Updated: Sep 17, 2019
Among like-minded people, in one of the most beautiful scenes of nature.. there are no words I can use to describe it all.
The night before visiting Melissa’s Hope I had the opportunity to get to know some of my fellow volunteers at dinner and around a bonfire in the backyard of a friend of Travel and GIVE. What a gorgeous and memorable experience that was in itself! We hopped in the back of two pick up trucks and soaked up the view of luscious trees, plants and flowers at every bend of the road. The night sky was like nothing I’ve seen before – there’s almost no light pollution, so the stars were truly beaming and countless. With the silence of the night and the warm Haiti air blowing through our hair in the back of that truck, my soul felt free. I was finally in Haiti, about to do something meaningful that my insides had been needing for so long, among like-minded people, in one of the most beautiful scenes of nature.. there are no words I can use to describe it all.
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The bonfire was equally beautiful and relaxing; with chairs, a love seat and a hammock surrounding the fire while the musical sounds of frogs, night bugs and the evening breeze rustling through the palm leaves were surrounding us. We each got to know a little bit about each other and some of Martine’s friends & family who were hosting us. It was a great way to unwind from traveling and recharge for our day at Melissa’s Hope in the morning. Before working at Melissa’s Hope, we were given some background information on several children at the orphanage that suffer from severe physical and neurological disabilities. Reading about the children’s needs helped give us an idea of what we were going to be walking into, but I would be lying if walking in wasn’t overwhelming. A flood of emotions washed over me as I saw the children lined up in their wheelchairs outside with the caregivers, waiting for the group to make our way outside. But, wow, were we embraced when we each made our way around the circle of children, greeting them with "bonjours" and gentle hand shakes.
Many of the children have cognitive disabilities in addition to their physical ones, but the information around that is limited. Most of the children are chair-bound, in wheelchairs or assistive chairs, because of the severity of their physical disabilities and limited muscle tone/mobility. The condition of the chairs we saw were alarming and eye-opening. Some were put together with pieces of other items, like strollers converted to wheelchairs. Some had no foot support at all. Several of them had little to no cushion for the children’s heads, arms, or feet. The discomfort was visible and I think each therapist saw what our mission was for that day – to leave Melissa’s Hope a little better than we found it.
The purpose of our visit was to provide additional supports for the children and caregivers, provide services in the form of Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Speech Therapy, Massage Therapy, and Special Education and provide suggested techniques/strategies or activities for the caregivers to use with each child after we left. The Speech Therapists even gave technique suggestions for teaching swallowing. It may surprise you, but for some children swallowing has to be taught. This was one part of the trip I opted not to watch. I can not give enough credit to the Speech Therapists on this trip who tried to help in this regard, it is no easy task.
If you are a licensed therapist, please consider joining an upcoming or future mission trip with Travel and GIVE, especially if you are OT/PT!
The creativity and problem-solving that flourished from this team of volunteers was nothing short of inspiring.
I truly admire the work the therapists put into re-cushioning the wheelchairs, creating additional supports to improve the children’s comfort and overall quality of day-to-day life while in their chairs. It’s amazing what one suitcase of medical & therapeutic supplies ended up providing, never-mind the 9+ suitcases each of the volunteers brought. I hope that the pictures in this blog highlight some of the work the therapists did in creating more comfortable and effective support systems for the children at Melissa’s Hope.
Melissa’s Hope houses children living with severe disabilities, one of them being hydrocephalus. Before this trip, I had only briefly heard of this and never experienced seeing a child with this condition in real life. The teacher in me is now going to give you a quick 3-bulleted lesson on hydrocephalus (courtesy of MayoClinic.org):
Hydrocephalus is the buildup of fluid in the cavities (ventricles) deep within the brain. The excess fluid increases the size of the ventricles and puts pressure on the brain. (See also: water on the brain) Cerebrospinal fluid normally flows through the ventricles and bathes the brain and spinal column. But the pressure of too much cerebrospinal fluid associated with hydrocephalus can damage brain tissues and cause a range of impairments in brain function Hydrocephalus can happen at any age, but it occurs more frequently among infants and adults 60 and over. Surgical treatment for hydrocephalus can restore and maintain normal cerebrospinal fluid levels in the brain. Many different therapies are often required to manage symptoms or functional impairments resulting from hydrocephalus.
My friend, Jackson, in the photo, suffers from hydrocephalus. It’s my understanding that if an infant is born with this condition in the United States, a doctor would arrange to drain the fluid. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for Jackson. Jackson is an 18-year-old male who enjoys playing with blocks that he can connect and sort. He would repeatedly focus on the orange blocks, his favorites. After demonstrating for him how to match colors using blocks that slid onto a colored peg, he was able to correctly match colors on his own. After giving him smaller shapes that fit into specific parts of a puzzle, he successfully matched the shapes to their place in the puzzle 8/9 times on his first attempt and 9/9 times on his second and third rounds while I monitored him. Although Jackson spoke very few words with me, he correctly responded when he was asked his name. He would also tell other children “no” if they were impeding on our color matching session and would smile and laugh with me when bubbles popped on us in between rounds of matching.
Upon meeting Antonia, my hair was immediately in her hands. She continued to play with it until we took my braid out and gave her a quick demo on braiding. Antonia is nonverbal and has a hearing impairment/is considered to be deaf. Communicating with Antonia was solely with cues, objects and facial expressions. That being said, I was so surprised and happy to see that by the end of our visit she was beginning to mimic the braiding technique with two pieces of my hair and attempting to twist! This lead me to believe, if Antonia was given hand-over-hand repetitive practice with immediate praise or rewards daily, she might be able to learn to braid over time. Playing with hair is something that maintained her attention span unlike the other activities I attempted to facilitate with her. She did not show me that she comprehends how to match shapes to appropriate puzzle placement or how to match colors, but she did show me how animated she was. She’d flip her hair at me, grab my hand if I wasn’t giving her enough attention while I was working with Jackson and she made herself a little corner on Jackson’s tray. She absolutely made me laugh and feel warm inside during our time together.
At the end of our day at Melissa’s Hope I had the chance to interact with some of the other children at the orphanage who used to attend school there. They are considered typically developing children and were hanging out both inside and outside the facility during our visit. Never once did they interrupt any of the group’s therapy sessions or have poor interactions with the children we were servicing. I was so impressed – so different from where I used to teach. These children did not speak the same language as me, or my Special Education counterpart Marlene, yet they understood facial expressions, sound-cues and how to watch us do something and mirror it. It was another fulfilling moment of the day when we had some fun with Jenga and play-dough with them. There was a camaraderie that all of the children exuded that felt different from my classroom experiences. It felt almost familial. And their hugs, hand holding and sitting right up on top of us let us know we were family for a day too.
Working with both Jackson and Antonia, and the other children at Melissa’s Hope reiterated for me how our universal language consists of kindness, smiles, and laughter. I owe them a thank you.
Thank you to ALL of my friends, family and colleagues who donated to the GoFundMe. Your money was used directly to purchase the supplies, therapeutic/educational material and donation clothes we used on this trip that you will see in the pictures throughout the blog and on my Facebook Album “Haiti”.