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At about 4 o’clock one Tuesday afternoon in January 2010, life changed for MacKenson St. Louis. The Port-au-Prince, Haiti, resident felt the earth churn and soon realized that something terrible had happened. He thought maybe just one or two buildings would fall. But there was much, much more. Entire blocks of toppled buildings. Electric lines cut. Roads thrown into confusion. People dying.
“It was so dark,” said St. Louis, who is deaf. “It was the most awful thing. I went out the next day looking for food but found nothing.”
Alumnus Juan Reinbold was one of the first deaf advocates to respond, joining other Americans and a French Embassy staff member in February for the first of several trips to the country. He returned to the U.S. and helped to found Friends of Deaf Haiti, Inc. (FDH), an organization made up of deaf Haitian-Americans and their supporters. Later, along with FDH board members Yolette Cohen (a fellow Gallaudet graduate) and her husband, Richard Cohen, Reinbold helped to establish a tent camp to sustain displaced deaf and hard of hearing Haitians and their families. This FDH project would become a cornerstone of the new organization’s work.
In August, FDH members, representatives of the organization Partners in Excellence (PIE)-Haiti, and Gallaudet supporters joined together to visit the tent camp to provide aid and encouragement.
The series Through unity, we find strength, followed their work in four parts. In the months that followed the August visit, the Gallaudet community took part in several on-campus events to support the tent community. In this final installment, we look back at the people and events who put these changes into motion, the continued Gallaudet response, and the group’s reflections on the trip.
On-campus events included a September 24 fundraiser organized by FDH members and students in two general studies requirement (GSR) courses. The event focused on the needs of deaf women and children and featured Haitian dance, food, and art. During Homecoming in late October, again FDH members and students asked alumni and friends for donations. In November, students in the GSR capstone course, “What’s Next for Deaf Haiti?” organized a Haitian-themed party, complete with traditional foods; the following month, students in “GSR 210/211: Deaf Haiti After the Earthquake” unveiled website prototypes that five writing and design teams had created with information about FDH efforts. In the spring 2011 semester, Dr. Cristina Berdichevsky of the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures will offer another GSR capstone course on human rights in Haiti.
The help bolstered the community for the continuing challenges resulting from the earthquake. The members of the tent camp connected with other organizations from the U.S., Haiti, and other countries that sought to provide food, water, funds, and advocacy to the Haitian deaf community. Members of the FDH group continued to assist with these connections and to advise people living in the camp, including St. Louis and fellow leaders Jimmy Marcillon and Widler Fils-Aime. Residents of the tent camp and their international partners have been able to weather heavy rains, a cholera outbreak, and political unrest over the country’s first elections since the earthquake.
In talking to the FDH members about their efforts, Reinbold’s name comes up often. “Without his assistance, a good deal of our efforts would not have succeeded as far as they have,” said Yolette Cohen. Reinbold, in turn, noted the transformation of his fellow Haitian-Americans. They had already given presentations on the situation in classes at Gallaudet and the Maryland School for the Deaf, but Reinbold urged them to go a step further. “When FDH talked and gave presentations I told them, ‘Talking is good. But you should go.’ Their presentations will never be the same again.”
“I hadn’t realize there were so many things that FDH could do,” said alumna and FDH board member Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir. While a one-week visit was not enough to bring about drastic improvements, she did feel that the deaf community could envision a life beyond one where they fight to meet their basic needs-one in which they could pursue higher education and job training, and fully contribute to society.
Marc-Charles-Weir credited her Gallaudet experience, in part, for putting her in a position to assist. “I have to say I was blessed with going through the social work program. It helped my ability to help and advocate,” she noted.
“I wish I could have gone for two or three weeks,” said Eve Mitton, an alumna who works as a benefits and records technician in the Office of Human Resources Services. She would like to go back when school is in session, and work with the community on job placement, with an eye toward helping them save money.
Cohen was unsure what to expect when she went to Haiti, because the deaf community in there does not have the extensive history of self-advocacy that has propelled their American counterparts. “Based on what actually happened afterwards, I have to say the results far exceeded my expectations,” Cohen reflected. “My primary hope is that each Deaf person can find a job and become independent and self sufficient.” She also hopes to see the newly-formed Association des Sourds d’Haiti (The Association of Deaf Haitians) flourish like the National Association of the Deaf in the U.S.
“I am proud of the fact that we were able to come together and work as a team-more so as Gallaudet alumni and members of FDH and PIE-Haiti, to organize and execute a well-planned humanitarian trip,” said Lise Bien Aime, who works as an accountant, and is pursuing ways to provide more permanent assistance such as access to higher education and career training for the deaf and hard of hearing population in Haiti.
The community leaders had their own impressions and visions to share.
For St. Louis, the visit by FDH, PIE-Haiti, and Gallaudet staff confirmed what he had suspected about the importance of higher learning to forge forward in life. “If you gave them an education, they could do anything,” St. Louis said of the camp residents. He would like to go to Gallaudet as well. “I could come back to Haiti and support the deaf community,” he points out. He would do this as a leader and teacher of deaf students.
In addition to the educational background that helped the volunteers act effectively, Marcillon was impressed by their pure dedication. Their willingness to engage one day particularly stood out. “They were supposed to visit the resident at the tent and then go straight home to rest, but they did not,” Marcillon recalled. “They stayed the whole day in the camp.”
The volunteers seem to have created another level of trust and partnership as well. “If [FDH members] give us a responsibility, I take it and use it to empower the group,” said Fils-Aime.
Marc-Charles-Weir looks forward to doing more. She hopes “to show what we can do and inspire other people with disabilities…. It is critical for Gallaudet University to be part of this.”
Bien Aime feels the same, and draws inspiration from the very people she is supporting. “Listening to the stories and experiences of those in the tent city gave me the motivation to find a way to continue to help in any way I can,” she said. “They don’t give up-they look forward to each new day with hope.”
–Rhea Yablon Kennedy
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