by Kim Charlson

At 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake -- the most powerful quake to hit Haiti in over a century -- struck about 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince and devastated the residents of this beleaguered nation. Accounts reported that the quake was even felt strongly in eastern Cuba, more than 200 miles away.

Many people have contacted the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and asked what has happened to people who are blind in Haiti after the disaster. While there are still so many questions, I wanted to share with you the story of the St. Vincent's Center for Handicapped Children. This facility is a school and medical clinic located in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The center is the major facility in Haiti that provides services to children with disabilities.

The center was founded in 1945 by the Episcopal Order of the Sisters of Saint Margaret, which is headquartered in Boston, Mass. The sisters continue to be a part of the Episcopal presence in Haiti, but no longer operate major institutions for the church there. St. Vincent's is now the sole responsibility of the Episcopal Bishop of Haiti.

When St. Vincent's first opened its doors, there were just six blind, deaf or malnourished children in its care. Through hard work and support from many people around the world, the center increased medical services and schooling for children with disabilities. Prior to the earthquake, St. Vincent's provided medical attention, schooling, food and clothing for over 350 students, of whom more than 150 lived at the center. These students are blind, deaf, deaf-blind, and physically disabled.

Located near the palace and other government buildings, there is now nothing left of what was once a thriving institution consisting of 16 classrooms, the center's administrative and school offices, music section, the medical clinic and operating room, an eye and dental clinic, a brace shop, cooking and dining facilities and guest quarters. Dormitories for both male and female infants and older girls were also part of the campus, and a block away was a housing facility for boys and young men. That campus had dormitories for the boys and storage for food and donated items. Today, very little remains of either facility. After the earthquake, a mob stormed the St. Vincent's campus and looted the facility — leaving virtually nothing behind. Six children and employees died in the earthquake. Following the looting, the director moved the remaining students and staff for their safety to the soccer field of St. Pierre College, near the palace.

How You Can Help

It is often difficult to know which organizations to make contributions to in emergency situations like the Haiti earthquake. The president of Perkins School for the Blind, Steven Rothstein, spoke to the head of the Connecticut-based Friends of St. Vincent's School and confirmed the situation in Port-au-Prince. The Friends of the St. Vincent Center is a legitimate 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and monetary contributions for the purchase of life-sustaining items are the best way to help the blind students and staff to keep the school operational. There is no question that St. Vincent's is in tremendous need of our financial assistance and our prayers. The immediate needs are for money to buy food, water, clothing, and provide shelter.

You can make a contribution to help the St. Vincent's School by sending a check to The Friends of St. Vincent's Center. The address is:

Friends of St. Vincent's Center
c/o St. James' Episcopal Church
19 Walden St.
West Hartford, CT 06107
(860) 521-5756

In addition, the World Blind Union (WBU) has also been monitoring the situation and has contacted the Haitian Society of the Blind to learn more about how adults who are blind are managing in this crisis. The WBU has heard from Dr. Péan, the Director of the Haitian Society of the Blind (SHAA). The physical premises of SHAA were heavily damaged. The WBU has been in contact with the Vision Alliance colleagues at International Aid to Prevent Blindness (IAPB) and the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairments (ICEVI) in order to determine how best to coordinate support. All partners agree that the most urgent need in Haiti right now is for emergency aid. This kind of assistance needs to be provided by agencies with specialized expertise in this area, such as the Red Cross.

Once the immediate emergency relief is well under way, then the rebuilding work will begin. At that point blindness organizations can be of most assistance, through the provision of help to the Haitian Society of the Blind. This will allow the Haitian Society to help people who are blind or have low vision rebuild their lives. Some member organizations are presently collecting donations that will be used to help the Haitian Society of the Blind in its work with blind or visually impaired Haitians affected by this disaster. The WBU has also been invited to serve on a World Bank Global Program on Disability & Development working group that will focus on the reconstruction efforts in Haiti.

Banking information for making direct wire transfers to the Haitian Society of the Blind is also available should any organization wish to send a donation using this more secure method. Contact the WBU office to obtain instructions for sending a wire transfer. Their phone number is (416) 486-9698.

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