Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Requested by Project Haiti Member

Project Haiti is a student organization at the Pennsylvania State University that organizes fundraisers all year in order to do a service trip each Spring Break  to Haiti, the most impoverished country in the  western hemisphere.  In its inception in 1996, Project Haiti was connected to The Penn State Catholic Community where I worshiped regularly.  The Director of the Catholic Community introduced me to Sister Emanuel, the nun who was going to host those who made the first trip to Haiti in 1997.  As soon as she saw  me stand to greet her she invited me to her country.  The following is an excerpt from my memoir, It's Easier to Dance, Chapter 5 "An International Perspective"

Still I wanted my traveling to be something other than for my own enjoyment. I wanted there to be a purpose to my going to another culture. I wanted to help, to serve, to make a difference. Drawing on my Catholic faith, I wanted to serve the poor. I remembered all the Bible verses that quoted Jesus as promising to meet Him face to face in the poor. The opportunity came in 1996, when the Penn State Catholic community planned a mission trip to Haiti to work in the village of Pondiassou, 2 hours north of Porte au Prince. They put me in the front seat of a pickup truck after the van ride proved to be too bumpy. We transported my scooter by disassembling it and strapping it to the back of the pickup truck with the luggage. When we arrived at our destination, I was able to instruct someone to put my scooter back together, I got on it and off I went!  My role was mainly with the children, who loved my scooter, which they called “MAchine,” their word for car. They held on everywhere and you could barely see me for all of the children.  They fought each other to get on my lap and I had to ask the student translator to tell them, “No fighting or they can’t sit on Miss Annie’s lap.” One year I gave a talk to the trade classes for men. They wanted to know all about my life---who I lived with, they kept asking “Who takes care of you?” They also wanted to know why I wasn’t depressed. This gave me the opportunity to talk about my faith and the vast role it played in my life. I described to them my relationship with Jesus, as I would talk about any close, intimate friend. Their eyes grew wide with amazement, and they nodded their heads. They appeared to be trying to understand. They would have kept me for 24 hrs, had I not told them that I was getting tired, and I needed to end the discussion. They wanted to know everything about my life, was I married, did I have children. They did not assume like many in my own country that I couldnt have a life like anyone else.
At a birthday party for one of the nuns, a Haitian man took my hand as an invitation to dance, and I joined him easily, following his movements. He had no assumption that I could not dance, as most people frequently assume. Also, as an elder, (my age was past the life expectancy in that small village), I was treated like royalty. I made this trip 3 times, 2 years consecutively, returning on a 3rd trip in the 4th year, after I learned of their disappointment that I had not come the year before. 

The first year, under the most striking set of circumstances, we were entertained by a theater group comprised of Haitian teenage males who had once been homeless. Their performances had raised enough money to buy them a home and also buy a home for children with very complex  disabilities, one of whom had cerebral palsy and was part of the theater group who danced. It moved me so deeply that someone brought him out to meet me after the performance so I could give him a hug. He spoke no English, and I spoke no Creole, so I asked one of the student translators to convey my desire to know more about him. I wanted to know where he lived, and wanted to see it for myself. I was granted permission to take one student with me, a car and a driver was provided to take us into the mountains outside of Porte au Prince to the home where he lived with children like himself. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The beds and wheelchairs were from a previous time in history, and I thought “except for the grace of God…..” I was so welcomed, and I could see in the children’s eyes that they had probably not seen an adult like themselves. I was their race, I had their disability, and I was walking. I just walked around and touched them. When it was time to leave, I said “Arvoiré,” so they would know I was saying goodbye, and one little girl grabbed the three fingers on my right hand, and would not let go. I kept shaking my hand to get it loose, and saying “Arvoire, arvoire,” but her grip and the pleading in her eyes begged me to stay. One of the staff members had to come and loosen her grip because she just didn’t want to let me go. I made my way out of sight before I burst into tears, hoping with everything in my heart that I would return to that home someday.  I haven’t made it yet.

My experiences in Haiti prepared me for a later trip to Zimbabwe, where I spoke in churches and gave advice to a minister who was in the process of building the first school for disabled children in his community. In December of 2002, I had become friends with a student athlete from Zimbabwe. He was amazed that I went about the community on my own. He said one day, “How can you do things that you shouldn’t even be allowed to do?” I asked him about the lives of people with disabilities in his country. He said that he never saw them in public, and why didn’t I go home with him to find out I said, “Yes!”
What impressed the people of Zimbabwe most was that they considered me not only well educated and articulate, but also physically fit. My friend’s family was of the upper class, having a maid, a gardener and a guard who patrolled the property. I was introduced to several people who were interested in establishing the first school for children with disabilities, and wanted to know about how to obtain funds and professionals who would volunteer their expertise. I was told of the extensive physical and sexual abuse that regularly occurred in their institution, and would I please help. It seemed quite daunting that I would be considered able to provide the avenues for such extensive consultation. They actually wanted me to stay in Zimbabwe and work with them. I explained that I was committed to a role of providing guidance and doing some writing other than direct service, and that I would be happy to advise them about where they might go seek funding, grant writing expertise, etc. They were disappointed, but accepted my decision.

In addition to giving advice in this area, I was asked to speak at a Sunday morning church service. I felt comfortable having my student athlete friend paraphrase for his culture what I said so the congregation could comprehend what I was saying. I spoke about my disability from a Christian perspective. I told them that I viewed it as a blessing more than a curse, using the conceptualization of their cultural understanding.  

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