Our Playground is Finished!

Our playground is finished!

We have recently finished work on the playground for our hospital here in Niger, and it looks great. The kids at the hospital had to learn how to use some of the equipment (I don’t think any of them had ever been on a slide before, and some of them even looked pretty suspiciously at the steps!), but now they love it and are already spending as much time at the playground as possible.

The idea for this playground came from our sister hospital Beit CURE Malawi – a few years ago they opened up a playground with a renovated/renewed ambulance, and when I saw the pictures I knew that we needed to do something similar here in Niger. After all, we are a children’s hospital and children need a place to play. At that time, I had an intern here from Gordon College, Zoey Meyer-Jens, learning about art therapy, and we worked together on the project proposal. We even went together to the junkyard and scoped out an old Mercedes van and brought it back to the hospital to be the playground “ambulance.”

After coming up with a design, I was able to work together with Paul McIver and Charles Corbin and Paul’s team of Nigerien welders (from Niger Vocational Training School) to bring the playground to life! They worked long and hard on this project, and essentially had to custom-make everything in the playground except the van (and even the van had to basically be totally rebuilt). In the end, the results speak for themselves! The playground is a beautiful addition to our hospital that will provide our patients with room to play, to have fun, to use their imaginations and to express themselves.

In addition to support from CURE International, this project was funded by Amy King, a friend of Maureen Sloan who has been a passionate advocate and source of encouragement to CURE Niger since our hospital opened. This project has also funded by the Gordon in Orvieto program, directed by my brother-in-law Matt Doll. The students of the program did multiple art exhibits, and the proceeds were given towards this playground.

Thanks to everyone who took part in providing these kids with a place to play!

“The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” Zechariah 8:5

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My Arms

Leon is still trying to figure out his story. Although we talk openly about how we got him when he was just a little baby, every once in a while he will ask if he came from my belly. We always tell him that he didn’t come from my belly but we prayed for a baby and God gave him to us. Last night at dinner, he asked, “Did God put me in your belly?” I said no and before I had time to explain any further, he said, “Oh! God put me in your arms!” With tears welling up in my eyes, I said “exactly! And I was the luckiest mama because God specifically chose to give you to me!”

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Crutches

A few weeks ago, I started seeing this video about crutches pop up all over the place:

 

In this video we see an exciting new redesign for crutches, which basically haven’t changed much or been improved upon since the American Civil War, 150 years ago.

It was interesting to see this redesign, since we see a lot of crutches here at the hospital, and in fact, we started collecting them. So I wanted to share some pictures of crutches that we have picked up from our patients. They have left them behind, either because they have been healed and no longer need crutches, or because we have given them nice new (although not redesigned) crutches to use.

It is sobering, in my opinion, to consider these crutches, and to remember that these are all real crutches used by our patients when they came to our hospital. These are not antiques from the Civil War era. These crutches are not 150 years old. These crutches and others just like them are being used in Niger right now, in 2016.

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Pair #1

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Pair #2

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Padding detail on Pair #2

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Pair #3

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Padding detail on Pair #3

We keep these crutches in our office because they are a great reminder of the healing and transformation that takes place at the CURE hospital. We have seen patients literally throw these crutches off, just like the child in the CURE logo. They throw them off because they no longer need them. They can walk, they have been healed.

But we also like to keep these crutches around, not only as a reminder of the healing that takes place, but also as a reminder of where our patients are coming from. These are hand-made crutches, crafted out of necessity and need. They are worn down from use and in many cases have been repaired multiple times.

 

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Singular crutch

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Crutch handle

Some people say that religion is a crutch. They claim that the idea of God is something that weak people need to lean on because they are unable to face the harsh realities of life. The assumption is that if you are strong, you don’t need a crutch, because you can stand on your own strength, or face the difficulty of limping through life on your own. This type of superman or (dare I say it) übermensch, is hobbled but not humble, broken but unbowed.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my experience, I haven’t met many people like that. The people I know (myself included) are weak, wounded and hurting. We need help to stand, and we are glad to have a crutch to lean on when the alternative is falling down.

Is God a crutch? Yes. But a crutch is a welcome sight when you cannot walk on your own.

