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11 trips to Haiti: progress through volunteering abroad


At an outreach clinic in the mountains of Haiti, Karen Mallet taught a mom (sitting in the chair) and a therapist how to work on language skills. Photo by Eric Tavares.

Political unrest, riots and kidnappings. After 11 trips volunteering in Haiti, Speech Language Pathologist Karen Mallet is no stranger to these dangers.

As a part of Team Canada Healing Hands, Mallet has helped Haitians develop a sustainable rehabilitation system by training and educating teachers, parents and health-care providers since 2008.

Mallet witnessed food riots on her first trip and had to leave quickly to get to the airport the very same day.

“Our adventure to the airport was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life,” said Mallet. “Despite fires, flying rocks and barricades, seeing the calmness our drivers and leaders were exuding made me feel like I was safe.”

Not letting the risks get in her way, Mallet continues to ‘teach the teachers’ – providing education and training so that Haitian health-care providers can improve care for their patients.

For example, she ran a tips-and-tools workshop to help those working with stroke survivors. She has also trained teachers working with children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism and Down’s syndrome. Some teachers attended the workshop on their days off.

“I assess kids and adults and provide goals of therapy so that the local health-care providers, teachers and caregivers can continue on,” she said. “The wonderful thing is that they do continue with the therapy. Every time I go, I see amazing improvements with the kids we work with. I know that the education we provide caregivers, nurses, doctors and therapists makes a difference in the lives of those living with disabilities.”

JE Oct 28 Karen Mallet #2

Karen Mallet conducted an oral motor exam, looking at the Haitian child’s jaw opening and closing. “I ended up referring her to a doctor because she had a mass that was restricting her jaw opening.” Photo by Eric Tavares.

Mallet covers all her costs to volunteer in Haiti, through fundraising, paying out of pocket and using her vacation time.

“The teachers at the schools, the parents and caregivers in the mountains surrounding Jacmel are craving education,” said Mallet. “They follow through with our recommendations and when we return to see the children, they’ve improved. This is so rewarding to me to know that I’ve helped them, even though just a little, to be their own health-care providers.”

After being seriously injured in Haiti herself, Mallet appreciates the quick access that Canadians have to excellent health care.

“Working in Haiti has made me appreciate and understand another culture and another value system, plus learn a new language,” she said. “This helps me in my role at The Ottawa Hospital by being cognizant of others’ cultures, beliefs, thoughts, values and language. I think it makes me a better clinician. I depend on my teammates enormously when I’m in Haiti. I feel that this had made me be more team-focused in my work here.”

Mallet has also realized that third-world countries can provide excellent health care and rehabilitation services when they have the training and education.

“They are a resilient people and are kind and wonderful, and thirsty to learn and strive to make better lives for their families,” she said. “Seeing this has made me try to live every day to the fullest, because you never know what’s around the corner.”

JE Oct 28 Karen Mallet #3

Karen Mallet goofed around with the kids at the end of her day volunteering at an orphanage on a small island off the south-western coast of Haiti. Photo by Tara McMullen.

Donated tablets break communications barriers

Haitian teachers thought that one small boy with cerebral palsy could not communicate. But when TOH Speech Language Pathologist Karen Mallet placed a donated tablet before the boy and opened a sign-language app, she also opened a whole new world for him.

“I thought it might be too difficult and started to pull it away,” explained Mallet. “He pulled it back and kept practising. It was really exciting.”

YIMC Dec 2 Karen Mallet followup

Teachers and children at Pazapa, a school in Jacmel, Haiti, that educates children with cognitive and physical disabilities as well as children with hearing impairments, greatly appreciated the 14 donated Android tablets that Karen Mallet delivered to them in November.

During her 12th trip to Haiti, Mallet delivered 14 Android tablets (donated by the Ottawa Stroke Program and the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute) to the school, and showed teachers and children how to use them.

Mallet had installed various game-based child-friendly communication apps to teach memory skills, colours, naming, counting, writing, matching, shapes, letters and more.

“My heart is full,” said Mallet, after receiving a video from a teacher showing the tablets in use after she had left. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see her and the kids working with the tablets.”


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