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Issue Date:  January 13, 2006

Marycare brings medical help to Haitian village

Jacquesyl, Haiti

Haiti is famously the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and it has been spiraling downward in violence and destitution since the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004. In December, kidnappings were rampant and promised elections have been postponed four times.

But in the village of Jacquesyl on Haiti’s northeast coast, a more hopeful story is unfolding. While its residents are very poor, they’re better off than many of Haiti’s 8 million people, because they’re partnering with Marycare Inc., a small U.S.-based nonprofit founded by three Catholic women who have all worked with movements inspired by liberation theology.

On a recent visit to Jacquesyl, this reporter observed at the entrance to the village a half-dozen women and girls squatting around a water pump, scrubbing clothes. Chickens and goats roamed free. Other women were cooking their family’s meager daily meal of corn mush over a charcoal fire outside their tiny, cement block, tin-roofed homes -- homes that lack electricity, sanitation and running water.

Sherman Malone, one of the founders of Marycare, came to Haiti in 1994 with Witness for Peace. Cofounder Anne Bates was already supporting small-scale development projects in Haiti when she connected with Malone through Pax Christi, and they joined forces to create Marycare as a tool for development work in Haiti, Argentina and Nigeria. In all its work, Marycare collaborates with local committees formed to address the village’s self-identified needs.

“My participation in Marycare grew out of my joyful and ongoing participation in community life in Jacquesyl,” said Malone. “The name does refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and to all who care for children and each other, but Marycare is not a religious organization. It is a small group of religious and lay volunteers, mostly but not all women -- nurses, social workers, teachers, small business people and farmers. Most of us are practicing Catholics; some of us are members of other faith congregations or are not at all religious. All of us are committed to Marycare’s mission: education, health care and grass-roots economic development to benefit extremely poor people.” It’s funded by contributions from the founders and their families and a growing circle of supporters in solidarity.

Malone describes Bates’ vision as the foundation stone of Marycare, informed by her work in the Philippines with impoverished and oppressed people under the Marcos dictatorship.

Bates works most of the year with indigenous people in Argentina. “We see God in the face of our neighbors -- everywhere,” she said. “We serve God by performing the works of mercy where people are most in need.”

Mary Lou Larkin is a pediatric nurse who works in an emergency room in a hospital in the Bronx, N.Y. She and her husband, Tom, were motivated by their Catholic faith to work with the poor and the disenfranchised in various projects in New York. They connected with Malone and with Marycare in Haiti through Maryknoll Affiliates.

The women founded Marycare because they needed an independent nonprofit to support their work in Haiti, where they also fund a school in Jacquesyl and another serving the children of Cité Soleil, the Port-au-Prince slum, and for health, education and community development work in Argentina and Nigeria.

Since 1995, Malone has returned to Jacquesyl, population about 1,200, at least twice a year, learning fluent Creole along the way, and working through the church with the village’s health and education committees and the market women’s cooperative. With an annual budget for Jacquesyl of between $25,000 and $35,000, Marycare pays the salaries of the nurse and community health educator. The organization also bought a generator-run refrigeration unit to keep medicines from spoiling and spearheaded construction of a new drinking water well, among other projects.

“When I first came,” Malone said, “I learned there had been 35 babies born that year, and 10 of the babies had died, and three of the mothers had died, and so it was clear that that was an emergency, and the first thing that needed to be addressed.”

Some women are able to get to a hospital in an urban area to give birth, but many cannot. Lack of sterile conditions in homes with dirt floors and no running water makes home births dangerous. So Marycare put together a safe birth kit, based on UNICEF research, consisting of a receiving blanket, a new razor blade for cutting the umbilical cord, a shoe lace to tie it off, alcohol wipes and sterile gauze pads. These inexpensive items have helped prevent infections and especially reduced the incidence of tetanus, which many women contracted when rusty knives or broken bottles were used to cut the cord.

“Since the kits were introduced two years ago, no mothers have died in childbirth,” health educator Diada Angrand said, “and the only baby who died was born to a mother who had attempted a self-abortion.” The infant mortality rate countrywide in 2002 was 79 babies per 1,000 live births. Angrand, mother of two children, has a firm resolve and ample energy for work to improve the lives of women and their families.

Three village women interviewed in their homes -- mothers of six, eight and 10 children -- seem squeezed dry by life. They say they’re very happy that a doctor arrived in Jacquesyl for the first time in November 2004 -- a young Haitian fresh out of medical school. But they rarely go to see him with their own complaints, which are many, because each visit costs the equivalent of 15 cents, and they can’t afford it. Marycare has a fund that pays for children’s visits. The doctor is able to examine his patients and dispense medications provided by Marycare. In November 2005, the state stopped paying salaries for the doctor and the lab technician. The ongoing political and economic crisis means that government services are often interrupted and private charities struggle to fill the gap. In December, the clinic staff, moved by the evident need and the community’s appreciation, agreed to stay on, and Marycare began to raise funds for small stipends to pay their living expenses.

Nurse Elirose Joseph said the most common health problems in the village are diarrhea, parasites, malaria, typhoid and vaginal infections. “No one really knows how many people are HIV-positive,” she said, “because very few people get tested.” But on Malone’s most recent trip in February, she brought test kits for HIV, malaria, syphilis and tuberculosis. AIDS treatment is available at a couple of clinics in Haiti, but they are inaccessible from Jacquesyl. Pediatric nurse Mary Lou Larkin goes regularly to Jacquesyl, working with Angrand and Joseph to carry out village-wide health education using skits and the Creole translation of the self-help book, Where Women Have No Doctor.

In August, she led a workshop teaching school-based hygiene and prevention efforts to teachers in Jacquesyl and in Port-au-Prince. In the fall, Marycare sent to the clinic in Jacquesyl 600 family mosquito nets, found by UNICEF to be the best way to prevent malaria. In December, working with Marycare, the community prepared land and completed building a protective wall to meet conditions for the establishment of a larger, better equipped clinic to be built by Plan International to serve all the people who live in villages near the Bay of Caracol.

Fr. Joseph Ernst Dorcin, a Haitian priest now assigned temporarily to the Hartford, Conn., archdiocese, will return to Haiti in 2007. He served for a dozen years as head of the Catholic charity and development organization, Caritas, in northeast Haiti, and he is the volunteer director of Marycare projects in Haiti. He has worked with many private aid organizations, both Haitian and international, but he said Marycare is different. “With Marycare, we had the opportunity to go deeper in relationship with the people,” he said, “because there was no pressure and no external criteria we had to meet. Through parish twinning and now through Marycare, for the first time the people of Jacquesyl have had a chance to talk about what were their most urgent needs.”

Melinda Tuhus is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.

National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2006

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