Can you remember where you were this time 20 years ago? I can hardly remember where I was 20 days ago not to mind 20 years ago! But in this case I can remember more or less because I was preparing to come to Haiti. Yep, it is almost 20 years since I first set foot in Haiti. I left Ireland on the June 13th 1993 and arrived in Port Au Prince June 15th 1995.
This morning I was speaking with my mother and we were talking about the past 20 years. Mam says to me, “That was a long year! 20 years ago you left here and said you were going for a year and it seems that year has never ended”! And she is right – I did say I was going for a year. I can’t remember saying goodbye to my family. I can’t remember the trip to the airport – my mind is blank up until I was in the airplane.
I remember arriving in Haiti, the airport, the people that came to pick me up. I remember the trip up the mountain to the orphanage (and getting soaked wet in the back of the pick up). I remember the smell of the humidity, the smell of a mango (first time I had ever seen a mango) and I remember being hugged by Yvonne.
I remember being shown the house where the handicapped kids lived – a tiny house with a dining room, a bedroom and a tiny room for staff. I remember that there were only three children because the other six were at a clinic in Mexico. I remember being bored out of my mind for the first month as all the children in the orphanage were in school and I had nothing to do all day long. I used to long for the kids to come out of school so I could play with them.
I remember feeling shy and awkward as I struggled to communicate. My school French was little help when up against a kid speaking Creole a mile a minute. My diary tells me I felt very vulnerable and insecure as I could not speak a word and I struggled to understand. I longed to be understood. I missed the company of friends and family that knew me. Here no one knew me and I had to find my way without the security of language.
When the children came back from Mexico I went from being bored to being exhausted. No kidding. I remember how tired I was. The day was long – from 5:00 am until 6:30 pm, it was all go. I wrote in my diary, “ I am tired all the time…I wonder if I will last a year”!
Funny to think back – I close my eyes and I see so many pictures of that first year. The most dramatic was meeting Eliane. This beautiful fragile girl was to change my life forever. Because in loving her I learned a hard lesson that I have relived time and time again over the years. The lesson is this, “that which brings you the greatest love is also that which will bring you the greatest pain.”
And so as I look back on 20 years I have to say that my greatest joy has been loving these kids. And my greatest pain has being in watching them suffer, being so powerless so many times and then the worst of all pain has been when they have died. In 20 years we in Kay Christine have buried nine of our children; Eliane, Magdala, Kervens, Marjorie, Darline, Audelina, Jonnie, Tifle and Olivier. If I talk about them it is because they have all marked my life in a very special way.
Living in Haiti is for sure challenging but I have to tell you that despite everything, hurricanes, deaths, kidnappings, street violence, earthquake, cholera – despite all the disasters, I can honestly tell you that in 20 years I have never wished once to be somewhere else. I have been so, so lucky. I am surrounded by people that love me and that I love. When I get fed up there is always someone to wrap me up in love and give me strength to keep going. My life is one of so many blessings.
Has Haiti improved? In some ways yes. There are more roads, we have more electricity, more banks, hotels and big supermarkets. This current government seems to be trying hard to get infrastructure in place so we can investment more. In terms of the poverty levels, I would say it is probably worse – definitely not better. You just have to visit our hospital and you will see for yourself. Or come to 7 am Mass each morning and count the dead bodies lying on the floor that Father Rick blessess.
Many are children that die in our hospital and adults that die in the adult hospital. I would say that at least five bodies are there every day. And you know, most of these have died from illnesses that could be treated if they had received help in time.
When I was in school, Mr. English wisely told us that we should not think that life was fair. He said we might as well get used to it – life is just not fair. He was dead right and so many times I thought of him when I get frustrated with how things are. For me it would be easy to just get fed up with it all because the problems are so, so many. But my goodness, we have done so much! When I came in 1993, we had nine children with disabilities/handicaps. Now our program in Kenscoff has 34 (well we just lost two but we will be accepting two more). We have two rehab centers that provide services for over 300 children with severe disabilities. Not only that, but we have a beautiful Special Needs school for over 80 children that live with their families. For additional therapeutic services, we have a horse riding program, kids in the swimming pool weekly and art therapy program. So you see, we have been busy the last 20 years!
