Dominican Sister of Hope Mary Headley thinks fast and talks faster. “I’m only seventy-five years old,” she says. “I’m young!”
She’s also spry. After fifty-five years in hospice ministry, she retired and took on a number of volunteer jobs: she serves at Part of the Solution (POTS) soup kitchen, holds two Clinical Pastoral Education certifications (one Lutheran and one Catholic), and helps sisters with transportation to appointments and other needs.
Yet, since she stepped away from full-time ministry, she says that there has been “a hole in [her] heart.” When she got the chance to spend Christmas 2015 in Haiti, she thought that just might fill it.
Sister connected with Sister Dianne Moore of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth; the New Jersey Sisters of Charity have had a presence in Haiti since 1983. Sister Mary’s trip included purchasing and serving a meal of chicken and rice to 155 schoolchildren, as well as stuffing and distributing Christmas gift bags. The bags, which were the children’s only Christmas gift, included essentials like underwear, a balloon, barrettes, and toy cars.
Upon arriving in Haiti, Sister Mary was taken aback by the poverty before her. “My God!” she exclaims. “The dirt and squalor they live in! It’s sad to see, but it’s their only way of life.”
She was quickly led to the Cuvier school compound, which has five teachers, 155 students, no running water, and only sparse electricity. Each day, the children run around the grounds and play in their bare feet while goats and chickens graze in fields nearby. At night, the animals roam the compound and make the dirt floors their home.
As a former nurse, the medical needs of the people were especially disturbing to Sister Mary. Sister Dianne, who lives in Haiti and is a registered nurse, has a clinic in the area. In the clinic, which is housed in a large storage container, Sister Dianne monitors blood pressure and deals with malnutrition, lesions, infections, sores, rashes, and bug bites. Sister Mary witnessed one family of seven come in with Hepatitis.
“There’s no such thing as clean water or living independently there,” Sister Mary explains. “They all share everything at home, and they all became sick.”
One day, when Sister was walking through the town, she met a little girl with a badly deformed leg. The child could walk, but only if she held onto something. She was underdeveloped and did not speak, but her “beautiful” smile struck Sister Mary. Sister learned that the girl’s name was Sarah and that she was two-and-a-half years of age.
Later on, Sister Dianne and Sister Mary spotted a used toy stroller for sale on the street. Immediately, the pair thought of Sarah, and how the stroller might be used as a prop to help her walk. They purchased it and washed it with leftover laundry water, the cleanest water they had.
When Sister Mary saw Sarah the next day and presented her with the gift, the child was overjoyed and began immediately to walk while holding onto the stroller. In that moment, Sister Mary knew then that her connection to Haiti was just beginning.
Sister Mary doesn’t see herself moving to Haiti to pursue full-time ministry; she says that she’s “too much of a wimp” to be a missionary. But, she knows that she wants to do something more for the people there; she yearns “to be an advocate in some way.”
As it is, much of her advocacy rests on Sister Dianne’s dreams. Sister Dianne wants to make the Cuvier school-compound, located on the only paved road that leads to La Tremblay, into a sustainable community. She has already purchased three goats for needy families to raise, with one stipulation: once there is a litter of goats and the first female goat is weaned from its mother, the owner must return the first and third goats to Sister Dianne so that she can give them to another family. Rather than becoming a treat of goat meat, Sister hopes that the animals can to be a sustainable means of a livelihood for many families. She’s hoping to educate the women about the nutritional value of goat milk, and she is even looking into learning how to make goat soap as a means of livelihood for the people.
Another of Sister Dianne’s goals is to be able to give lunch daily to the children in Cuvier compound. Obtaining and raising chickens could enable each child to have eggs three times a week, which could revolutionize the area’s malnutrition issue.
On her last night in Haiti, New Year’s Eve, Sister Mary sat on the rooftop and prayed with Sister Dianne and other local sisters. As she looked off and saw neighbor boys kicking a soccer ball she brought from the States, the goats roamed the pasture. It was a different Christmas season than she’d ever experienced, but it was one she won’t soon forget.
“Instead of giving presents this Christmas, I wanted to be a presence,” Sister says. Many of her friends laughed at her decision to go to Haiti, but Sister Mary returned invigorated and inspired.
“Now, I can feel this little fire in my belly,” Sister says. “I’m not letting it die down. There’s so much more I want to do.”