Our Haiti ministry started for me in 2005 as a lark. Father Joe Porter, who was a priest at Grace-St. Luke’s, asked me if I would join him on a trip to Haiti. I had never traveled outside the United States and it sounded like fun. Also, I greatly admired Father Joe, so I said yes.
Father Joe Porter entered seminary late in life and had a roommate there, Father Bill Squire. Father Bill had been after Joe for many years to visit Haiti. Bill and his wife, Margaret, had lived in Haiti for several years and had run St. Vincent’s Center for Handicapped Children as Director. He also was the head of the Children’s Medical Mission of Haiti, a U.S. based non-profit that is the primary funding source for St. Vincent’s.
Little did I know on that first trip what I was getting myself into. That first trip changed my life forever. Unless you have visited a “third world” country, my accounts will be hard to believe.
Upon return to the states, we formed a group of interested people called the West Tennessee Haiti Partnership. It is a loose coalition of people of many faiths who have either been to Haiti or are interested in our mission there. Although some have visited there and never gone back, most of our group members have returned many times.
I myself have returned 13 times and am going back in a few weeks. There is something about the country and the people that has shaken me to my very soul.
After making many mistakes, as we Americans frequently do in countries like Haiti, we were able to officially adopt St. Vincent’s as our sole mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
St. Vincent’s is a beautiful place; I call it our cathedral for children, a gem set amidst the noise and dust of Port-au-Prince. Behind the high, sheltering walls reside children, who are deaf or blind or born with severe physical challenges. Most of these beautiful children were abandoned by their parents because they couldn’t care for them.
Some have asked me how a mother could walk away from her child. If she has many children, for the child mortality rate is very high there, and one or more has been born with a physical challenge, she simply cannot care for the child at the expense of her other children. Also, I am asked why the Haitians have such a high instance of birth defects. There is very little access to proper medical attention and little or no prenatal care. Also, the average income for a Haitian is 1 or 2 dollars a day.
St. Vincent’s has a reputation throughout the country as being the premier institution for children with physical challenges in Haiti. St. Vincent’s feeds, clothes and educates these students to the best of their ability to learn. The blind children learn to read and write in braille. The deaf children learn to communicate in Haitian, French and American Sign Language. The children with arm or leg problems or lack thereof, are custom fit with prosthetics made in St. Vincent’s prosthetic shop by graduates of the school.
I have seen many times a beautiful blind girl reading from the Bible in braille. The deaf children carry on conversations between themselves with their hands and fingers moving at a blur. Children with one leg or arm play soccer with a milk bottle. One boy born without arms wants to play basketball with the older boys, patiently practices his jump shot with the nubs of his arms.
Jean Joseph Paul, the crown prince of St. Vincent’s was one of the first children rescued by Sister Joan Margaret, the founder of St. Vincent’s in the 50’s. She taught him how to read and write, even though he was born without arms or legs. He taught himself how to paint and has become quite an accomplished artist. He is well known in the states and his works are prized by collectors. His day job is to hold court over the crowds that come to St. Vincent’s during the day directing people and making sure mothers do not abandon their children.
You might think I am not relating the truth, but we say this first hand. A little girl with a brain problem was left there when Jojo was occupied elsewhere. We christened this beautiful girl Margaret Vincent. Once you get there you will notice most of the children’s last names are Vincent, after the center.
When I step over the threshold, the cares of the world seem to disappear. We are greeted by smiles and hugs all around. We love these children as our own and know they love us back. We grieve when one of our children dies from the inevitable result of being born in Haiti.
We were stunned and worried when we heard the news of the terrible earthquake that changed everything for the Haitians on Jan. 2010. Amidst the chaos and death that the news showed us, we heard conflicting reports of our children surviving or dying. St. Vincent’s was still standing, 3 blocks from the presidential palace, or it had collapsed.
We couldn’t return until April after the quake. When we arrived at St. Vincent’s the building had partially collapsed burying several children and staff in the rubble. They were still there buried under the stones in April. We gave them last rites until they could receive a proper burial.
Under the direction of our medical director, Dr. Susan Nelson, a family physician in Memphis, we set up a clinic and pharmacy on every trip. All of the medical services and medicines are provided free of charge to the students, staff and parents of students. Any other medical specialists we can recruit are welcomed with open arms.
Some ask me, are you really making a difference in these children’s lives. I can say yes, we are. They are gaining weight; each child gets a vitamin a day. We find no worms, no cholera, no vitamin deficiency in the children, and a quantifiable, measurable difference from trip to trip. My dream is to get a team of eye specialists down some day to examine the blind children. There might be a simple procedure that can correct their sightlessness. What a gift that would be.
People ask me what do you do when you are there, for you have no medical training at all. My calling is to sit on the second floor, where some of the wheelchair bound children live. We spend hours coloring, singing and laughing at silly games. The staff at St. Vincent’s takes great care feeding and caring for all the children but sometimes all they really want is a little attention. If the lord allows me to keep going, what is two weeks a year out of my life? It is the least I can do for these children who have so little of what we call important. What they do have in abundance is a love for God and each other that always amazes me.
Some ask me, do you go to Haiti to build churches and do missionary work. I say no. The Haitian people should send missionaries to America for they are the most spiritual people I have ever met. They have nothing to get between themselves and God, the stuff we consider so vital to life.
One might ask, what can I do? Pray for St. Vincent’s and the children under her care. Pray for the people and country of Haiti. Contact us for information about donating to the school; 100% of the money raised goes directly to the ministry. We have no paid staff or overhead. God bless you and God bless St. Vincent’s Center for Handicapped Children.
Yolinde Vincent, August Vincent, Margaret Vincent and Diana Vincent send you their love and thanks in advance.
Submitted by the Rev. Drew Woodruff, Coordinator West Tennessee Haiti Partnership