Thursday, July 30, 2009

I taught a kid to swim today

Orlando and Fabien dancing at the reception

Polento and me

Fabien joining the party

Cute ring bearers

Today, one of the kids swam across the pool unassisted. Tony, who is usually content swimming up and down the steps without letting go of the wall, was splashing around with me and all the sudden, all the arm movements I had been showing him for the last few weeks actually happened. I’m not going to say it was pretty- it looked like a little storm of feet and arms- but I let him go and he swam a good 10 feet unassisted. PROGRESS. Some of the other kids are getting close, but often realize that they’re bobbing there without me holding them after a few moments, freak out and reach for me to grab them as they flail themselves underwater. Water wings are still necessary and some physically choke me as they’re clutching with fear in the deep end (ahem- 5 ft deep). At least 4 of the 10 that come regularly can float, which is pretty good numbers if you ask me since several cannot walk unassisted, see very well or control their muscle movement.

One of the teachers from school, Yolaine, was married on Saturday and I went to the wedding with Gena, Norma, Maive and some of the Kay Christine kids. It was suppose to start at 5, so true of all Haitian events, it started an hour late at 6. It was the most bizarre wedding I have ever been to because 1.) There were 2 brides with 2 separate groups of bridesmaids 2.) Noone smiled for the entire 1 and a half hour ceremony 3.) All the women were wearing prom dresses.

The ceremony started with 4 bridesmaids and 4 groomsmen doing a synchronized walk/dance down the aisle to Enya. After that, a woman in a wedding dress also did a little walk/dance down the aisle toward no one and then sat down with the rest of the guests. Apparently, she introduces the ceremony and is kind of a “throw away bride”. After this, it got more traditional, with Shadya (a girl from l’Ecole de Saint Germaine) as the flower girl and an adorable boy and girl ring bearer duo, followed by a few more bridesmaids. Yolaine came in next with her father, but sat across the aisle from the groom for the entire ceremony. The wedding was in a protestant church and was LONG, with 2 pastors presiding. After, we went to the reception, where the bride and groom did all the traditional things usually done publically in the US (like cutting the cake) behind a closed glass door. I sat with Maive and Polento, a sweet boy from Kay Germaine who announced that he will marry me someday. He’s 12 years old, and was abandoned and left HIV positive by his prostitute mother some years ago, although she died fairly recently. He’s responding very well to the medication, and left the next day with Gena to go participate in the Special Olympics in Germany. Psychologists have said that he functions at about a 6 year olds level, and like all the other kids, loved taking pictures with my camera. The reception was extremely short, with people eating, congratulating and leaving in just a little more than an hour. I suppose it’s very expensive to rent the space and power it with a generator for any long amount of time. I felt fancy enough in my favorite skirt and even put make up on for the event. Haitians dress very well for events, however, and considering their limited means, I am continually surprised. These dresses looked like they were bought for a high school dance, with embellishments and glitter which undoubtedly came from the US. I felt a little underdressed, but I’m sure I was much more comfortable than some of those women!

Fabien, a sweet 20 something year old who used to come to school at St. Germaine, was at the wedding as well. She lived with the aunt, who could not watch her well enough, so she recently moved to the orphanage and into Kay Christine. She’s unbelievably friendly and smiles constantly, always biting down on a small towel to keep herself from drooling. Although she can’t really speak, she kind of grunts what she wants and makes herself understood. Apparently, she made a habit out of sneaking out of her aunt’s house and taking a tap tap into Port-au-Prince and returning late at night without explanation. How a mentally handicapped girl can manage to get there and back and more importantly what she did while she was in city was a cause for concern, and so it was decided she would be much safer within the walls of the orphanage. She’ll be happy there with lots of other kids to play with and supervision will not be an issue. Yolaine was sitting on a couch in the front of the tables at the reception with her husband, and Fabien literally jumped into her lap to hug her. She then squeezed herself between the bride and groom and happily greeted the rest of the guests who came to offer their congratulations.

Monday was a little sad for me, because I went to the hospital to get Eveline for swimming only to find that she had been moved to a “more permanent setting” away from the hospital. I then asked if I could take one of the other girls from that room, Shnaika, only to be told that she had gone to the same place! I’m not even sure where they are, probably some other orphanage or medical center for abandoned babies and I’m not sure if I’ll see them again. I took my other two girls, Jolene and Liliana instead, but now I’m getting nervous that my babies will keep disappearing without me being able to say goodbye! I wish they could come to our orphanage, but the special needs house there is completely filled and a space will only open up if one of our children dies- once a child is there, they remain there forever because there are no resources for adults with special needs in Haiti.

