Week 6 – 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.

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Week 5 – Inclusivity

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Pipe cleaner fun!

This week at St. Vincent’s was very busy with two rounds of visitors. First, a group from my high school, St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, TN, arrived Wednesday and spent Thursday and Friday enjoying the kindergarteners’ energy and affection. On Thursday, the five senior St. Mary’s students sat in on kindergarten classes and then practiced their sign language while the St. Vincent’s students waited for the bus.

Friday was incredibly lively and consisted of all of the kindergarteners running in and out of their classrooms while working on various craft projects, which included decorating trash cans with duct tape, making butterflies, and eventually jewelry, out of pipe cleaners and pompoms, and decorating the kindergarten classroom building with hand (and a couple foot) prints. I don’t know how to describe it in any other way than to simply say that there was not a single person involved who was not beaming.

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Handprints with Mrs. Parker from St. Mary’s

On Saturday, I accompanied the St. Mary’s group to Kaliko beach – one of the premier beach resorts in Haiti. It was beautiful, fun, and relaxing for the whole group, but it is important to note that one of the girls later brought up the fact that she had felt a certain amount of guilt feeling so happy at the resort after seeing the poverty that most Haitians live in. The pristine beach and grounds of Kaliko are jarring even when juxtaposed to the adjacent public beach that is separated from Kaliko only by a small wall.

Before the arrival of the second group of American visitors, I accompanied Pere Fanfan to an award ceremony that featured the St. Vincent’s Handbell choir that is comprised entirely of blind, or nearly blind, current and former students. The Handbell choir played over half a dozen songs that they had  learned from sound and committed entirely to memory.

IMG-8619I did not know until the presentation of the award that we were there to receive an award for St. Vincent’s. The award given by a Haitian institute for mental health was for the school’s contribution of inclusivity and accessibility. I was reminded this week of just how accurate this description of St. Vincent’s is in the form of a story about a resident –  Medjina, a 5 year old living in the community of and attending school at St. Vincent’s. Medjina was born with two abnormally formed arms. She has the biggest smile I have ever seen on a child and only wants to cuddle.  At her old school, they thought she was a witch. She was bullied so badly by students and teachers alike that her mother simply stopped sending her to school. St. Vincent’s took her in recently, and from what I can tell, she is absolutely blossoming. She is charming, has no problem making friends with all of the residents and visitors, and loves to dance, run, and play soccer.

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Please excuse my horrible excuse for a smile and greasy hair and focus on this beauty, Medjina!

This week, a medical mission from Memphis has been serving all of the students and most of the teachers. Many of the visitors have returned to Haiti and St. Vincent’s year after year. Their connection and love for the place is evident in everything they do. It is remarkable to hear them talk about the child sitting in front of them – how when they first saw her 4 years ago her iron was dismally low and now runs full steam or how he would barely make eye contact and now won’t stop chattering. The people who care about St. Vincent’s really care. The love of the students, teachers, other employees, and volunteers is evident in everything they do and they are what makes St. Vincent’s such a wonderfully inclusive community.

Week 4 – St. Vincent’s and Beyond

I must first begin by dispelling all rumors that the two funerals I attended over the weekend had anything at all to do with Voodoo. No Voodoo, whatsoever. That being said, both funerals were fascinating, just what Pere Fanfan hoped that I would experience from attending. I left the gates of St. Vincent’s Saturday morning for the first time since I arrived here nearly one month ago. I then was informed that I was not only going to the Sunday funeral in the mountains that I had been prepared for, but also a funeral in downtown Port-au-Prince that very morning.

I was able to experience both an urban and rural funeral. Neither event differed much from the traditional Christian funerals I have attended in the United States, the only notable difference being the ways in which close family and friends grieve — but I’m getting ahead of myself. The urban funeral on Saturday was held in a modern church that could easily seat well over 300 people, but was crammed to capacity with many more people standing against the walls inside and outside. The funeral was for Bernard Adolphe, a Haitian military man, and a full military band was there for the occasion.

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A view of the road leading up to the hotel in the mountains.

