Mayo woman to receive human dignity award

Gena Heraty has been a lay missionary in Haiti for 23 years, caring for disabled children

Gena Heraty and Maeve Bracken, who work at an orphanage in Haiti: Ms Heraty will receive an award this week from Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Gena Heraty and Maeve Bracken, who work at an orphanage in Haiti: Ms Heraty will receive an award this week from Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl

 

Mayo woman Gena Heraty (45) is to receive the Oireachtas Human Dignity Award from Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl at a ceremony in Leinster House on Thursday next.

From Westport, she went to Haiti in 1993 and has remained there since, first as a volunteer and now as director at an orphanage for children with disabilities in the village of Kenscoff, about 10km from capital Port-au-Prince.

On graduating from the University of Limerick with a degree in business studies in 1991, she joined lay missionary group Viatores Christi, based in Dublin, and began working with the Simon Community. She was introduced to the French charity Nos Petits Fréres et Soeurs (Our Little Brothers and Sisters) and then began working at the orphanage in Haiti.

Writing for this newspaper in 2007, she said: “Once I saw those kids, I knew I had to help them.” She had been “moved to tears by a young woman who has two very handicapped children – both are blind and seem to have hydrocephalus. She wondered how God could leave her like that, especially as she and her husband had no work”.

Survived the earthquake

Haiti “is often so brutal. The challenge is to take the pain and see what you can do to relieve it – your own pain and the pain of Haiti. We can’t change Haiti,” she wrote.

In January 2010, she and another Irish volunteer, Maeve Bracken from Co Offaly, survived the earthquake that left many thousands of people dead in Haiti.

Later, in November 2013, she survived a brutal assault at the orphanage which left one of her colleagues dead. Two men, one armed with a hammer, attempted to rob the orphanage.

Ms Heraty was punched and hit a number of times with the hammer before retreating to a nearby bedroom to protect some of the children. When her colleague Edward Major, an unarmed watchman, tried to intervene, the attackers turned on him, striking several times with the hammer. He died of his injuries.

Ms Heraty described the attack “as absolutely brutal”. She eventually managed to get away from her attackers after some of the children came to her rescue.

Among the awards she has received are the UL Alumni Award for Outstanding Contribution to Humanity in 2006, the Michael Davitt International Award at the Mayo People of the Year Awards in 2009, and a People of the Year Award in 2010.