By Nan Canter
I am a member of the Upper West Side CERT and recently became a volunteer at the New York State Haiti Earthquake Emergency Relief Center (HERC). The center is located in the massive main hall of the NYS National Guard Armory in Brooklyn. It was organized nearly overnight, following the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, to assist people in New York’s Haitian-American community in locating their family members and accessing necessary relief services.
Perhaps two weeks following the earthquake, a 21-year-old Haitian-American woman came into the HERC center holding the hand of her 24-year-old sister.
The older sister appeared dazed and not fully cognizant of what was happening around her. From time to time, she would ask for her mother. We learned from her younger sibling that she was developmentally challenged. At the time of the earthquake, she had been living in Haiti with her mother, who was the family’s sole source of support, and a younger sister, age 18. When the earthquake hit, the family’s home collapsed and the mother was killed.
The middle sister was in Boston at the time, attending a nursing program on scholarship. When she learned what had happened to her family, she took a leave of absence from school, went down to Haiti, brought her sisters to New York, and took over her mother’s role as the head of the family.
On the day she came to HERC with her older sister, all three were staying with a friend in Brooklyn. The sisters’ situation was unique, complicated by their citizenship statuses, residency issues, and the older sister’s disability needs. We knew that, without the social services triage that HERC is set up to provide, they would likely fall through the cracks.
A file was created for them at the center. I reviewed the case with my colleagues at NYC OEM, which runs the CERT program in New York City, and asked if they could provide any assistance. Chaplain Leeds Jean, a Haitian-American community organizer and HERC volunteer, also became active on the case.
OEM contacted NDIN (National Disaster Interfaiths Network) and their president joined the team. Eleven days later, I received this email:
Dear Ms. Canter and Chaplain Leeds,
Thank you for bringing this case to the attention of NYDIS. I’m sorry this case has remained unresolved for so long. However, I have good news. Today, I consulted with Aaron Belisle, Special Needs Coordinator at NYC OEM – we talked about the unique challenges with this case, as always, his expertise made the difference. Aaron was able give me a referral to the National Institute for People with Developmental Disabilities (commonly known as YAI) to seek their guidance.
I contacted YAI, and am please to report that they have agreed to assign this special needs earthquake survivor to a caseworker. The caseworker will help our HERC client to gain guardianship of her developmentally disabled sister and to find the appropriate providers and services required to care for her future needs in the US. I have contacted our client and shared this good news. She now has all the pertinent contact information for YAI. YAI also has her information.
Thank you to CERT member Nan Canter and NYDIS Chaplain Leeds for making sure this unique case didn’t fall through the cracks. Thank you also to Aaron Belisle for his expertise in connecting me to the appropriate provider. Congratulations on bringing some needed hope and healing to this family.
I share this small victory to say: It does take a village! This is what is happening at HERC every day, and no doubt at relief agencies like it around the world, as we try to help the Haitians and their families here in the United States to recover from the awful damage of the January 12 earthquake. Those of us who were present on the day that brave young woman came in holding the hand of her older sister will never forget the experience.
I subsequently learned that YAI is connecting the young nursing student with an appropriate group home in Boston for her older sister, so she can return to school to complete her education and the three sisters can be together.
HERC is a program of NYS and NYC OEM Agencies, in cooperation with The ARC, New York Cares, and NYDIS. Other participating agencies on this case included the NYC Department of Mental Health, the Department of Homeland Security with TPS (Temporary Protected Status) counseling, the Human Resources Administration, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.