It is 5:00 AM Haiti time and the roosters and the dogs are in full competitive volume. I am sitting in the cabin built by the Friends of Mark Gallagher’s Quebec partners, AQANU, to house them and other international visitors working with Les Petites Soeurs de Ste. Therese (PSST) in the mountains overlooking Port au Prince. The bell for morning prayers rang about 5 minutes ago and I can hear the sisters lifting their voices to God as they begin their day. The sky is star-filled, the breeze fresh and one gets a sense of the paradise Haiti must have been before the arrival of Christopher Columbus over 500 years ago. It was here where Chris first dropped anchor in the “new world” and quickly began the decimation of the indigenous peoples in the name of God and Queen Isabella of Spain.
The Sisters should be nominated for a Nobel Prize in human rights. Driven by their faith in a loving and just God, despite the poverty, misery and tragedy that pervades their lives and might suggest a reassessment of the Creator’s Myers-Briggs Personality profile, they have committed themselves to a life of prayer and servitude, both to God and to the peasants, urban and mountain, who live among and around them. They have nearly 30 communities across Haiti, and one in Colombia, with the lead community here in Riviere Froide. They administer hospitals, orphanages, schools, farms and clinics as well as services that provide for both emerging and aging nuns. I visited the clinic in Riviere Froide today; the sick room at Woodstock High School is almost as well equipped. Test tubes were being washed by hand with a tiny bottle-washing brush in a small ill-equipped lab down the hall from a smaller main office. (I have a list of modest requests for medication and supplies if anyone in the medical community is able to help. E-mail address below)
On Sunday, I was able to spend time lolling about, connecting with the locals and hearing some of their stories. I was also privileged to spend several hours with Sr. Therese and the children of La Maison Handicappee, a term that may have pejorative connotations in Canada but not so here. The house was built by Rick Davis, a retired, successful U.S. construction company and gas station chain owner who makes his own beef jerky and builds things for people in Africa and Haiti. The first time I was here I met several Americans who typified the stereotype of Burdick and Lederer’s Ugly American but Rick, now recovering from a serious bout of cancer, was not one of them.
The house sits on a hill with a view of the mountains across the way. Haiti has been stripped of 95% of its forests and what is left is green underbrush but, from a distance, it is quite pretty. Although “La Maison Handicappee” houses nearly 30 children, it is quite small and gets smaller as new children are dropped off by parents who are unable to look after a special needs child along with the rest of their family. The sisters become the only chance that these children have to survive and receive at least a minimum of services that would, in short shrift, be rejected outright by Canadian inclusion advocates as being sub-standard and unacceptable but it is what it is and there is love, much love. And love, as in the Martina McBride song, really is “the only house big enough for all the pain in the world.”
I wept yesterday. Haiti does that to you. The “house mother” of La Maison Handicappee is 19 year old Gertrude Paul. Gertrude lost several members of her family in the earthquake. She needs to finish high school so she can start her studies to become a nurse which, I am afraid, may be impossible for her. She is beautiful, bright and broke. Her high school experience was interrupted by the earthquake and she earns her lodging and food and some pocket money, big pockets not needed, by tending to the children and performing general housekeeping duties when not in class. Gertrude puts in 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week.
I had walked down to the house for a third time with an American woman, Barb Wander of St. Rafael, California who was staying with the sisters when the earthquake struck. Barb actually rescued one of the sisters who had been stuck in the rubble to her neck after the building she was in collapsed around her. Barb dug her out and assisted in the rescue and triage of many others. As Barb approached the house I heard a shout, “Mama Ba-ba-ra!”and saw Gertrude running towards Barb full tilt and arms open. Barb, a 60 something retired public school teacher has been paying Gertrude’s school fees since she returned to class. All the kids at the house seemed to know her and within 60 seconds there was a choir of 12-15 special needs children singing us a welcome and wearing clothes I had brought with me from my friend and Gallagher school engineer, Dr. Eugene Lewis. They sang. They danced. I cried. Not out of pity, my least favorite emotion, but from the sheer energy of the love they shared with Barb and the obvious joy she felt in doing what she does so naturally and from the heart. Haiti does that to you.
I return early in the new year. I hope to bring a couple of suitcases of items for these and other children. E-mail me if you want to help out. Richardb@nbnet.nb.ca.