Sustaining Hope in Haiti
3/1/2015Tom Tracy and Columbia staff
It was just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, when a magnitude 7 earthquake struck approximately 15 miles outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. The results were catastrophic — walls began to buckle and buildings collapsed, burying residents under tons of rubble. As many as 300,000 people were injured and 1.5 million left homeless, while death toll estimates have varied from 80,000 to more than 300,000 people.
Among the survivors were Mackenson Pierre and Wilfrid Macena. Pierre spent three days buried beneath a collapsed school building before rescuers pulled him from the debris, while Macena struggled for more than a week to find a doctor after a fallen wall fractured his leg.
Stories like these abound among earthquake victims. Already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti lacked infrastructure and the medical resources needed to help survivors. Eventually, health care personnel and volunteers began to arrive as part of an urgent humanitarian response — but not before many Haitians lost limbs because amputation became the only medical recourse.
In partnership with the Global Wheelchair Mission and the University of Miami-affiliated Project Medishare, the Knights of Columbus was among the organizations to offer assistance. As a result of the Order’s support, a sustainable prosthetics and rehabilitation program named Healing Haiti’s Children continues to serve the Haitian people today, more than five years after the tragic earthquake.
Pierre and Macena, who were among the more than 1,000 residents who received prostheses through the program, recount their stories in a K of C-produced documentary titled Unbreakable: A Story of Hope and Healing in Haiti, which premiered at film festivals last fall (see bottom of page). In January, during a Vatican meeting in observance of the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, Pope Francis received the two men in audience, along with representatives from the Knights, Project Medishare and various Catholic institutions.
Addressing those who have provided aid to the Haitian people, Pope Francis thanked God for fostering in them “a desire to be close to their neighbor and to follow in this manner the law of charity which is the heart of the Gospel.”
A NEW PARTNERSHIP
In the months following the earthquake, many awaited humanitarian aid that had been promised but was slow to arrive due to government-related delays and a lack of coordination among NGOs.
For its part, the Knights of Columbus contributed more than $400,000 from state and local councils toward relief efforts within four weeks of the disaster. In April 2010, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson personally led a team of Knights to deliver 1,000 wheelchairs to people in need. Amid the distribution, which was organized in partnership with the Global Wheelchair Mission, it quickly became clear that additional support was needed, since upward of 2,500 people had lost arms or legs in the wake of the earthquake.
In response, the Order launched Healing Haiti’s Children in October 2010, a program to provide prosthetic devices to young people whose limbs had been amputated. Establishing a new partnership with Project Medishare, the Knights committed $1 million to give every child free prosthetic devices over two years, refitting the devices as the children grew. The initiative got a boost through nationwide TV commercials later that year.
The Challenged Athletes Foundation also became involved with the initiative, working to rehabilitate patients so that they might achieve the highest level of physical performance possible.
“I saw a career’s worth of amputees in five or six months. It’s an amazing feat that out of something horrible comes something so good,” said Jason Miller, a Louisiana native who serves as Project Medishare’s in-country rehab director in Haiti.
Miller came to Haiti for a two-month commitment that eventually grew into a four-year labor of love. In that time, the Knights of Columbus and Project Medishare worked to establish a state-of-the-art prosthetics and orthotics laboratory in Port-au-Prince. A key part of the initiative’s success has been its emphasis on long-term sustainability, training Haitians like Macena to become prosthetic and rehabilitation technicians. Today the facility is not only stable, but thriving, sometimes in unpredictable ways.
Within a year of the earthquake, Macena and his co-worker, Cedieu Fortilus, recognized an opportunity to share their newfound hope with others by establishing an amputee soccer team.
The team is named Zaryen, the Creole word for tarantula — a spider known for its resilience, even after losing a leg.
“When the spider loses a leg, life goes on; it can do everything it used to,” Macena said. “That’s the lesson for all amputees in Haiti.”
Each team member received treatment, prosthetic limbs and athletic training. The team’s logo — a seven-legged spider woven into three pentagon-shaped soccer patches — is a symbol of their commitment to overcome disabilities.
In October 2011, 10 members of Team Zaryen visited Washington D.C., and the Northeastern United States to spread a message of hope to wounded veterans, students, political figures, professional athletes and others. During the
K of C-sponsored tour, the team visited the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. There, the athletes met with some of the more than 1,500 U.S. soldiers who have lost limbs in combat since 2001 and even taught them how to play competitive soccer on crutches. It was a way for the Haitians to thank the U.S. military for coming to their aid following the earthquake.