The rural funeral in the mountains was held at the hotel of the brother of the deceased, Marie Udovia Septembre. The service took place in a small chapel but hundreds of people packed around the sides and looked in through the windows. There was also a brass band playing joyous music before and after the service. The difference in grieving I previously mentioned was what shocked me the most about the experience – numerous men and women expressed their emotions by scream crying, literal shrieks of pain that could not better exemplify the suffering that comes from losing a loved one. Immediately following the mournful service though, the coffin was lifted into the air by half a dozen men and carried half a mile further up into the mountains to the cemetery where the family and friends all gathered around the band to dance and lay down flowers.

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A view from the walk to the cemetery.

My self-consciously perceived position as an extreme outsider was severely lessened by the fact that the 7 year old grandniece of the deceased had taken a liking to me and led me by the hand around the service and through the crowds of guests. She never failed to find me when I was feeling lost or out of place and immediately grabbed my hand with a friendly, if not slightly exasperated “Come on, Gracie!”

This is all to say that, the experience of Haitian culture in the form of funerals was a very enjoyable one. In addition to the exposure to culture, I also got to spend the weekend with Haitians around my same age that quickly developed into friendships and will hopefully allow me to spend time off of campus with people my own age.

Following my weekend adventure, returning to St. Vincent’s, the place that has become home over the past 4 weeks, I was met with excited cheers and hugs – yet another warm example of the unconditional love I have felt from the residents.

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Leading two blind students and one seeing student home after school.

At St. Vincent’s school attendance has steadily increased, but it was just announced that a school for the deaf that has four locations in Haiti is closing two locations. St. Vincent’s has already been approached by over two dozen families affected by these closures whose last hope is St. Vincent’s. Unfortunately most of these families, and many of the other current students are unable to cover the cost of tuition. The tuition that St. Vincent’s must require, however so unwillingly, is very low compared to U.S. standards, but without it, the school could not continue to function. There is a Tuition Gap program in place that I wish you would all consider making a donation to in order to help St. Vincent’s help the students that so desperately need their help.

http://stvincentshaiti.org/donate/tuition-gap-program/

Mèsi anpil zanmi m’!

Week Three – Settling In

A list of life skills I have improved this week:

  • playing Uno with strategy
  • handling the situation when the water cuts out indefinitely as soon as I shampoo my hair
  • feeding another person spaghetti with a spoon
  • maintaining a certain amount of control of a resident’s wheelchair while three blind children try to make it go as fast as possible
  • running with a string of children holding both of my hands

On Monday after getting to a spot in my work with the garden that I felt I could ask for help in locating vegetable plants to start the planting process, I did some very minor self-advocating and secured a position helping out in the kindergarten classrooms. Tuesday morning started with a chapel service. As I was standing out of the way, feeling slightly unsure of what I had gotten myself into and watching the kids walk towards the school, a boy came up to me and took my hand and led me into the school area.

I was placed in a kindergarten classroom for the deaf. The teacher tasked me with various projects that included gluing cutouts of farm animals to a poster board, writing out homework sheets, and helping the students with practicing their penmanship. Despite the fact that I am acting as a teaching assistant, I am essentially participating in the class as a student, learning the basics of American Sign Language along with the students (although, I will admit that I had a bit of leg up on knowing the colors from my many hours of Uno with the residents).

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Classroom G.S.B. learning the alphabet

One of the kindergarten teachers gave me my sign name. It is the ASL motion for G held in front of my chin. The kindergarten kids in the classroom and many other students constantly reach out to pet my hair or tell me that I am pretty or just give me a huge grin and bear hug when they see me walking by. Today several of the students pointed to a poster on the wall that labeled the body parts and gestured that I was the little girl pictured on the poster despite the fact that she and I share no similarities beyond our skin color.

The most astounding thing I have witnessed in the classroom so far is the students practicing speaking. Despite their deafness, they are able to mimic the exaggerated facial movements of the teacher and legibly speak words. Granted sometimes they try their hardest and nothing but air comes out, but I was pleasantly taken aback when they began practicing their speech.

It has been a pretty easy week as I seem to have settled into routine life at St. Vincent’s. Each day is full of its own small highs and lows, but this week was pretty quiet, in the best way possible for a person beginning to feel at home in a new country.

Week Two – Slowly but Surely

Slowly but surely – the theme of my second week working and living at St. Vincent’s.

When Pere Fanfan came to check on my progress in the garden, I told him that it is changing slowly but surely, and he liked the phrase so much he wrote it down. I am slowly but surely improving the soil by constantly breaking it up and removing the rocks. The rain that has come in most evenings is also working its magic.


