Monday, September 20, 2010

New Orleans, Day 1

Fr. Sadoni, Director of St. Vincent's,
with Kathy, President of The Red Thread Promise

Tuesday, 9/14 – Late in the afternoon, we all arrived safe and sound in The Big Easy: Sally from Washington state, Sonya from Ohio, Randa from Canada and Fr. Sadoni from Haiti. Tom and Kathy, our local counterparts, greeted us at the airport, exchanging hugs and kisses with friends old and new. The group gathered around a well-used wooden table at an airport café for quite some time as we began drafting a press release announcing the partnership of the Episcopal Dioceses of Olympia and Louisiana, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church-Lakeview and The Red Thread Promise to support the children and rebuilding efforts of St. Vincent's Center for Handicapped Children School & Medical Facility.

Following some traffic meant to give us all a lesson it patience, we made it to our hotel where we unpacked and freshened up for dinner. Since Fr. Sadoni, director of St. Vincent’s, had never been to New Orleans, we made time for a super-condensed tour of New Orleans, driving through the French Quarter, Central Business, Warehouse and Garden Districts and Uptown, all in about 45 min! The architecture, or what we could see of it in the dark, was fantastic. Stories of Hurricane Katrina were shared as we looked on at the water lines still evident on many buildings. New Orleans has made great progress in the last 5 years, but so much still needs to be done to restore the city to its former glory.

The beautiful chandelier in the hotel's vestibule

Our work began again at dinner that evening, getting to know each other and building a personal relationship with Fr. Sadoni.

Born in Gramonde, Fr. Sadoni grew up in Port-au-Prince. He studied management at the Episcopal University (which was destroyed by the quake) and simultaneously went to seminary. Sadoni has worked in schools, hospitals and churches in different parts of Haiti since he completed his studies 5 years ago. Prior to the earthquake, he was appointed Priest in Charge of Ephiphanie Church and Director of St. Vincent’s Center for Handicapped Children School & Medical Facility.

The Center was founded in 1945 by Sister Joan Margaret to care for handicapped children, who were (and still are) treated as sub-human in Haitian society. The sisters traveled through Haiti and brought these little ones to St. Vincent’s for medical care and to receive an education, an innovative idea in Haiti.

Sixty-five years ago and to this day, there is little hope for anyone born with a disability in Haiti. Often neglected or abused by their families, handicapped children are literally left in a corner by themselves in their own homes, isolated from the rest of the family. The fortunate ones might receive an education after all other healthy siblings have been to school. It is also common practice for parents to abandon their special needs children, discarding them in bathrooms, on the streets, in front of buildings – so much that hospitals have a special area for abandoned babies. Some are even given to Voodoo priests so people can engage in sexual intercourse with them to bring good luck, according to Haitian belief.

Sadoni, a soft-spoken man of few but deliberate words, showed his passion for these children when he firmly stated that he “wants to change the children’s lives AND to change Haitian’s perception of people with disabilities.”

Our discussion then turned toward Voodoo, how it is an integral part of Haitian culture and is intermixed with nearly every other faith, especially Roman Catholicism. Interestingly enough, people of the Catholic denomination commonly practice Voodoo openly while those in other denominations tend to practice in secret.

New Orleans has an “underground” Voodoo subculture that boasts many similarities to that of its Haitian counterparts. Many practices are the same in both countries. However, there are some fundamental differences as well, including who practices the religion. In Haiti, Voodoo is primarily practiced by less educated people and there appears to be a direct correlation between level of education and the practice. In New Orleans, however, it is sometimes practiced by those who are very educated and is deemed more a cult than part of the culture.

We ended the evening on a positive note as we celebrated Sadoni’s upcoming wedding, wishing the couple good luck and a life of happiness together. As we rode back to the hotel, we considered the heavy agenda for Wednesday: gathering detailed information about St. Vincent’s needs since the earthquake; identifying and prioritizing their immediate needs; and fleshing out an action plan for the partnership to move forward and begin supporting the children of St. Vincent’s.

(Author's note: Exhausted after a day of traveling, meeting new people, and ending with a very long and late dinner, we had some comic relief at 11:00 pm that night when I was unable to view the MANY photos I had taken that afternoon and evening. Puzzled, I started examining the camera more closely and, after further investigation, realized that I had forgotten to put in the memory card. Thankfully we were all able to laugh it off, however we did ensure that the card was there every time I pulled the camera out the rest of the trip! So, the photos shown were actually taken on Wednesday, but I'm sure you won't tell anyone.)

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