Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tout Zanmi Se Mwen Ki Beni

The death rate from car crashes inspired us to lug our car seat down here.

Sunday was a short day at the hospital for Don, so we spent the afternoon visiting Zanmi Beni, an home for children who have physical and/or developmental disabilities.  The name, Zanmi Beni, which means “blessed friends” in Kreyol, is a joint project between Operation Blessing, the “Beni,” and Partners in Health, whose Haitian organization is called Zanmi Lasante.

The kids were living in the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince in pretty dismal conditions, and when the earthquake struck their current home was damanged.  They were already either orphans or had been abandoned because of their disabilities, and so there was literally no where for them to go and no one to take care of them.  Many of the kids have pretty severe disabilities, and require around the clock care or supervision.  There is a very significant cultural stigma against persons with disabilities here, especially mental disabilities.  Children who are mentally disabled are viewed as being possessed or cursed by a local lwa, or spirit, and bring bad luck to those around them.  As such they are usually either kept closeted (sometimes literally) within a families home or abandoned.

The two organizations purchased a home outside of Port-au-Prince, only 20 minutes from Relal in Tabarre, and built on the existing site to create an incredible environment for these kids.  They have around 90 staff members to take care of the almost 40 kids living there, ranging in ages from two year olds to twenty-two year olds.  I have visited other homes for children with disabilities outside of Leogane when Don lived here several years ago, and have worked with children and adults with disabilities in the US.  I have rarely seen a more beautiful, well operated and joyful place than Zanmi Beni.

Upon entering the gates you drive up a palm lined drive toward a sprawling one story stone house, and are struck by the sense that whoever owned this property before must have been very wealthy.  We learned that the former owners were Haitians living in the US and using this home as their vacation house, and were eager to offload the property after the earthquake.  To the right of the driveway is a little fenced in play area just the size of a small soccer field.

The main house is now a library, meeting room and administrative office area.  However before the new dorm spaces opened all of the children were sleeping in this one large room together.  On the back of the main building is a large screened in porch where physical therapy takes place.  To the left of the main building there is a gorgeous white washed building that houses the art therapy space.  Inside are tons of art supplies and a movie screen and projector for watching movies.  Every building is of course accessible by wheel chair.

Outside of the art therapy building.

Art supplies.

Back through the main building is the pool where the kids can benefit from water therapy.  The main building also has a large shady veranda area on the other side where those kids who are severely disabled can enjoy the shade and the breeze in the afternoon.

The shaded veranda in the distance with the pond area in the foreground.
Right now most of the staff live on the property, either in tents on in staff living areas above the children’s dorm areas.  They hope to build more staff housing in the future, but it is a safe place for everyone to live.  If your choice is living in a tent in a camp, or a tent on Zanmi Beni land, then the clear advantage is to Zanmi Beni.  There is ready access to clean water on site, and the land is of course walled off and gated.

Just past the gate leading into the new dorm area is a small grove of banana, plantain and coconut trees.  The staff maintains chickens, turkeys and some small cages of rabbits, guinea pigs and doves here as well.  At the back of this little grove there are several rows of holding ponds laid out for a new project that Operation Blessing will be launching soon.  They are importing several species of ornamental fish to raise in the tanks to sell.  There is a market for these gorgeous fish in Port-au-Prince, and the proceeds will go back to Zanmi Beni.  They have also been building smaller tank display cases in the courtyard at Relax, and the sound of welding has often lulled Lucy down for a nap during the day.

Lu and Don taking a stroll on the ornamental fish holding ponds.
Back through the grove there is a path that leads to the new dorm buildings, which are painted a very cheery orange and blue, and covered in metal artwork and pictures of the children.  We passed through the doors and both Lucy and Don were almost instantly pounced on by children playing and resting in the shade.  The dorms are located around a central courtyard that has a little nurses station and therapy area under a pavilion in the middle.  The whole structure makes very good use of airflow, and was very cool on a hot and sunny day.

With these new dorms each room only has two or three children in it.  At each corner of the square around the courtyard there is a staff room, so the children can be taken care of overnight and there is always a staff member close by.

One little girl in particular, Eveline, held quite close to Don and Lucy, touching her hair and pulling her around the play even as some of the staff ladies called to her to play gently!  The kids would come up to us asking to be picked up and held, calling us “papa” or “maman” and making Lucy a little jealous!  And of course all of the kids were cracking up over Don’s beard, running their fingers through it and tugging on it!

The back part of the square has a second story with staff quarters and in back of the entire building is another plot of land with the holding tanks for the new tilapia project that Operation Blessing is starting.  On January 26th 25,000 fingerling Talapia will arrive from the US and will be matured and bred in these tanks.  Their goal is to use some of the fish to provide Zanmi Beni with fresh fish, to sell a portion in live fish markets for Haitians, and to reserve some for breeding so that the facility will also become a hatchery.  This is big business in Haiti, and so the land is very well secured against the possibility of fish sabotage.

The two aquacells for the Talapia.
Back through another gate is the kitchen area for Zanmi Beni, which has a very large inside and outside food prep area.  The kitchen reminded me a lot of the kitchen and pantry area of Nativity House, and I felt a familiar itching in my palms when I saw a huge 10 gallon pot simmering on the huge gas burner.  The dining room was similarly large, with tables and chairs lined up as well as rows of high chairs and lots of hand washing stations.  The dining room exited to the pool area, and we were back at the front of the house.

It was such an uplifting place, and so wildly divergent from the other facilities I have seen in Haiti.  No children lingering on dirty mattresses in a hot, dusty courtyard plagued by flies.  These kids are truly loved and taken care of here.

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