PITTSFORD — Gena Heraty grew up in Ireland as one of 11 children.
Now living in Haiti, she is mother to dozens of young people.
Although Heraty serves as director of special needs programs at Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs (Our Little Brothers and Sisters), a charity that runs a network of Haitian orphanages and hospitals, she said she is happiest when she can simply spend time with the more than 30 developmentally disabled young people who call her their house mother.
Heraty has attracted attention across the globe for her daily humanitarian acts and for her fundraising on behalf of Haiti. Back at home in Ireland Jan. 27, she received an award from representatives of top Irish charities — and the inaugural William Jefferson Clinton Goodwill for Haiti award, which was presented by Haitian President Michel Martelly, who was visiting Ireland for the very first time.
The next week she was in the Rochester area, meeting children at Henrietta’s School of the Holy Childhood Jan. 31 and students at St. Louis School in Pittsford Feb. 1. She told the St. Louis students not about the accolades she has earned, but about the needs of Haiti’s children, whose daily sufferings were heightened two years ago when an earthquake devastated the nation’s capital, Port au Prince.
"Some of the children (in Haiti) have no shoes and maybe have a T-shirt and can’t get clean drinking water," Heraty told the students.
She said the young people at NPFS are lucky compared to their peers in Haiti: They get three meals a day and eat meat once a week, on Sundays.
"Children in the mountains are not so lucky," she said. "Sometimes they have to walk for two hours every day to get to school, and most often they don’t have any breakfast at all. That’s not so nice, is it?"
Heraty noted that some of the special-needs children she works with have been abandoned at local hospitals by parents who feel they are unable to provide for them.
"We try to work with the mothers so they don’t have to abandon their children," she said, noting that NPFS offers child-care facilities, rehabilitation programs and even such perks as horseback riding to meet the needs of the children in their care. Such facilities are virtually unheard of elsewhere in the poor country, she noted.
"Most people in Haiti are living on a dollar a day," Heraty said.
Since the 2010 Haiti earthquake, St. Louis Parish and St. Louis School have donated nearly $100,000 through various efforts and fundraisers, estimated Marcia Mendola, chair of the parish’s World Hunger Task Force. Among the fundraisers have been participation in an annual sale of Christmas ornaments made by students at School of the Holy Childhood, and a corn sale each fall. Individual parishioners also sponsor students in Haiti.
Yet despite promises of billions in aid from governments and nongovernmental organizations, conditions have not improved much due to severe need and a failure of many organizations to turn money into action, Mendola said. Haiti is plagued by 80 percent unemployment. Additionally, poor sanitation since the earthquake has allowed the proliferation of the disease cholera.
Heraty said the nongovernmental organizations that operated in Haiti prior to the earthquake have had the best success in dealing with the recovery process.
Yet, "recovery is still slow," she remarked.
NPFS, which has operated in Haiti for 25 years, employs 1,600 people and expanded its operations significantly in the earthquake’s aftermath, Heraty said. The organization took in 226 children as a result of the earthquake. Children are not available to be adopted out through the organization; instead, they are allowed to continue to live in family groups for years until they feel they are ready to live independently, she said.
Additionally, the organization provided services to the tent cities that sprang up after the earthquake, treated more than 20,000 patients for cholera and public health needs following the quake, treated hundreds of thousands of patients in its hospitals including a new hospital made out of shipping containers, provided prosthetics to child amputees, and began new outreaches to orphans and the homeless.
Although St. Louis Parish and St. Louis School supported NPFS for many years prior to the 2010 earthquake, students and staff immediately planned fundraisers after hearing about the quake, said Kathleen McMahon, pastoral associate for social ministry and justice at St. Louis Parish. Students raised more than $3,000 during a bake sale and dress-down day, she said.
"Let’s try to think of some more ways that we can help Haiti doing things like that," McMahon urged the students during Heraty’s talk.
Plans are in the works to raise additional funds in conjunction with the May 19 and 20 visit to St. Louis Parish by Passionist Father Rick Frechette, who founded and directs the NPFS programs in Haiti.
Heraty suggested that St. Louis students could help by skipping the purchase of a candy bar once a week and donating the money they save to Haitian students. She also suggested that the students pray for the children in Haiti, and assured them that the orphanage’s young people remember all their friends around the globe in prayers.
"The children in Haiti are very happy you are thinking about them," Heraty said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs, visit www.friendsoftheorphans.org and click on Haiti.