More than words . . .

It has been over a month since I published my last blog post. The WiFi has miraculously returned after several weeks and so I am not going to waste any time. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words – so here is the equivalent of 29,000 words about the daily happenings of St. Vincent’s students and residents.

Photo Feb 13, 1 58 38 PM
Residents crammed into a taptap on the way to Carnaval.
Photo Feb 13, 4 04 13 PM
We spent one evening enjoying Carnaval – the three-day Haitian equivalent of Mardi Gras. We ate good food, listened to music, and enjoyed watching the parades.
IMG_5101
The school is now serving hot lunches to all 200 students everyday.
Photo Feb 12, 9 25 14 PM
Schenaider and I are making a fire to roast peanuts to make peanut butter.
Photo Feb 20, 5 40 07 PM
A youth group from St. James Episcopal Church in New York spent a weekend at St. Vincent’s playing with the kids, painting murals on the school walls, and repainting the front gate. Here they pose in front of their finished product after a long day of hard work and much fun.
Photo Feb 23, 12 39 16 PM
A chapel service honoring the former St. Vincent’s director the Reverend Billy Squire.
Photo Feb 24, 5 36 38 PM
A rainbow over the grounds of St. Vincent’s after a long afternoon of some much needed rain.
Photo Feb 06, 12 38 10 PM
Belson, Damenly, and Amika take a selfie after school.
Photo Feb 25, 12 27 14 PM
The aftermath of my first experience of preparing chicken from the very start …
Photo Mar 04, 7 27 02 AM
Maille’s favorite day of the week is Sunday because she gets to get dressed up for Church.
Photo Mar 04, 7 27 28 AM
And then there’s Medjina.
Photo Mar 04, 7 28 39 AM
Adensi, Rickson, and Mayson in their Sunday best.
Photo Mar 04, 7 35 27 AM
Dayana also loves getting to go to church.
Photo Mar 22, 2 39 38 PM
The resident students saved all of their snacks from the week to have a party on Friday afternoon that was complete with music and bubbles.
Photo Mar 18, 5 23 19 PM
Jean Leonard and Moise are in the process of building kites out of sticks and found plastic bags.
Photo Mar 18, 4 20 03 PM
Oger and Damenly flying their newly constructed kite.
Photo Mar 22, 11 03 00 AM
Three students gather in a classroom to prepare for their upcoming exams.
Photo Mar 14, 8 32 04 AM
Dr. Susan Nelson’s medical team on their first day – ready to get to work.
Photo Mar 13, 8 54 23 AM
Dr. Susan is a long-term volunteer and board member who brings a team to St. Vincent’s twice a year to give checkups to all of the students, teachers, and residents.  Here she is getting down to business with Jean Robert.
Photo Mar 15, 11 31 03 AM
The doctor’s office is set up in the school library. It is always crowded with doctors, patients, scribes, and interpreters for both sign and Creole.
Photo Mar 22, 10 59 34 AM
A 2nd-grade classroom having fun drawing on the chalkboard after finishing a week of exams.
Photo Mar 13, 3 24 57 PM
The team brought lots of fun things for the students and residents.  Here Medjina is helping Dayana blow bubbles.
Photo Mar 23, 11 06 41 AM
Jean Philipe showing off his new stuffed toy.  The medical team gifted stuffed toys to all of the kindergartners for Easter.
Photo Mar 23, 10 08 45 AM
Easter baskets that my kindergarten classroom prepared for the administration and residents.
Photo Mar 22, 10 50 38 AM
Naider showing off her work from the past quarter.
Photo Mar 30, 12 58 45 PM
A traditional Haitian Good Friday lunch of whole fish, carrots, and beets.
Photo Apr 01, 7 59 59 AM
Margarethe, Dayana, and Auguste waiting to board the 17-seater bus that took all of the residents to Easter Sunday church.  The four-hour service was followed by lunch and a special outing to get ice cream.
Photo Apr 07, 7 36 26 PM
Once a month Dominic, who works in the downtown clinic, comes to Santo to shave and trim the residents’ hair.  Somehow he roped me in and I am now able to shave heads and faces with just a single razor blade as well as do trims and touch ups.  Here I am trimming Maille’s hair.
Photo Feb 07, 9 18 32 AM
Charles and Thalia have mixed reactions about returning to school after an extra-long Easter break.