I am slowly but surely finding my place amongst the residents. Don’t get me wrong, everyone has been beyond welcoming and friendly, but I am slowly but surely getting more and more comfortable as everyday passes.

Sunday afternoon, while the majority of America was enjoying the classic past time of watching football, I played a game of pass with three residents, all of whom are deaf and one of whom is in a wheelchair, while listening to the distant strumming of 3 blind students learning to play guitar. Wednesday afternoon, I played “futbol” with 3 blind residents. This consisted of a lot of running on my part and a lot of laughter.

This is not to say that I have not felt beyond awkward at times. I frequently embarrass myself by attempting to use my limited sign language with a student who can in fact hear. I accidentally said that I wanted to eat someone instead of feed them. Just a few days ago, while sitting with a group of residents, a flute that I had found pieces of in the trash was being passed around, everyone trying their hand at playing. It wound up back at me, and I offered it to the person next to me – Clauricianne politely declined and then raised her arms. I was mortified that I had just asked my friend who has only one finger if she wanted to play the flute. I sat there silently berating myself for several minutes until the flute made it back around to Clauricianne again.  She accepted, then successfully played it. Clauricianne can not only play the flute better than I can, she also is an extremely talented seamstress who designs and crafts her own clothing and purses.

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Maille, Yolane, Clauricianne, and Ariane enjoying lunch

Earlier today I had to slowly but surely remove nearly two dozen rubber bands from my hair after letting ten year old Lindsesca do my hair. The pain of ripping half of my hair out was well worth the delight she took in parading me around to show off her stylist skills.

And so, slowly but surely, I am settling into life at St. Vincent’s. I am still making my fair share of grammatical mistakes and social faux pas, but everyone continues to embrace and encourage me.

First Week at St. Vincent’s

Haiti itself is no stranger to setbacks, and so when Hurricane Irma delayed my arrival, St. Vincent’s was not at all perturbed. When I did finally arrive, my living area was already set up nicely and immediately equipped with my own personal fan. Within 30 minutes of my arrival, there was a gigantic tray of food waiting on my desk.

When Pere Fanfan, the director, took me on a tour of the facilities, one of the residents, a little blind girl kissed my cheek then took both of our hands and accompanied us around the entire property.

That evening after dinner, as all evenings ever since, an ever growing group of residents has taken it upon themselves to teach me Creole and sign language. The process is slow and tedious, but there is an endless supply of patience and laughter as I forget or mispronounce words. The cheering and excitement when I use a new word or phrase is genuine and heartfelt.

Mornings at St. Vincent’s begin around 5:30 am, although like any time in Haiti, 5:30 is liable to run late. Breakfast is served in the dining area – an outdoor pavilion – right before 8 when the buses arrive carrying the students. As of Tuesday, roughly 50 students of the expected 200 showed up for school. This low percentage is not unusual for the first month; however, school’s cancellation until the following Tuesday was unusual. The cause of the cancellation is the outbreak of numerous ongoing riots over increased taxation that are taking place in the streets and make it, if not impossible, at least incredibly dangerous for the students and teachers to make the trip to school.

Because of the lack of students, the school has postponed the start of my planned extracurriculars until October when attendance will have increased. In the meantime, I have begun the work of starting a garden behind the school. When I asked a school employee help in locating a rake. He not only brought the rake, but also brought a friend. The two of them, without any instruction, started helping me clear the ground of the many rocks that litter the soil. At midday when the sun is too hot to continue working I said, “fini,” and they said they would be back to help tomorrow. They are helping me in addition to their own jobs, but nonetheless they have been back everyday for some amount of time to help with the tedious task.

The location of the garden was chosen primarily for its proximity to the only water spigot, but an added is that it also is within site of several classrooms from which students curiously watch me. Most smile shyly when I look up and attempt to convey the message that I am starting a garden. Several have expressed further interest by coming over after school. My goal is to have the students help plant and tend to vegetables that they can then harvest and eat directly from the ground.

My welcome to St. Vincent’s was immediate and has not lessened since I have been here. 5 days in and I am slowly but surely finding my place among the wonderfully caring, innovative, and compassionate people that make up the community of St. Vincent’s.