Saturday, February 12, 2011

TRAVELER'S LOG - St. Vincent's overview

Just one block from the Presidential palace, behind a tall concrete wall (like every other property in Haiti), lies a diamond in the rough called St. Vincent’s Center for Handicapped Children. We would like to give you a virtual tour of this very special place and allow you to meet some of the exceptional people we found behind it’s walls.

The entrance gate to St. Vincents (looking from the inside out)
Clinic is on the right from this angle

Visitors, employees and students traverse a gutter on a wooden board to enter through a large metal gate. A doorman of sorts acts as a make-shift security person and makes sure that all who come in belong there.

Entrance to the temporary clinic building

The waiting room - thank God for those electric fans!

The eye clinic and one of the doctors who was teaching us some Creole

On the left is a long "temporary" building built by a Japanese NGO (non-governmental organization) that houses 4 small clinic rooms, a closet-sized bathroom, the brace shop where prostheses and orthotics are made, and a pharmacy the size of many American bathrooms. A long hall runs through the center of the building, lined with bright blue metal chairs serving as a waiting room.

Men mixing cement by hand

On the right are large mounds of gravel and sand where men mix concrete by hand. Five gallon buckets of water are hauled in where cement is mixed on the ground that appears to be used for a bathing facility in the back of the property.

The courtyard at the center of the grounds

Straight ahead is a concrete courtyard with a tree or two and a single net-less basketball hoop. On many occasions, JoJo and several others arrange their wheelchairs in the shade alongside the dormitories to greet visitors and help them navigate St. Vincent's grounds.

Women doing laundry beside the well

The former boys dormitory now houses everyone

The upper and lower classrooms

Surrounding the courtyard are dormitories, temporary and tent classrooms, the administrative office, and a laundry area next to the well. (We think there are 16 classrooms, but none of us actually counted!) There was a steep ramp leading to the upper classes, but nothing to enter the 2nd floor of the dormitory. Children needing access to the upper dormitory who can not walk must be carried upstairs by their friends.

The temporary tent classroom

One of the blind classrooms; front right is a brailler

Each small classroom holds desks and chalkboards. Some, for the youngest children, even boast handmade decorations and posters. Rooms for the blind are equipped with a few braillers, but not enough for each child.

Amidst these different rooms are smiling happy faces of the students: some are blind, deaf, or mute; some experience motor skills problems, missing and deformed limbs and a variety of other maladies. Regardless of their personal situation, they go to classes every morning or afternoon to learn alongside their peers.

Children are placed in grades by skill and development level, not by age. One class’s age range was 8 – 25! Students are also divided by some individual needs, such as an entirely deaf or blind class.

Teachers at St. Vincent's

Most classrooms had 2 teachers. For instance, a class for the blind would have one sighted teacher and one blind. The sighted teacher would read out loud to the children who would, in turn, type in the lesson on the brailler. Then the blind teacher would review and correct their work. The same process is used for the hearing impaired classes.

Students take their studies seriously and are happy to have the opportunity to learn. JoJo shared that when they were displaced to Montrioius after the earthquake that even though the children loved being along the coast and in the countryside (which many had never experienced), they continually asked for lessons and to go back home to St. Vincent’s and their school.

Hana, our 13-year-old volunteer, observed that the students, especially the boys, acted just like they do back in the states, trying to be “cool”. They have all the mannerisms as their youthful counterparts in America, they create and use their own unique handshakes, and use their cell phones as MP3 players to listen to their favorite music. Her most telling observation was that they appeared much more eager to learn than those from American schools. They were more interested and seemed to take their work seriously. In addition, their relationships with one another are very strong and they lean on their friends both socially and physically on a constant basis.

Children receive a pouch of water mid morning during recess time in the courtyard. Empty plastic bottles quickly become soccer balls and groups of friends sit together.

We spoke to EVERY child over a 2-day period, asking each their name, age and interest as well as taking their individual and class photographs. We determined very quickly that St. Vincent’s is full of future soccer players, singers, guitarists, musicians, jump ropers, photographers, and girls who love babies! What a diverse bunch.

Most were enthusiastic about having their photos taken but would take on the typical serious persona common for Haitians as soon as the camera was pointed their way. Then they would look at their photo and let you know if they liked it or if they want you to take another one for a better angle or more handsome expression. It was exhausting doing this for 180 children in such a short period of time, but it was SO worth the effort! It allowed us to interact with each person and get a tiny glimpse into their school lives.

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