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Pair #4

 

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Happy Easter from CURE Niger

This week, our spiritual director has been telling the story of Easter during our morning devotion time. Each day, she has added a piece to the story, which has been great because she’s such a good story teller and the kids (and mothers) have been listening attentively all week, leaning in towards the end of each meeting as the suspense builds, in order to better hear what might come next.

For one of our group art therapy sessions this week we talked a little bit more about the meaning of the Easter story and the kids worked on a craft together. We talked about how Jesus died for our sins so that we could live, and it brought up some great conversation amongst the kids.

After our group session, the kids were talking about how they wanted to go back to their rooms and hang their pictures on their wall. Then one of them suggested they put all the pictures together on the same wall because that way they could enjoy them together. They decided to put them in one of the rooms at the patient guesthouse that is a typical hang out spot for all the kids.

The communal artwork often bleeds over into the communal living space at the hospital, and adds color, beauty and joy to the lives of these children, which are often filled with darkness, suffering and pain. That juxtaposition is one they are familiar with, and one that is seen in the Easter story. Maybe that is why the story resonates with them so much. They understand the agony of crucifixion, and the celebration of resurrection; the nearness of death, and the significance of its defeat. They have seen their arms and their legs enclosed and entombed in white plaster casts, and have had them cut off and cast aside. They have endured the sacrifice of physical therapy and taken the first stumbling steps of freedom. They have tasted bitter fear but now see sweet salvation.

“Il est ressuscité!”

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Cast your nets

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Hannatou teaching in devotions.

Last week, our Spiritual Director Hannatou shared about the miracles of Jesus in our morning devotions. She spoke about the encounter between Jesus and Simon (Peter) in Luke 5, focusing especially on faith and obedience, and it was really encouraging. Simon had been out all night fishing, as he probably did most nights, since he was a fisherman. He came back to shore in the morning, physically exhausted, but also discouraged, because even though he had been out all night, he hadn’t caught anything. Then Jesus came to him, and told him to go out and try again. “Cast your nets into the deep.”

You can almost picture Simon rolling his eyes – who was this stranger, telling him how to do his job. He was a fisherman, he knew how to catch fish, and he knew that what Jesus wanted him to do wouldn’t work. He had just spent all night trying to catch fish, and there were none to be caught, and anyway, who in their right mind would go out fishing in the hot sun?

Simon knew that it wouldn’t work, but for some reason, he did it anyway. He knew it wouldn’t work, but he heard the voice of Jesus and for some reason he decided to obey. He went out and he cast his nets, and there were so many fish that the nets started to break!

This is a story that we can all relate to. Sometimes in our work, in our relationships with others, or just in life, we feel like we are coming up empty. We are putting in the effort, but not seeing any results. When we are in that type of situation, if God calls us to cast our nets, we might be tempted to say no. We are too tired and worn out and unappreciated and we just can’t and we don’t feel like it and we shouldn’t have to put up with this and why should we try anyway when we know it isn’t going to work. We know it isn’t going to work. We are 100% sure…

 

Cast your nets.

God will surprise you.

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My walk to the hospital

One thing I love to do is figure out distances to and from things, especially in relation to where I live. We moved to a new house last year. Our new house is only a 4 minute drive from the hospital, which is so great! Our old house was about a 15 minute drive from the hospital. Ever since we moved in, I’ve been saying I want to walk to the hospital from our house, but the thing is, there are only very few months in the year where this is possible because it’s SO HOT.

January is one of the months where walking is doable, but don’t get me wrong, even in January you can work up a sweat taking a casual stroll through the neighborhood. The sun is bright and beaming all year long, no matter what the temperature. So the other day I decided that I needed to take a walk to the hospital from our house because I was curious to see how long it would take. I also thought it would be fun to take pictures along the way to so that you all could get an idea of what our ‘hood is like.

It took 45 minutes. Way longer than it should have because #1 Leon is three years old. #2 I was stopping and taking lots of pictures along the way, and #3 we were walking through sand. Enjoy!

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This is the main road right next to our house. It was just paved (they’re actually not finished paving it yet). Leon was especially excited about the “bumpy road” getting “fixed.”

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Straw mats and bails of hay, and a straw house (far left side of the picture).

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Gas station.

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Toilets and sinks and pipes for sale.

