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).

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.

grayson 3
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.