Thursday, February 10, 2011

TRAVELERS LOG - Day 3 in Haiti - JoJo

JoJo and Tom

Many joyous souls live at St. Vincent’s. One in particular touched us today.

His name is Joseph John Paul, but is simply known as JoJo to those who have the immense pleasure of spending time with him. Tom had the opportunity to speak to him for nearly 2 hours so we will try to be brief (if possible!).

Born with no arms and no legs, JoJo has called St. Vincent’s home since the age of 3. He greeted us in flawless English making us feel like lifelong friends. He spoke enthusiastically about his family at St. Vincent’s and his dream to make the center even better for his exceptional brothers and sisters. His smile was infectious, filled with compassion and a desire to welcome anyone into the arms of St. Vincent’s. He has learned to overcome his personal life challenges and to respect himself as a human being, recognizing his own worth in a country that shuns those like him.

Haitian societal stigma

We listened intently as he shared first-hand knowledge of how disabled people are treated in his home country. Haitian children who are blind, deaf, have missing limbs or live with motor limitations are commonly outcast and are often abandoned at a clinic or the gate of a school. They are left because of the societal stigma of having produced a child who is not “normal” or because parents simply do not have the means to provide for them.

JoJo went on to explain that the basis for many of the myths surrounding physical and mental afflictions are grounded in years of government neglect of the disabled. This is coupled with Haiti’s lack of public education on disabilities and human rights. Sadly, it is common for parents to abandon their babies, leave them in a confined space in their home for extended periods of time, or worse, kill them because of their afflictions. Outcast by their parents, family and society in general, children with these physical challenges do not feel part of the larger Haitian society.

The St. Vincent’s opportunity

By stark contrast, St. Vincent’s lovingly embraces these same children and provides them with individualized educational and medical care. Most importantly, perhaps, is the home-like community setting that allows each child to develop at his/her own pace. This nurturing setting allows students to develop long-term relationships with others who share their circumstances. Students are able to live and learn together in an environment that is conducive to leading a life full of dignity, working to become fully integrated in society following graduation.

Many of the children are day students, attending school but returning home each afternoon. There are also temporary and permanent boarding students living at the center because, either their families cannot care for them, they live too far away to be day students, or they have been abandoned by parents.

JoJo wears his disdain for the terms “handicap” and “special needs” on his shoulder, given both terms have a negative connotation in French, Creole and English. To him, even the term “special needs” suggests that the person is different in a derogatory way. He prefers the term “exceptional” or, better yet, not labeling people at all by their limitations. (Author’s note: isn’t that what we all want?) It is his opinion that people who have these physical challenges are extraordinarily blessed in that they, and everyone around them, is aware of their affliction. In contrast, people who have an internal illness (such as cancer) are devastated at an unexpected diagnosis, or the mentally ill whose disorder may not be so easily identifiable.

Throughout our conversation, JoJo politely excused himself repeatedly to address each person who entered the school courtyard—assisting with directions in Creole, admonishing a child in sign language to remove rubbish he tossed into the drain, and providing verbal direction in French to twin brothers, both without sight, to a better pathway. It is my observation that he appears to be a father figure to the many inhabitants of the center, sharing without reservation his love of humanity.

The future

We discussed at length how we might team together to enrich St. Vincent’s programming, to better prepare students to enter Haitian society as productive healthy adults, thus changing Haitian’s fears and beliefs against thus handicapped.

The Red Thread Promise shared our vision for a Creative Arts Summer Camp on the coast that would include painting for the hearing impaired and amputees, complemented by pottery and sculpture for the blind. JoJo’s enthusiasm was overwhelming as our idea supports his life-long dream of operating a gallery and workshop at the center. Proceeds from the sale of children’s artwork would help fund the development of the program and facility, while providing a lucrative foundation for the participant’s future in the arts.

Nuggets of wisdom

“At the bottom of everyone’s soul, there is a mission—to give. When one gives, by any means, he will receive blessings. It is crucial for people to understand the depth of this concept in order to live a fulfilling life.” ~ Joseph John Paul

JoJo impressed upon us how community can overcome diversity and ignorance. We believe he has indeed grasped the red thread of destiny that connects us all. Surely he has seen his share of adversity when the red thread tangled and stretched, but ultimately it did not break. We too have grasped this red thread and it led us to St. Vincent’s, Dianna and JoJo.

We don’t plan to let any of them go.

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