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Through unity, we find strength

Image: Clothing and a teddy bear are a few of the items that the volunteer group sorted on the second day of its visit to Port-au-Prince. The volunteers brought more than 500 pounds of goods for members of the deaf community who lost their homes.

Clothing and a teddy bear are a few of the items that the volunteer group sorted on the second day of its visit to Port-au-Prince. The volunteers brought more than 500 pounds of goods for members of the deaf community who lost their homes.

Image: A child looks through a selection of shoes as Smith Bazille (left), a graduate of Haiti’s Institut Montfort, and Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir, a Friends of Deaf Haiti board member, distribute donated goods in the tent camp.

A child looks through a selection of shoes as Smith Bazille (left), a graduate of Haiti’s Institut Montfort, and Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir, a Friends of Deaf Haiti board member, distribute donated goods in the tent camp.

Image: CNN producer Yvetot Gouin films an arts and crafts activity for children in a public tent at the edge of the camp.

CNN producer Yvetot Gouin films an arts and crafts activity for children in a public tent at the edge of the camp.

Image: Eve Mitton, benefits and records technician in Human Resources Services and a board member of Friends of Deaf Haiti, selects a donated dress for a toddler living in the camp. Photo courtesy of Eve Mitton.

Eve Mitton, benefits and records technician in Human Resources Services and a board member of Friends of Deaf Haiti, selects a donated dress for a toddler living in the camp. Photo courtesy of Eve Mitton.

Image: Marline Bien-Aime, a resident of the camp, displays a purse she sewed during a workshop.

Marline Bien-Aime, a resident of the camp, displays a purse she sewed during a workshop.

Image: A barbell and free weights sit in a workout area at the camp. Friends of Deaf Haiti supporter Alon Weir gave a workshop on safe weight lifting and healthy workout strategies. Photo courtesy of Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir.

A barbell and free weights sit in a workout area at the camp. Friends of Deaf Haiti supporter Alon Weir gave a workshop on safe weight lifting and healthy workout strategies. Photo courtesy of Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir.

Image: Kenny Elysee (center) poses with friends from the camp after making himself a piece of art. All of the stickers, paints, coloring books, and canisters of clay that the children used to express themselves were donated by the volunteers.

Kenny Elysee (center) poses with friends from the camp after making himself a piece of art. All of the stickers, paints, coloring books, and canisters of clay that the children used to express themselves were donated by the volunteers.

Image: Guerly Jacques-Jean-Louis, an itinerant teacher of deaf children, embraces some of her students after a Sunday service at the Deuxième Eglise Baptiste de Port-au-Prince, a Baptist church not far from the camp that offers interpreted services and a gathering place for the deaf community.

Guerly Jacques-Jean-Louis, an itinerant teacher of deaf children, embraces some of her students after a Sunday service at the Deuxième Eglise Baptiste de Port-au-Prince, a Baptist church not far from the camp that offers interpreted services and a gathering place for the deaf community.

Image: The church stands empty after an impromptu town hall meeting by deaf congregation members.

The church stands empty after an impromptu town hall meeting by deaf congregation members.

Image: Deaf community members leave the church.

Deaf community members leave the church.

PART III: THE THINGS THEY UNPACKED

Cooking pots, pot holders, and bowls.

Piles of shoes--from tiny sandals to adult sneakers.

Soaps, lotions, and facial wipes.

These are some of the essential items--and small luxuries--that arrive in 11 bags carried by a group of Gallaudet alumni and supporters from the U.S.

Alumni Yolette Cohen, Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir, and Juan Reinbold, along with Gallaudet staff member Eve Mitton, unpack most of the donations at Reinbold's family home in the city of Bourdon on the first morning of the visit. As board members of Friends of Deaf Haiti (FDH) and Haitian-Americans themselves, they have personally donated hundreds of pounds of goods and collected still more from others. The helpers who sort out what amounts to about 550 pounds of aid include Marc-Charles-Weir's husband, Alon Weir, and her sister, Sandra Osse. Within 24 hours of arriving in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the items are ready for distribution to residents of the tent community in the section of the city known as Delmas 2.

The team looks surprised and pleased with every piece of the bounty that is unpacked. Shirts and pants are piled on a coffee table; stacks of cooking supplies line one wall; plastic bags as wide as two outstretched arms lie here and there.

Meanwhile, Reinbold is doing his best to pick up even more. Lise Bien Aime, another Gallaudet alumna, and faculty members Richard and Linda Lytle will arrive today, each with a piece of luggage brimming with more items to distribute. Bien Aime, who grew up in Haiti, is an FDH board member. This is her second trip to the country after the earthquake, having visited the deaf group earlier in May. She has also been working with Richard Lytle, executive director of the deaf international development organization Partners in Excellence (PIE), on a long term project in Haiti. 