These last two months have been very difficult for me. On March 23rd, Tifle died quite suddenly after just one day of illness. She has been with us since 1990 and when I first came to Haiti in 1993, she was one of the first kids to make me feel at home with her beautiful smile. Some of you may have seen the RTE documentary, “One hundred dead bodies in my truck” and might remember seeing her. Tifle was such a happy, young woman. Trapped in a body that was twisted and deformed, her personality was bright and cheerful every day of her life. She never complained and never refused to welcome a visitor with her big smile and infectious giggle.
I was in Ireland two weeks later when I got a phone call that our “baby” Oliver had died. I knew that he was not feeling well on that Saturday, April 9th and I knew they were taking him to the hospital. His complaint was “he was sleepy all day”. On the Friday I had seen and chatted with him on Skype and he was in super form – blowing kisses at me and showing me his nice pijamas. He died before he made it to the hospital – just died in his sleep in Carmelle’s arms in the truck. He had severe heart complications and I guess his time was up.
I returned to Haiti right away to attend the funeral. Another funeral! Imagine loosing two kids in two weeks! Two wakes, two coffins, two burials. I kid you not, these past weeks have been the most difficult in all my time here. There are days when I just don’t want to do a thing but sit and cry. Times when I don’t want to see anyone. I just want to be left alone to deal with my sadness…but how can I? I have the other kids that need me and that are also suffering – traumatized really. Rose Therlie always wants to know if I am coming back – when she sees me going down to the other programs. “Are you coming back Gena?” Yes I am coming back. “Tonight”? Yes, I am coming back tonight. Other times she just suddenly says, “When I die they will put me in a coffin.”
But these kids are so amazing. A few days ago I told them we would be accepting two new children into our family. Fernanda and Jeff were both abandoned in our hospital and in desperate need of a beautiful loving family. When I told the kids this they literally yelled with joy and went on to tell me how they would look after them, play with them and kiss them. So spontaneous and so beautiful. Now every day they hound me asking when I am going to get the kids. I have to wait until all the legal paperwork is done and then we will bring them to their new home.
Death is as part of our life as living and here in Haiti we are confronted with it all the time. If not in our home then in the neighborhood. People just die young here and it is never easy. Never! Most of you reading this will know what I mean – unless you have never lost a loved one. Our job here in Kay Christine is to give the kids a good home, a safe and loving place to live, good medical care and access to all that they need. We have to accept that the kids are fragile, that many will not live to be old. The theory makes sense. The reality is not so easy and the reality is that we have to keep going and keep opening our home and our hearts to new children. We have to keep saying yes to love.
We see miracles every day. Olsen is our most obvious one. Apart from all his normal complications last year we discovered he had TWO HUGE abscesses in his brain! No hope according to the doctors. We spent many days and nights in the hospital with him and one day he stopped breathing in my arms. I gave him a wallop and said don’t you even think about it – he quickly copped himself on. I am happy to say that he is doing very well, has put on weight and has grown a lot and is in great form. Long may he continue like this.
To sum up my 20 years in Haiti? It has been a journey of learning and loving. I have seen sides of me I never knew existed – some I am proud of and some I am not at all proud of. I feel I have lived a lot, seen a lot, loved a lot, enjoyed a lot, suffered a lot and cried a lot. I have been at the top and I have been at the bottom. I have fallen many times and struggled to get up a good many of those times. I have accepted a lot, questioned a fair bit, challenged a lot and always lived with the philosophy that things can always be better and should be better. However, in order to be better, one needs to work hard. I have worked hard. I have been surrounded by wonderful people who have believed in me and in our work – and who have worked just as hard as I. We have worked as a team and ended up creating a family. A beautiful, beautiful family.
I have been supported by people that have never ever met me and have decided to trust in me because they also believe it can and should be better. I have been overwhelmed with requests for help, crushed by tales of despair and hardship and inspired by the courage of the Haitian people. I have watched in awe at mothers carrying their severely handicapped children to our centers – under the hot sun, on the dusty road – day in and day out. I have spent days and nights in the hospital with sick children and watched the amazing devotion of the mothers there with their beautiful children. I have watched them spend day and night there and at night time watched them rest their weary often hungry bodies on the hard floor under the beds of their children. True warriors of love!
I have struggled all these years with the acclaim good people have laid on my shoulders. It is too much and I say this in all sincerity. If you see that what I do is good then it is not because of me, it is because you also have a vision for how things should be better. Don’t put it on me as if I am special – because if you do, you take away from your responsibility to make things better where you live. See what I mean?
