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Lifting fragile lives in Haiti

With aid from Hub, disabled children’s home presses on

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / March 26, 2010

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FERMATHE, Haiti — A thin blind boy squats on a narrow mattress, bits of his breakfast strewn across the sheet. A wound held together with clear tape grazes his brow. Louis’s nose is running, and he has a weak cough; his hand is bound with a sweater to keep him from biting himself. The damp morning air is thick with the smell of urine and soy porridge.

Nearby, a little girl named Josephine sits in a red wheelchair, clinging to a passing visitor’s hand and squealing with laughter. She loves to sing, and she chirps a few reedy notes of a Christian song in Haitian Creole over the din of the staff wrestling wheelchairs down a jerry-rigged ramp.

Life has never been easy for the children at Wings of Hope, a home for youngsters with disabilities high in the hills above Port-au-Prince that has developed close ties with a Catholic parish in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood and a school for disabled children in Lexington.

The Wings children are mostly orphans, in a country where people with disabilities are ostracized and scorned. Haitians call them cocobai, which roughly translates as “worthless’’ or “disgrace.’’ The local kindergarten in Fermathe would not admit Josephine, even when Wings promised to send an aide to help her through her day.

Then came the earthquake.

Though the Wings building did not fall, an architect deemed it structurally unsound. For eight days, about 70 children and staff huddled in two rooms while the leaders of the home scrambled to find a new place. Unlike other orphanages for children with disabilities that have been forced to move into camps, Wings of Hope managed to rent two adjoining houses not far from the old building.

But the conditions are difficult. The plywood ramps the staff built over the stairs are steep and narrow, and many of the children must be carried from floor to floor. The dorm rooms are crowded, the tiny bathrooms cramped and dirty. On a chilly morning, most of the children’s feet were bare, and the cold tile floors were slick with muddy footprints.

“They’re starting from scratch,’’ said David Manzo, president of the Cotting School in Lexington, who has stayed in close touch with the staff in Haiti by e-mail. “I’m saddened in terms of what they lost.’’

Manzo became involved with Wings of Hope through his church, St. Cecilia's parish in Boston; over time Cotting teachers became involved, and now the Cotting considers Wings its sister school — Haitian staff visit for training each year; Cotting teachers volunteer time in Haiti, and one recently adopted a child from Wings. The Rev. John Unni, St. Cecilia’s, pastor, began volunteering in Haiti 24 years ago, before he was a seminarian, and has led students and parishioners back ever since.

“It heightens awareness of folks in the parish of what is going on in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation,’’ Unni said in a recent interview. “I think it challenges people to look at who we are called to be.’’

Wings is part of the St. Joseph’s Family homes, a small charity that consists of Wings of Hope as well as two other homes for street boys and former child slaves in Port-au-Prince and nearby Jacmel. St. Joseph’s founder, Michael Geilenfeld, an Iowan and former brother with Mother Teresa’s Brothers of Charity, said Wings was formed after a French organization no longer wanted to care for 14 disabled children in its charge.

The three homes are supported by an informal patchwork of income from three North American charities that take donations from church groups and friends. There are also receipts from a variety of cottage industries — the boys’ Resurrection Dance Theater, which tours the United States and Canada telling the stories of the boys’ lives through dance; the modest hostel the boys operated at St. Joseph’s, and the art and homespun calendars sold at churches like St. Cecilia.

Even before the earthquake, Wings of Hope had no running water and only intermittent electricity; the staff had to flush the toilets by pouring buckets of water down them. Mostly run by graduates of the St. Joseph’s program for street boys and former child slaves, it had only a few staff members with degrees of any kind, including one full-time nurse. Jacky Asse, whose mother died of AIDS-related fever when he was 11, graduated from St. Joseph’s; at 28, he is the new Wings director. Though he has no formal training, he has earned his co-workers’ trust.

“It’s just a call from God, and from other people around me,’’ he said.

Wings is considered one of the better homes for abandoned children with disabilities in Haiti, said Gail Buck of Portland, Ore., who has spent months working in Port-au-Prince with Healing Hands for Haiti, a group that sends physical therapists from the United States and Canada to provide rehabilitative care.

“In the worst of them, the children lie in bed with mosquito nets draped over their faces,’’ Buck said. “The best you can say is they’re not abandoned in a garbage dump.’’

