Working in the fields of Belle Glade wasn’t much, but it paid the bills until Otline Charles’ 3-year-old daughter started peeing blood. A parade of doctors later, and the girl, Josnika, was diagnosed with a tumor on her kidney.
That was two years of appointments, eight months of chemotherapy and one surgery ago. While Josnika, now 5, appears to be on the mend, she hasn’t fully recovered. The family, including her father, grandfather, 9-year-old brother and 1-year-old sister, has not really bounced back either. And now an unexpected fourth sibling is on the way – due in January.
Pregnant and still shuttling Josnika to doctors’ appointments with a toddler in tow, Charles, 42, has not been able to return to work, cutting the family income in half.
Her husband, 45-year-old Jephte Adult, heads out every morning hoping to land a shift in the sugar cane fields in the fall, vegetable fields in the spring. Some weeks, he earns $300, he said. Some weeks, nothing. It is not how the couple of nine years envisioned their future when they met at church in Haiti.
“It has been difficult with my sick child,” Charles says through an interpreter.
Her contact at Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, Sonia Guillaume, elaborates:
, “Doctors removed one kidney, not just the tumor. Josnika misses many days in school due to not feeling well, fatigue and emotional exhaustion. She rarely has a full week without feeling down. There are days when all she wants to do is lay in bed or for Otline to hold her.”
The girl gets infections and fevers more than most – though on this day she’s twirling through the kitchen eager to share her kindergarten homework.
Charles left Haiti when she was in her late 20s, stopped in the Bahamas and then headed to Orlando, without her husband, in search of work. She knew people in Orlando who offered her a place to stay, but the woman with an eighth-grade education couldn’t find a job. Then someone told her she could pick vegetables in Belle Glade and she moved once again. Adult met her here.
They live in a three-room apartment in yellow, squat, cement-block building off Southwest Sixth Street. Inside, an armoire, a couple of chairs and a table are covered in rags and stacked to the ceiling at the far end of the room. The pile is meant to save the thrift store finds from the water that runs down the walls and across the tile floor when it rains, but it leaves only one chair for sitting and a table for eating and doing homework.
The ceiling above the door appears to be buckling. The fridge has been on the fritz since Hurricane Irma, Charles said. It hums with electricity but isn’t keeping anything inside cool.
This place beats the last – that one had only one bedroom, Charles says. Here, the girls, Josnika and 1-year-old Leachard, sleep on a mattress in their parents’ room. Nine-year-old Christopher shares a room with Grandpa, who is disabled and can’t move his right arm.
Charles wishes for better, especially with another baby daughter on the way.
“I don’t like the neighborhood. It’s not safe. But it’s what I could afford,” said Charles, Leachard curled in her lap.
On a good day, the television works and the kids can catch a cartoon, Adult said. Sometimes Mom manages to take them to a park. The kids spend most afternoons doing homework and playing inside, while Charles cooks from a pantry often stocked in part by local food banks. Black beans and white rice are a favorite, she said.
The family has a 16-year-old Nissan to run for groceries, but with transmission problems and old brake pads, the family opts to pay others $50 to $80 to drive Charles, Josnika and Leachard to Josnika’s appointments more than an hour away at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach.
Despite the hardships Charles and Adult offer broad smiles when talking of their children. They say their faith and family keep them positive.
Otline Charles and her family have been struggling ever since her oldest daughter, who was 3 at the time, was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Charles, a mother of three (ages 9, 6 and 1), quit working in the fields of Belle Glade, cutting the family income in half, to care for her daughter, Josnika. Much of the family’s activities center on Josnika’s continuing care. She requires frequent trips to the hospital for follow-up visits, and at home, she is frequently sidelined with fatigue and fevers. A fourth child is now on the way. Charles’ husband, Jephte Adult, still works in the fields. The family lives in a leaky, two-bedroom apartment, where the appliances don’t work properly and the girls share a room with their parents, while Christopher, their son, shares a room with his 79-year-old grandfather. The family would like to find a larger apartment. They could also use a stove and a working refrigerator to replace one that is barely cooling. Bunk beds would be welcome by the girls, ages 1 and 5, who now share one twin mattress, and their brother would be grateful for a bed with bedding. The children could use clothing, and young Josnika could benefit from educational toys on days she cannot be in school. For her baby daughter due in January, Otline could use infant essentials (stroller, Pack ‘n Play, clothing, bottles). After having endured her cancer treatment and surgery, Josnika would love to visit Disney World with her family.
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Photography by Calla Kessler / Staff
Nominated by Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Palm Beach County, Inc.