She sits in The Cafe, fresh-faced, professionally-dressed, as the midday light filters into the pavilion, providing a golden hue against the wood decor. There’s a glow about her, perhaps because she’s sitting down next to her new husband or maybe because she’s about to enjoy a delicious lunch, one of Papillon’s famous hot dogs with a side of seasoned fries. I slide in beside her, watching as she paints her food with ketchup, a staple of the Haitian diet, and she flashes me a smile, one that arguably lights up any room she graces. Her face is soft, her expression inviting, like that of a dear friend I’ve just reconnected with after knowing one another for years. But in reality, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to sit face-to-face with her, hearing her story, catching a glimpse of her heart.
Her name is Shirley, better known as Ti Shirley (Little Shirley) amongst her Papillon co-workers and family. And at just twenty two years old, she has made remarkable progress as not only an employee of the company, but as a woman in a culture often suppressing them.
What do you want to know? She giggles as she clasps her hands in her lap, pushing her food aside for a moment, fully prepared to answer any and every question I might throw her way. I wonder the same thing, as there is so much more to learn about someone than can be acquired in a few minutes, or even a few hours. But what strikes me more about Shirley than the factual details of her personal history is her personality, her decision to marry at such a young age and her choice, yes, her choice, to adopt an infant who had been abandoned by his biological mother.
Shirley first sought a position at Papillon as a teenager, eager and determined to work to support her mother. But after a small mishap on her first day, Shirley vowed never to step through the gates of Papillon again. However, she found herself on the front steps the following day with the realization that an income was more important than her pride. But over the next several months, there was a quality about Shirley which she hid from Shelley, six months she recalls. While Shirley had impeccable English skills, she chose to speak only Creole until, one afternoon, she noticed a mistake in her pay. She was, at the time, one of two Shirley’s receiving a monthly paycheck. Shirley noticed the error and quickly confronted management, in perfect English, a turning point in Shirley’s life and her career (and thus, the nickname Ti Shirley). She soon began working in the office translating, eventually leading her to where she is today – the production manager.
It is not only her employment that is impressive, but also her marital status. It is a rare commitment amongst not only those her age, but it is not often Haitians will marry, for various different reasons. I thought he was pretentious, she laughs, glancing back at Abdias, her husband of just over three months. But she pushed that first impression aside, giving him a second chance, and they soon became friends, developing a relationship based upon friendship, perhaps their secret to maintaining a healthy idea of marriage. But I read through her eyes, he chimes in, assuring me the feelings were mutual. They made their relationship official soon after he returned from a trip to Belgium in 2014. And on June 3, of this year, they were married, before family and friends in the church where they first met. And while they both attest to the fact that living together poses its challenges, there is great joy, the greatest being the baby they are now raising together.
About a year ago, a baby was found near Papillon in a ditch surrounded by trash, horrifying conditions for a small life. Shirley, at just twenty one years old, knew being the mother to this baby was something she was called to do. She texted Abdias, who was both surprised and confused by the news. Resistant to the idea of taking in this child, Abdias couldn’t persuade his future wife otherwise because she had already made the decision in her mind. The infant had a price tag of $40. Yes, 40 US dollars. But she was willing to do everything in her power to remove the infant from the hands of his caregiver who allegedly had been feeding the baby drugs and alcohol. It has been almost a year since Shirley took Marvens home. While she never imagined this to be her life, she hopes to legally adopt Marvens into their small family some day.
Shirley and Abdias, together, share dreams for their future, taking it one day at a time. But for now, I soak in this moment with them, observing as they converse with one another, with friends, enjoying their lunch break together. I am encouraged by Shirley and Abdias as a couple as they fight for love in a culture telling them otherwise. Shirley’s maturity is truly indescribable. To watch her as she maneuvers the floors of the production rooms, sitting amongst the artisans, communicating with them, always with a product in her hand is, indeed, a beautiful sight to see. Shirley is a light in this often dark world. She is strength and dignity and beauty. I was humbled to hear her story, and I am confident she will succeed in all she chooses to do. Your investment in Papillon is not just a purchase of products. It is so much more than that. It is an investment in the lives of individuals like Shirley – a daughter, a mother, a sister, a wife and a friend.