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Magaggi (our guard and one of Leon’s favorite people in the world) graciously obliged Leon’s request to join us for our walk. They’re holding their walking sticks that Leon picked out.

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Tire shop (with a creepy, hunched over, hand-drawn Michelin man).

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Meat grilling and chopping (and eating) shop.

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After a while of walking through the sand, Leon got tired and Magaggi offered to give him a ride.

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Our favorite bakery!

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A shopping cart : A cart you shop at. You can get almost anything there, including extension cords, mosquito nets, bouncy balls and TV antennas. This list is obviously not exhaustive. These carts are everywhere.

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Pumpkins and sugar cane. This is sugar cane season. Sugar cane is EVERYWHERE.

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Just like walking at the beach.

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Donkey carts.

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Why not transport people on top of transported goods? Two in one.

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Fruit and vegetable stand

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Tupperware shop?

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Furniture store. Namely couches and doors.

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As I said, sugar cane everywhere!

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Another fruit and vegetable stand, right in front of a mosque.

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Cows rummaging through a trash heap by the hospital.

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A couple kids taking a break from pushing a wheelbarrow down the sandy road (not easy going through sand!) The CURE hospital is up ahead on the right.

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Final destination: CURE Hospital. My favorite place in Niger!

 

 

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Milestones for CURE Niger

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As we reach the end of 2015, it is a good time to look back and reflect on some of the accomplishments achieved over the past year. In the past few months, we have reached some important milestones at the hospital:

In December, we performed our 700th surgery for the year, a new record for CURE Niger. In 2014 we preformed 627 surgeries and we will end 2015 with around 720, so this is a significant increase. In addition to the dedication and hard work of surgical staff, this increase is also due to the fact that we were able to benefit from a number of different visiting surgeons this year, from other CURE facilities, and from elsewhere. We want to thank them all for their contribution to our success.

In December we also performed our 3,000th surgery in our hospital since we opened our doors in October, 2010.

Finally, in November, the Clubfoot program treated their 1,000th patient since the program started in Niger. Among those 1,000 patients, 380 were girls and 620 were boys, and in all 1,602 feet were healed.

This means that all together, CURE has changed more than 4,000 lives since establishing a presence in Niger 5 years ago. When you include the friends and family members that have been impacted by the healing they have witnessed, and the love of God they have experienced at our hospital, the number is actually much higher. This is a great achievement, and we are very proud – it is worthy of celebration,  however we know that all that we do and accomplish is ultimately due to God’s grace and mercy. To God the glory, our aspiration is to be instruments of healing in his hands.

May God continue to use us to accomplish his goals for his Kingdom, and to bring his healing to the people of Niger.

Happy New Year!

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Three Magi in Niger

Believe it or not, sometimes it is hard to find a cast to decorate at the hospital.

Sometimes we have a lot of patients at once who don’t need to wear a cast, and instead sport gauze wraps or bandages or slings or braces. We always try to adorn whatever we find, but there is no denying that plaster casts are the best material to work with. The kids feel the same way – sometimes they are disappointed if they do not get a cast put on, and they are always excited to come to the art therapy room when they have a leg or arm that is newly casted.

Therefore, I was very pleased when I arrived at the hospital one morning and saw three kids brandishing three brand new clean white casts. They were excited to show them to me, and all three of them came to the art therapy room together. Since it was already Christmas time, as soon as I saw them together I immediately thought: Three Wise Men!

We started working on the Magi, and we made good progress. We finished two of them with time to spare, but we were unable to finish all three because Rabila (and her cast) had to go back to her room for a nap. This was an unexpected bump in the road on the journey of the Magi, but no serious problem. I told them that we could finish the third cast the following day.

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The first two Magi

The next day Rabila dutifully came in so that we could paint our third King of the East. We were working on it together when some of the kids came running in to tell us that we lost our first Wise Man! As it turns out, it was for a good cause – Zouera had her cast taken off because her foot was healed! This was exciting news for everyone, since Zouera had already worn multiple casts on her leg over a period of several months. We lost a Wise Man, but she regained her foot, and we were all happy for her. But it still left us one Wise Man short.

