Amidst the current political crisis, Gena Heraty, Director of NPH Haiti Special Needs programmes, celebrates her 50th birthday!

Gena has been taking care of special needs children in Haiti for more than 30 years. It all began when she opened the St. Germaine programme to help these children by providing education, therapy and rehabilitative care. Despite the recent crises throughout the country, NPH Haiti has strived to ensure that services run smoothly. Gena turned 50 in September and shared her thoughts and the current crisis situation in Haiti.

Gena and child
Gena sharing a moment with a special needs child.

I am sitting here in Kay Christine (the special needs residential home in Kenscoff, Haiti), and apart from the cat making a racket, it is pretty quiet. Some of the children are eating, the young ladies are on the balcony having their nails done and the boys are sitting around watching them. The cat, by the way, smells the chicken downstairs so I guess he is getting tempted.

I feel I have so many things to tell you; I just don’t know where to start. Will I begin with the tires burning right now in Petionville due to the ongoing fuel crisis? Do I start with some of the amazing progress we have witnessed with some of our children? Maybe I should just start by telling you about my birthday.

September 7th was my 50th birthday! What an honor to reach to that age. So many don’t get there. I had a super day with the children and friends and I felt very loved and cherished. As soon as I got out of bed there was singing and hugs and kisses and laughter.

Rose Therlie came singing with a present and I was very curious as to how she actually managed to get me a present. There were 3 gifts – one was a photo frame in a box – new, another looked like a flattened, faceless teddy bear – only it wasn’t! I am still not sure what it is but we think it is something from a wheelchair support (when I asked Therlie what it was she said it was a teddy bear). And the third was a card – not any ordinary card. It was a birthday card that I had written for her, for her birthday – in 2013. God Bless, Rose Therlie. She has a heart of gold and no present could be as special as those ones she gave me. She was so happy giving them to me. It really was a beautiful moment in what was to be a beautiful day.

Yvonne started her singing for me as soon as she came out of the shower and she then followed me around all morning, so she could sing for me some more and load me with kisses. Every time someone came to say happy birthday, she started up again and we were all amazed at how much she wanted to be a part of making my birthday special. We all gathered as a family so we could have the birthday cake and this became an opportunity for even more singing. As Indira, Venica and Thoniel all have birthdays in September, they were also celebrated and needless to say this added to the excitement.

As it turns out, I received 3 birthday cakes; 2 big ones and 1 very special homemade gluten-free cake – made for me by Michelle – a wonderful physiotherapist from Dundalk. So we all had cake for 2 days. From there I went with some of my closest friends to a restaurant in town for a late lunch/early dinner. This was also very nice and as I looked around the table, I felt again how lucky I am. Thanks to the children, I have met such wonderful people and indeed all of us there, have met through our work with the children. So anyway that was my birthday and I could not have have a nicer day. God is good.

So what about Haiti? Oh dear. Things are really not easy these days. For almost three weeks now, there has been a fuel crisis. In short, there is not enough fuel in the country and for days people are struggling to get diesel or petrol.

In practical terms, what does this mean? I means gas stations stay closed because there is no diesel, or even if one has fuel, it remains closed as they can’t cope with the demand. If they do open, it causes a riot as people desperately try to get fuel. No fuel means no public transport. No public transport equals more hardship and even death as far as I can see. Why? Let me try and explain.

Our adult hospital has been almost empty of patients these past 2 weeks. It hasn’t been empty because we have no staff. It hasn’t been empty due to us no having fuel to run the generators. Nor has it been empty as we don’t have oxygen (we make our own) or other supplies. In fact our hospitals always stay open no matter how bad things get. Most other hospitals can’t function at the best of times as they don’t have supplies. Frequently public hospitals run out of the basics, like gloves, gauzes, needles, oxygen, electricity. I am going to state that again: frequently public hospitals run out of the basics. Think about that for a minute: a state run hospital not having the basics. That tells you a lot about the state of the country.

So back to our adult hospital. Why is it almost empty? Because the sick cannot get to the hospital. The public transport cannot function with no fuel available. The public transportation that does operate, they hike up the prices because they themselves bought a gallon of diesel on the black market for double the normal price. So the sick cannot come to hospital.