This weekend is a trip to Jacmel. I’m quite excited to the see the Caribbean!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One Month Down!

Dancing at L'ecole de St. Germaine

Jolene, one of the abandoned babies I take into the pool

It’s been exactly one month since I arrived here. It feels like the time has gone by quickly, but I feel very comfortable here and think the next 11 months shouldn’t be a problem.

I’ve gotten used to the humidity and the constant heat- I even have a nice little tan going. Though I still sleep safely in my net, I think the mosquitoes are letting up a bit, and my legs are recovering from the immediate onslaught nicely. I eat what it made for me at work without hesitation, although I supplement with PBJ every night. I have successfully memorized every child’s name who swims with me although I often just call the adults “Madame” or “Monsieur” while I’m working on that side of things. I have picked up some off the job activities, like tutoring girls in English, teaching a seminar, lounging poolside and rearranging the living room of the Father Wasson Center. I have absolutely no problem going to bed at 10 pm and waking up at 6 am every morning, although I’m sure I’ll return to my regular 2 am to 1 pm pattern when I return to the states. I wear the first thing I grab in the morning, and put my hair into a braid or something without a thought for makeup or hairspray. I’m picking up Creole phrases more and more, but I still find it easier to speak French with those who don’t speak English. I deal well with all the extra time I have to myself in my evenings. I read a few books a week, and have been researching grad schools and taking practice GRE tests online. I have derived a nice little schedule for my everyday and it goes like this:

I wake up at 6:20 and eat peanut butter toast if we have electricity or a PBJ if we don’t for breakfast. The van leaves at 7 am and we arrive at Tabarre at around 8am. The kids go to summer classes while I set up the pool (which takes all of 5 minutes) and then I join them in class to listen to them sing, or read a book by the pool while I wait for them. At 9, I’m thrown my first group of kids, usually 4 or 5 boys. They splash around with various floatation devices, while I take one or two at a time and hold them while they “swim” aka splash and kick water right out of the pool or in my face. At 9:30 there’s another group, a few girls and maybe an older boy. They’re out by 10 and then there are a few stragglers that take me to 10:30 or 11. I chill by the pool, dry off and clean up a little until lunch at 12. It’s usually some sort of mush- corn or beans or rice and brown gravy. I then head to the hospital to pick up one of the four little abandoned baby girls who I take back for pool time. They can’t stay in the water for long, but it takes a while to walk next door, talk to about 4 nurses to get them permission to leave and then walk them back and set them up. I walk them back to the hospital and visit with my abandoned baby Carmelle for a few minutes (and the others, of course) and then head back around 2. The van leaves for Petionville at 3, and after a few stops, we’re back at about 4. The girls I tutor come at 4 a few days a week and I’m with them for 30 minutes to an hour. I eat whatever is left over from the lunch that was made here for dinner, which is usually rice and hot sauce and maybe something with potatoes in it or just PBJ again. I then have the evening to read, be online (if there’s internet), socialize (if anyone else is around) or go to the hotel to lay by the pool (at the end of the week, mostly). It’s simple and the days go quickly.

One of the days this week was too cold for the kids to swim, which sounds ridiculous coming from the Caribbean. That day, I went to the horseback riding place with the kids again. Basically, a storm was rolling in and it wasn’t very humid and there was a little breeze. The pool has a cover on it which is on of the reasons I’m not dying of sunburn, and I wasn’t sure if they would do alright in the cooler water. We’re very careful about the water temperature, because some of their muscles are too tense or too loose and are very affected by temperature changes. I’m even more careful with the babies because they are extremely small for their ages (malnutrition). I could bring 2 over a day, one in the late morning and one in the afternoon, but I let the sun heat the water a little so they don’t catch cold. Every child I work with has some sort of disability and I already know that some will not be able to learn to actually swim. Still, it’s good for them to be in the water and they have fun splashing around.

