Although his fate was very strange, he lived.
-- Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables"
It was bad, real bad. He knew instantly, on that first trip four years ago, that something must be done.
Something had to happen.
The kids' mattresses were crawling with insects. They were on a meager diet in that old orphanage, rice and beans -- though it was better than what they'd had before.
Before, on their own and unprotected, the Haitian orphans played in cesspools, chased garbage trucks for food. One little boy used to lick their tires for a snack.
Now Charles brings goodies to the kids in the sparkling new orphanage he's built -- and this boy keeps a little bottle for his M&Ms, to ration them.
One or two a day.
Charles Le-Morzellec never set out to be a saint. That wasn't his plan -- though he's battling poverty and disease to bring some stability and happiness to the lives of some kids.
They are the poorest of the poor, but Le-Morzellec is no Mother Teresa -- he's got a big white beard and an edgy, tough-guy demeanor. He needs it; nothing is easy in Haiti.
Four years ago, he'd flown down to check on a young missionary his family knew. She was all right, but he was stunned at the poverty.
"What I found," he said later, "made me ill and gave me sleepless nights."
After that, he could not turn his eyes away.
"Haiti found me," he told a friend.
He's the last person you'd pick for a role like this: Now a roofer, once a pet store owner and earlier a New York restaurateur, captain at Washington's Sans Souci and banquet manager at the Kennedy Center.
Now he dreams of a little bakery at the orphanage to raise money.
From KenCen banquet manager to baker in the slums of Montrouis:
Now that's a twist of fate.
Le-Morzellec's wife, Gigi, had a small role in the 1958 movie by that name as a teenager in Paris. A beautician, she came to the States in 1970 and eventually opened a shop, Gigi Salon Parisienne, in Falls Church.
"I didn't want to go to Haiti and open an orphanage," she admits. "When I tell my family I have an orphanage, they say, 'Are you nuts?' "
But, like her husband, it seemed she was led.
Charles, 58, a native of Brittany, immigrated to New York before Gigi to work at his brothers' restaurant. He served in the Army, later drifted to Washington. He'd always been good with animals, and after he and Gigi fell in love he opened a shop near hers, Sophisticated Pet.
In the early '80s they built a house in Warrenton and, since both had been married a few times, were content just to live together.
Gigi sums up that old life like this: "Beauty. Money. Wine. Marijuana. Good food. Nice Cadillac. Clothes. Travel."
It didn't work. They began sliding downhill. Business was bad. "Charles lost his pet shop. I was losing my shop." One night before Christmas 1985, on the Beltway, a drunk hit their car.
Gigi was in such pain she could hardly work.
"Sometimes you have so many problems that it's good -- so I look up from the depths, and something happened. God."
A customer took her to church. Charles soon followed and, though the Kingdom comes with no such warranty, their circumstances began improving.
"Something fell off me," Gigi says. "It was like a miracle. All of a sudden, you change. And that was the beginning -- what God did with us."
Gigi sold her shop for a good price. Charles, by now in the roofing business, did well. He was also raising and selling exotic birds, one of his passions, from their home (and in 1996 testified against exotic bird expert Tony Silva, who went to prison for smuggling endangered species).
In 1986, Charles and Gigi married, and things hummed along nicely for them and Cosette, their poodle named after Jean Valjean's adopted daughter in "Les Miserables."
Then, spring 1998:
A friend, Anne-Marie Baron, went to work at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. She'd been a student at Hartland College in Rapidan, Va., a missionary training outfit run by lay Seventh-Day Adventists. The Le-Morzellecs, who are Adventists, often visited the campus.
Baron, a musician, took her harp to Haiti. Charles had built a big wood crate for it, which also served as her closet there.
Then he went down to check on her welfare.
"I'll never forget," he recalls of that first visit. "It was a rainy day, getting dark. We passed so many impoverished people. I thought of the 'court of miracles' in 'Les Miserables,' where all the poor people stayed."
He found Baron in "fine shape, but the conditions she was forced to work in -- the vermin, filth, lack of basic sanitation -- were appalling.
"Here were 30 Haitian orphans living in a dirty, ramshackle building without electricity. . . . Rats were everywhere."
The man running it was in his mid-seventies and had cancer.
He asked Charles to take over.
It was a choice, of course.
"You go to Haiti," he says in his straightforward way, "and you come back a changed person."
He didn't hesitate.
"Why not get involved? Haiti is a few hundred miles from our coast, a nation that is dying, and we sit on our big fat butts!"
Later, people would say why not help poor kids right here in the States?
And Charles would say, "Because I speak French!" It's a huge advantage there, which not all missionaries have.
Immediately, on that trip, he looked for better facilities -- and found a house on a hill in Port-au-Prince, removed from the surrounding squalor. Back in the States, he spoke to church and other groups to raise money, returning to Haiti in September to rent the house.
