The 10th of 11 children from just outside Westport, Co. Mayo, Gena Heraty, who received the Oireachtas Human Dignity Award in Leinster House on December 8 last, was confident through her teenage years that one way or another God would find a role for her.
Although she didn’t think she was called to become a nun, she had long been interested in the work Irish missionaries were doing in the developing world – she used to deliver The Far East and Outlook magazines to neighbours – and prayed to God, “If you made me you know what I should be good at doing.”
Despite this, she was growing frustrated at the lack of a sense of where she would end up when, towards the end of a degree in business in Limerick, she heard of the lay missionary group Viatores Christi.
“I went to Viatores Christi in Dublin, and while I was there they said I should do some voluntary work in Ireland, to see if I was suited to working abroad. I got a job working at Dublin’s Simon Community and was there for 14 months – I loved it.”
While there a volunteer told her of a family member who was working at an orphanage in Haiti, and after she heard of a home that would be opening there for children with disabilities, she was ready to set out. “I landed in Haiti on June 15, 1993 and there’s been no looking back since,” she says.
Since then she has worked in the special needs unit of Our Little Brothers and Sisters Children’s Home in Kenscoff, Haiti, eventually becoming its director. Roughly 300 children live in the home with 30-40 in the special needs unit.
“The biggest challenge is the scale of problems in Haiti – the difficulties are so immense,” she says. “We’re working with disabilities and services don’t exist so we have to try and create the services.” Explaining how initially the unit focused on providing rehab and education services for children who had been abandoned, in 2004 the home decided it should share its skills with mothers so they did not feel forced to give up their children.
“It’s then that you really see the problems in Haiti,” she says, “for example, we set up a rehab centre and we do physical therapy, but when the children are coming to therapy and they haven’t eaten in the morning because they have no food, then you have to try and find a way to feed them. Many times the mothers have no jobs, and they’ve no place to live, or they don’t have money to buy seizure medication for kids that have epilepsy – that’s always a challenge.”
Describing this as “heartbreaking”, she says, “you realise how little you can do on the scale of things, and yet at the same time you can do so much. If you look at the big picture it’s very difficult – I always focus on the small, because if you focus on the problems in the country you go bananas. So you just focus on the person in front of you, and try and make a difference to that person.”
Sometimes even listening makes a difference.“My whole philosophy in life is if I were in this person’s shoes, how would I want to be treated – so treat others as you’d like them to treat you,” she says. “Sometimes you can’t do anything, but at least you can listen to the person and at least give them a sense that you’re interested in their problem. Maybe you can’t solve their problem, but you can at least try in some way try and be part of what they’re going through.”
Things have grown even more difficult in the Caribbean country in recent years, with 2010’s earthquake being followed by a cholera epidemic, and Hurricane Matthew early this October devastating the south of the country. Gena explains how it has destroyed the crops in that part of the country and left many thousands homeless. Nonetheless, she says the country has been making progress in terms of infrastructure over the years, although “baby steps” have been involved.
Her award might help remind people of how Haiti still needs our help, she observes. “That’s the thing about awards,” she says. “I don’t like getting awards for what I do, because I’m only one of a number of people, but I can represent the group. It creates awareness, and it puts Haiti on the map again, it puts ordinary people on the map, and it shows people that anybody can make a huge difference, that’s the thing in life whoever and wherever you are.”
Not everybody is called to make a difference in the way Gena has, but Gena is adamant that anybody who hears such a call should do their best to answer it. “If somebody feels they want to go, they should,” she says, continuing, “I think we should always give back. Everybody in their own life, whoever it is, should make a plan to give back in some way whether in their own community or abroad, because we all have received so much. I think we should try and give back and be kind and try and make life easier for somebody else.”