Besides all that, it’s been quiet around here. Robin and Alfonso are out of the country right now, so it’s often just me and Cecilia (a medical student from France staying here until the end of August) around at night. Johnny and Rena are two guys, both about 25 years old, who grew up at the orphanage and now live on the same floor as me and run the building. They’re in and out in the evenings, but are nice company and are helping me with my Creole. We had a couple Italian guys staying here last week, and they made great pasta dinners for us. Then another group of about 12 Haitians and Americans were here, and they also made dinner. Whenever people stay here, we eat well.

That’s all from Haiti. À bientôt!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A whole lot of swimming

Look. I'm not sunburned.
The pool down the road

Richard (who has a twin brother, Richardson)

Cleaner, and very possibly more reliable than Talulah, but makes me miss her all the same.

Many of the clothes people wear here came from the United States, and it’s always amusing to see the slogans people where that in no way apply to anything Haitian. One of the kids at St. Germaine named David always wears this shirt that says “Miller family reunion July 2000!” on it. He’s 7 years old and blind, and always swings his head back and forth like Stevie Wonder, and will of course have no idea what his shirt says but I find it funny. I also seem to see the same guy who wears a tie dye peace sign shirt that says Berkeley on it, often in the same market as the guy whose shirt says “My immune system is better than your immune system”. The best is when you see shirts that were bought in touristy shops in random states that say “Missouri love!” These people will never go to the US, and I’m sure they have no idea what Missouri is, but if the shirt fits you might as well buy it. On that note, I handwashed my laundry last week and suck at it. I’ll have to do it every 2 weeks because I packed light, so I better master it soon.

We took a few kids in the water on Saturday, and they all did extremely well. The blind baby was smiling and interacting, which is a lot more than she usually does, so we’re going to try to make it a weekly thing for her. I started my regular swim lessons with the kids on Monday and at first it was very hectic. I had 10 handicapped children in the pool with just water wings, which is really not enough to keep those with little muscle control floating. I had 8 sitting on the steps while I took one or two out at a time, but I couldn’t keep my eye on all of them, and the staff was drifting in and out. The next day, I said only 5 kids at a time and someone in the water with me, but the 5 quickly turned into 10 again. All the kids are so excited to swim and the summer session revolves around fun activities like pool times so everyone comes at once! Today however, things started to iron themselves out, and I had groups of 4 or 5 kids cycling in and out every hour which worked well for everyone. The summer session ends at 1:30 everyday, but with the van not leaving for Petionville until 3, I’ll have some time to walk next door to the hospital, pick up the babies and swim with them for half an hour.

Lucienne is one of my favorite little girls at St. Germaine who has both physical and mental issues. She can walk, but not very steadily as her knees point toward each other. She usually hangs onto me as I walk around, and likes to sit with me and play with my hair. She’s slow, but learns well with help and communicates very well as compared to the other children. She is quickly learning to swim after only 2 days in the water which makes me so happy. She’s already floating on her back without any help and can hold onto my shoulders and kick her feet out behind her which is the next step in my plans for them. Most of the kids (especially the ones with little control out of the water) hold on to me for dear life, but Lucienne has realized that her legs work just fine in the water and is quickly becoming a little swimmer.

This Sunday, Jean (a summer volunteer from Colorado) and I taught a class on conflict resolution to some of the former Kenscoff kids living in the city. Once they age out of the orphanage, the kids often live in groups in the cities, which can result in a lot of serious issues. They all are very young (16-22 years old) and of course struggle with being out of the sheltered orphanage and in the city and its poverty. A few months ago, two former Kenscoff kids got into a fight over food and one was killed, leaving the other in jail for the rest of his life. Most of the kids were about 20 years old, and we basically just talked to them about the effects of violence and the need for communication. Jean has her masters in counseling (which I’m considering) and teaches this kind of thing often. She can speak a little French, but I did a lot of the talking since none of the kids speak English really. They seemed to understand what I was saying, which was cool and will be back this weekend for another session. Adding “co facilitator of a French language seminar on conflict resolution and anger management” to my resume will be cool, too.

There are a few fancy hotels down the street from the Father Wasson Center with amazing pools that I think I will sneak into on a regular basis. We went for a coca cola on Friday, and then Jean and I went to celebrate our successful seminar with a frozen vodka tonic on Sunday. It’s a lot of business people and their families, I think, because no one there is Haitian and people don’t come to Petionville for vacation. No one will question me if I buy something to drink and swim and lay in the shade for an afternoon a week, so suck on that rich people, I’m using your amenities.

