During her hectic work week, Tammi Runzler manages a staff of 43 sales and services professionals in her job as senior vice president of convention sales and services for Visit Orlando, the destination organization tasked with booking the city’s mammoth convention center and helping to fill the popular meeting destination’s 116,000 hotel rooms. But about every six weeks, and on every one of her paid days off, Runzler spends time in Haiti with “her children,” (shown above, Haitain orphan Jackie Jupiter, with Runzler) many orphaned by the devastating earthquake in January 2010. She is so committed to the cause of helping the world’s poorest children, in particular Haiti’s most vulnerable, that she, along with two friends with a common interest in charitable work, have started a charitable organization, My Neighbor’s Children.
Tammi Runzler: After the earthquake, I felt compelled to visit Haiti to see if there was some way that I could help. I first traveled with Clean the World, in September 2010, to help distribute soap and other sanitary items to the people displaced in tent cities, to schools, to hospitals, and to orphanages. I was struck by how many children were orphaned, and how the orphanages were struggling to take care of children, all with emotional and physical needs, with very few of the resources that we take for granted. They needed simple items like beds, strollers, wheelchairs, linens—everything!
CMI: With so many children in need all over the world, even here in the U.S., why a special connection to Haiti?
Runzler: Over 40 percent of Haiti’s population is under the age of 14. It was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake. After the disaster, the situation only became worse. And it is so close to the United States. It is amazing that you can fly from Florida and, in just over an hour, be in a country suffering conditions that we cannot even begin to imagine. Plus, when I worked at a large convention hotel, we had so many Haitian employees, and they were such gracious and appreciative workers.
CMI: What is the primary goal of My Neighbor’s Children?
Runzler: The mission is education, health, and well-being. We have expectations that the children we sponsor will receive proper nutrition, schooling, and medical care, so they can reach adulthood and be strong contributors to their communities. We are not about handouts. We want to be the most efficient and the most effective with our limited resources. I truly believe this is the way to help third-world countries turn around.
While we are still in our infancy, our Web site still under development (myneighborschildren.org), we are getting down to Haiti, making contacts, and helping children. No matter how much MNC evolves, I will never give up the hands-on experience of working with the kids.
CMI: What do you do when you travel to Haiti?
Runzler: During my last trip, I visited two orphanages. Education is not free, so we are trying to help schools as well. I stay at the orphanage with the kids, take them to dentist and doctor appointments, and shop for their food pantry. And by being there, I am able to identify those organizations and entities that have good reputations.
But, mainly, I spend as much time as possible interacting with the kids, holding, hugging, and feeding them. It means so much to them to know that "the world" knows about their plight and cares enough to try to make it better.
CMI: How can organizations or individuals get involved?
Runzler: What I really want is to allow others to share this wonderful connection to these children. In a crazy way, I feel like I have won a lottery in life by this experience. I can’t imagine giving it up! You can sponsor a child, a medical clinic, a student or school, a future leader, or you can participate in a trip. I purchase what the children need and have personally delivered almost every single thing that has been donated. I hope to be able to take some donors to Haiti, introduce them directly to the children, and have them experience this first-hand. I don't want to be the only one to benefit from this experience!
CMI: How has this changed your life?
Runzler: If I can say, before I die, that I really had a positive impact on 500 children’s lives, I would be happy. So many people that I talk to seem to long for this type of connection, and I want to try to help them get there.
The children with special needs have affected me in particular. So many of those needs have come about for no reason other than the environment they live in. They have suffered from a total lack of prenatal care, [from poorly supervised] home births, from abandonment, and from malnutrition.
I always leave a part of my heart in Haiti, especially with a couple of special little boys, Jackie and Noah. My goal is to bring Noah here, so that I can provide all of the resources possible to help him reach his full potential. You see, until March of this year, he was a five-year-old (approximately) little boy dying on the streets, with no name, and no known history, and then he was brought to the orphanage. Noah has had a good year in 2011, was brought back to health, and has found someone who loves him more than anything!