For 13 years, Sabrina Nicolas danced to music she could not hear, timing her movements by the vibrations that coursed through her body.
For 13 years, this Haitian teen lived in a world of silence, understanding the hand gestures that compose American Sign Language, but unable to hear the words so important to all children: “I love you.” “You are safe.” “You are saved.”
For 13 years, this orphan swam in a sea of orphans, other children who sometimes teased and taunted, some of whom said she was dumb.
Sabrina Nicolas is not dumb. She is deaf and living in a country where children who are without families, children who are abandoned or relinquished, children who are without hope number in the hundreds of thousands.
No, her teachers say, Sabrina Nicolas is not dumb.
She is a survivor.
She is brave.
And she is, as of this week, the recipient of a miracle.
Sabrina’s story is not uncommon. It’s a tale told over and over again in Haiti, one of the poorest nations on Earth, a country still recovering from a devastating earthquake that leveled towns, cities and villages in January 2010. A country where its own government and governmental leaders are often at odds with the best interests of its citizens and its children.
When a single Haitian mother finds herself unable to feed, clothe or otherwise care for her children, she is left with few options, said Jessica Langevin, project coordinator for the Greta Home and Academy in Haiti, a facility for orphans in the Leogane community.
So it was with Sabrina. When her mother could no longer care for her child, she asked her sister to take her. When Sabrina’s aunt could no longer care for her, Sabrina became an orphan and a resident of Greta Home. This was in 2011.
Greta Home and Academy
Through her popular news reporting, journalist Greta Van Susteren has extensively chronicled the plight of Haiti’s people. In December 2010, she produced a television special highlighting cholera victims in Haiti, raising both awareness and money. She has become one of the country’s most important advocates.
With the support of the Boone-based Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse and its leader, Franklin Graham, Greta Home and Academy, named in honor of Van Susteren’s efforts, was built on the site where an orphanage had been destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. Graham’s organization had been in Leogane since that time, caring for the orphaned children by providing temporary housing and filling other needs. Greta Home was dedicated on Dec. 15, 2012, and 73 orphans took up residence.
Today, Greta Home currently houses 62 children, Langevin said, providing a “safe place for orphaned and vulnerable children in Haiti to receive an education and grow in their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Sabrina is one of those children, but one who had more than the plight of being an orphan in front of her. Being deaf and homeless could easily have left her with little chance of survival, Langevin said.
“Her fate would be worse than that of any other orphan,” Langevin said.
Through the academy and a school for the deaf, Sabrina would learn to communicate, but in many ways she was still shut off from the world. Given her level of deafness and the absence of professional medical care to remedy such a condition, it seemed that Sabrina’s situation would not improve.
And it wouldn’t.
Until Christmas 2014.
Generosity of Strangers
“Every Christmas, Greta, and often Franklin, comes to visit Greta Home,” Langevin said. “It’s a big celebration with music, gifts and dancing. Last year, when watching the children, Greta asked us why Sabrina was so off beat when she was dancing.”
When Sabrina’s condition was explained to her, Greta’s response was immediate.
“I’ll pay for her to come to America,” to get medical treatment, Langevin said, quoting Van Susteren.
Van Susteren’s statement immediately found a partner in Franklin Graham and others.
With Van Susteren providing the transportation for Sabrina to come to Boone to be evaluated and treated, Samaritan’s Purse coordinated the logistics, arranged for a host family, an American Sign Language interpreter and took care of her expenses while she was in the United States. Doctors and specialists at Boone’s Blue Ridge Ear, Nose and Throat Inc. volunteered the medical evaluations and care.
A Whole New World
Sabrina’s journey to America would not come easily. It took about nine months to coordinate the paperwork and permissions to get approval for her to travel to the United States, said Tony Cortes, who assists with Greta Home operations from Boone.
That delay is typical, he said, even when pursuing medical care for one of the country’s 400,000 orphans.
Yet this week, Sabrina found herself in the United States, surrounded, and perhaps a bit overwhelmed, by individuals who made her care their top priority, said Langevin, who traveled with her.
One of those individuals was Liz Derrick, an American Sign Language interpreter who has taught at the N.C. School for the Deaf. Derrick also hosted Sabrina at her home. Other volunteers included Graham and Samaritan’s Purse officials and representatives.
But perhaps the most important of those Sabrina would meet would be those she had originally come to see — the doctors and professionals at Blue Ridge Ear, Nose and Throat.
Mary Markovich has a clinical doctorate degree in audiology. A specialist in tackling difficult hearing loss situations for the past 11 years, Markovich said she, facility founder Dr. Charles Ford and others were excited to help when they learned of Sabrina’s situation.
“We were contacted by Samaritan’s Purse,” Markovich said, “about a child with a significant hearing problem. She was getting teased.”
“When she came in last week, she seemed to have profound hearing loss,” the audiologist said, a condition that was confirmed by testing.
It was a condition that could be corrected by special hearing aids — but, hearing aids that wouldn’t come cheaply.
As with her travel, hosting and medical care, that expense was mitigated by a donation. ReSound, a company that produces “smart” hearing aids that are simple to use and yet sophisticated enough to be controlled by devices such as an iPhone or iPad, agreed to donate the needed devices to Sabrina.
“These are top-of-the-line hearing aids,” Markovich said. Devices that, in addition to the medical care, would retail for about $6,800.
So, it was this week that Sabrina, an orphan among the world’s poorest of the poor, heard the music she has loved her entire life for the first time.
“When I first turned them on, it was just amazing to see the smile on her face,” Markovich said. “This is why I do what I do. It’s going to open a whole new world for her.”
Having little verbal language skills and an auditory sensory system on overload, Sabrina had little to say verbally during an interview in Boone.
But showcasing the communication skill she has adapted throughout her life, her smiles, her gestures and her frowns told her story. At the end of the day, she is still a young girl who is excited, but sometimes appears in disbelief at the gifts she has been given.
And she is homesick for her classmates, including two cousins who live in Greta Home.
“She misses her friends, her family, the food she is used to,” Langevin said.
Today, after flying home on Friday, Sept. 25, Sabrina is back at Greta Home, but with a different future in front of her.
“She is a smart girl,” Markovich said. “She just couldn’t hear. Her friends will realize she’s smarter than she came across.”
Paraphrasing a quote from Helen Keller, Derrick summed what it means to be deaf.
“Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from the world,” Derrick quoted.
Today, Sabrina Nicolas has joined the world.