I also found crappy fast food several blocks away, and had a mediocre cheeseburger last week. It was awesome.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Babies, Bars and Birthdays

Jerry at physical therapy Carmielle

Carmielle and Annabelle

In the malnourished house
The first communion group

Last Sunday was many of the children’s first communions in Kenscoff, so I spent the night in the orphanage and walked down the mountain with them to the church in the morning. It was about a 40 minute walk to the actual town of Kenscoff for mass at 9, and a steep, dusty, hot hour walk back up afterward. They had a little party for the children, and they were all very excited to have been given their own soda and piece of cake. They were adorable in their white dresses and dress shirts, and loved being apart from the rest of the children for their party. After the communion, the kids in Kay Christine had prepared a little dance performance to the soundtrack of Mama Mia. Even the kids in the wheelchairs were spinning around and having fun. Some of them had memorized an entire little routine, where others were just bouncing around and enjoying themselves.

Robin (the volunteer coordinator) turned 33 on Sunday, so we had a little cake and cookie party for her at the retreat house in Kenscoff. On the way back down to Petionville, we stopped at a bar for a beer to celebrate her birthday. I use the term very loosely, because it was basically just a cement house with a barred window they handed the beers out of. We sat in and around the truck, and drank the beers while chickens ran around out feet and the bar owner’s children sat with us.

I had been to the hospital for Emilie’s funeral, but have never really gotten the chance to see all the rooms and visit the babies, so I took the morning on Wednesday and looked around. St. Damien is the only free pediatric hospital in Haiti, and the new site in Tabarre was opened in 2006 so it’s very new and impressive. The day started with mass at 7 with Father Rick, who was in town for the first time since I’ve been here. He has to travel an insane amount to raise money for the hospital, and left again the next day for another trip. The mothers were being led in from the gates carrying their sick children to sit outside for the morning prayer and then were led inside to the waiting room. Only a certain number of children are seen a day on a first come first serve basis, so many had been waiting at the gate all morning.

I first visited the malnourished house, with sick children staying there to regroup for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. There were a few very adorable babies in their cribs who seemed to be doing well with the help. I spent a lot of time in the abandoned baby room (the tap tap room) playing with the kids. The oldest girl was Annabelle, who is 2 years old and was only recently abandoned by her family. She was in a fire, and lost all the fingers on one hand and about half of her scalp and was left in the hospital for her injuries. Besides her scars, she is perfectly normal and healthy, and is actually very spoiled by all the visitors and nurses who love to pick her up and play with her. She got very frustrated with me when I put her down to go hold some of the other children. Evelin was another little girl, who has quite a few neurological and sensorial problems. She’s blind (born without eyes) and is very difficult to communicate with, usually just content with sitting, kicking and making noise by herself. We’re going to take her into the pool this Saturday to see if some water therapy helps her at all. My favorite little girl was Camielle, who is very tiny for her age, but otherwise perfect and very sweet. She’s probably about 15 months, but looks a lot younger and loves to pull on my hair. I visited the other recovery rooms and played with the children- some were recovering from surgery, others were there for long term illnesses, some were in wheelchairs or completely bedridden and several were abandoned. They were very happy to see visitors, and kept having me take pictures and show them what they looked like.

I’ve been working a lot with certain children in their physical therapy sessions, taking them into separate rooms and working on their extension and muscle control in their hands. Jerry is my favorite little guy, who was born with a brain tumor and had some brain damage from it. He is 4 years old, and can walk if he is holding on to something, so I walked with him in his walker and played catch with him and some other children. They are all so happy, but many of them are extremely stubborn and would rather play then concentrate on their therapy! The kids from the school are still on their summer vacation, but the summer program starts on Monday and that’s when I’ll start with them in the pool. On Saturday, some of the kids from Kenscoff are coming down to swim and we’re bringing a few of the babies over from hospital to see how they do in the water.

Besides that, I’ve just been continuing meeting all the kids, observing physical therapy and helping out where I can. I found out that I can go to the Dominican Republic in September to renew my visa which expires every 90 days. The bus is only about 80 bucks round trip, and I’ll get to see a lot of the country this way! I’ll stay, I hope, with the NPH house there where a friend of mine from college will be volunteering. Then there will be home in December for Audrey’s wedding for that renewal, and I suppose I’ll have to figure something out for March.
Love and miss you all!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Kay Elian and Horse Back Riding

Continuing my observing and meeting all the kids and staff this week- things were a bit hectic at the end of last week with the funeral and all, so I’ll probably be starting the kids in the water next week.