For our NPH St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, what happens to the pregnant mother in desperate need of a cesarean? What happens to the people that have strokes, the biggest causes of death among adults in Haiti? What happens to the kids with pneumonia, one of the biggest killers of children under five in Haiti? I think you know what happens.

Because when there is no fuel, there is no way to go anywhere that is not walking distance. Those that do not die at home, end up in hospital days later – once fuel becomes available – and they arrive half-dead and are lucky to survive. It is heart-breaking. Truly heart-breaking.

Frequently staff and patients have to dodge bullets and stones and negotiate road blocks and burning barricades as they come and go every day. A friend of mine called me this morning to tell me she cannot get home after mass because of the burning tires.

The summer has been relatively quiet and we all enjoyed greater movement around the place. Sadly the fuel shortage and the inflation rate – up 19% since January of this year – and the devaluation of the gourde – have led to the restart of the protests and the lack of fuel has meant many schools are still not open and students are unable able to get to school.

Many of you reading this have kids in school. How were the weeks before school reopened for you? Were you stressed out because you never finished paying the fees from last year and as a result you could not get the report cards and thus could not enroll for a new school year? Did you worry and fret about where you would get the money for the school uniform, the entrance fee, the first monthly payment, the books, the school bag for all five of your kids, no less? Was getting your kids to school difficult for you? Did they start on time? Putting kids in school here is so difficult for parents. The unemployed have no social welfare or health benefits. In a county where nothing is easy, you have to hand it to those parents that manage to get their kids to school.

In our NPH Special Needs School, we were very impressed last week because students attended. The parents made a huge effort to bring them. Here in the children’s home, the school was filled with kids – a complete contrast to downtown. All of them were squeaky clean in their new uniforms. Most of the navy sweaters came to us from Ireland – via our friends in Espwa – Haiti Orphanage Project, who have been fantastic. If they are not here helping us on the ground, they are back home, on the go day and night collecting things for us.

When I see all the school children here – happy and full of energy – full of potential- it fills me with hope. That’s the thing about Haiti: so many contrasts. For every disaster there is always the possibility to make things better. Over six hundred kids from the community come to our school here – this is a huge opportunity for the local families because our school only asks for minimal fees. Not only that but it is a very good school so the kids receive a solid education.

So where do we go from here in Haiti? We have no idea. The opposition is calling for another shut down of the country, in protest to the lack of fuel, the cost of living and the obvious corruption. So many people are fed up. It is hard not to be. One of our therapists was robbed at gunpoint yesterday; she had just come from the bank. Sadly this happens all the time now. No one has savings so you can imagine just how catastrophic this is. Long-term work colleagues share their concerns with us as they just can’t see a future for their children. Good hard-working people are beginning to despair. It is so sad.

Somehow we have to find a way to keep hopeful. We have to keep finding the strength and support to continue what we are doing, and more. What we do is important and we have to find ways to be a light in the darkness: to give more light.

Anyway, I am going to finish with this, ‘When it rains look for rainbows, when it is dark look for stars.’

In my life I am blessed because so many times the children and young adults I live with are my rainbows and my stars. Time and time again they inspire us. They overcome so many challenges and they are living proof we can never give up hope.

I walk with Jacky every day and I admire his courage so much, because even if he is still a bit wobbly, he always wants to try and walk unaided. He puts his fears aside. Our children look out for each other, they share and they accept everyone regardless of differences. They would never dream of eating if someone next to them did not have food. They would ask for food for him/her or would share their own food. They seem to have life figured out. They seem to know what is truly needed to survive. I learn from them. Just now Jeff came along and gave me a big hug. Just like that. Hugs are great.

Your support makes it possible for us to make a difference. Your support sends kids to school. Your support keeps kids healthy and gives them a childhood. Never underestimate how much we appreciate your support. Never underestimate how much we depend on it.

Lunch is ready now – so time for a big feed. The cat is on the prowl. Sunday is a good day for him, too.

Interested in learning how you can support NPH Haiti during this time of crisis? Find out how you can help support NPH Haiti during this time of crisis.

Gena Heraty
Director of Special Needs Programs at NPH Haiti