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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Helping out in Haiti

Perhaps our most harrowing encounter in Haiti was also our most uplifting.  Through the yacht cruising community we’d heard about an orphanage on the island of Ile a Vache and so set off to find it with several bags of clothes, shoes, toiletries and medical supplies.  Most of these we’d been collecting for some time.  They were initially bound for neighbouring Cuba however during our time there we realised that communist Cubans under the Castro regime are surprisingly well off and certainly had no need for our cast offs.
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L’Oeuvre St Francois D’Assises (Orphanage of St Francis of Assisi) is run by diminutive French Canadian nun Sister Flora Blanchette.  This humble and unassuming woman saw the incredible hardship and suffering in Haiti when she visited 30 years ago, felt compelled to help and opened a clinic on the island of Ile a Vache.  In time, with donations, she was able to open an orphanage to take in neglected and abandoned children and orphans.   We had no idea exactly where the orphanage was but needn’t have worried.  At the mere mention of the words ”Sister Flora”, helpful villagers pointed the way and even escorted us which spoke volumes of how well known and loved this tiny nun is.  We’d heard that Sister Flora refuses to turn any child away and therefore many of the 73 people under her compassionate care are severely handicapped.  Her orphanage is rare in Haiti in accepting the handicapped. We weren’t quite prepared for the gruelling sight of children – some as young as a few months – lying on mattresses, unable to move and others sitting in wheelchairs with heart wrenching deformities and conditions.  Despite their ghastly situation, many wore wide smiles and were thrilled to see visitors.
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Sister Flora only speaks French and Creole but Calix Huguette was a fantastic translator.  Calix arrived at the orphanage as a two day old orphan and, apart from time studying at university on the mainland, has never left.  She now works alongside Sister Flora as an administrator.  We learned that the orphanage receives no government funding hence the continual need for food, clothing and cash donations.  
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We got back to Bandit feeling that surely we could do more to help but first priority was dealing with the constant stream of locals wanting work.  After much deliberation we agreed to give work to a handful. The next day the allocated three boys arrived, with a few hangers on, so by mid morning Bandit had six willing workers cleaning the hull, polishing stainless steel and wiping the salt off the hatches and windows.  Sadly, the message didn’t get through that we had enough workers and the boys kept coming out.  It was incredibly difficult to say no so skipper kept finding more jobs- most of them unnecessary!  Have to say though, Bandit gleamed.
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DSC_4382DSC_4383DSC_4392Then there were the sad pleas from the needy - “My mother is hungry, she needs food.”  It was impossible to know how best to help so after much soul searching between ourselves and discussion with locals we decided to take Bandit to the mainland and buy bags of rice, beans and cooking oil, all of which appeared to be in short supply, to be distributed in the village.  This was a mission in itself. We took along two of our workers Colby and Pepe, leaving Colby on Bandit as a guard and taking Pepe to the market as a guide and negotiator.  Rice, beans and oil bought, next problem - how to get 100kgs of food back to Bandit?  No taxis here but the bags fitted on the back of one motorbike and David, Pepe and the driver on another.
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Back in Ile a Vache, Pepe made a list of the 30 most deserving families and, at an appointed time, they came carrying various containers – one woman even put the rice in her skirt!  It was a humbling experience and, while we wanted to be there to ensure the distribution was fair, we ended up leaving feeling too intrusive.  Not before David thanked the locals for welcoming us so warmly to Ile a Vache and said he hoped our small contribution may have helped.
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During our summer in the US we scoured second hand marine shops for old sails and at Sailor’s Exchange in St Augustine persuaded the owner to donate one to the cause.  We’d heard the fishermen use any material they can get their hands on for sails and some of those we saw were definitely rough- black polythene was common.
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David also dug out various lengths of rope for needy fishermen as much of what we saw was no better than dental floss. Once again it was a humbling experience to see grown men very emotional with such gifts.   The distribution was done through Sam Altema (second from right in the photo) who is the Seven Seas Cruising Association rep for Ile a Vache and also runs a shop there.   We weren’t entirely convinced about Sam’s allocation as he kept the best (and longest) piece of rope for his father.  His father may well have been deserving but it would have been nice to meet him and see for ourselves.  Hopefully the sail will be shared fairly.
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We had kept one bag of rice to take to the orphanage so returned with it.  Sadly we couldn’t find any of the precious milk powder Sister Flora is so desperately in need of so we gave her a bundle of cash - a small gesture, but hopefully one that may help.  As we were leaving the orphanage we were engulfed by a group of happy “normal” children – who had just finished school.  They were incredibly polite and friendly and intrigued with their “white” visitors.  My sunglasses and floppy hat went down a treat and we spent precious time just enjoying these happy, smiley children.  It made us realise that not all the children in the orphanage have desperate futures – some, like these below, will hopefully have a chance. 
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3 comments:

  1. Congratulations and well done. We had a similar experience on Ile a Vache last month delivering medical supplies donated by Florida hospitals. You would be a great asset if you could join our network International Rescue Group (www.internationalrescuegroup.org). Thanks, Captain Ray

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