Article by: Joanne Robertson

During the first week of Lent 2012, representatives from the American Wheelchair Mission and the Knights of Columbus were guided by God’s loving hand to Haiti, where lives would be changed forever. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where most people barely survive on the equivalent of 2 U.S. dollars a day. Compounding the poverty, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, near Port au Prince, Haiti’s most populated city. It is estimated that 220,000 people were killed and more than 300,000 were injured. 1.5 million people were rendered homeless.

Founded in 1994 at the University of Miami, Project Medishare mobilized the first medical team on the ground in Haiti, just 12 hours after the earthquake. Today, they continue to bring health and development services to Haiti, and have partnered with the American Wheelchair Mission and Knights of Columbus to bring empowerment and larger social change to the people of Haiti. Team member and Knight Bob Read says, “We bring independence… freedom… hope. I’m glad I came. It’s an uplifting joy.”

The first stop for the team was the Project Medishare Rehabilitation Hospital in Port au Prince. In-country physical therapist Jason Miller gave a tour and explained that more than 1,000 people have been served with prosthetics and orthotics through the clinic, with all supplies and equipment donated by the Knights of Columbus.

The team met Wilfred Messina who embodies the hope and resourcefulness of the Haitian people. A welder, he was crushed at work by a building during the earthquake. He was unable to find medical care for nearly a week. Although the fracture he sustained was below the knee, infection set in and he lost his leg above the knee. After his surgery in the Dominican Republic, he returned to Haiti. With Project Medishare’s training, he was able to make his own prosthetic. Miller says, ”Within five minutes, he was walking. The next day he was kicking a soccer ball. He wears shorts. He doesn’t care who sees. We hired him as a patient advocate.”

The next day, the team drove to the most remote village in the Haitian central plateau. The road to the small village is inaccessible five months of the year because of heavy rains. There is no electricity and the villagers live in extreme poverty. Medical care is virtually nonexistent for the population of 8,000. After a grueling five hour ride in an SUV, inching its way over ruts, sharp boulders and mud, the team arrived with a truck full of new wheelchairs, donated by the Knights of Columbus.

At the same time, a young Haitian mother named Monique started her day. She lives in the Haitian central plateau region. She awoke and took care of household chores and perhaps prepared a meal for her mother, five siblings and daughter. These simple tasks are painful for Monique because she does not have the use of her legs. They atrophied long ago as a result of an illness during infancy. She drags herself on her hands and knees, slowly and deliberately, but always with a beautiful, shy smile on her face.

Monique’s neighbors knew that the wheelchairs had arrived. They came to her home that morning and offered to carry her to the distribution. Monique doesn’t like to inconvenience friends and neighbors. “It’s difficult for me to ask people for favors to get me around,” she explains through an interpreter, “I was carried here by many people. One passed me off to another until I got here.” As Monique’s neighbor says, “She is my friend…When I see her working so hard, crawling all by herself, she doesn’t have any strength…As a man from her neighborhood, I just try to help her. I carry her because of my faith in God.”

After an hour-long hike on the rugged trail, with Monique on the backs of her friends and neighbors, they arrived. They were met by a slow parade of volunteers under a blazing blue sky, pushing the bright yellow wheelchairs one by one up the hill and through the doors of the village’s church. Inside were people of all ages, sitting on the rough wooden pews, leaning on canes and crutches, pain and fatigue on their faces. They were waiting for the chance to take one of the wheelchairs home. Monique found an open place on the floor and sat patiently with her two-year-old daughter on her lap.

Project Medishare Country Director Marie Chery sees this distribution in the remote central plateau as a first. “I see it as an opportunity to remove stigma from disabled people. It provides the opportunity to have them become part of their community, to be reintegrated into their community. It is really opening up the world…coming out of the dark, coming out of the back room, being out in the sun, being seen by people.”

Jason Miller of Medishare was particularly excited for Monique, the woman he had only met minutes earlier. He has seen firsthand the “instantaneous change in lifestyle” that awaited her.

There was a tentative mood in the church. The Americans and Haitians wanted to connect, show respect and appreciation, but had no common language. Gradually, with the gift of each wheelchair, the mood relaxed. No language was necessary. Enthusiastic words in Creole and English filled the room to encourage a little boy to push the wheels on his wheelchair and move himself for the very first time. Applause and laughter allowed the language barrier to fall away.

Monique tentatively crawled to the wheelchair that was assigned to her. With her shy smile, she climbed into it, looked into the eyes of those around her and smiled. “Thank you…thank you…thank you…” Later she said, ”Now I’m out of my misery. I can get around. I am more independent. When I need to go somewhere, I can go on my own.”

The next day, the experience was brought full circle for Bob Read. The team visited the mass gravesite at Titanyen, where tens of thousands of the 2010 earthquake victims are buried. “When we came here the first time, so soon after the earthquake, we were able to give a wheelchair to a little girl who had just lost her whole family in the earthquake. Knowing that her parents and brothers and sisters are probably buried here…being here, being able to say a prayer for her, for her parents, brothers and sisters… It’s really touching.”

The first week of Lent 2012 forever changed the lives of the American team members as well as the residents of Haiti they came to know. The day Monique received her wheelchair, the Gospel was Matthew 25: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

The team agreed with Monique’s neighbor as he put it this way: “She is my neighbor…I cannot leave her along the way.”