Thursday 12 July 2012

Olympic Day for the Differently Able.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away when I attended a fantastic event at the Columbus School and College in Chelmsford. They have 240 pupils and students with severe learning difficulties (SLD), and profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), and a high ratio of pupils and students with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). They are all aged between 3 - 19 years and are spread over two campuses in Chelmsford - an Academies Enterprise Trust School. The Head Teacher is Malcolm Reeve. The school motto is; 'Take responsibility, show respect, consider others and believe in yourself. The pupils and learners were awarded certificates based on Olympic and Paralympic values, respect, courage, determination, friendship, inspiration, excellence and equality.The whole campus had a beautiful feel about it, not just the modern building and excellent facilities, but it was the whole ethos and culture that made me feel as if I was part of a big family. I thought about my visit to the  Haiti Hospital Appeal and spending the day with the children at Maison de Benediction.

As a woman who is differently able, I have come to realise that disability does not come with a manual - but life goes on and people with additional needs have different abilities. We should never judge people from their outward appearance, we need to interact with them to see how amazing and talented they are.

We spent the morning at the Columbus School and walked the Olympic Torch to the Columbus College. The day was a real inspiration to me and I came to realise that we all had one thing in common - to make our best better!!!

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Thursday 5 July 2012

The Forgotten - Haiti Hospital Appeal.

I've had almost a week now to recover after my trip to Haiti so it is about time I recorded my experience in this blog. I kept a diary of my trip so I could be as accurate as possible. I also need to tell you that my safari was organised by BMS World Mission, Haiti Hospital Appeal,and The Dream so many thanks to them for allowing me the opportunity to visit the poorest country in the world.

Sunday June17.

I was up early to prepare myself for my trip to Haiti.  We were flying from Heathrow and Eddie, my driver from home, made the journey really comfortable. I've been using Eddie for years now on my longer journeys and he is an excellent driver and good company. I met up with the Revd Gareth Wilde, who works for BMS, and we headed off to check in. We were flying to Miami with Virgin and I felt a bit embarrassed when they gave us V.I.P treatment because I was supposed to be a 'celebrity'. Anyway, I didn't complain when they made us feel important. All the staff were excellent, especially Becki, so thank you Virgin for a trouble free flight, and the free champagne.

It was a bit chaotic when we landed and got into the airport. Everyone seemed to be speaking Spanish and it was if we had landed in Spain, not Miami.We drove to our hotel, the aptly named 'Comfort Inn', and after a bath and supper, I went to bed and had a good nights sleep.

Monday June 18.

We flew from Miami to the Dominican Republic, but not before I had been subjected to a thorough search by a woman who clearly enjoyed her job! They also searched my wheelchair for explosives and one man asked me if I was an athlete because I had 'a fit body'. If that was supposed to cheer me up it didn't work and I was very relieved once we had boarded our plane. We should have been flying directly to Haiti but IBC airline refuses to carry wheelchair users. Very ironic, given that I was on my way to help disabled Haitians overcome prejudice!

Our flight was fine and we were driven to the Blue Bay by Alex. It was like paradise and strongly reminded me of the Kenyan Coastal region, lots of palm trees and beautiful blue sea. We ate and had an early night so we could be ready for the road trip to Haiti in the morning.

Tuesday June 19.

After breakfast Alex arrived to drive us to the border in his car. The scenery was beautiful and again reminded me of my native Kenya. Swarms of motorbikes weaved around us as music by a local artist, Romeo Santos played. I loved the music and it seemed to fit so well with the scenery, even though I couldn't understand a word of what was being sung. As we approached the border the scenery changed dramatically and it wasn't hard to believe we were about to enter another country. I was dying to use the toilet but we couldn't find one until we finally arrived at the border. It wasn't disabled friendly but it did the job!

Alex told us we had arrived at the border and he and Gareth got out to negotiate our crossing. Alex wasn't allowed to drive across the border so they had to get my wheelchair out and I had to push myself across the border. That's a first for me! It was really scary seeing men in ordinary clothes wielding guns and I did NOT feel safe. As soon as I got into my chair  people gathered around to stare at it, and me. I really wanted to speak to them but could only smile because of the language barrier. So frustrating! I particularly noticed three small boys, about the same age as my son, Tim, 10. They were speaking to me in Creole and I couldn't understand a word. I had no problem understanding what they wanted though as they pointed to their mouths and rubbed their stomachs. I had no money or food with me and all I could do was give them half a bottle of water! It breaks my heart even now as I write about it! Half a bottle of water and they all said,'Gracias'. And this was only the border.

