Volume 74, Number 53 | May 11 - 17 , 2005

Villager photo by Talisman Brolin

Zola Bruce, director of the Teen Action program at the McBurney YMCA at W. 14th St. and Sixth Ave.

Arts social worker discovers Haiti in all its colors

By Albert Amateau

Back at her job as a social worker running teen arts programs for the McBurney YMCA in Chelsea, Zola Bruce reflected on her two-week sojourn as part of a medical mission at a hospital complex in a neglected rural town in Haiti.

Bruce made the March 11-25 trip at the invitation of a team of healthcare professionals from the Boston and Metropolitan New York areas who have been going for eight years to Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, a town north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

She went along to run an ancillary arts program for children and came away with an emotional attachment and profound respect for the people she met in the island nation long afflicted by poverty, corruption and violence.

“You hear about missions going to help in Haiti but you don’t often hear about Haitians going into their own communities and trying to help themselves,” Bruce told The Villager at an April 28 interview about a month after she returned from Haiti. “I’m definitely looking forward to going back,” she said.

Bruce was impressed with mothers whom she called “community moms” who took it upon themselves to look after homeless or neglected children in Deschapelles. “They’re wise women who have a lot of influence and the hospital staff reaches out to them to help with health education in the community,” Bruce said.

A crucial aspect of the Schweitzer hospital is making knowledge about H.I.V. available to the public and training, she noted.

Haitian children with artwork they made in Bruce’s program when she visited their country in March along with a medical aid trip.

Bruce recalled making a side trip, guided by a teenage boy, to a hill community near Deschapelles. “The higher up you go, the poorer the people are,” she said, recalling a mother with three children, the younger ones without clothes, living in a small shack at the top of the hill. Bruce had brought along art material and children’s clothing donated by her colleagues at the McBurney Y in anticipation of her Haiti visit. At the hill community, she put a dress on one 2-year old girl whom she found naked. “She looked like it was the first time she had ever worn clothes,” Bruce said.

Most villagers were gracious and hospitable despite their dire poverty, Bruce discovered. “We were invited to a wedding feast and the food reminded me of other islands I’d been to — Trinidad and Jamaica,” she said.

Bruce, 28, was born and raised in Dallas, Tex. On her mother’s side she has West Indian and African heritage and on her father’s side she has Scottish, Cherokee and Blackfoot antecedents.

“My mother named me Zola, the Swahili word meaning ‘life,’ ” Bruce remarked. She attended Arts High School in Dallas where she became adept at sculpture. With a definite plan in mind to combine art with teen social work, she studied art at a design school in Savannah, Ga., went to Sarah Lawrence for her undergraduate degree and earned her M.S.W. at the Columbia School of Social Work.

An intense internship at Center for Family Life, a private, social work agency, working with teens at risk of dropping out of school, gave her the hands-on training she was looking for. A year ago, Bruce joined the McBurney staff as director of the Teen Action program, which runs several arts programs, including one at Legacy School for Integrated Studies, an alternative high school at 34 W. 14th St., and another at the High School for Leadership and Public Service on Rector St. in Lower Manhattan.

Earlier this year, Bruce’s partner, Dr. Sandra Scott, an emergency room doctor at the University of Medicine Hospital in Newark, invited Bruce to go with the team on its mission to the Schweitzer hospital.

Haiti’s precarious social and political climate was apparent as soon as the team got to Port-au-Prince. “We spent the first night in the Hotel Montana. The owner had just been released by a Haitian gang who captured her and held her for ransom,” Bruce said, noting that ransom kidnapping was frequent in Haiti. “The Montana was full of U.N. professionals and politicians. The historic old Olafson Hotel was near the capital and too risky to stay in,” she recalled.

Although Deschapelles is two or three hours north of Port-au-Prince, it took the team about five hours of driving to reach the town. “The lanes weren’t marked and the road was full of all kinds of vehicles and pedestrians,” Bruce explained.

The Hôpital Albert Schweitzer campus is an old banana plantation with about 50 stone houses now used by the medical staff, employees and guests. “The water came on for a little while at seven in the morning, at noon and in the evening,” Bruce said. In Deschapelles, the hospital is the main employer. “Our three houses had three maids and three cooks,” she added.

Bruce’s art class ran every afternoon for the 10 days of the medical mission with about a dozen to 20 students ages 3-13, about half of them from families in the Schweitzer campus and half of them from the town. “The kids from the town did not normally come to the campus unless they were patients, so they arrived in the best clothes and were a little stiff and formal at first. But when they started doing the work, they loosened up and began creating some wonderfully imaginative things,” Bruce said.

Teenage girls older than 13 were hard to reach during the day, Bruce recalled. “They work really young. Girls 12 or 13 years old work as nannies. Teenage boys are out hustling for any work they can get,” she said.

Bruce found that skin color is sometimes a cause of conflict. “One girl with very light skin was upset because the other kids called her ‘blanc’ [white]. She cried and said ‘I’m not a blanc,’ ” Bruce recalled.

At the crowded orphanage on the hospital campus, Bruce lost her heart to an 18-month-old boy, Christian, an H.I.V.-positive child whom she noticed in a playpen apparently overlooked by an overworked staff. “He would stick his finger between the bars of the playpen and it seemed the only contact he had was when people passing by would touch the tip of his index finger with their own,” Bruce said.

So she began looking after Christian herself whenever she was free and soon found that others on the orphanage staff were also paying attention to “her” baby.

“I have a pretty neutral outward shell, no matter how emotional I am, so I was able to interact and get to know a lot of different people,” Bruce said. But she admitted that leaving Christian at the end of the mission was hard to do. “I asked people to watch out for him when I left,” she said. “I wonder how he is now.”

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