By Donis Tracy
Peter has experienced much suffering in his life. He was given his name after he was found abandoned at a young age. Peter was nonverbal, naked and living in a cemetery. He was taken to the Hôpital de l’Universite d’Etat d’Haiti (HUEH), to live. There, because of the influence of the voodoo religion, workers were afraid he was possessed by an evil spirit, so he was chained every night because the staff feared he would harm himself or others. Then the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, and his life would never be the same.
Peter was one of more than 40 children living at HUEH. After the earthquake, the hospital was inundated with patients. It could no longer take care of the children. It seemed Peter would be abandoned once again.
Hoping to find a way to help the children, workers from the HUEH contacted Haitian-born human rights activist Loune Viaud, director of operations at Zanmi Lasante, a state-of-the-art medical center in Haiti’s Central Plateau.
Viaud, together with Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, the parent organization that runs Zanmi Lasante, went to visit the hospital. What they found was a place in ruins.
“Loune [Viaud] instantly set out to make a home for them,” said Bill Horan, CEO of Operation Blessing International. And so, in the aftermath of the natural disaster, Zanmi Beni “Blessed Friends” was born. Zanmi Beni provides homes for abandoned or orphaned children, most of who have severe physical or mental disabilities. Just weeks after the earthquake, the children were moved into an unused area of St. Damien Pediatric Hospital in Taberre, while Viaud looked for their permanent home.
According to Horan, once she found the location in Criox-des-Bouquets, she knew this was the place.
“Loune [Viaud] called me and told me, ‘We found the perfect place. We need to buy it tomorrow,’” he chuckled. He agreed, and wired the money to purchase the site. Dr. Farmer also contributed a sizable personal donation to purchase and renovate the property. Within four months, Zanmi Beni was ready to take the children into their new, permanent home.
“[Zanmi Beni] is an oasis in a sea of suffering,” explained Horan. “Papa Bill,” as Horan is called by the children, visits often, and is always amazed to see the progress the children make.
“There is no group more vulnerable than an abandoned child with disabilities in Haiti,” he said.
Today, Peter is a happy teen. He still cannot speak — he is both deaf and has cerebral palsy — but he is affectionately called “The Mayor” of Zanmi Beni because of his gregarious nature.
When these children first arrived they were “distrustful, detached, really sad, ” Laurie Nuell, a board member of Zanmi Beni, said. “And now they are happy and healthy. To see the changes in these children is absolutely breathtaking.”