Well-known Irish volunteer in Haiti, Gena Heraty, will receive the Oireachtas Human Dignity Award from Ceann Comhairle, Seán Fearghail TD, at a ceremony in Leinster House on 8 December next.
The award, now in its third year, is presented annually by the Oireachtas Human Dignity Group to a person whose commitment to the promotion of human dignity has been exemplary. Ms. Heraty, from Westport, is a member of the Catholic lay missionary association, Viatores Christi. She went to Haiti in 1993 and has remained there ever since as a volunteer with NPH (Our Little Brothers and Sisters); an orphanage in the hillside village of Kenscoff, 10 km from Port-au-Prince.
“I am convinced that there is no other place in the world I can do more to help those who are most in need of help right now,” she told an RTÉ documentary in December 2008, “if I can improve the life of just one child each day I am here then my life will have been worthwhile.”
Paying tribute to Ms. Heraty, the Ceann Comhairle, Seán Fearghail TD, said that “Ms. Heraty was continuing a great tradition of Irish missionary and humanitarian work overseas. Gena Heraty represents the best of Ireland. She has given 23 years of love and care to the special children of Haiti. She reminds us that, whatever the world’s problems, ordinary people can become extraordinary by doing great things for others.”
“Gena Heraty is an ambassador of human love and kindness,” said Senator Ronan Mullen of the Oireachtas Human Dignity Group, “in the wake of the hurricane that has devastated Haiti yet again, it is important that the people of Ireland recognise, value and support the work done by Gena and Our Little Brothers and Sisters.” Previous recipients of the Human Dignity Award were Barney Curley (2015), founder of Direct Aid For Africa, and Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow (2014), founder of Mary’s Meals.
After graduating from the University of Limerick with a degree in Business Studies in 1991, Gena joined Viatores Christi, a lay missionary association based in Dublin, and began working as a volunteer with the Simon Community. Through a friend she was introduced to Our Little Brothers and Sisters (NPH/NPFS) charity. She began working in the Special Needs Unit of its children’s orphanage in Haiti, later becoming its Director. Throughout her time in Haiti, Gena has worked to develop the Special Needs Programme, providing new opportunities for about 30 children and young people. She has also developed an outreach programme to provide medical, rehabilitation and educational support for over 100 families in the community where children have severe physical and/or intellectual disabilities.
Among the awards she has received are the University of Limerick Alumni Award for Outstanding Contribution to Humanity in 2006, the Michael Davitt International Award at the Mayo People of the Year Awards in 2009, and the People of the Year Award in 2010. Through her work, Ms. Heraty has secured improved physiotherapy services, bringing in outside expertise, encouraging the training of local therapists and teachers, developed a highly regarded special needs school in Haiti, and introduced hydrotherapy and horse-riding activities for the children. Some of her pupils have been successful in special equestrian events in Miami where they compete every year. Art teachers, including some from Ireland, have been able to develop the young people’s artistic expression; at least one of the young people has now reached a level where he can teach the younger children. In June 2015, a documentary on her work was broadcast by Newstalk as part of a series sponsored by Misean Cara on the issue of statelessness. It illustrated how Gena and others provide a lifeline to children abandoned simply because their families cannot afford to feed and take care of them.
There are over 300 children living in the orphanage, and one home for 30 – 40 children who are disabled with special needs. Generally in Haiti, children with special needs are abandoned at hospitals. They are not abandoned because their mothers do not love them. They are abandoned because their mother does not have the means to take care of them. A lot of these children with special needs have epilepsy, and they can’t afford to buy the drugs for them. These children need physical therapy but there’s no access or place for physical therapy.
In November 2013, Gena had a narrow escape from death during a violent attack by three men posing as delivery personnel at the St. Helene Orphanage and demanding money. She was hit with a hammer, and a security man was killed in the attack.
Photo Caption: Gena Heraty poses with some of the children from the St. Helene Orphanage.