COURAGE AND COMMITMENT?Gena Heraty with her Oireachtas Human Dignity Award.?Pic: John McElroy
Westport-born humanitarian worker Gena Heraty received the Oireachtas Human Dignity Award on December 8. In this personal interview, she talks about her work with special-needs orphans in Haiti, surviving a brutal attack and her personal philosophy of positivity.
“This is my commitment, this is my vocation,” firmly states Gena Heraty, describing the past 23 years of her life as an aid worker in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The Westport native left the comforts of her home town in 1993 and hasn’t looked back since. “From an early age, I always thought I’d do something like this, and I was very excited at the prospect of working in Haiti. I worked with the Simon Community for 14 months, and that was great preparation for what was to come.”
Her orphanage, Kay Christine, is located in hills above the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, and it looks after special needs children who have been affected by the disasters that have afflicted the Caribbean country.
Our conversation took place on a Sunday, supposedly the day of rest, but rest is a word that Gena’s not too familiar with. “I live with the kids and wake up every day around half four in order to help dress and bathe them,” she explains.
The orphanage was founded by Gena, and despite her long list of responsibilities, which includes improving services and liaising with her staff members, one aspect of the job still remains more important to her than the rest: being a mother to the children. “For all effective purposes, I am their mother, and it is very important to me that I keep that role.”
However, Gena’s role as mother is not like that of an ordinary parent, and she has experienced grave loss and sadness in her time in Port-au-Prince. “These kids are very fragile, our job is to accompany the kids through their life, and if their lives end, it’s part of our mission I suppose. Watching the kids suffer and not being able to take away their suffering and having to bury them, that’s the hardest part.”
The heartache of loss after loss is something that Gena will never get used to, but something that she has learned to deal with it over the years. “Each time we lose a child, we accept another so you have to keep opening your heart to love again.”
For all the horrific disasters that have occurred in Haiti during her time in the country, Gena has never once questioned her faith. In fact, it has been a huge factor in what keeps her positioned there. “I have a very strong faith, I know God is there, no question about it. Death is part of life. I have no idea what the next life might be like, but I believe there is one and that the kids are fine now wherever they are.”
She adds that ‘most disasters are man-made’ and that it can be convenient to blame God for the badness in the world.
In 2013, Gena was faced with a tragedy that was most certainly man-made. Her orphanage was broken into by a gang of men who ransacked the place for money, brutally attacking Gena with a hammer before killing an unarmed Haitian watchman who worked at the orphanage, Edward Major.
“It just reinforced the fact that what I was doing was right. In the middle of the attack, two of the special needs kids came to try and protect me and I felt surrounded by forces of good, even at such a scary time.” Gena’s words emphasise the unique mother/child bond that she has with these children. “Anyone that works with special needs people will tell you that they are in fact special. It’s a nice word to use for them. They’re loving, loyal and above all else, they have courage, and that was evident to me that night.”
Her philosophy in life is what carries her through ordeals such as the attack: “Bad and good things happen in life, and you should focus on the good more than the bad.
“You have to be determined not to let fear lead you. I never worry about my safety; you could get into your car anywhere right now and have a car accident. We’re pretty careful here. We don’t throw ourselves in front of danger. If I’d died that night defending my staff and my children, wonderful. I have to die someday and I’d be happy to die this way,” she says, adding with a giggle: “I wouldn’t be hiding in my room like a chicken, you know?”
Gena has stared death in the face numerous times and now, it no longer phases her. She lives by the sword, and she would be more than happy to die by it.
“There’s many wonderful moments in life, we shouldn’t dwell on the negative,” she repeats, and it is the positive moments that Gena keeps with her on her Haitian journey and that reassure her that her decision to devote her life to these children is the right one. “I am where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to be doing, and that gives me strength and kills any notion of giving up or leaving.”
Her commitment means that regular trips to her Mayo homeland are not an option, but she has made a promise to herself and her family to visit at least twice a year. And she’ll be spending this festive season in Westport. “I love Christmas – I will miss spending it with the kids, but it is great to spend it in Mayo.”
The mention of the word Mayo unleashes a flood of appreciation. “The support from Mayo has been absolutely fantastic,” she says. “The earthquake in 2010 put my work on the map, but before that, the people of my home town were always there, helping out and rallying around me.”
In recent years, the support has grown even more, and she finds herself bombarded with good wishes. “It changed from Christmas letters to constant Facebook messages or emails. It is truly great to feel part of a bigger community and to feel that so many people support what you’re doing.”
Are there any aspects of life she regrets missing out on? “I am so long gone, I hardly know anyone. It would have been nice to be more active in my nieces' and nephews' lives growing up, but they all know what I do and are all very supportive.”
Gena’s family keeps her grounded, and the mention of the word ‘martyr’ in the interview, prompts Gena to whip out a little anecdote. “One time, someone said to my sister Noreen, ‘Gena is great, the work she does’, and Noreen replied, ‘Ah yeah she is but you should see the rest of us, we’re way better!’.”
They say that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. This certainly rings true for Gena. “If you’re lucky enough to do what you enjoy, you don’t see it as anything special. Doing this line of work, I don’t see myself as great. It is just my path in life.”
The account for the Gena Heraty Haiti Fund at AIB, Westport, is 11108008, sort code 93-71-69.