Thank you to everyone who made Carnaval and Easter, and all the time inbetween, special for the students and residents of St. Vincent’s!

Advertisements

Judith

A few days ago I woke up at bonè (Creole for early) to meet my friend Judith in the kitchen so she could show me how to prepare diri jadinye. This Haitian dish consists of rice with various vegetables – the only one of which I recognized was carrots. We had sliced the vegetables the previous evening, noting  that not only what we eat is different but that even the way Americans cut vegetables is different. In Haiti, slicing vegetables merely entails a knife and a receptacle into which the vegetables fall; whereas in the US, as 27939826_401654683581399_1278821016_n.jpgJudith noted, we use a knife and a cutting board before we even get to a bowl or pot.

The comparisons between how things are done in the US and how things are done in Haiti continued the following morning when the real cooking started. First the oil went into the big pot, then the vegetables, some seasonings, and eventually the rice. Voila! A one pot meal that could easily feed a dozen people. I marveled at this and joked about how many pots and pans my mother uses for just one meal in the US and how that made for a lot of time cleaning up afterwards.

Judith and I discussed various chores we do around the house. She prides herself on being able to sweep, do laundry, and cook. I explained that well yes, I do all those things, too, but in the US we have machines for everything … vacuums, washing machines, dishwashers.  When I make chicken, I bake it in the oven. I don’t fry it in the same gigantic pot that will then make rice to feed 40 plus people.

The best part of the experience wasn’t just learning how to cook, it was learning more about Judith. She explained that her mom had taught her how to do all of these tasks so that she would be a good wife one day. But Judith is not looking to just be a housewife – she has dreams of her own inspired by St. Vincent’s.

I’ve always known Judith to be kind, intelligent, and observant but shy. She is very 20431229_10211621295220651_170040798095299827_n.jpgtalented in English, but whenever I tell visitors she speaks English, she gives a small smile and explains to me in Creole that she understands it but can’t speak it, which I know for a fact is an enormous underplaying of her skills.  She goes to university each week and studies every day that she isn’t in school.  This is in addition to helping out at St. Vincent’s in whatever capacity is necessary. She is 25 years old and first started living at St. Vincent’s in 2000. She grew up and graduated from St. Vincent’s, continued on to get her high school diploma while commuting from St. Vincent’s, and briefly moved back home. She explained to me that when she went home to live with her family, although she was happy to be with them, she missed the children of St. Vincent’s and moved back while she commutes to university. Her long-term goal is to start an orphanage for the disabled and eventually partner with her friend, another former student of St. Vincent’s, to found an adjoining hospital.

Not only is St. Vincent’s a phenomenal, one of a kind school for the disabled and a home for all who need it, it is also an inspiration for all those who have flourished under its guidance and provides an example of love, diligence, and devotion that they take forth into the world in order to create opportunities for others like themselves.

Pataje

Every morning on the way to school, one of the kids runs up and offers to carry my things. I gladly say yes and hand over my water bottle, Creole/English dictionary, and whatever else I am carrying for the day so as to free up all hand and arm space for IMG_0013pushing wheelchairs and leading the blind. As I was making sure the kids got settled in their respective classrooms, I turned around to a loud crack and the sound of many surprised intakes of air. My water bottle (a Nalgene, which for the record claim that their bottles are next to indestructible) had fallen and cracked open, spilling water everywhere. I calmly walked up, quiet out of surprise really, and picked it up to examine it. Thinking I was angry, the kids all started pointing fingers and placing blame as to who had broken it. The second bus had just arrived and so I was anxious to get back to my classroom to make sure the kids weren’t starting to get into too much trouble.

An hour later, a middle schooler was lead into my kindergarten classroom by two teachers. She tearfully apologized for breaking my water bottle. Overwhelmed by her tears, I said it really wasn’t a problem and tried to reassure her that I was not even remotely angry. When I walked back into the room, I saw that one of the kindergarteners had left one of the little packs of water they all drink on my desk.

