The Mission to Save Haiti's Special Needs Kids
TERRIOR ROUGE, Haiti -- When a parent gives birth to a child, life changes. When a parent gives birth to a child with a disability, the change is even greater.
No matter how strong your faith or how positive your outlook, when a family welcomes a child with a disability into their lives it's common to feel overwhelmed, sad -- and to even question God.
If and when that initial reaction fades, America is a country with resources available to provide children with disabilities a full life and parents with the necessary support and education to care for them.
But what if you have a child in a part of the world where you have no idea what's wrong, no support, and no idea how to help?
In Haiti, parents often view a child with a disability as a problem to be fixed. They go from hospital to hospital trying to find the doctor who can make their child like all of the others.
"A month after his birth I saw he wasn't acting normal and I took him to the hospital and they gave me a prescription, but I couldn't find the medicine for him," explained one mother, who has been caring for a son with a severe disability for more than 16 years.
"I took him to Port Au Prince to find a better hospital," she recalled. "I stayed in Port Au Prince and he had to stay in the hospital month after month. After two years of spending a lot of money, I realized I can't try this anymore."
The Father Who Wouldn't Give Up
One man named Papito knows first-hand the challenges of raising a child with disabilities in Haiti.
In 2009, his son Christ-tcherry was born with severe cerebral palsy. Papito's wife died in childbirth, leaving him with a three-pound, incredibly sick baby boy to raise on his own. Two and a half years passed before he truly learned what he needed to know about taking care of his son.
He explained that Haitian doctors often don't want to tell parents the truth because they know what's likely to happen next.
"No doctor wants to tell you because they know in Haiti how bad our situation is," he told CBN News. "If they tell those parents the truth, they're going to drop their kids at the hospital or anywhere."
"They're not going to love them anymore," he continued. "They just realize that if they say, 'Oh, your kid is special needs. He's not going to walk.' They're going to give up."
Heather Meyer Gabuad moved to Haiti in 2010 with a background in special needs. She was helping at an orphanage when Papito showed up seeking answers about his son.
"I had never worked with a widowed father before and here he was with his two-and-a-half-year-old with no intention of wanting to give him away to an orphanage, and that would have been so easy for him," she said.
"A lot of orphanages would have said yes because he was a widowed father and Christ-tcherry's disabilities are so severe," she explained. "He wanted to raise his son, he wanted to provide for his son, he wanted to take care and be there and love his son forever."
A 'Rescue Mission'
The two worked closely together to find Christ-tcherry the right medical care, growing so close that they married in 2012. The following year they took their combined passion for the special needs community and started Footprints of the Son.
"Our mission is educating these parents to love their kids, help them and do what they need," Papito said.
Heather calls it "a rescue mission."
"I just feel that the parents are at that turning point of they don't know what to do with their child, and I feel like sometimes we get to them just in time, just in time before they're losing hope, before they're so desperate that they'll leave that child at a hospital or they'll leave that child with a grandparent," she said.
"I feel like if we can come in and help them right at that pivotal time that they'll change, that their attitude will change and they'll feel like they have an advocate beside them. They feel like they have a friend that's going to go through this with them," she explained.
Overcoming Haiti's Voodoo Culture
Haiti's voodoo culture often works against Heather and Papito's efforts. That's because families often turn first to voodoo priests for help because of their own beliefs or pressure from family.
"Some family judges them because they don't want to do it, but some of them did it and when everybody sees, 'Oh, there's no answer for this.' They just give up because the way they tell them to go is not the right way, so they come back," Papito explained.
Through Footprints in the Son, Heather and Papito are able to take the families in and offer the support they need.
"We're just like let's embrace it, let's do this together, let's educate your child, let's get therapy for your child, but most importantly, let's just create a family that loves this child," Heather said.
It's not an easy process or quick process to get a family to give up on fixing their child and instead focus on raising them.
Breaking New Ground
Footprints of the Son is breaking new ground this year. They've built a school to provide education for children with disabilities.
"This year we're going to have three classrooms. We'll have a 2 to 3-year-old level classroom. That doesn't mean that all the children will be 2 to 3 years old, and then we're going to have a 3 to 4-year-old classroom," Heather told CBN News.
"We will also have one unique classroom this year," she added. "It's a sensory classroom and that's geared for children with autism, severe autism, and severe ADHD."
Heather and Papito don't plan to stop there. Their land gives them room to grow. One day they hope to reach each child in the community.
"This has been like my biggest dream since I moved to Haiti is to have an inclusion school of typical functioning children and children with disabilities learning together in the same environment," Heather said.
Until that dream becomes reality, Heather and Papito will work among Haiti's special needs community through education, encouragement and support, one family at a time.