We said our goodbyes to Alex and were then met by Mike, his wife Melissa, and their daughter, Emilee. Mike speaks a little Creole, just enough to get us into Haiti, and then we got into the hospitals ambulance for the journey to Cap Haitian and the Haitian Hospital Appeal, a fantastic project. It is run by co - founder Carwyn Hill and his wife Reninca and they gave us a wonderful welcome when we arrived. I was really keen to meet with some of the spinal cord injury patients undergoing rehabilitation at the centre and soon I met Leon, a hand cyclist and who hopes to be a  Paralympian for Haiti one day. It really moved me when I learned that his wife and EIGHT children were killed in the earthquake. I can't even begin to even imagine what that would feel like, and to be left disabled himself! He is a REAL inspiration and thanks to the centre's forward thinking on the benefits of sport he has improved his quality of life.
The hospital is a wonderful facility and provides so much to so many people, including an ambulance service, community health care,maternity unit, rehab unit, and work with disabled children.

The volunteer village is very basic accommodation but very clean, with mosquito nets over the bed, and a fan. Food is very basic but I really enjoyed the Haitian style rice and beans we had tonight. We ate and socialised in the lounge before heading to bed.

I had problems getting to sleep in the volunteer village because when I got to my room I had two uninvited guests, a huge frog and a greasy black millipede. Why am I so scared of the insects here when I've spent most of my life in Kenya? Well, I struggled with insects in Kenya but the insects in Haiti!!! Even Samson couldn't wrestle with them. They are HUGE!! Tom the cameraman was even more frightened than me and we all laughed as he shrieked. My mind ran through the events of the day in bed. I did finally fall asleep.

Wednesday June 20.

When I woke in the morning the first thing I normally would do is get dressed and put on a little make up, but here it is too hot so I didn't bother. After a breakfast of fruit, juice and a bun, we visited Maison De Benediction ( which means 'house of blessings'). Its a respite centre for children with mental and physical disabilities. Haiti has an appalling attitude towards disability of any kind, and the disabled are often abused and called,'Cocoabi', which means 'worthless'. The centre encourages the families of disabled children to stay with them and support them. The children stay at the centre for a few days to give their families a break, and whilst they are there they have individual programmes in education, sport and physiotherapy.

As soon as I entered the centre I was overwhelmed by emotions. It brought back memories of when I was a child and my parents sent me away to a boarding school far away from home because the village school didn't cater for my needs. The children were lovely and their smiles really touched me but I just felt very sad when I thought of the many thousands who can't have a service like this. One encouraging and heart warming - I could see hope in the children's eyes and nothing is more important than that. Another very positive thing I can say is that the dedication of all the staff is truly wonderful. May God bless them.It reminded me of my early years in Kenya at Joyland School For the Physically handicapped and how loving and caring the staff were.We called them 'mother' :)

In the afternoon we made the journey to a village called Grande Riviere du Nord. It is a very poor and deprived area.The kids were naked, some of them the same age as my son! The villagers gathered around us when we arrived and through our translator, Usvel, I asked them what they thought I did for a living. They thought I was there to give them health advice and when I told them I was an athlete they were astonished. I asked them if they had ever seen a disabled person doing sport and they laughed and said how could they do sport if they're disabled! I spent some time with a young girl and her parents,who obviously loved her because they had crafted a home made 'wheelchair' from a plastic seat and some wheels, one of which was broken. Imagine how just an ordinary wheelchair could enhance their lives.Heartbreaking!

After dinner I was so tired and overwhelmed by emotion that I slept early.

Thursday June 21.

Today we visited 3 different primary schools, very small, but the children were very excited to see us and their smiles were beautiful. I felt sad when I didn't see a single disabled child in any of the schools. Life is very, very tough for able bodied Haitians, but the disabled and their families have it even worse, if you can imagine such a thing. Poverty is everywhere,yet we are only two hours from the USA!