IMG_1680
Medjina and Damenly gifting me flowers

This is an idea that Dr. Susan Nelson – long time volunteer and board member for St. Vincent’s – talked about recently in an interview. It is part of Haitian culture to share what they have, no matter how little they might have. It is why I am more often than not cajoled into eating too much, accepting the cookies, bags of the Haitian version of Cheetos, or even entire meals that they insist I eat no matter how full I already am. It is a means of showing their respect and appreciation for you – one of the highest forms of flattery in any culture – sharing with someone you care about.

It is not just for me. If I have chocolate to share, they all make sure I have enough for everyone, sometimes even asking for another to give to their friends or parents.

 

This sharing what they have is also why I have been spending the majority of my school IMG_0010days working on crafting masks, crowns, and little heart shaped bags out of paper for Carnival and Valentine’s Day that fall at the same time this year. Myrlande and Gamalene, the two kindergarten teachers I have gotten to know the best, insist that we make enough for all of the kindergarteners, their teachers, and all of the student residents living at St. Vincent’s. They use their time and money on the weekends to make sure we have enough supplies and chocolate to share with everyone. 

In a country that purportedly has so little, it speaks volumes that their ultimate goal is always to make sure their friends are taken care of.

Back to St. Vincent’s

After nearly five weeks in the U.S., I am back in Haiti for another three months. It almost feels like I never left which is both comforting and also a testament to the unshakable community that makes up St. Vincent’s. After all of the initial screaming and hugging, I settled back into life here as if my absence was merely a weekend trip.

img_1606.jpgI cannot tell you how many people asked what I brought back for them. I had anticipated this and when my mom and I brainstormed what I could bring back for all thirty-plus residents of all ages, we settled on Christmas Crackers – small, unisex gifts that would be a fun display of one of our Christmas traditions. Children and adults alike were bewildered and frankly somewhat underwhelmed by the little games and paper crowns. They were not into the force it takes to pop them and instead unwrapped them carefully. Their slight disappoint was evident, but if there are two img_1653.pngthings that I know are universally loved, they are chocolate and Shakira, so I put on Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) and started handing out the millions of Hershey’s miniatures that I brought. This cheered everyone up and most of them even put on their crowns.

The chocolate sparked a long discussion about food because they all wanted to know what the crunch in the red wrappers was. I explained that it was dried rice and they all thought I was being ridiculous. They all wanted to try the rice chocolate and asked if we also put corn in our chocolate. I said no, but we do put hot peppers in it sometimes and I think they still don’t believe me.

IMG_1624.JPGBecause of the heavy rains that are highly unusual for January, there has been flooding across the country that make roads impassable. School attendance has steadily increased through the week but it is still sparse. Despite many missing students and teachers, everyone is happy to be back at school with friends and looking forward to the upcoming semester.

 

Today is the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Many of my conversations yesterday were about the residents’ and teachers’ experiences during the earthquake. Nearly everyone has a story to tell, can show you their scars, or knew someone who was seriously injured or even killed. Despite losing their houses and most of their belongings, people are still hopeful for the future and proud of their country’s, and their own, resilience.

I can’t promise that this will be a weekly publication again as you have heard pretty much img_1622.jpgall of the day-to-day happenings, but I will write semi-regularly to keep you up to date on the big news. If biweekly isn’t enough for you, check out the Facebook page (facebook.com/centresaintvincent), Instagram (stvincentshaiti), and Twitter (@stvincentshaiti) where I will be posting updates and pictures of the happenings and people of St. Vincent’s. I am thrilled to be back for the next 90 days at St. Vincent’s.

Week Twelve – Goodbye St. Vincent’s

I have been back home in Memphis for nearly a week and finally feel that I have enough distance to write about my departure from Haiti. I did not spend the full 90 days at St. Vincent’s because I was asked to come back early to speak at a fundraiser. The short notice of my leaving and the uncertainty of whether or not I will be able to return in January made for a very difficult goodbye.

unnamedAfter sending my parents off with most of my belongings on Saturday, the kids were very upset about my inevitable departure. Despite the looming goodbye, Sunday was spent as any other Sunday – just hanging out. We had multiple dance parties in addition to a ping-pong tournament. It was a day just like any other.

