With the anniversary of the Haiti Earthquake, I thought you might appreciate an update on Wings
of Hope, Cotting’s sister school in Haiti.
One year ago on Tuesday, January 12, 2010, at 4:53 p.m. everything changed.
In 34 seconds, an earthquake struck Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, killing
230,000, injuring 300,000, and making 1,000,000 people homeless.
Although the earthquake destroyed Wings of Hope, miraculously no one at Wings was killed.
At Cotting School, we rallied around our friends in Haiti. Once communication was reestablished,
the years of friendship between Cotting and Wings staff and students provided welcome
emotional support. Our extended community immediately gathered supplies and raised funds for
The hard work by our community has made a tangible difference. Through donations large and
small, the sale of t-?shirts, Haitian art, student fundraisers, the Miles of Hope Road Race and many, many other activities, our extended community raised more than $250,000 for the Wings of Hope rebuilding fund. Thank you for your efforts!
How our work with Wings of Hope began.
Have you ever had what author Billy Shore calls a “random triggering event?” Something that
pushed you across the line from concerned to committed, from talk to action, from an
individualized expression to organized and collective action? Nearly six years ago I learned of
Soni, a young man in Haiti with severe cerebral palsy. Soni had spent the first five years of his life in a crib and had been callously described as a “human piece of furniture.” Like many people with special needs the world over, Soni’s talents and abilities had been underestimated.
When I first heard of Soni, he was a dancer with the Resurrection Dance Theater of Haiti
performing throughout the U.S. Since Soni would be visiting Boston from Haiti, why not have him
visit Cotting School? Furthermore, might there be a connection between Cotting School, America’s
first school for children with physical disabilities, and the school in Haiti where Soni now works
called Wings of Hope?
The connection between Soni who danced on our school’s stage and our students who have severe special needs was electric and instant! Our students wanted to know more about Soni and his life in Haiti, which is chronicled in the book, Soni’s Mended Wings.
As a result of Soni’s visit, I decided to see Wings of Hope in Haiti. There I found 38 children with severe special needs. Many had seizure disorders. Most were medically fragile. Many were in
wheelchairs. Some could not speak; others could not hear. All have been abandoned: some in the hospital, others on the doorstep of Wings of Hope. Once at Wings, they were loved and cared for by the staff 24 hours per day, 365 days per year in a building with no running water and only two hours of electricity per day. And this was considered the finest program in Haiti for children with special needs!
As you may know, twice each year, a team of ten or more Cotting teachers and clinicians volunteer their school vacations to work in Haiti. Each summer five or more Haitians come to Cotting School to intensively train with us. Cotting and Wings students share ideas, stories, and their cultures with each other via e-?mail. Photos of Cotting School and Wings students can be found on the walls of each others classrooms.
Every visit to Haiti is emotionally stretching.
During my visits to Haiti, I’ve met former and current child slaves (called restaveks) of whom
there are still, today, more than 225,000. I’ve seen babies, women, and men at Mother Teresa’s
Home for the Dying, a reflection of Haiti’s high infant mortality rate and disease.
And I have seen large groups of people rising before dawn seeking work in a country where
unemployment surpasses 70 percent.
The rebuilding of Haiti, as we have seen in the press, has been painfully slow. Hampered by lack of
equipment, poor political leadership and a cholera epidemic that has now taken more then 3,000
lives, the road to the “New Haiti” needs to be built much faster.
Wings of Hope Today
Currently, the children at Wings live in temporary quarters until funds can be raised to build a
new school and home. New facilities need to be constructed as soon as possible as the temporary quarters are safe but overcrowded and highly inadequate. Since the earthquake, the extended Cotting School Community has delivered needed supplies, continued training efforts, and raised funds for rebuilding.
But building in Haiti happens at a glacial pace. Throughout the country little of the rubble has been removed in the past year. Thankfully the debris from the old Wings of Hope site has been
completely cleared and the architect has produced preliminary drawings. Although there is a
cholera epidemic in Haiti, Wings of Hope has been spared. And the Wings of Hope staff continue
their extraordinary work.
Yet, life for the students is still precarious.
The last month has been particularly difficult for the students and staff at Wings of Hope, a
reminder of how fragile life is for the children who live there. Since December 17, 2010, three of
the students, Aluckson, Toma, and Louis, have died from conditions related to their disabilities.
Aluckson suffered a fatal seizure in the middle of the night. He was 3 1/2 years old. He arrived at Wings at one year of age. While Aluckson had complex physical and mental disabilities, he was a little boy with a big personality. He craved attention and loved to cuddle.
Toma was abandoned at a hospital and came to Wings in 2005. He was born with multiple
disabilities, including autism, severe seizures, mobility impairments and cognitive disabilities.
Prior to arriving at Wings of Hope, Toma was severely abused and traumatized for many years; his body bore the scars left by his abusers.
Louis was 11 years old and became a member of the Wings of Hope Family in October 2009. His
had family abandoned him at a psychiatric hospital in Port-?au-?Prince. Louis was severely autistic,
non-?verbal and blind.
Our community holds these young children in our hearts.
I think we are all disappointed with the post-?earthquake progress in Haiti.
- Why are a million people still living in tents? (Gary, one of the staff members at Wings of Hope, is still living in a tent encampment with his wife and 8 children.)
- Why is rubble everywhere? (At last update less than 5 percent of the rubble has been removed.)
- Why have more than 3,000 Haitians died of cholera? (Immediately after the earthquake, cholera was predicted. The remedy was simple, clean drinking water.)
- Why has press coverage nearly ceased? (Do we have compassion fatigue?)
It is easy for Americans to turn their attention away from Haiti. I can hear the excuses: The
leadership is corrupt. I gave money and nothing seems to have improved. Haiti will never change.
Renee Dietrich, who lives and works at Wings of Hope, quoted the following Haitian proverb in her book Behind The Mountains:
No one hears the sound of the wooden bell, nor the cry of the poor. (Menm jan yo pa tande yon klòch an bwa, se menm jan yo pa tande kri pòv yo)
If Haitians are ‘degaje’ (pronounced day-?ga-?ZHAY), which means “doing what you can with what
you have” then we must redouble our efforts to hear and respond to the sound of the wooden bell as if it were loud and clanging.
The Spirit of Wings of Hope
Children, families and staff at schools that serve individuals with special needs throughout the
United States recognize the spirit of the students and staff at Wings of Hope, for they, too,
overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
There is much to be done to create the New Haiti. I am convinced that Wings of Hope will lead the way!
For example, I recently watched an impressive video of KC Bersch, from Wings of Hope, leading a group of students and staff in the use of assistive technology. All of us at Cotting who saw the video had smiles a mile wide on our faces.
Wings of Hope is a small, effective, focused, mission-?driven, and caring home and school. When it is rebuilt, it will be the model program in Haiti for children with special needs. While it is nearly impossible to find an encouraging word about Haiti in the U.S. press, the Cotting School
community has found plenty to celebrate in the spirit of the children and staff at Wings of Hope.