Vatican City, Jan 10, 2015 / 14:32 pm
After losing a leg during Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake, Wilfrid Macena became a prosthetic technician and founded an amputee soccer team--and says his life can't be topped years after the disaster.
"The process has really helped me because I was only welding before the earthquake. I never could have believed that I would be a technician making prosthetics and helping the children in Haiti," Macena told CNA Jan. 9.
"Every time they came to check our prosthetics, I always asked them, can we make a soccer team? (And) when this came to be a reality, I was thinking 'it's the best life for us after the earthquake'."
Macena was one of three Haitian amputees present in the Vatican on Jan. 10 for a conference that Pope Francis called together to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the massive, 7.0-magnitude quake that tore through the island nation on Jan. 12, 2010.
The earthquake destroyed much of the nation's capital city, Port-au-Prince, and killed an estimated 230,000 people. It left more than 1.5 million people homeless.
After losing his leg in the earthquake, Macena was the first to receive a prosthetic limb through the "Healing Haiti's Children" project. The program is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus in partnership with the University of Miami's affiliate project Medishare.
"The first day I got my prosthetic, like five minutes after, (the technician) was trying to teach me how to use it but he couldn't find me, (because) I was already outside talking to my friend with other patients," Macena recalled.
"(I had) inspiration (to) let them know that life's not over, that they can walk again and do everything that they were doing before with two legs."
Through the project and with the help of the Knights of Columbus, the former welder was able to found a soccer team called "Team Zaryen." The team is made up of other amputee athletes who now travel the world demonstrating their skills and teaching other amputees how to play on crutches.
Macena and two other team members, Mackenson Pierre and Sandy J.L. Louiseme, took part in the Vatican conference. They had the opportunity to meet with Pope Francis during a private audience held with other conference participants.
Macena said that to come all the way to Rome is "a long way to travel, (and) I'm still thinking 'how did I get here?'" He added that it is "very, very exciting" to come all the way from Haiti to meet the Pope.
"I think it's a once in a lifetime for us, because it's not something easy to meet the Pope. We came a long way from Haiti, and I think it looks like we are even not handicapped," he said.
"We have changed life for other people in Haiti. We are the ambassadors for Haiti, so not it's not only exciting for us to be here, but for (everyone in) Haiti: we represent them here."
The Vatican conference was titled "The Communion of the Church: Memory and Hope for Haiti Five Years after the Earthquake." Its sponsors included the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, was also present for the Vatican conference. He told CNA Jan. 9 that he was originally inspired to partner with Medishare to create the "Healing Haiti's Children" program when delivering wheelchairs to Haiti shortly after the earthquake.
After talking with Medishare personnel on the ground, Anderson came to understand "that children are sometimes the last to get assistance" in situations of tragedy. He decided to partner with the medical organization to provide assistance to the children and adults who had lost limbs.
"We could fill a need that wasn't being met, and we had a good partner that we knew would be effective," Anderson said. At present, roughly 25,000 people, including 1,000 youth, have received assistance through the project.
He spoke of the resilient spirit of the Haitian people. Anderson said that to watch the project grow over the last five years and to see the creation of the soccer team has been a sign that "people can – even if they have very few material resources –make a real contribution with their spirit, their determination and their good will."
Robert Gailey, a professor at the University of Miami and Director of Rehabilitation with Medishare in the "Healing Haiti's Children" project, was also present in Rome for the Vatican's conference. He spoke of the importance of teaching Haitians themselves how to help each other.
"One of the unique things about the program is that we have not just provided prostheses to fit folks and then they go back to the States or wherever they came from, (but) we're teaching Haitians how to care for Haitians," he told CNA Jan. 9.
Gailey pointed to Macena's case as an example of someone who received help through the program, and then trained as a prosthetic technician, which is now his full-time job.
Another blessing of the project is that it has helped to break the cultural stigma surrounding those with disabilities, he said. Prior to the earthquake, amputees were viewed as bad people.
"They couldn't go to school, they couldn't get a job, and they were often times rejected by their family," Gailey explained.
"But what we've done with Team Zaryen is demonstrate to the country that just because you have a disability doesn't mean you are a castaway from society, but that you can be a productive member of society."
The rehabilitation director noted that since the soccer team has started to become famous, even on an international level, the negative stigma surrounding those with disabilities in Haiti has slowly started to disappear.
"Not a lot of good things came out of the earthquake, but I think the changing of people's minds and the perception of disability is huge."
In addition to playing in the Paralympics, Team Zaryen has traveled across the United States. In a 2011 visit, players visited war veteran amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan and taught them how to play soccer on crutches.
Anderson explained that one of his greatest hopes for the continuation of the project is that it would become a model for other such programs in the future.
"The personal solidarity of people helping each other between countries, being united (and) the fact that non-profit activity can really be a multiplier" in terms of gathering, sustaining and multiplying resources are all major reasons the project can be a true model for the future.
Catholic charity, he said, "isn't just the distribution of material goods, it really is an emphasis on the person, on interpersonal relationships and the fact that each of us have something to contribute."
"So we contributed on the material level, and the Haitians contributed back with the gift of their determination, their spirituality, their faith and their hope."