Monday started with the same sort of ordinariness until snack time when all of the kindergarteners and teachers led me outside to the pavilion where there were balloons, handmade signs and crafts, and a giant cake. The residents were all there along with the entirety of the kindergarten. They then sang a song that mainly consisted of “Merci Grayson.” It was all very sweet and when I couldn’t stop crying they all tried to comfort me, which just made it harder. After many goodbyes through my tears, I was taken to the airport and ushered back into the American lifestyle.IMG_1400

And just like that, I am no longer living in Haiti. It is safe to say that St. Vincent’s has had an enormous impact on me and my outlook. I hope to spend another 90 days or so there starting in January. But if this is not possible, I know that I won’t be able to stay away for long. Mesi anpil Saint Vincent!

Week Eleven – Thanksgiving

 

In preparation for my family’s arrival, the favorite activity of the week was practicing English. This mostly involved saying, “Grayson, what is your name?” or “What is your name, Grayson?” and a lot of, “How do you say bonswa in English?” In addition to their

IMG_9597
Medjina in my Converse

language skills, there was a significant amount of talk about the new sandals that my family was bringing everyone. When they aren’t in school, they are wearing sandals, so this was a really big deal. They often make fun of me because I tend to wear my Converse all day long, but this week they all (and I mean every single resident under the age of 14) decided to go even further in their teasing by trying my shoes on and marveling at how big my feet are.

 

 

IMG_0165
Arianne, Medjina, and Damenly playing school

The excitement for my family’s arrival was slightly stifled by illness and visits to various Haitian hospitals. Not a problem though since I do NOT have Malaria or Typhoid thanks to the care of every single resident and many of the teachers at St. Vincent’s who gave me numerous Haitian remedies and concoctions to drink. After three visits to doctors near the school, I now feel much better and was even able to enjoy some turkey while I was out with my family celebrating Thanksgiving last night.

 

Once my family finally arrived at the school Thursday afternoon, it was lovely to see all of the kids (and teachers)

IMG_9718.JPG
Medjina, Phoebe, and Arianne

rush out of their classrooms to hug them, stroke their hands and arms, and marvel at how similar my sister and I look. Their excitement had not diminished at all and they were not even remotely shy about their profound interest and admiration. As one resident reminded me, they were excited to meet my “other family.”

Week Ten – Becoming Haitian

This week I have been met with mixed messages – “You are Haitian so you must forget English – only Creole!” and “We want to learn English! What is the English word for chair? For salmon? For corn? For mattress?” These messages, while flattering, are confusing. I am not sure what they mean by my being Haitian other than I have noticed IMG_9461I’ve started making new noises when I am surprised. Beyond that, I have found that my mouth and brain get confused switching back and forth between Creole and English. So much so that I often just repeat the Creole word they are asking for the translation of.

This confusion of my Americanness versus my Haitianness is further exacerbated by the fact that my mom, dad, grandmother, and sister are coming to Haiti in less than 1 week for Thanksgiving. The kids have been preparing for this visit by asking me daily to see pictures of my family and are doing their very best to try to remember their names (Teebee? CaREEsa? Daveed?) This will be my first Thanksgiving in a foreign country and I am very unsettled by the idea of not eating turkey…

This week it has rained every day, lowering the temperature by at least 15 degrees. At first I was enjoying it, but then, when I felt the urge to put on a sweater in 78 degree temperatures, I realized they might be onto something about me becoming Haitian. The

IMG_3500
Practicing their best dinosaur impressions

kids come to school bundled up in rain jackets, hoodies, button up chambray shirts – whatever they can find to stay warm. Despite the cold, the rain coming in through the windows and puddling on the floor (the school buildings are built for upper 90s and blinding sun), and the dreary grayness, the kids are all just as cheerful as ever – grinning as those who can see push and pull the wheelchair bound and blind along with them.