system. I have a crowd so large, so fast that I have to ask the parents to step back and bring the children forward so they can hear."
Wilson speaks of Danita in a quiet hush: "She reminds me of me when I was 30 years old and people told me I couldn't start a ministry in New York. That was in the days where there was no inner-city work. But I did it, and Danita is going to do it too."
As Danita walks through the mud hut village behind the children's home, an older woman walks up to her, holding the hand of a naked child, no more than 3 years old. They converse, and Danita shakes her head. "The woman wants to give the baby to me," she explains. "It happens all the time. Parents here try to pass off their children so there is one less mouth to feed, more food to go around. It is all about survival.
"But my heart is for orphans. Pastors from the churches around here bring me children when their parents die," she says, pausing. "And they die young here. A few months ago, a pastor came to me because a young mother had died in her sleep. She was only 32 years old. She wasn't sick; she just died.
"The father was unable to care for the children alone, so he brought me his four children. The oldest was 8, and the youngest was only 6 months old. As I was getting the children settled, I asked the father for some basic information. When he started telling me the children's names, he stopped. He had to ask the oldest what the baby's name was."
Children left at the orphanage show no signs of separation anxiety--just the opposite. For the first time in their young lives, they have meals, regular wholesome meals. They have clothes to wear and shoes for their feet. Well fed and cared for, the children are then ready to learn. Every day, the children are taught basic education and that God loves them.
This part of her ministry extends beyond the 26 children who call the orphanage home. Danita visited the homes nearest her and found 50 other children who were not attending school.
"Here in Haiti, there is public school, but it is very overcrowded and badly run. Worse, you have to buy books and a uniform to attend. So if a child's parents can't afford these--and most can't--they stay home."
Danita handpicked her 50 students from those unable to attend public school. They lived closest to her--most literally a stone's throw away.
She started her own school, where the children are also taught about Jesus. "It's not enough to just learn about the Lord in Sunday school when you live in these conditions. They need daily instruction if it is going to make a difference."
Life is hard for the people of Haiti, but even more so for the children--especially the sick ones.
"One of my little boys has always been sickly. His name is Gee, and he is 4 years old. His mother had died. Gee had no one but his little sister.
"Almost from the first day he was here, I started taking him to the doctor. But medical care here is really terrible, and he kept getting even sicker. Finally, I was so frightened for him that I got a permit to take him to Santo Domingo, a torturous five-hour bus drive.
"Since he didn't have a passport, the legal red tape and delays dragged on. Finally they admitted him and found he had [tuberculosis] and was HIV-positive."
The doctor was very direct with Danita: "Just leave him here to die. It's not your baby. Why put yourself through this?"
Horrified at the thought of leaving this poor, sick child alone to die, Danita settled in for a few days at what was known as the Dominican's finest children's hospital.
"They took us to a ward, a huge room filled with 14 children. Most of them had been abandoned by their parents," she says. "I guess when you have four children, and one is sick, and the other three will starve if you stay with the dying one, you feel you have no choice. My heart broke for these children.
"Worse--the nurses there are so overworked and understaffed that they must depend on the parents to care for their children. But if the child is abandoned, then they look to the other mothers to care for the sickest children as well as their own."
But most of the children had no one. "I remember the doctor walking in one night and standing over a frail little girl. 'Has anyone fed this child today?' she asked. The other mothers and I looked at one another. One had given her juice, but that was all. The child had not been fed for only God knows how long.
"The nurses came in and asked if one of us would help hold a 5-year-old girl named Erica so that she could put an IV in her. This little girl was HIV-positive, and there was no one to care for her.
"I held her close as the nurse tried over and over to find a vein. The baby would scream with all her might and fight to get away from the pain. I lost count after the nurse stuck that baby for the ninth time. Her cries filled the room as the woman callously poked and prodded with the sharp needle. Finally I couldn't do it any more. The nurse gave up with a shrug and turned without a backward glance, 'Let her die in peace.'"
The next day, the girl died alone in her filthy bed. Danita left the hospital with Gee hours later. The hospital offered no help, no hope.
"As I packed Gee's bag and fled that terrible place, I started praying a prayer I refused to give up: 'Lord Jesus, these children need a clinic, with a doctor that cares, with medicine and clean instruments. Father, speak to a nurse or doctor to come here and care for these babies.'"
Though it would be easy to be discouraged, Danita has a vision of what God will do. She looks over her orphanage and speaks with conviction. "See this field," she says as she waves her hand over an empty lot, littered with trash.
"Last year, the Lord spoke to me to buy this land. I took out a loan for $10,000 with no idea how I could pay it. But I knew this land was vital to our future. It is right behind the orphanage, the only available land for us to grow and for the children to have a place to play.
"A few weeks later I was in New York, and a woman who I had never met gave me an anonymous gift that was enough to pay off the loan, plus buy shoes and uniforms for all of my children. There will be a medical clinic here one day so my children will have real care. There will be a playground so that my children can run and jump and climb in safety. Every child needs a place to play, and right now, all we have is the street...but we will have a playground someday."
Just a short time ago, the lights went on for the first time at the Hope for Haiti orphanage as a donated generator was finally installed. That also brought running water to the home.
Another blessing was Nancy Soto, another woman who had "every excuse" not to be a missionary. She has committed one year to living at Hope for Haiti and pouring herself into Danita's children. At press time Nancy was taking legal steps to adopt the youngest orphan, Rose Marie.
The most urgent need facing the home now is acquiring the building they are in. "I signed a lease that allowed me to rent it for a few more months, but if I don't buy it for $75,000 by the end of the lease, they will sell it to someone else. Several people have approached the owner expressing an interest, so we have to raise these funds quickly."
For someone who had every excuse not to be a missionary, Danita has done a remarkable job. And it's just the beginning--a wonderful example of what one life can do.
Mary Hutchinson is a writer based in Boston. Christian Life Missions is raising funds to help Danita's orphanage. Tax-deductible gifts can be made payable to Christian Life Missions, P.O. Box 952248, Lake Mary, FL 32795-2248, marked "Hope for Haiti."