In Haiti: ‘We’re teaching them confidence and faith’
On a farm in Haiti’s countryside, deaf and mute kids are learning that their life has more meaning than begging.
The youth are residents of the Institut Montfort (a.k.a. “The Farm”) for deaf and mute orphans in the area of Santo, operated by the France-based Daughters of Wisdom. Their introduction to, and education in, a new life is being made possible through donations contributed by the Los Angeles office of the New York-based Holy Childhood Association (HCA).
It is part of the Los Angeles office’s response to Haiti’s devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, that all but paralyzed the Caribbean country. Haiti today is still struggling to rebuild its infrastructure, which had been inadequate long before the 7.0 quake that killed 316,000 and left more than a million homeless.
In the past two years, more than $600,000 for Haiti relief has been raised by Los Angeles’ HCA office and directed to several religious communities working in Haiti, including the Daughters of Wisdom, who lost seven senior sisters during the earthquake. Today, two sisters manage the farm/institute, one operates the infirmary and a fourth operates a separate school.
The HCA has “adopted” the institute for the last two years, in accordance with its purpose of promoting free education for the children of uneducated low-income parents, explained Father Ken Deasy, HCA’s coordinator.
“We are trying to teach these kids they can be more than professional beggars, which ---- in most poor countries --- most disabled are reduced to that type of expectation,” said Father Deasy. “The reason why we’re focusing on the kids is because they are the ones who are going to re-build Haiti. It’s not just teaching them reading, writing or mathematics; for those who can read and write, we’re teaching them confidence and faith.
“And for those who can’t see, hear or speak, we’re teaching safety and security.”
Deprivation and dignity
Children are also taught the gift of giving --- a challenging lesson in a poverty-stricken, quake-stricken country where the lack of basic needs can result in desperate measures.
“The kids are so deprived that inherently they believe they’re not enough, and inherently they already believe they are going to be left out,” explained Father Deasy. “So they are very aggressive and determined not to be left out, even when there’s more than enough.
“The tents are wearing down, impatience is growing, and as long as you live an undignified life you take on undignified behavior.”
More than a million Haitians are still living in tent cities in Port-Au-Prince, the capital, and surrounding areas. Diseases, especially cholera, have spread among the population and according to reports, reconstruction has barely begun.
And although people in the countryside are different compared to those in the city, “which is a big welfare center,” they still are used to receiving everything from the government or non-profit institutions, Father Deasy said.
The donations from HCA and others have helped, but it is vital that long-term needs be addressed. “To give out food and water is great, but to get educated, to learn a trade, to believe and to be aggressive for the common good is different,” he noted.
Nearly 100 of the kids at Institut Montfort are orphans --- many of them emotionally disturbed, mentally ill or were born with severe physical deformities --- and are provided permanent residency at the facility. Altogether, about 300 children ages four to 21 are being educated at the facility, where classrooms, dorms, showers, toilets, kitchens and dining rooms have been built or are still under construction, under the supervision of the nuns and Father Deasy, who is preparing his fourth trip to the Caribbean island in March.
The current situation, while challenging, is an improvement over February 2010, when Father Deasy first arrived in Haiti to find that the farm had almost fallen apart. Seeing such devastation, he encouraged Catholic school officials and individuals in Los Angeles to donate funds for the country’s reconstruction.
“Most of the schools and parishes had so much damage,” he recalled. “And when I first went to the farm, I saw a woodshop with no tools and a single-pedal sewing machine with no fabric.”
This is not just about keeping the motor running, but keeping it running and thriving, and not just surviving.
---Father Ken Deasy
He also found a country in desperate need of better education. Private and parochial schools in Haiti provide about 75 percent of its educational programs, although public education is free. Yet less than 65 percent of elementary-age students are enrolled, while secondary-level enrollment is only around 55 percent.
In Port-Au-Prince --- with a population of more than two million --- only 23 percent of adults have completed high school, and more than half of children ages five to 17 do not attend school.
A missionary referred Father Deasy to the Daughters of Wisdom and with their approval and support from other charities such as World Vision, HCA-Los Angeles started the first reconstruction phase of the farm: the installation of living tents which, due to the hot weather, soon started deteriorating.
Several months later came phase two: building plywood dormitories on top of cement slabs, as well as a plywood dining area and a makeshift elementary school with open-air classrooms and corrugate-steel roofing.
Later came the third phase: moving the temporary classrooms into the makeshift dormitories and dining room to make room for the new permanent building.
The permanent structure (fourth phase) will include dormitories, a dining room, a new school, and an education center for the deaf and teacher formation. For that purpose, two lay teachers have been sent to France to specialize in sign language and teaching for hearing and speech impaired kids.
Change in mindset
The project has been a much-needed source of income for local construction workers, said Father Deasy. But it symbolizes much more --- hopefully, a change in mindset.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot of money to keep the tent cities going,” he said. “But to get them [Haitians] educated and to get them medicated and to get them out of that ‘we’re being taken care of’ mode is even harder. So this is not just about keeping the motor running, but keeping it running and thriving, and not just surviving, which is countercultural.”
“It’s time to plow the field and let it bloom and grow,” he said.
The priest marvels at the coping skills of the residents amidst the challenges. In the hills, where Institut Montfort is located, most families are self-sufficient, living rustic and private lives, and they walk at least three miles to the nearest church (about 80 percent of Haitians are Roman Catholic).
“The earthquake opened the world to see what really has gone on there,” commented Father Deasy. “And perhaps the earthquake also demolished some of those buildings that were housing social depression, emotional depression and spiritual depression.”
But then he added that this is “not a time for sentimentality, but for compassion. Sentimentality is the initiating spark, but compassion is what’s needed.”
As well as continued donations and prayers for Institut Montfort, the religious who serve there and the children being educated there. It is a story similar to those found all over the world where the Holy Childhood Association works to help meet needs, stories that Father Deasy --- who in May will visit Kenya --- wants others to hear.
“I want people,” he said, “to be amazed at the fabulous, hard-core, and joyous, sacrificing ministry that has been done in the name of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church in more than 91 countries of the world and especially Haiti, through missionaries and the Holy Childhood Association.
“I want them to be amazed at these other Catholic bodies of Christ in the poorest nations of the world.”
Prayer of the MonthPapal intentions for November: That priests who experience difficulties may find comfort in their suffering, support in their doubts, and confirmation in their fidelity. That as fruit of the continental mission, Latin American Churches may send missionaries to other Churches.
Papal intentions for December: That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.