Reinbold starts to reason to himself, in ASL and French, the best way to get to the airport in the midst of heightened security and confusion in the city. The roads, in general--even before the massive earthquake--are far from smooth riding. Now, thanks to a visit by hip hop star and presidential hopeful Wyclef Jean, driving will prove even more of a challenge.

"The store I want to go to is blocked. The road to Delmas is blocked, so they'll have to go around," he says. Reinbold has found himself in a microcosm of the international frustration over aid. Help is available, but obtaining and distributing it is a complex process.

As the rest of the group continues to sort, Cohen holds up a few glinting bead necklaces she packed and notes that people living in the tent camp could sell these for two or three dollars apiece. Cohen continues unpacking with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her lips.

Marc-Charles-Weir pulls out a bag full of shoulder pads, fabric, and thread that she says women can use to make purses. These, too, can be sold.

Economic concerns -- and hopes

In a country 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line*, a few wares like this could make a difference. This is especially significant for a camp where discrimination against deaf people and displacement have conspired to keep most of the residents out of jobs.  Reinbold reports that just 40 of the 290 residents are employed. By late September, the number of workers has climbed to more than 100, while the overall population of the camp has also grown. Yet Haitian deaf leaders MacKenson St. Louis and Jimmy Marcillon  explain that employment does not necessarily mean prosperity. They see deaf factory workers routinely denied equal pay for the same work as their hearing peers.

Several members of the tent community have already shown entrepreneurial acumen by selling packages of food, bags of water, and cold bottles of Haiti's Prestige beer to fellow residents and visitors. The items wait in front of their tents, stacked atop tables, under cooler lids, or in wheelbarrows.

Tent community members who were trained in carpentry or crocheting at Institut Montfort, a school for deaf students based in Port-au-Prince, have plied their trade from the camp.

Though he has been working since early morning, Reinbold keeps a quick pace. He hurries out the door to pick up bags of contributions that have arrived with the new additions to the volunteer group.

Meanwhile, the group packs the sorted donations into an SUV. Volunteers and luggage rumble through the city toward the camp. During the ride, they pass reconstructed and still-damaged homes and businesses, as well as lively marketplaces. Work corps sponsored by the mayor of Port-au-Prince, and Jean's relief organization, Yelé Haiti, clean the streets and begin to reconstruct.

When the volunteers arrive today, much like the previous day, members of the tent community come forward to greet them. Nathaneal and Darline Marc walk the white pebble lot with their infant son;  Dejana LeVille, known for her funny quips, stands nearby; and community leaders put their tasks on hold for a moment to say hello.

Among the familiar faces appear new ones. Walking through the tents, the volunteers spot James Ward, Zack Van Schoyck, and Dady Saint Amour, members of other nonprofits visiting the camp. Much like the various service corps and international organizations aiding the Haitian community, they have participated in a combined effort for the deaf community. Friends of Deaf Haiti members knew that Water Missions International had been providing water, but had not learned about the roles of the organizations Ward, Van Schoyck, and Saint Amour represent--410 Bridge of the American state of Georgia, Christian Collectivity to Reach Others' Needs, based in Haiti, and the state of South Carolina.

More visitors appear. They are young volunteers Smith Bazille and Vladimir Adneas, recent graduates of Institut Montfort. The two have been volunteering at the camp and taking advantage of the rare opportunity to socialize with a large group of deaf peers.

So, instead of using the communal tent to lay out clothing and shoes, the Gallaudet volunteers and new acquaintances hold an impromptu summit. In a few minutes, chairs and a bench appear in the space, which is about the size of a small classroom and adorned with a large Haitian flag. The group sets up sign language interpretation, and everyone finds a place in the circle.

The organization representatives and deaf leaders each introduce themselves. Ward and Saint Amour explain their projects to improve conditions at the camp and establish permanent housing.

FDH members describe their work and goals. They also share what they have learned from their discussions with the community members, and stress the importance of clear communication with the deaf community. Relief efforts must begin with the grassroots, FDH board members say. The American and Haitian nonprofit representatives agree.

Just as quickly as the multipurpose tent filled with seats, it empties again. Now the Gallaudet group, with the help of Bazille and Adneas, lay out children's shoes and clothing under the Haitian flag. A line forms outside, and soon a steady stream of grateful parents and their children come through to shop.

