Life is filled with pivotal moments, but for Cuyamaca College student Dani-Jo Hill, none more so than on a particular day in March 2011, when a chance encounter during a church-sponsored visit to Haiti forever altered her future path.
Sitting alone in a dark storage room of an orphanage in Carrefour, a small city outside of Port-au-Prince, she spotted a toddler who appeared to be living underneath a wire mesh bed frame. Almost instinctively she reached out to touch the tiny figure who shied away with a primordial scream.
Hill retreated, not wanting to further frighten the child. Minutes passed before the toddler, malnourished and covered with skin sores, crawled out from his hiding spot, eventually allowing himself to be held.
“He had no diaper on and his entire body was covered in scabies,” said Hill, seated at a table inside the student center, displaying purses, scarves and other handmade items she was selling on behalf of a young woman in Haiti.
“Along with the scabs were clumps of dirt and along the insides of his legs where he had been urinating freely, it stuck in a paste-like form. This child was in the worst shape I had ever seen. I sat in the darkness as the little boy wept violently.”
From that life-altering encounter – tear-filled moments comforting a forgotten, neglected child -- came the start of Gabriel’s Promise, a non-profit group founded by Hill.
“In that moment I made a promise,” Hill wrote on a Facebook page for Gabriel’s Promise “I would dedicate the rest of my life to fighting for people like Gabriel who couldn’t fight for himself. I would fight with anything I could, and any way I could, in whatever way God could use me to help. Gabriel’s Promise is more than an organization and it’s more than a relief effort. It’s a promise. A promise to love, a promise to speak, and a promise to serve.”
Hill, just 22 at the time, returned to Haiti two months later, contributing to the effort to close down what proved to be a child-trafficking ring operating out of the orphanage where she had first encountered the boy she named Gabriel.
Before returning to her native San Diego this year to begin her college education at Cuyamaca, Hill accomplished much as the founder of Gabriel’s Promise, which is supported through donations and the assistance of Journey Community Church in La Mesa.
In addition to regional forums, including a social justice training seminar held in April at Cuyamaca College, Hill has been busy working on several fronts on behalf of Gabriel’s Promise. She has helped set up summer music programs and artist workshops benefiting underprivileged and at-risk children, and created entrepeneurship opportunities through small business startups and job skills training.
She continues to make frequent trips back to Haiti, on occasion bringing along a small contingent of church volunteers and representatives of other non-profit agencies. A group of doctors from Ocean Beach joined her earlier this year to provide medical care for the impoverished island nation, still crippled by the massive earthquake that affected millions in 2010.
Hill said she decided to return statewide to pursue the education she knows she needs to continue meaningful work through Gabriel’s Promise. The 2006 graduate of El Capitan High School will begin her fourth semester in the fall in pursuit of an associate degree for transfer at Cuyamaca College, with plans to enter the International Security and Conflict Resolution program at San Diego State University.
She concedes that after the chaos that is Haiti, it’s been challenging at times readjusting to a life of tranquility in the suburbs of East County. She started the Social Justice Club at Cuyamaca and volunteers with organizations including Sister Christina House, a refuge for girls victimized by child traffickers, and the Bilateral Safety Corridor Commission, an alliance of over 60 government and nonprofit agencies in the United States and Mexico combatting slavery and human trafficking.
“My background is not so much different than some of the victims I’ve seen of child traffickers,” she said, explaining she had a difficult childhood, living sporadically on the streets between the ages of 16 and 20. She recently won a two-hear legal battle to become guardian of her now 16-year-old brother.
“I know what it’s like to be vulnerable and scared,” she said.
As for Gabriel, the last time Hill saw him, he was in the care of a Haitian relief worker, but she has lost contact with the little boy since. She fears the worst, saying that sadly, child traffickers operate with ease, paying off authorities when needed.
“No happy ending,” she said. “But always, hope. And promises.”