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!

Advertisements

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.

Week Nine – Back at It

School started again on Monday, just in time for my sanity. Although I waxed romantic in my last post about enjoying the downtime, I had reached my limit by Sunday.

IMG_9361 2
My very first attempt – it got a little better after the 3rd time…

That being said, the highlight of Saturday and Sunday was learning how to do the kids’ hair. I have never had much interest in hair, but when one of the caretakers, Lisa, said she wanted to teach me, I could not turn her down. Hair is still not my calling, but the girls all beg me to do their hair and it is fun togetherness time. Thankfully it is going to be a weekend practice because, as Lisa told me, I’m not ready to do their hair for school yet.

The residents, and all of the students and teachers, were full of energy and happiness on Monday morning that school was back on after a week off. Everyday after school we listen to music. I was starting to get incredibly tired of the 15 or so Haitian songs I know when I was informed that they love Shakira. When I played Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)(The Official 2010 FIFA World Cup Song), everyone, and I mean everyone, immediately started chanting and dancing.

IMG_9354 3
Dance party

Following our dance party, everyone started climbing into my lap, cuddling with me, and calling me mommy. While this was just kids being silly, the kids and adults alike have started calling me pet names like “cherie” and “mon amour” – really making me feel loved and needed.

Following a tour that I led with Americans, I was joking about forgetting how to speak English. Everyone began teasing me about being Haitian. This idea was strangely solidified in the classroom the following day when another group of Americans gave candy and stickers to all of the kids, including me. I can’t be sure but since they didn’t give candy to the teachers it seemed to me as if they thought I was a 19 year old white girl attending Haitian kindergarten …

Two months in and my music, speech, and sometimes even my hairstyle, are now reflecting my Haitain life. Hard to think about going home in December, especially considering that I was cold in the upper 70s weather yesterday.

Week Eight – School Break

The students have been out of school for the entire week for teacher training and then a national holiday. I  have to admit that I was dreading this vacation. There is already a lot of “hang out” time in Haiti, and no school for an entire week sounded like it might set me over the edge. But yet again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I have not felt bored out of my mind – quite the opposite really.

 

IMG_9322.JPG
Arianne celebrating her 5th birthday with a new pair of sneakers

I have made friends with residents I had barely interacted with before. Fernel and Guerrier, both blind, have decided that they are my new best friends. They practice speaking English to me and I respond in Creole. Dr. Susan Nelson left me with a deck of braille playing cards after her visit in October, and we play cards for hours nearly every night. Jean Leonard is a new resident who moved in while I was in Seattle. He is deaf and has been practicing sign with me every day.

 

The days have been filled with music, manicures, lots of Uno and cards. I have played cards with a blind boy and two deaf boys – at the same time! In the evenings, after the power comes back on, I have gotten the opportunity to talk to Lindseska about politics. Lindseska is 10 years old and very opinionated. She asked to see a picture of the president of the United States. She had never heard of Donald Trump – something that caught me off guard since he is so omnipresent in American news.

IMG_9255 (1)
Lindseska enjoying some DumDums

She asked me genuine and intelligent questions about his policies and whether or not he had his own police. When I said no, he does not have his own police, she was amazed and explained that the Haitian president has his own police that cause a lot of problems. She continued to tell me about his policies and the president before him. We even covered the fact that American presidents are limited to two four-year terms, which she agreed was a good thing. We had a similar conversation the next night about the problems with the new president’s increase in taxation and even compared the pricing of items. When a friend gave me a Gatorade, she asked if people drank Gatorade in the U.S. all the time. I said yes, and she explained to me that Gatorade is 250 Haitian dollars, an enormous fee when compared to water, which is 2 Haitian dollars. She noted that the president increased the price of water from 1 to 2 Haitian dollars when he came into power, which is one of the reasons This is just one of the explains of why Haitians have been protesting his taxation for months now.

All in all, I feel that I have hit my stride in recent weeks in terms of communication. It has allowed me to make new friends and have deeper conversations, which then further improves my communication skills. Even without school, I have felt productive and important to life at St. Vincent’s.

 

Week Seven – Going Home

img_9179.jpg
Medjina – smiling while I look unenthused… yet again.

I would be lying if I did not admit that I was pretty apprehensive about my return to Haiti. I was shocked by how easily I adjusted to life in the U.S. – the abundance of anything I could need or want, the ease of communication, the return to my normal. That being said, I was almost immediately put at ease again when I entered the airport. While waiting for my ride back to the school, a taxi driver struck up a conversation with me in Creole and I managed to keep up! He even complimented me on how much Creole I knew. I am by no means good at Creole, nor do I know a lot, but it was affirming to hear praise from someone other than the people who are helping me learn day in and day out.

Upon my return to St. Vincent’s, I was met with lots and lots of smiles, hugs, and kisses. I even met and befriended a new resident – deaf, 16 year old Richardson. He and I communicated in English and Creole via a dry erase board. I managed to further solidify my popularity by bringing gifts of Oreos, soccer balls with bells, and dozens of fidget spinners (all generously donated by friends at home in the U.S.). One of the students in my kindergarten classroom noticed that I did not have my daily snack of a banana and told me that he would buy one for me.

IMG_9160.JPG
Mainy posing with his completed puzzle.

I was tasked with interviewing students to help promote our Tuition Gap Fund with short biographies about the students. This, in and of itself, was daunting because of the language barrier, but I found that I could ask questions and understand their answers surprisingly well. I thought it would be difficult to find students willing to talk to me but I was sorely mistaken. I quickly gathered a herd of students who followed me around all morning demanding that I talk with them. I would like to leave you all with just a few answers as to why they love St. Vincent’s.

  • “It is helping me learn good life skills.”
  • “I always have fun going to school.”
  • “I have lots of friends here with whom I can easily communicate.”
  • “It is a special place where teachers, children, and teenagers all interact.”
  • “I like playing and working with the other handicapped children and seeing the progress they make.”
  • “It is a school that helps children who need help.”
  • “It is my home.”

Week Six – Celebrating St. Vincent’s​

On Monday we celebrated the move to St. Vincent’s new location in Santo. There was an open house to show the greater Haitian community the wonderful setting and people that make up the school. Many of the female students spent the day getting ready for the File_001highlight of the event – several Haitian dances that they have been practicing for weeks. I spent the morning acting as dance mom, buttoning tutus, putting flowers in hair, and running around trying to find necklaces.

A Haitian event would not be complete without some technical difficulties, which took place in the form of a loss of music during the first dance, but everything was smooth sailing after that. There were three beautiful dances, some musical File_000performances, “barbecue” (a term that, as a Memphian, I loosely apply), a lot of dancing to Haitian pop, and even a few celebrity appearances! All in all, it was a wonderful schoolwide function that showcased the joy that perpetually radiates from these kids.

 

This is a bit of an abbreviated post since I left Haiti on Wednesday for a family function in Seattle. I haven’t quite fully slipped back into the “land of abundance” as Dr. Susan Nelson called it. Right off the bat I overindulged in fried food in the Atlanta airport and immediately regretted it. I have woken up at exactly 2 am every night because that is the regular 5 am wake up time I am used to in Haiti. I keep finding myself turning the shower down because I am not used to the hot water. I was not even remotely phased yesterday when another car recklessly cut in front of our car, mere feet from our moving bumper.

All of these minor incidents combined made me realize just how much I have settled into the Haitian lifestyle and my life at St. Vincent’s – and I look forward to a warm welcome when I return next week.