FIVE YEARS LATER
Today, the Emilio B. Moure Clinic for Hope, the Project Medishare prosthetics lab in Port-au-Prince, represents a nexus of education and prosthetics and orthotics production not previously available to people in Haiti. Dedicated in honor of the late supreme secretary of the Knights of Columbus, who was instrumental in the program’s development, the facility houses materials and equipment, and also serves as a classroom for training Haitians who are eligible to be hired as prosthetic technicians.
The clinic serves as an advanced care system for amputees throughout the country and offers educational and employment opportunities to locals. To date, more than 1,000 young Haitians have received prosthetic limbs through the program and more than 25,000 people have received additional rehabilitation services.
Dr. Robert S. Gailey, director of Project Medishare for Haiti and a professor at the University of Miami/Miller School of Medicine, explained that few of his patients ever express anger at their situation. “These Haitians decided this was God’s fate for them, and they go on to work at the hospital to take care of other amputees and participate in the soccer team. The resiliency of the Haitian people is amazing,” he said.
While about half of Team Zaryen’s players were injured during the earthquake, others were hurt in automobile or workplace accidents. One of the biggest challenges has been helping to change cultural attitudes in Haiti, which attach a stigma to amputees.
“Prior to the earthquake, if you were an amputee you were shunned from society because in Haiti you have to produce,” said Adam Finnieston, director of prosthetics for Project Medishare. “What we’ve done by being down there is that people contribute and are heroes in some way, and not second-class citizens. I fear [amputees] would slide back into that second-class status if we had not gone.”
In a country often dependent on outside help, Healing Haiti’s Children has addressed the challenge of self-sufficiency. Rather than relying on temporary support from visiting physical therapists and costly foreign-made prosthetics, Project Medishare has solicited donations from patients and has trained local rehabilitation staff. In the end, the Knights provided $1.7 million in funding, which has created a lasting service that is valued at much more.
“The thing about the Knights of Columbus is that they didn’t just come in like all the other NGOs,” Gailey said. “They are in it for the long haul and are creating an infrastructure that will be sustainable into the future.”
LOSS AND RESILIENCE
On Jan. 10, Supreme Knight Anderson and Dr. Gailey attended the conference in Rome marking the fifth anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. Organized by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and called for by Pope Francis, the gathering focused on the humanitarian catastrophe and its ongoing impact.
Pope Francis used the occasion to affirm the Church’s closeness to the Haitian people.
Addressing conference participants, the Holy Father said, “I am grateful to all those who in numerous ways came to the aid of the Haitian people following that tragedy which left in its wake so much death, destruction and also desperation. Through the help given to our brothers and sisters in Haiti, we have shown that the Church is a great body, one in which the various members care for one another” (cf. 1 Cor 12:25).
Recognizing Pope Francis’ love for soccer, Macena, Pierre and fellow teammate Sandy J. L. Louiseme presented the pope with a Team Zaryen jersey at the conclusion of the papal audience. The jersey featured the number 5, indicating the number of years since their lives changed so dramatically.
“We are profoundly grateful to the Holy Father for calling this conference and for remembering the Haitian people, who are too often forgotten,” said Supreme Knight Anderson. “The members of Team Zaryen represent both the loss and the resilience of the Haitian people, who have both endured and overcome so much since the earthquake.”
Looking back on those difficult days following the catastrophe, Gailey recalled witnessing a hospital full of critically injured patients suddenly break out into song together. “They were thanking God for giving them one more obstacle in which they could demonstrate their love for him,” he said. “I was moved to tears at that. It really speaks to the Haitian people — no matter what is thrown at them they continue to survive.”
TOM TRACY writes from West Palm Beach, Fla.
Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, Dr. Robert Gailey, Jason Miller, Mackenson Pierre and Wilfrid Macena are just some of the individuals interviewed in the documentary Unbreakable: A Story of Hope and Healing in Haiti. Produced by the Knights of Columbus, the film begins in the immediate wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and moves forward to tell the story of how a state-of-the-art prosthetics and orthotics laboratory was established in Port-au-Prince through a partnership between the Knights of Columbus and the University of Miami-affiliated Project Medishare.
Unbreakable first premiered at the Portland Film Festival Aug. 30, 2014, and later won the prize for “Most Inspirational Documentary” at the DocMiami International Film Festival Sept. 13. The film was also screened at the NYC Independent Film Festival Oct. 17 and has been aired on PBS in various markets in 2015.