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Haiti: Pockets of people fighting for a better world

Updated: January 24, 2013 8:39PM



From sadness, a choir grew.

A child died recently in the St. Germaine program at St. Helene orphanage in Kenscoff, Haiti. Officials at the special needs facility asked a group of local singers to perform at his funeral.

When Gena Heraty, a native of Ireland who runs the program, saw how the children responded to song, she created a children’s chorus. Now, every week, a volunteer singer comes to lead the youngsters’ chorus.

“You have to look for opportunities that come out of the misery,” said Heraty, who has received numerous humanitarian awards for her work with special needs children and who volunteers for Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos in Haiti.

“Haiti will show us how to help,” she said.

A big part of that help should come with an intent to leave Haitians in control of their destiny, she says.

Prejudice, said the Rev. Rick Frechette, is to see only the contributions foreigners make in this impoverished nation.

A big reason Haiti survives, he says, is its resilience, its ability to cull optimism from its hardships.

Frechette recalled a visiting journalist who broke down during a weekly morgue ritual during which he leads a group of volunteers in burying Port-au-Prince’s unclaimed dead.

“He said, ‘I’m a war journalist. I’ve seen this kind of thing in wars all over the world, bodies piled on top of each other. But there’s no war here.’

“He could handle it in the context of bombs and guns, but not poverty. So I explained to him that poverty is a war,” Frechette said.

And in all wars, there are pockets of optimism. It is human nature to endure, to survive. It is Haitian nature to help others do the same.

John Shattuck, a Frankfort businessman who has organized more than $16 million worth of aid to Haiti since the January 2010 earthquake, says that after the disaster, the kids at the orphanage offered to give up one meal a day.

“They said, ‘Let’s send our other meals down (to Port-au-Prince) to help the people who are suffering.’ These are kids who have no parents, kids who range in age from 5 to 13 or 14. And yet, they were willing to give up a meal every day to help someone else.”

No matter what life seems to throw at them, hope springs eternal for many Haitians.

Gregory Constant, who lives at St. Helene, is 24 and disabled.

He doesn’t know how he got that way. His family only told him that “something magical” happened when he was 8.

“I can’t move my legs. I can’t go to the bathroom alone. I can’t walk,” he said. Still, he wants to become a musician, to follow in the footsteps of American pop stars such as Chris Brown or Justin Bieber.

Charles Wadner, 8, was severely burned in a cooking accident when he was a baby. Scars cover his arms, face and scalp. He also lost several fingers in the incident. Yet, his teachers at St. Helene say, he is rarely without a smile.

When Shattuck last visited him, he learned the boy had lost another finger in a painful encounter with a steel door.

“I asked him what happened and he smiled, shrugged and went on his way,” Shattuck said. “It’s amazing.”

How to explain this unique buoyancy?

Frechette said that at a retreat for Catholic Navy chaplains last month, he discussed why he and others who help in Haiti do not suffer from post-traumatic stress-like symptoms, given the horrors they’ve witnessed and hardships they’ve endured. Those experiences are so vastly different from the way things are back home.

“In the modern wars, no one is really clear about why they’re there,” he said. “But us, we always know why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

It’s not the suffering that destroys somebody, he says. It’s the context in which the suffering is presented.

He said he gets nothing but affirmation on the street. Even in Haiti’s darkest hour, in its most dangerous sections, Frechette has always walked freely.

“People accept our mission’s work,” he said, explaining his uncommon street cred. “Also, we’re here, doing it every day.”

But that mission is not without challenges. As the world wrestles with economic difficulties, contributions to NPH have faltered. Frechette likes to steer clear of money that carries political baggage or even the potential to become political baggage. But he may not have a choice.

Frechette recently sold almost everything in his office to help make payroll.

“When we had a hard time in January, everyone here offered to go without a month’s salary. There was no way in hell we were gonna do that to these people who only earn a few hundred dollars a month.”



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