Meet Marie Blaise. She has devoted her life to raising the lives of others.
Marie is unlike most people in the world. She is spending her retirement years in Haiti raising 23 children with various developmental disabilities and special needs.
But before retiring in 2000 and moving back to her homeland of Haiti, Marie lived and worked in New York City for many years as a school bus driver for special needs children. She loved helping those kids and being around them day after day brought great joy into her life. She knew in her heart that one day she would be called to bring that joy back with her to Haiti—to help in some way.
That calling became clear to her on a trip to visit a friend at the general hospital in Port-au-Prince. While there, she happened upon a room where 11 children with developmental disabilities were being given the minimal care for survival. They weren’t there because they needed long-term medical attention, but because parents had abandoned them. Her heart sank as she saw how poorly the children were being cared for.
One little girl, Sylvie, was caged in a dog kennel. At that moment she knew what she had to do. Marie adopted Sylvie and soon thereafter, was awarded guardianship of the other 10 children. She made it her mission to improve their lives.
In 2005, Marie founded the Maison des Enfants Handicapes, a Haitian registered NGO that provides permanent shelter, care, education, therapy, and a loving environment for 23 children with moderate to severe developmental disabilities.
Life for children with disabilities in Haiti.
There are many reasons why Haiti is less than ideal for people living with disabilities. Despite being a signatory nation of the Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities, government services and support for children living with disabilities is all but non-existent in Haiti. There is little access to education, healthcare, and physical and other therapeutic services. Haiti’s poor infrastructure makes it extremely difficult for children get out into the community. All this combined with widespread social stigma about disability means children have almost no possibility to participate in the life of their community.
Natural disasters that have hit Haiti in recent years have further strained these limited services. Historically, there have been very few facilities equipped to meet the needs of the country’s disabled population. In Port Au Prince, two facilities serving children with disabilities were destroyed during the earthquake of 2010. Prior to the earthquake an estimated 800,000 people were living with various disabilities. Following the disaster, that number rose to $1.1 million (WHO, 2011).
The challenges ahead.
When Marie moved back to Haiti to retire she had no intention or plan of starting a home for children with special needs. She hired a small staff to assist her in feeding, cleaning, educating and caring for the children, which is funded by her retirement pension and occasional donations from individuals and organizations.
As the children grow, so do their needs. Some of them require more frequent physical therapy. Others need more specialized educational programming to give them skills to live by. Unforseen medical expenses over the last several months, for example, caused the organization to deplete its operating reserves.
The current facility does not meet Marie’s vision of space that would allow more community, educational, and outdoor experiences while increasing health and safety. It is located on a busy street in Port Au Prince. Children are confined indoors twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—only getting out of the building when there is a medical need. A small concrete courtyard is the only place children get outdoors. There are no trees. The children’s sleeping and bathing areas are located on a second floor accessible only by stairway. Additionally, as the children get older, space is getting tighter.
Marie has a vision and is working on a plan. Her vision: a model of housing and services for children, and eventually adults, living with disabilities.
Using her shrinking pension, she has invested in a 9 acre piece of land outside of Port-au-Prince. There she has started building a new home that will provide permanent housing and expanded services for up to 60 children, and eventually, adults. Children will have the chance to get outdoors and explore their natural surroundings. Because the facility is close to the small town of Ganthier, there is opportunity for regular interaction with community.
Economic opportunities will be created as local community members are trained and hired to fill additional staff needs for the expanded programs expected. In addition, children who are able will have the opportunity for supervised work experiences.
Phase I of the building project is completed. A kitchen, supply depot and staff dormitory, and security wall have been built. A water cistern has also been installed. In Phase II of the project, the girls and boys dormitory will be built and the children and services moved to the new site. Phase III will include construction of a small chapel, school, and guesthouse. Ecologically landscaping, gardens and play areas will be installed.
Marie and her staff have teamed with Partners in Progress to develop strategies for helping Maison des Enfantes Handicapes meet its operational needs and also to plan and develop Phase II and Phase III of the building project. Partners in Progress is a Pittsburgh based non-profit with over 15 years of sustainable development expertise in Haiti, including green construction.