Thankfully, the cast-cutter spared our King, and the children went and recovered it from the garbage can. They ceremoniously brought it to the art therapy room. I was surprised and pleased, even though I do not encourage our patients to go digging through the trash (I promise). It was more challenging logistically than I would have thought, but long last, our three Magi were united, even though one of them had to be held up for the picture!

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The three Magi

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Rabila is happy about the Magi casts 🙂

I love working on joint projects like this with the kids, because everyone gets involved. Not just the three kids with Magi-casts. The other kids at the hospital were also very interested in what we were doing and they asked all kinds of questions, like “Why would you paint these old men on their casts?” Through their questions, I was able to share the Christmas story. Then at the end we all worked on a nativity scene together (with old water bottles, construction paper, clothes pins, and cotton balls).

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The manger scene group project

The Wise Men followed a star in search of a King; a King who would bring justice and peace, a King who would restore the broken and bring healing to the people and to the Land. The patients at our hospital are in search of the same thing – healing, restoration and peace. Our prayer is that they encounter the King while they are here with us, even if it is through a painting on a cast.

 

 

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Removing Barriers – A Workshop on Inclusive Education

We had the privilege of hosting a workshop at the hospital recently on the topic of inclusive education, specifically for those with physical disabilities. This workshop was organized by IAS (International Aid Services), and it was a great event – very encouraging and very informative. A number of different partner organizations were present, including representatives of the Nigerien Ministry of Education (specifically from the Inclusive Education Division), Handicap International, the Nigerien Federation of Handicapped People, CBM, Plan International, The Leprosy Mission and others. And of course, the venue for the workshop was the CURE Hospital here in Niamey, which was fitting and appropriate given the subject matter. We were happy to host and to participate in this important event.

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IAS Workshop at the CURE Hôpital des Enfants au Niger. Photo credit – Paul Hayes.

One of the representatives of the Ministry of Education gave a presentation on Niger’s National Strategy for inclusive education, which was very interesting. It was encouraging to learn about the national strategy, and to know that Niger even has a national strategy, since that is not always the case in every country, and represents at least a good first step. We learned about the integrated approach to inclusive education, as well as a number of other related themes, including accessibility.

One of the things that she shared regarding the importance of accessibility really struck me – she offered an example of chalkboards that are inaccessible to students in wheelchairs because they are too high up on the wall. This is a common problem in Nigerien classrooms, but there is an easy solution – simply lower the chalkboards (especially since most of them are painted on the classroom walls with blackboard paint). She pointed out that even though this may seem like a small thing, you should never underestimate the pedagogical impact being called up to the chalkboard has on a student. That is so true, and I remember going up to the chalkboard in front of the whole class from my own days as a student. That mixture of anxiety and pride. It really is a kind of a rite of passage for young students. I never really thought about it before, and I never considered what it would mean to not be called up to the chalkboard, ever, or to be called up and to be unable to reach it.

In this case, a simple solution is available. Lowering a chalkboard is an easy thing to do, and something that could have a huge impact on everyone involved – on a child with a disability in that class of course, but also on the rest of the class. However, things are not always that simple. Sometimes ensuring accessibility requires a lot more, and this is a challenge for us at the hospital as well. We try to make everything we do accessible, and not just physically accessible with ramps or handrails – which is of course important – but also in a broader sense. At our hospital we try to cater to children who have physical disabilities, in a context and culture where both children and those with disabilities usually overlooked, and never seen as the priority.

We also had a representative from Handicap International give a presentation on the work they have done in inclusive education, throughout the country. It was very interesting, and encouraging to hear of the progress that has been made. Still, however, there is much work to do. He shared a sobering statistic – 78% of people with physical disabilities in Niger are not educated and 58% have no gainful employment or means of supporting themselves. It is no wonder then, that for so many people with disabilities in Niger, the only option they have is to beg for money on the street.

We also heard from Mr. Stephen Mwaura, who works with IAS on inclusive education, and is based in Kenya. His presentation was also very informative and challenging, and I really liked something he said in the beginning of his talk. He said that of all the challenges that we face with inclusive education, including the securing of support and funding, lining up resources, lobbying for governmental buy-in, the biggest challenge is changing attitudes. Until people see that children with disabilities have a right to education and deserve to be invested in, and that they have a contribution to make to society, progress will difficult and slow. We have found this to be true in the work that we do as well. Many times people are unwilling to invest in the healing of their child because they feel like it is a waste of time. Eventually, and unfortunately, parents who have been told over and over that their child can never be healed, and that the situation is hopeless start to believe it. They get to a point where they are not even willing to try to find healing for their children.

