Local speech pathologist returns to Haiti

Karen MacKenzie-Stepner has worked with Haitians for the past 11 years

The speech pathologist, who lives in Chester and practices in Bridgewater, has been going to Haiti four to six times a year since 2004 to work with deaf people and train others to help them. She was to leave yesterday (May 12) on her latest volunteer mission.

“For me, it’s the smile on the kids faces when they realize that their mom and dad understand what they’re trying to say,” said Ms MacKenzie-Stepner, 57, when asked why she makes these trips.

Ms Mackenzie-Stepner will visit schools in Port-au-Prince, Tabarre and Jacmel over the next two-and-a-half weeks. “This will be the first time that I will see the kids in the classroom of the new school [in Jacmel] so I’m looking forward to that,” said MacKenzie Stepner, who taught in tents, temporary wooden structures or fields following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010.

The team she works with and a group from Arkansas helped Gallaudet University create a community for deaf people and their immediate families following the disaster. “After the tent cities were built, the deaf women who were in the tent cities were being raped because they couldn’t hear people entering their tents. The [deaf] men were being attacked too, and they had no way of defending themselves.” The new community was walled, with local men acting as security guards.

Ms MacKenzie-Stepner originally started working with Team Canada Healing Hands, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the provision of rehabilitative education and care in areas of need, when she worked at the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario. A colleague had asked her to set up a speech pathology program in Port-au-Prince.

“I started to work in the school system helping them develop their curriculum so that the deaf students could get an education,” she said. Parents must pay to send their children to school in Haiti and because of this many deaf people are left uneducated. It’s typical for a deaf child in Haiti to go ignored, as no one knows how to communicate with them.

“The children who come in, they don’t know their names because no ones been able to tell them what their name is,” said Ms MacKenzie-Stepner, who is trying to change this. “Education opens up the world to them.” She now travels to Haiti every two or three months to keep up the momentum with her programs.

She has put together teams of three to five people to train teachers how to work with deaf students, and to develop lessons and curriculum. “Team Canada is Canada-wide. However, with the deaf teacher training I’ve had to go further abroad, because I have to have individuals who are fluent in sign language and can go down to Haiti for two and a half weeks at a time. It’s only select individuals who have that flexibility with their jobs that can do that,” she said. Currently, they come from Halifax, Toronto, Boston and Austin. “We go frequently and we go back to the same places, so we’re building capacity in the schools and with the teachers, and we’re sustaining what we’re doing. It’s not a one trip wonder.”

Ms MacKenzie-Stepner moved to Chester from Ontario three years ago with plans of retiring in the province of her birth. Far from retiring, she maintains a practice in Bridgewater and works as an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University in addition to her overseas volunteer work.

Originally from Cape Breton Island, she was raised to value communication and education. “It was one of those things that was very important in my family. I feel very strongly that everybody should try to get as much education as they can.” She hopes the students she teaches in Haiti will be able to write their national exam to gain their high school diplomas. Last year, three deaf students she has worked with for the past five years achieved this goal.

She covers almost all of her own costs for the trips. When she lived in Ontario, she fundraised all the time, but she’s still getting aquainted in her new home. At the moment, a few local individuals are helping her. A ladies’ group in Chandler’s Cove cuts out materials she needs, and another individual laminates them at no charge to her. This is necessary because of the humidity in Haiti. Others offer donated school supplies. She has to transport anything needed. This trip, she’s travelling with 300 pounds of program materials and manuals.

Aside from her work with Haiti, she has worked with the deaf in Belize and Peru with Team Canada. “The dream goal is that I would do the travelling and working at the deaf schools for 12 months a year as opposed to the odd month here and there,” said Ms Mackenzie-Stepner. She plans to go back to Peru in July and Haiti again in August and October. “I’d be volunteering the entire time, which is why retirement has been pushed off, because I have to build that nest egg in order to do that.”

As originally published in LighthouseNOW Progress Bulletin

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