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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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!

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.

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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.

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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 Seven – Going Home

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.

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 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.

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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.