Willimantic resident working to support the disabled in Haiti

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Tue., Mar. 12, 2013
Kristine Cronin with a student in the pool at St. Germaine. Courtesy photos. - Contributed Photo

Willimantic residents Annie and Frank Cronin clearly have mixed feelings about the work their daughter is doing.

On the one hand, their oldest daughter, Kristine, is living more than 1,500 miles away in one of the most dangerous cities in Haiti. “As a dad, you’re the protector, and it’s hard to think about,” said Frank.

On the other hand, there’s tremendous pride in the work that their daughter is doing. “Of course we’re very, very proud of her,” said Annie.

Kristine is currently working at Kay St. Germaine, a school/outpatient clinic for children with special needs in Port-au-Prince, run by Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (NPH), an organization founded in 1954 by Father William Wasson in Mexico. NPH is known as Nos Petits Frères et Sœurs (NPFS) in Haiti. “NPFS has been in Haiti since 1987,” writes Kristine Cronin in her blog. “An orphanage, St. Helene's, was established in the mountains south of Port-au-Prince in a village called Kenscoff.” NPFS also runs a pediatric hospital called St. Damien’s, in addition to Kay St. Germaine.

Cronin attended the University of Connecticut, earning her undergraduate degree there in 2007, and a master’s degree in 2009. By training, she is a speech and language pathologist. “My job is to work with individuals with speech disorders, language disorders, fluency disorders, voice disorders, cognitive disorders and swallowing disorders,” she writes in her blog. “I also work with alternative and augmentative communication devices - simple to complex technology that allows individuals who cannot communicate verbally to interact with the world around them.”

After graduation, Cronin was employed by the Windham public school system. In 2010, shortly after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, she made her first, very brief trip there. She returned for three months in 2011. In 2012, she made the decision to quit her job and dedicate more time to Haiti. “It was not the easiest decision,” she said, via Skype, “but it was definitely worth it.” Cronin said she was struck by the country during her first trips there. “It’s something that many people experience when they come down here,” she said. “There’s so much need here. It really opened up my mind to how much I could be doing, how much I could be helping.”

There were logistics to take care of first. Cronin’s blog talks of fundraising to help cover student loan payments and other expenses while she’s gone. Her position in Haiti provides her with a $100 monthly stipend. Her mother, Annie, has been involved with fund-raising from the beginning. “I think it’s partly my way of dealing with the fact that she’s not here,” said Annie.

Kay St. Germaine is one of a handful of facilities in Haiti offering services to children with disabilities. “Maybe one of five in the country,” said Cronin. Children with disabilities otherwise “have almost no chance to go to school,” said Cronin, “and they are very likely to be abandoned by their families.” Because there are few supports, parents are sometimes forced to abandon children or leave them at home in order to work. “I’ve heard stories of parents leaving children tied up because they had no alternative,” said Cronin. There is also a societal stigma against people with disabilities.

As far as Cronin is aware, she is the only speech and language pathologist currently working in Haiti. In addition to working with students, she is helping to train others, hoping to set up a network of support for the disabled. Currently, her commitment is for seven months. But Cronin envisions being there longer. “I think it would be hard for me to come from this and go right back into regular life,” she said.

And Cronin very much enjoys what she is doing. The Haitian people “are just wonderful, caring people,” she said. “They have so little, but they are so generous with what they do have. They are very deserving of any help they do get.” And though she very much enjoyed her work with American students, “This is just on a whole different level,” said Cronin. “These are kids that would have no opportunities at all otherwise.”

Though Haiti drew a great deal of attention after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, Cronin points out that conditions have been dire there for quite some time. Disasters simply exacerbate problems that already exist. Hurricane Sandy, for example, wiped out acres of farmland in Haiti, according to Cronin. “Food prices are already going up,” she said.

But for all of the challenges that Haiti faces, “The people here are so wonderful,” said Cronin. “It’s an absolute pleasure to be able to serve here. It’s the best experience I’ve ever had, and it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

For more information regarding NPFS, go to http://www.nph-haiti.org/. There is a blog regarding the special needs program in Haiti (http://specialneedsprogramshaiti.nph.org/), as well as Kristine Cronin’s personal blog (klcinhaiti.blogspot.com), which accepts donations to help support her work in Haiti.

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