The reality of it is that we are all special. We are all born with our own individual talents and our own individual responsibilities. How nice if we all made the decision to use those talents for the benefit of others. This does not mean packing up and coming to Haiti. This means to be honest and fair in our dealing with people be it in business or whatever in our homes and in our communities, our towns and our cities. This means to treat others as we would like to be treated. This means to see everyone as our brother or sister, mother or father. This means always working to make the world a better place. Honesty is still the best policy in my opinion. And Christianity the best guideline for a fairer world.
As I look back on 20 years, I want to thank all of you for your support. So many of you have been supporting me since 1993 and you have been with me through the good days and the bad ones. You have sent me Christmas cards even when I never sent one back. You have sent me letters, emails, and Facebook messages. You have sent me parcels and bought me chocolate and biscuits. You have prayed for me, lit candles for me, cried for me, cried with me, worried for me, worried with me. You have missed me at special occasions. You have collected money for me, baked cakes for me, lost weight for me, danced for me, gambled for me, ran and walked for me. You have carried my name and my work around with you for 20 years and never missed an opportunity to tell someone about me. You have gone out in the rain and the snow for me, met all kinds of people for me, accepted awards for me. You have packed boxes for me, sorted out donations for me, begged for me. You have said rosaries for me, you have had masses said for me, you have sent lent money to me.
And why have you done all this? Because you also believe that the people of Haiti, the children of Haiti deserve better and you have wanted to make things better.
In 20 years we have done so much together – built and developed programs, built houses, sent kids to school, sent kids to doctors, paid for universities, bought clothes and food for those in need. Sent school buses to bring children to school. We have saved lives together. We have given hope together. We have shone a light on the darkness together. We have stood side by side with people in need and we have helped them get through each day. Together we have worked hard to help our brothers and sisters in Haiti and we have shown what can be done if people work together. You have been with me every step of the way. And I need you to keep with me.
I am asking anyone and everyone to do me a favor. I would like if everyone reading this could donate a Euro a year for each year I have been in Haiti, so that’s 20 Euros. I know times are hard. I know you have a ton of expenses. Believe me I know. But I also know that I really need your help. We have had to cut back our support to the families we are helping. Your 20 Euro will help us keep our programs going. Your 20 Euro will help keep the special need kids in school. Your 20 Euro will help us provide physical therapy to the kids, provide teacher training and therapy training. Your money will help us continue and expand and reach more and more kids in need. So please, take this on board, Get your kids on board. Teenagers I know you need the mobile phone but I also know you will make an effort! I take this opportunity to wish all of you doing exams the best of luck. Try and relax and just do the best you can do and then let it go! Life is strange and there are many roads to get you to where you want to go.
A special thank you to my family – God love you because my going to Haiti changed your lives too and you had no choice in this. You were forced to become Haiti Ambassadors (or should I say Gena Ambassadors! ) and fair play to you because you have been with me throughout it all. I have forgotten so many Mother’s day and Father’s days that by now its a given I will forget! (It’s not the same day here so that’s my excuse). Even when I do come home, you like me, have seen that a tragedy in Haiti will have me turn my back on all of you and then I am gone again. It is the nature of the life- the nature of the love. I am blessed to have two wonderful families and we are all joined together by the love that overcomes all distances.
I want to leave you with something beautiful written by an author that for years has inspired and guided me – Jean Vanier. If you have never read anything written by him please do yourself a favor and discover him! As I spend these days reflecting on my 20 years of Love, 20 years of living with and working for children with severe disabilities, I think this piece by Vanier sums it up very nicely.
“Loving someone does not simply mean doing things for them; it is much more profound. To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance; it is to understand them, understand their cries and their body language; it is to rejoice in their presence, spend time in their company and communicate with them. To love is to live a heart-to heart relationship with another, giving to and receiving from each other.
Love and thanks,
For those that would like to donate to our work here are some bank details:
Bank of Ireland, Dublin Airport.
Account Name: Our Little Brothers and Sisters
Address: 6 Brookwood Ave
Sort code: 90.07.46
Account No: 42863621
The BIC for Bank of Ireland account is BOFIIE2D or BOFIIE2DXXX depending on how many characters the sending bank requires.
Charity No. if required: CHY11953