As a gifted runner, Jeanie Zelinski has reaped many of the rewards enjoyed by successful athletes: a college scholarship, life-long friends, the exhilaration of competition and the joy of winning. However, that running would eventually take the 27-year-old Memphian to one of the poorest countries in the world was an unexpected twist that would lead her to a new passion.
“I really knew nothing about Haiti. I was uncomfortable with my life and I just felt like there was more I needed to be doing. I had so much energy and it just seemed to be spinning,” she said. Zelinski, an occupational therapist, became interested in going to Haiti during the 2010 24-Hour Tour d’Esprit race, which benefits Haiti Medical Missions of Memphis (HMMoM).
HMMoM staffs and stocks a medical, dental and rehabilitation clinic in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti. The Holy Spirit clinic treats approximately 200 Haitians each day free of charge. It is one of the few-surviving medical facilities in the Port-au-Prince region after the devastating 2010 earthquake. In addition, as the cholera epidemic persists, the Holy Spirit clinic has become increasingly busy. The 24-Hour Tour d’Esprit is the major funding source for HMMoM.
Zelinski was a member of the winning Breakaway team, which completed an amazing 240 laps around the one-mile course in 24 hours. While at the race, she heard that HMMoM had opened a rehabilitation hospital after the earthquake. She later contacted Susie Kraus, also an occupational therapist and wife of one of the founders of HMMoM, Dr. Gordon Kraus. “Susie told me about the rehab clinic they had opened in Haiti and I thought, I’m a therapist, I can go.”
Zelinski mulled the idea over for several weeks, discussed it with her family and then reality hit. “I had school loans, I had to pay off my truck,” she said. Although HMMoM would pay for her food, lodging, and provide her with a small stipend, the cost of a year without a salary became an obstacle. “I had the time and desire to give but sadly, money was a barrier,” she said. Before she knew it, Memphis runners helped remove that barrier.
Races were organized to benefit her trip and in three months, the running community had raised enough money to help pay her expenses while she was in Haiti. "The people of Memphis just didn’t quit,” she said.
In January of 2011 Zelinski began her new life in Haiti. “It was so hard and uncomfortable at first. I wasn’t able to communicate because of the language, I was learning about Haitian customs and I was so afraid of disrespecting someone,” she said. Zelinski likens herself to an oyster being rubbed by sand. “I’ll be a good pearl some day.”
Although Zelinski’s experiences in Haiti are always evolving, she is getting her bearings and feels that she is making an impact. Along with a physical therapist from Texas and two Chilean therapists, a rehabilitation clinic with a focus on wellness has taken shape. The therapists have established a successful, busy outpatient clinic that treats adults and children during individual sessions, exercise and education classes.
“Disabilities are so traumatic in Haiti. If a child can’t sit up then two lives are completely affected because the mother must take total care of that child,” she said. For one young child with cerebral palsy, the rehabilitation team designed a chair out of a bucket so his mother could allow him to sit independently instead of having to hold him upright.
In addition to patient care, working to unravel the vast landscape of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is another project the rehabilitation team has been working towards. Since the earthquake, HMMoM’s medical complex has become one of the most important facilities in the country. The team has partnered with many NGOs and the Ministry of Health to share supplies and other resources so all donations reach those who are most in need.
Eventually, she would like to see HMMoM hire Haitian therapists, which would ensure the longevity of the clinic. Currently, the organization employs 17 Haitians at the medical facility, including two rehab technicians who Zelinski is training.
Zelinski says she is learning and continues to adjust. She often struggles with her relationships with the Haitians. “They put me on a pedestal and I’m just Jeanie,” she said. She’s also learned to temper her own expectations of herself. “When people have nothing, sometimes they want more than I can give. I can only give rehab. Sometimes I have to put up a wall.”
In spite of this, Zelinski describes her journey as incredible. “I’ve gotten way more out of my experience than I have given. The people are poor but they are so rich in spirit, culture and passion. They put me to shame,” she said. “I love my life. I wouldn’t change what I’m doing.”
Running continues to be a part of Zelinski’s routine in Haiti. “I took Jeanie to Haiti, too, and she has to run. It has always been a part of my life and it has to be part of my life in Haiti,” she said. While running may be her gift, running has also given Haiti the gift of Jeanie Zelinski.