At Wings, Buck said, “they treat them like family, versus furniture.’’

Ann Couture, a St. Cecilia’s parishioner from Middleton who has visited Wings three times in recent years, recalls the old building as clean and spacious, with plenty of room for play. When she visited, she would help the children through busy days filled with activities — a handful were even taken to go horseback riding once a week for physical therapy.

“It’s not an orphanage, it’s a home, in every sense of the word,’’ Couture said.

One of the reasons she and others have stayed so involved, she said, was their sense that life was steadily improving for the children.

“You don’t see progress in Haiti,’’ she said. But at the St. Joseph’s homes, she said, “things were moving forward. . . . I was amazed by how much they did with so little.’’

The spirit of the place — and the children themselves — has kept St. Cecilia’s parishioners coming back, year after year. Mark Lippolt, a St. Cecilia’s parishioner from the Back Bay, said little Josephine captured his heart.

“I know who she is,’’ he said. “I can’t forget what her life would be like had she had the luck of birth that we all have had.’’

These emotional bonds lent the Bostonians a personal connection to the suffering in Haiti after the earthquake. Three weeks after the disaster, Unni flew to the Dominican Republic and made the long trek over the mountains to Haiti’s capital in the back of a pickup truck to check on the people he considers members of an extended family.

“I wanted to get down there and see what had happened . . . and let them know they are not forgotten, that they’re not alone,’’ Unni said.

In Port-au-Prince, the St. Joseph’s building and chapel had collapsed. Though the boys were not hurt, a 25-year-old visiting Lutheran seminarian was crushed to death, and the director of St. Joseph’s, Bill Nathan, a former child slave and gifted drummer, barely survived a fall from the school’s rooftop.

Before he wound his way up the mountain road to Fermathe, Unni saw teenaged children pulling decayed bodies out of the rubble of a church. The stench of death was everywhere. When he arrived at the temporary Wings residence, the place was a bit chaotic but cheerful. A little boy named Teddy squirmed in his wheelchair with delight at seeing his old friend, his smile revealing two big gaps where he had lost his front teeth.

Though spared the worst, life has changed for the 38 disabled children at Wings. When the Globe visited earlier this month, on a sunny afternoon and then a foggy morning a couple days later, it was difficult to imagine the clean, orderly environment that had impressed Bostonian visitors as an oasis.

School and therapy time continue four days a week, despite the crowded quarters and lack of supplies, and the staff had even managed to get the children to their horseback riding. But about eight little girls who typically use wheelchairs lay in bed in their pajamas at around 4:30 p.m., as the day staff prepared to go home for the night. The children were happily polishing off bowls of ice cream, but Asse said they would not eat again until breakfast.

On a foggy morning a couple of days later, children were eating their porridge, and several were left behind in an upstairs dorm room unsupervised when the rest of the children went next door to dance and pray. Asse had left for a monthlong tour to raise money for the homes with the dance troupe, entrusting the facility to two assistant directors and two American women who work at the home.

Some of the staff have been afraid to leave their homes, or tending to their own families’ needs, so there are fewer hands to help clean and cook and to relieve the day workers at night, said Cheryl Proctor, a nurse practitioner from North Carolina who chairs the board of Hearts with Haiti, a US charity whose sole mission is to support the St. Joseph’s Family homes.

“It’s such a tremendous struggle in Haiti even on the best days, in a postearthquake situation it’s made all the more difficult,’’ she said.

Hearts with Haiti has raised more than $1 million to help rebuild so far. Back in Boston, the Cotting School and its extended community of friends have raised about $150,000, and seven staff members plan to spend a week volunteering at Wings in July.

St. Cecilia’s has reached out to help Haiti in a variety of ways — holding a special prayer service, encouraging parishioners to donate to both Catholic Relief Services and Hearts with Haiti, and participating in a walk-a-thon for Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides health care for the poor in Haiti and other countries. Many of the parishioners are also contributing to other organizations involved in helping people in Haiti and in Boston’s Haitian diaspora.

In a homily after returning from Haiti, Unni spoke about the resilience he witnessed at Wings of Hope.

“That ends up being the thing that prevails,’’ he said. “You adapt, you make the best of it and you go from there.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

Photo gallery
Inside Haiti's Wings of Hope orphanage