Mr. Mwaura also spoke about how many of the disabilities that prevent people from being educated throughout Africa are not congenital and actually preventable. Many are the result of negligence or a lack of access to qualified medical care. But in either case, the result is the same: exclusion, rejection and marginalization. The whole goal of inclusive education, therefore, is to remove barriers – and that is exactly what we do at CURE.

Our approach to healing is holistic, and our goal is to help children with these debilitating conditions integrate back into society. We want to help the children that come to our hospital reach their full potential, and education is obviously central to that. We contribute towards inclusive education by helping improve their physical condition so that they can go to school, or go back to school. And the children are usually very motivated. In fact, often the first question our patients ask when they are ready to go home after their surgery is, “Can I go to school now?”

At CURE we believe that healing changes everything, and the same is of course true for education. Nothing brings us greater joy than seeing children who were given up on and seen as hopeless reach their full potential and become the people that God intended them to be.

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Glitter

Over the past 4 years, I have had a lot of fun decorating casts with the kids here at the hospital. I am constantly trying to think of new ideas for working on casts, and always try to do something different. The other day, I stumbled upon an idea that is different from anything I have done before – instead of painting the cast, or going over it with markers, I started gluing little pompoms/fuzzy balls onto the cast of a little girl named Aicha. It came out nicely, and I was very pleased, especially because a bunch of the kids came over and joined in, helping me and Aicha out. I love it when we are able to work on something all together like this, especially when it is with a kid like Aicha, who is extra quiet and reserved. It focused all of the attention on Aicha, who is usually on the sidelines. She remains pretty quiet throughout, but had a big smile, and was giggling with the rest of the kids.

The following week, one of the girls who had helped work on Aicha’s cast, Zouera, came to the Art Therapy room for a session. Zouera has been at the hospital for awhile, and has already gone through a number of casts, which she and I have decorated together. Many of the children who come in do not really know what they want to put on their cast, but not Zouera. She was very sure of what she wanted every time. We have done flowers together, princesses, and other patterns, all at her request and under her direction.

This week when she came in, Zouera didn’t have a new cast, so the remnants of our most recent collaborative masterpiece were barely visible, and the cast was covered in dirt. That is one of the realities that I have had to come to terms with – the cast decorations are by definition temporal. They are beautiful but they are fleeting. Sometimes they meet with the cast-cutter the day after they were created, but such is life…

We could have just painted over the older paint and the dirt, but Zouera had a different idea, inspired in part by Aicha’s pompom cast. She wanted to cover her whole cast with glitter. Honestly, I wasn’t sure it would work that well, and I imagined glitter going everywhere and getting on everything except her cast (which glitter is kind of notorious for). But I knew that we should try her idea no matter what. So we doused her cast in glue (which did go everywhere and got on everything), and then poured glitter over her entire cast. The results were immediate and stunning. It seriously almost took our breath away.

I am consistently amazed by these kids. Most of them have never done any kind of art work before. Most of them have never even held a crayon in their hand, or used scissors, or glue. But aside from that, most of them have not had the opportunity to explore their natural creativity because from a very young age they are helping with the cooking and cleaning and taking care of younger siblings. I am not saying that they never have a chance to play or have fun, or that all the hallmarks of what the Western world considers “childhood” are missing from their lives entirely. But I am saying that they grow up quickly. They have to, especially when they are dealing with some sort of physical disability on top of everything else. Their lives, and the lives of most Nigeriens who live in remote, rural areas are all about survival, and survival does not leave much room for creativity.

That is why what Zouera did, and what so many of these kids do at the hospital is so amazing. They are given, often for the first time in their life, the freedom and space to be creative, to be silly, to try and to fail, to dance and to sing and to cover things in glue and glitter. This may sound like a small thing, but it is not. It is big, and it is brilliant, in every sense of the word.

These kids are full of wild and wonderful creative energy, and when they finally have the freedom and space to set it free,  they shine.

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