When 24-year-old Alexa DeMiglio, one of the founders of the Wings of Refuge Children’s Home, visited Haiti for the first time following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country, she said it "looked like something from a nightmare."
Four months after the quake, the airport was still in a state of disrepair, confusion reigned and a sense of intense desperation charged the atmosphere as beggars haunted the tarmac.
"But there was never the feeling that anyone was going to hurt you," said DeMiglio, a 2006 graduate of New Milford High School. "They were just trying to help you with your bags to get money to feed their families.".
That initial trip, made under the auspices of the Powerhouse Church in Wyckoff, was a turning point for DeMiglio, whose plans for the future previously included using her degree in business and hospitality and restaurant management to "get a good job at a hotel in the city, make tons of money and go traveling — all that good stuff.
"But then I went to Haiti, and my plans just completely changed," she said. "Haiti is where my heart is."
Now every moment when she’s not working at Sanducci’s Trattatoria, her parents’ popular Italian restaurant in River Edge, DeMiglio is laboring on behalf of Wings of Refuge.
That’s where 21 Haitian children, many orphaned as a result of the earthquake, are living under the care of Rev. Roger Wilson, a Haitian minister whose church, Eglise Communion De La Manne Evangelique D’Haiti in Petion-ville, has more than 1,200 parishioners.
Wilson and his wife, Gladys, also operate five satellite churches in remote locations around the country.
The children who live at Wings of Refuge, which is on the verge of gaining official 501(3)c charity status, all go to school.
Six of the older children, between the ages of 8 and 10, attend classes off site. The rest of the children, excluding an infant, attend school on site. Their typical day includes playtime after lunch, time for homework assignments, sitting down for dinner and saying prayers before bed.
On weekends, Stevenson Germain organizes games, coloring activities and dancing, which they love.
When DeMiglio visits — she’s been to Haiti six times since May 2010 — she "spoils them" by playing "Tom and Jerry" cartoons for them on her laptop.
"They love it when I come, but I get yelled at for doing it," DeMiglio said with a laugh.
The Petion-ville home where the children live is at capacity with 21 occupants, which is why DeMiglio is organizing a benefit concert on April 20 — to raise money to construct a more spacious and permanent facility that will be able to accommodate as many as 50 children on a parcel of land Rev. Wilson and his wife received years ago as a wedding present.
At the concert, which is being sponsored by the New Milford Boosters, the Nerds and Shaved Ham — both well-known New Jersey cover bands — will perform.
The event will take place at Conlon Hall in Bergenfield, a venue which was an obvious choice for DeMiglio because "it was the biggest place I could find."
She said she expects to fill the space to its 500-person capacity "for sure."
In addition to raising funds, her goal is to reach out to as wide an audience as possible to spread awareness about the effort.
"The people who come to see the bands might not necessarily want to have anything to do with Haiti," DeMiglio said, "but the hope is that once we get them through the door, we can make them think twice and plant a seed in their minds."
Like the one planted in the minds of five students at Ramapo College in Mahwah, who spent their spring break in Haiti assisting the cause. They had collected more than 350 pairs of shoes and raised money for the home by selling T-shirts. While there, they held businesses sessions with young adults, speaking on such topics as how to start a business and developing accounting, management, marketing and computer skills.
As for the benefit’s $50 ticket price, DeMiglio said she had some push-back.
"Someone said to me, ‘$50? That’s a lot of money. What am I getting for that?’ " DeMiglio said. "Well, people are getting a dance party and bands, but I think the real question isn’t, ‘What am I getting,’ it’s ‘What are you giving?’ "
All of the proceeds will go toward the children’s home.
Harking back to her first trip to Haiti, DeMiglio said she remembers feeling a sense of hopelessness which, by the end of her stay, had completely dissipated in the face of the people she had met.
Despite having lost so much, "the people in Haiti have such hope and faith you just don’t see" in the our country, she said.
"They’re always willing to help each other out even if they don’t have anything. The people I met were so giving of themselves."
Although DeMiglio can share many inspirational stories about those she’s met in Haiti, she finds the one about Yolanda particularly poignant.
Yolanda was trapped with her newborn for three days in the rubble of the earthquake. Her baby died in her arms, and she had to have her leg amputated.
DeMiglio met Yolanda only a few months later.
"She had a beautiful smile," DeMiglio said, "but you could tell how much hurt there was in her eyes."
When a boy who accompanied DeMiglio on the mission gave Yolanda a pair of sturdy crutches to replace the rickety pair she’d been using, she "lit up like we’d given her a million dollars."
Now, whenever DeMiglio returns to Haiti, she sees Yolanda, who has since given birth to a boy.
DeMiglio said stories like this and people like Yolanda are what motivates her return trips to Haiti.
On her most recent visit, her seventh, DeMiglio shot video footage to show at the benefit concert.
"But the purpose of my trip [was] also kind of selfish," DeMiglio said. "I just miss my kids!"