HAPPIER TIMES Gena Heraty (centre) pictured at the orphanage.
‘He lost his life for us’
Westport aid worker Gena Heraty escapes serious injury in hammer attack that kills friend
Westport-born humanitarian worker Gena Heraty was viciously assaulted with a hammer last Thursday during a frenzied attack at her apartment in the orphanage where she works near Port-au-Prince in Haiti. The charity worker managed to escape with her life, but an unarmed security man, Edward Major, known simply as Major, was beaten to death outside her bedroom by burglars.
Gena is the Director of Special Needs Programs with the charity Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs (Our Little Brothers and Sisters) in Haiti. She was beaten as she fought to protect the children in her care at Kay Christine, a home for special needs children at the St Helene orphanage.
Speaking yesterday (Monday) to The Mayo News, the charity worker, who is in her early 40s, said she was ‘bruised and sore’ but recovering. “It was shocking and tragic. I’m very thankful to be alive. I’m very thankful to Major, who came to our rescue.”
During the attack, which happened at 7.45pm on Thursday evening, three burglars gained access to the orphanage by pretending to be delivery men.
Gena explained that one of the burglars was carrying a gun, another a hammer. They demanded money from her.
She handed over what she had in her possession – money she had yet to exchange after a recent trip to Westport, “Maybe €400 … but that didn’t interest him.”
She told the burglars that it was all she had, but they demanded more, beating her across her back and side, threatening to kill her. “I said, ‘well, if you have to kill me, you have to kill me, but I can’t tell you anything else’.”
Ever-mindful of the children she cares for, Gena begged the attackers not to be so aggressive, as it would frighten them. Unfortunately, one of the older residents at the orphanage, Yvonne, who is in her 30s, came out of her bedroom and ran to defend Gena, and into the path of the unfolding violence.
“Everyone who comes to the orphanage gets a hug from Yvonne,” Gena told The Mayo News. “She’s known as ‘the hugger’, But if you happen to pick on one of the kids or anyone else, she’ll run after you and wallop you with her handbag. So when she saw what was happening to me, she came to my rescue. And he gave her an unmerciful punch in the face … Another girl, Jenny, came running too, and I begged him not to hit her too.”
Gena then managed to get Yvonne and Jenny into another room, where a number of the orphanage’s children were. On her way into the room, she noticed Mr Major – who was in his 60s and had been working in the organisation for over 25 years – coming up the stairs. Filled with relief, she thought their ordeal would soon be at an end, that the burglars would run away.
However, while she was in the room with the children, she could hear the sounds of a struggle outside. “There was this unmerciful shouting, fighting, we didn’t know what was going on … Eventually, there was silence.”
Mr Major had been brutally beaten and killed, and the burglars had fled.
‘Big shining light’
Gena had a close working relationship with Mr Major, and is devastated that his life came to such a violent end, but she is deeply honoured by his actions and his bravery. “He was a true hero, and I feel very honoured that he would give his life for us.
“Major was the one who came like a big shining light, bringing protection to us. It’s not often that you can say a person gave up their life to protect yours. He did. He heard we were in trouble, and he came bravely. He lost his life for us. That’s really amazing.”
Mr Major’s funeral has yet to take place, but his family and friends attended a Mass for him at the orphanage on Sunday.
Gena, a past pupil of Carrakennedy NS and Sacred Heart School, Westport, is daughter of Jim and Nora Heraty, Carrarevaugh, Liscarney, Westport. She visits her native place at least once a year. She is sister of Kay Ryan, Kilmeena; Phil Keane, Fahy (a Local Notes correspondent for The Mayo News); and Mags Duffy, Kilmeena Post Office.
Gena has spent most of her adult life working with underprivileged and marginalised children, firstly in Dublin with the Simon Community. She has been in Haiti for 20 years.
A graduate of the University of Limerick, she is a former Mayo Person of the Year and has also received national and international awards for her humanitarian work.
Among those who have supported her work is well-known businessperson Denis O’Brien. Her work is also supported by the people of Westport and Mayo generally via fundraisers and donations.
Gena writes an occasional report for The Mayo News detailing how all monies are spent in Haiti.
Gena’s family received news of her ordeal at the weekend, and she was able to finally speak to them via Skype on Sunday evening – there had been no electricity at the orphanage for a week. “At least they could see me on Skype, and they could see I was okay.”
Despite being badly shaken by the assault, Gena says she will not be deterred from continuing her work for her ‘beautiful children’. “I’ve had a mountain of support, people coming and praying … I’m getting so many messages too. People have been rallying around us. This is what I take from it – the strength. Good still outdoes the bad. People are so encouraging, telling me not to get discouraged. It’s a difficult time, but I’m surrounded by love.
“People talk about marriage – it’s a commitment for better and for worse. That’s the same for me. I’ve made a commitment to these kids. And it’s a two-way thing. They proved it by running to protect me. We’ve been through something terrible together, but we’ll come out of it together. And we’ll be stronger. That’s how we do things here.”
Donations to Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs can be made to the Our Little Brothers and Sisters account at Bank of Ireland, Dublin Airport. The account number is 42863621, sort code 90 07 46. The charity number, if required, is CHY11953.