I’ve been speaking to Norma and the other physical therapists a lot about what exercises to do with the kids in the water to best use their muscles to make it therapy while they’re learning to swim. I’ve met so many children this week who have had meningitis which went untreated for too long and left lasting brain damage. It’s difficult to determine which children are just physically handicapped, because so many will make eye contact with you, acknowledge your words and smile when you touch them but cannot speak and have never properly been taught to communicate in other ways. Truly, each one of these children needs a physical and occupational therapist as well as a speech pathologist, but with little access and no money, most only have the physical therapy NPFS provides at no cost. Some of these high functioning children have mild retardation, while others do not but will always lapse behind their age group, missing developmental stages and not experiencing regular life events due to their physical disabilities. This is where my psychology background comes in, as I’ve studied the developmental milestones quite a bit, and am familiar with the parts of the brain that affect the different functions. I help out with the therapy, holding a child in place while a therapist helps them stretch, or helping extend limbs to strengthen muscles while Norma tells me about each child’s issues.

Yesterday, I went with some of the Kay Christine children from Kenscoff to ride horses, a very useful form of physical therapy. We drove with 6 kids toward Tabarre, through the usual impoverished areas when you can barely stand to breathe in the smells of the raw sewage, the burning garbage and the pollution. We turned off the main paved road (very poorly paved, I might add) onto a dirt road which was calmer but still very far below any poverty line. We went through a gate and suddenly, it was like we weren’t even in a third world country anymore. It was an actual ranch, with a pasture, a gorgeous house, a stable with 15 horses and a field to ride them in. We sat on a covered stone porch while the children rode and just enjoyed the place. It was beautiful, with tall stone walls covered in purple flowers, a pool and views of the mountains in the distance. I could not fathom that less than a quarter mile away was that place where I literally was afraid to breathe deeply. There is beauty to Haiti off the main roads, locked far behind fences and gate keepers and unreachable to the poor.

Today, I stayed in Petionville, going downstairs to Kay Elian to sit in on therapy sessions there. Norma travels to all locations to teach the Haitian therapists techniques and strategies, and today, she was at Kay Elian. We have multiple therapy rooms at each center, but typically we have both therapists in one room, each working with a child. This allows Norma to help them at the same time. One of the therapists told me he attended just one year of technical school, and learns the rest from Norma and other volunteers who come. Everyone I encounter believes me to be a physical therapist and when I say, no, I’m here to work with the special needs kids and just finished college, they believe me to be a licensed psychologist because I majored in psychology. I’ve had several ask if I went to school for swimming to be qualified to teach in the pool and is there money in this field of employment? I took swimming lessons when I was 4 and passed a test to get into the big girl section of the lake at girl scout camp, but that about tops my professional training and accomplishments.

I met several adorable children, including Jefferson who I took into a room and worked with individually for awhile. His meningitis left him with motor skill issues and unable to speak, though he can walk if he has a wall to hold onto (falling often, and popping right back up). He’s about 3 years old, and loved when I picked him up and spun him around. I started counting un…deux…TROIS and spinning or bouncing on three, and when he figured out the pattern, he started to make a sound at each number. He knew exactly what was happening, and when I stopped counting (he’s a big boy and my arms were tired!) he kept right on grunting ugh…ugh… UGH until I would bounce him on the third. He’s one of the children that will always fall behind his age group, but is making so much progress and will be able to walk and hopefully, communicate more someday. I worked with him on muscle extension, holding out things for him to grab and guiding them into a cup or something. He was a goofball though, and just wanted to play after awhile.

The most stressful thing I’ve done yet is buy a cell phone with Jackie, one of the drivers who grew up at Kenscoff. He took me to the store to get one, and I had no idea what they were saying in their mixed creole-french but it all worked out and I now have a phone (though I haven’t bought the minutes yet). So congratulations, Molly, you now have 3 cell phones in this country, one which has your numbers in it but can’t call anyone, a global phone for calling the parents while travelling here, and this new one which has no use as of yet without minutes. I also couldn’t get the language setting off Spanish and had to ask one of the boys to help me. I have no idea how I have 3 phones, only 4 pairs of shoes, and literally 10 mosquito bites on my left leg.