I spoke to families with disabled children and it made me cry. It is heartbreaking to hear their stories. A 16 year old girl can't access education because she has to look after her disabled brother whilst her mother has to go out to work to feed them. Another mother has a very bad back after years of carrying her disabled son around. A woman with a disabled child begged us to take it so she can be accepted in her community. She tells me she has tried many times to give her child away to an orphanage but they refuse.

Friday June 22.

This morning I met Josue Cajuste who is so charming and a star in his own right. He also hopes  to represent Haiti at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in field events. We did a little training together and I was able to show him some basic upper body warm ups and warm downs. We invited the patients from Rehab to join us and we had so much fun together. I also had a chat with Leon Gaysil and I told them both of my first experience of the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004 and how it had helped change attitudes towards disability in Kenya. I hope these two men can do the same thing in Haiti one day.

In the afternoon I spoke to the staff and patients in the Rehab Centre. I spoke to them about the importance of sport and how it can benefit them in so many ways. One thing I made clear to them all was that they are in charge of the person they want to be, and that hope and determination are essential to achieving their goals. I also told them that life can be really cruel living with a disability but you have to have self acceptance if you want to be accepted by your community, you have to be assertive and a little pushy, but they must always look on the bright side of life.Disability does NOT mean inability.

Later I spent some time with Janine, a lovely 38 year old woman, very soft spoken. I listened as she told me how she is in constant pain after being shot several times by armed robbers in her own home. One bullet is lodged near her heart and can't be removed because they don't have the facilities.This happened seven years ago and she is paralysed from the chest down. She never sees her family because they live too far away and it is too expensive to travel. The Haiti Hospital Appeal has become Janine's home. And I sometimes think I have problems!

Saturday June 23.

Cajuste decided to take me into Cap Haitien, the second largest city in Haiti. He wanted us to 'roll in style' but the community won't allow it. Everyone stares at us as if we have just arrived from another planet, and I can feel their hatred. It still shocks me now as I write this, people staring at us with hatred just because we have a disability. It feels more like 1612 than 2012! Despite all this Cajuste and I are determined to enjoy ourselves as much as possible and he says we should visit the beach. I was totally shocked when I saw the 'beach', or rather didn't see it because it was covered with rubbish and the sea was a filthy brown. My goodness, I couldn't even imagine having to live here. We rolled, very slowly , through the streets which are NOT accessible to wheelchairs. It was so sad having to endure the hostile stares that screamed disability at us. My sadness turned to mischief when I asked a group of men playing dominoes if I could join in. To Cajuste's astonishment they agreed. In Haiti women do not play dominoes, never mind disabled ones. I only played for a few minutes because I don't know the rules. I just wanted to make a little stand and I'm glad I did.

In the afternoon we did some training on the hand bike with one of the most promising athletes in Haiti, Fristna. He used to be a carpenter but was shot by a man who accused him of overcharging for his work! His whole family turned their backs on him so now he's completely alone. I hope sport can be his way of achieving success. He certainly has the talent.

Sunday June 24.

We left the Haitian Hospital Appeal Centre to make our way back across the border into the Dominican Republic, and then make our way back to the UK.

My final thoughts on my experience? It was a very,very emotional trip. I can't remember the time I shed so many tears. The poverty in Haiti is unbelievable and it is everywhere you look. The disabled are firmly at the bottom of society. And here we are, looking forward to the Paralympic and Olympic Games and talking about  medals and all the glory that is reflected whilst here is a country that can't even feed itself. This is a country where children go naked because they have no clothes! It was heartbreaking to see how totally marginalised and isolated the disabled and their families are. They have next to nothing going for them, There is no education, no access to healthcare, and there is nothing like accessibility for people with disabilities in this country.

On a more positive note, The Haiti Hospital Appeal, Carwyn and Reninca and all the staff and volunteers are showing real Christian values in the fantastic work they do transforming the lives of so many people, giving them a new lease of life. It's also been a huge blessing spending time with the children and seeing them smile. They really touched me. They reminded me of myself growing up with a disability in Kenya. Someone invested in me when I was a child and I am who I am today because of the sacrifice of others. I am determined to do all I can to support the Haitian hospital Appeal so others can benefit as I did. God bless them all!!

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