Preparing

The day ends at Hotel Kinam, just up the mountain in the nearby city of Pétion-Ville. The Lytles meet with the alumni, group leaders, and supporters. The topic of the meeting has everyone excited and a little bit nervous: They are about to appear on CNN. The deaf tent community coordinators, all under the age of 30, have never encountered a media opportunity like this.

Before they begin, St. Louis offers a prayer. "Thank you for the deaf community and for bringing us here ..." he begins. The gathered group watches, centered. Then they dive in to prepare for the media coverage.

Richard Lytle has shared with the group that a film crew from the highly-respected TV news organization will take footage the following day. He has been in discussions with CNN anchor Kira Phillips, who has expressed interest in the story. A camp made up of deaf and hard of hearing residents and their children is unique in a city full of tent camps, and Phillips is eager to see it covered.

The group members agree to grant interviews and adhere to a general dress code, and elect to go about their planned activities when the film crew is present. Their workshops and interactions will fuel the story.

Purses, crayons, and barbells

By 9 o'clock the next morning, nearly everyone in the camp has migrated to one workshop or another. Yvetot Gouin, the producer for CNN, sets up his camera and asks his assistant to hold a microphone or light deflecting pad as he points his camera at nearly two dozen children painting, sketching, and sculpting. They kneel on a white tarp beneath the same tent that sheltered the domino players on the first day.

The stickers and playdough go beyond fun. The children are hungry for things to do now that the school year has ended in many areas of the city. Even during the last school session, many of the families could not afford school fees.

So Mitton, Cohen, and Bien Aime guide the children--and even a few artistic adults--through projects, pulling a seemingly endless stream of glittery and colorful items from bags and boxes.

Next, Gouin turns to another activity tent, its heavy canvas sides drawn up so that they can block the hard sun but still let in the breeze. Women sit focused on plaids and camouflage patterns, cutting and sewing cloth and shoulder pads into purses.

The final workshop to go under Gouin's lens takes place in an area that serves as the camp's weight room--a fenced-in ring outfitted with rusting barbells. Weir explains techniques for safe lifting. Reinbold helps to interpret what the physical therapist cannot express through demonstration or ASL.

Then the two-person camera crew moves inside the meeting tent to capture a few stories. Gouin records interviews with the community leaders--Marcillon, St. Louis, and Fils-Aime--as well as FDH board member Marc-Charles-Weir.

Fellowship

The next day, Gouin records the community from a different angle. Shortly after 11 a.m., he follows a cement path past a trembling generator and along a corridor overhung with a kind of wooden scaffolding. His goal is to capture the singing hands of the Deuxième Eglise Baptiste de Port-au-Prince, the city's Second Baptist Church, located within walking distance of the camp. Nearly 100 members of the deaf community, from the camp and the surrounding area, have gathered in pews for an interpreted service and a morning of fellowship.

After a small team of interpreters has signed the last hymn and the church's minister and band have left the stage, a town hall meeting of sorts begins. Bien Aime, who is familiar with this group, having visited them in May, takes to the stage and introduces each member of the FDH and PIE teams. She then asks the leaders of the deaf group to share with the visiting team their situation, goals, expectations, and aspirations.

Alida Clerveaux-Magloire greets the deaf ministry on behalf of her organization, Groupe D'Action Pour L'encadrement des Sourds d'Haiti, roughly translated as Action Group to Support the Deaf in Haiti. Claire Edith Jean speaks as a deaf community member from the Point du Jour area who sees an urgent need for improvement in deaf education and other areas. Then members of Friends of Deaf Haiti take to the platform. Representing what is called Association des Sourds d'Haiti in French translation, Reinbold and Cohen address the assembled community. They explain their multi-dimensional mission in the country and present a vision of broader rights for deaf people.

Most of the other church members have dispersed, but the deaf group chats among themselves for a little while longer.

Gouin and Bien Aime head upstairs to a balcony overlooking the street and sets up a shot with the help of his wife and crew member for the day, Isabel. They can see a mix of rubble and the functional storefronts of internet cafes and shops, as cars and tap-tap trucks painted in lively red, yellow, green, and blue trundle by. Then Bien Aime turns to the camera and shares her story and vision for the deaf community in Haiti. Next, it is Reinbold's turn to relate what he has seen as he has helped deaf and hard of hearing people find temporary homes in the tent camp, as well as present his hopes for the future. Both Bien Aime and Reinbold share hopes for a more supported and tightly unified community going forward.

Soon, the last of the church-goers stroll out of the building. Bien Aime comes down in time to say goodbye, knowing she will see many of them again, especially if she fulfills her dream of setting up an educational, career, and lifestyle enhancement center in Haiti. The community circles have a way of coming together again.

--Rhea Yablon Kennedy

*According to 2009 CIA figures.

 

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