Respect Life Month
A mother's heart goes out to Haitian orphans
Wisconsin woman commits herself to raising awareness
By Linda DeVries
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
One out of every four children dies in their first year of life.
Malnutrition and serious diseases are prevalent.
The average annual household income is only $300.
In the Diocese of Gonaives, where Hands Together is based, 48 priests serve 200+ chapels and churches.
Sue Healey never planned to make Haiti her mission field. But, since her first visit to that impoverished country nearly two years ago, she has found she couldn't stay away from the needs she saw there.
It all began in January 2000, when Healey, a member of St. Peter Parish in East Troy and several others from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee made a Jubilee pilgrimage to Haiti through the archdiocesan Office for World Missions.
"There were 10 of us," Healey said, "two guides, two nuns, a priest, and five laypeople. We spent six days in Haiti, where we stayed at the Hands Together mission."
Hands Together, founded by Fr. Tom Hagan, is located in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. After their six days with Hands Together in Haiti, the group went on to the Dominican Republic for 10 days.
But it was an orphanage in Haiti, run by Missionaries of Charity (founded by Mother Teresa), that stirred Healey's soul when she spent a morning helping the sisters care for the babies there.
"It was almost like shell-shock," said Healey, a mother of three. "My senses were overwhelmed by the depth of suffering I saw. I asked myself if I could ever do that again. At first, I didn't think so," she admitted, "but the more I started to think about the babies and less about myself, I was able to get over my suffering for them."
Healey returned alone to Haiti, as a lay missionary, for 18 days last November. She stayed at the Hands Together compound, which she says has been vital to her ministry, providing a safe place to stay, only a five-minute walk from the orphanage.
Part of the orphanage also functions as a clinic. Babies arrive sick with diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and are extremely malnourished. Healey was dismayed to discover that disposable diapers for newborns are too large for even one-year-olds there. Often mothers just leave their babies at the clinic and do not return. Those babies that survive are moved to the orphanage rooms.
"Emotionally, it broke me," Healey said. "I don't have a medical background, but I could hold babies, so each day I spent about seven hours doing just that. It was hard to be on the trip alone, so I decided that next time I'd take others with me."
She has made a commitment to return back twice a year, and to bring others with her. This November, four other women -- three from Wisconsin and one from Minnesota -- will join her.
Over the past few months, Healey has spoken at several churches in Wisconsin and Minnesota about her experiences in Haiti. This summer, she spoke as part of the diocesan Missionary Co-op program, at St. Joseph and St. Thomas More Parishes in Appleton. She made appeals on behalf of the missions of Hands Together and the Diocese of Gonaives in Haiti.
The task is enormous at the Hands Together Mission. Only five caregivers and about 10 volunteers work with the 150 children in the orphanage and clinic, all of whom are "dying for attention," Healey said.
"With so many needy children, the crude conditions are crowded. For example, in the room where the sickest babies are cared for, there are only 24 cribs for as many as 32 babies. As they begin to heal, they are moved from cribs to mattresses on the floor, then to another room. The clinic admits babies at a rate of two to 10 a day, and at least one baby dies every day."
Healey's return trips to Haiti have greater focus now than her first.
"The first time I went, it was just a journey," she said. "I went to observe. Now I tell people I went the first time for my husband, Dale. He's always been a good man, but not religious and not Catholic. When I went to Haiti, he was very concerned for my safety. While I was gone, he had a conversion, and he vowed that he would become a man of God if God would bring me home safely. When I got back, he started attending RCIA classes and, last Easter, he became a Catholic!"
The Healeys, married 26 years, lead a simple lifestyle. Dale works as an inspector for Waukesha Engine, and Sue works at home, sewing and growing organic vegetables.
"We are so blessed," she said. "My schedule allows me the flexibility to go Haiti for two extended periods of time each year. My sons (ages 19, 22, and 24) are all in school. And the cost of going is fairly inexpensive. As volunteers, we only pay for our airfare and our shots."
Healey received inoculations against tetanus and Hepatitis A the first time she went, and she reintroduces malaria pills at each subsequent visit.
The family also knows something of suffering. Their middle son was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when he was eight months old and continues to struggle with the disease at age 22.
"Here, we have medical and family support," Healey said. "But in Haiti, there is so much suffering and so little hope. How dare we complain when we have so much and the Haitian people have so little? Seeing their poverty and suffering has changed my life and strengthened my family too."
Besides impacting her family's faith life, going to Haiti has also affected Sue Healey's view toward her own country.
"Oh, America needs a conversion!" she said. "I'd love everyone in America to go to Haiti. It would heighten people's awareness of how much we have here.
"The waste in this country breaks my heart. I'm so distressed by all of our material consumption! It's encouraged our family to increase our giving, our sharing, our charity. I was ashamed to just be tithing when I saw so much suffering and need in Haiti!"
(To find out more about accompanying Healey to Haiti, call her at 1-262-642-3677.)