"We needed everything -- food, equipment, electricity." He bought a broken-down mule to cart water up the hill. Able to stay only a few weeks, he returned in January 1999 with more money, clothing and essentials -- and Gigi.
They bought new mattresses for the kids, burning the old.
"My wife got sick. She was in shock, crying all the time." To give her some relief, he took her to a resort in Montrouis, 50 miles northwest of the capital. They brought some of the kids there to swim.
"They loved it," Charles says. "They live on an island, but it was the first time they'd ever been to the beach!"
"I felt so terrible," Gigi recalls. "After all I'd seen, here I was in a beautiful hotel. I felt guilty. I couldn't understand why I have so much and those people have nothing."
Then, an idea:
Why not move the orphanage to Montrouis, on the sea?
On his next trip, Charles found a "beautiful" beach house, and moved the children. It was March 1999.
The children's lives improved. Baron, with a staff of Haitian nationals, managed the orphanage while Charles and Gigi did the fundraising in the States and visited every few months.
At the same time he continued his roofing work in Virginia. The Le-Morzellecs take none of the donations for themselves.
Though they kept the orphanage population to about 20 kids ages 5 to 13 to preserve a homey atmosphere, new "street kids" arrived from time to time.
"One child," Charles recalls, "was a walking skeleton."
Still, they needed to move again. The landlord kept jacking up the rent to more than $1,000 a month.
Gigi had a brainstorm:
She was visiting alone, without Charles, having come to enjoy her difficult new life -- "God gave me love for these people. I don't understand it. I cry for them, I always give them everything from my suitcase."
She was talking to the pastor of the Montrouis Adventist church -- a roofless structure, scarcely more than four walls in a field -- when she realized they could make a deal: They'd finish building the church in exchange for a lease to build a new orphanage on its four acres.
Today, Eden Garden Orphanage is a clean, bright cluster of buildings in a secure, walled compound. There are separate dorms for boys and girls, a kitchen and dining area, an eye clinic.
The kids walk 200 yards to the beach. There's a generator, a garden with thousands of tomato plants, a well providing safe water for the kids and showers and drinking water for 1,000 people in the community.
"It's an oasis in a barren place," says Emanuel Baek, a religion professor at Hartland who visited early this year. "The bathrooms are good even by Western standards. The kids are getting the kind of care and love we'd expect parents here in the States to give."
Fred Douville, a Florida electrical contractor who visited last month to make sure contributions from his church were being properly used, was impressed by "the happiness of the kids, their diet, the security they live in."
His daughter, who wants to be a baker, hopes to work there.
Something else struck Betsy Mayer, Hartland's choral director, when she visited in March with her choir:
"Charles and Gigi are so kindhearted, they even take care of the dogs, the mangy curs in the area. They teach the orphans, 'This is a pet.' It's the sacredness of life."
Supporter Roger W. Miller of Chevy Chase notes that "Charles and Gigi aren't Bible-thumpers. I'm a nonbeliever, but I believe enough in what they're doing to be an annual contributor."
"Haiti has been good for Charles and Gigi," Baek muses. The horrendous conditions "can bring out the best in people -- compassion, caring, sharing and love. I see them doing that, trying to help people.
"That's what they live for."
Last October, the Le-Morzellecs' Warrenton house burned down.
Gigi lost her lovely clothes, furniture, jewelry, artwork -- everything. The room full of shoes, bedding, books, clothing and toys for the orphans -- though spared by the flames -- was mistakenly trashed by a cleanup crew.
A total loss.
Gigi is philosophical. "I had all these things, and in two hours' time I had nothing left.
"But all that stuff is like an idol, you make it your god. Now I have no house, I feel more free. If you don't have anything to tie you down, you're free to go and help people."
Now they live in a friend's basement apartment.
The other day, they had lunch there with Jacqueline, 8, a former Eden Garden orphan adopted early this year by Andrea and Ed Cross of Front Royal, and Annie, 7, a girl the Crosses just adopted from Washington state.
The girls are giggling together.
Jacqueline had been emaciated and speechless when she arrived at the orphanage a few years ago.
"Now she has such a big mouth," Andrea Cross chuckles. "I have to ask her, 'Can you be quiet for 10 seconds?' "
"Look at her," Gigi says. "Oh, isn't she beautiful!"
The adults turn to discussing plans for Eden Garden. With Christmas approaching, Charles has a wish list.
"If I just had $25,000," he says, "I could build a six-room school for the orphans and 100 kids in the community -- that's all it would take!"
And $28,000 to expand the clinic, $20,000 to finish the church as promised, $1,500 a month in operating expenses they're always struggling to raise, and --
"Hey, why not do something for me?" Gigi quips.
"I do," Charles shoots back. "I send you to Haiti every two months!"
Actually, he explains, every time they go, "it's rewarding. I guess I'm selfish, and I want the reward:
"The good feeling of helping those kids."
For more information, visit www.edenchildren.org