February 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 2


From Canada With Love: Debbie Gleeson Changes Lives in Rwanda

One day last fall I received a letter that captured my attention—and my imagination. A Canadian reader named Debbie Gleeson who had seen my product review of the Seika refreshable braille display wrote with a question regarding the product. She was installing the unit on a laptop, she said, that she planned to deliver to a blind couple in Rwanda.

Answering her question began a dialogue that has provided me with a vicarious look at life in post-genocide Rwanda: what it's like to live there, visit there, and be a person who is blind there.

Gleeson and her husband Phil ran a small insurance brokerage firm in southern Ontario for many years. With her children grown and retirement a reality, Gleeson began entertaining a wish she had held for years, a wish of helping people in a disadvantaged country. In January of 2009, Gleeson saw a television documentary about a woman from Quebec, Nicole Pageau, who ran a center for orphans and widows in Rwanda. An e-mail correspondence began, and Gleeson's first sojourn to this African country was launched. Since then, Gleeson has made two journeys a year to Rwanda. Her trips are filled with days of teaching and giving in myriad ways to the children and adults left in the wake of the genocide. She brings sewing machines and teaches women to sew school uniforms for children and simple garments to generate desperately needed income; she passes out shoes to street orphans. Along the way she has developed an amazing friendship with Pierre and Vanantie, the blind couple for whom she and her husband purchased the laptop and braille display.

Gleeson met Pierre on her first visit to Rwanda. A trained massage therapist, he is employed by Pageau's center. He and Vanantie were the first blind couple to be married in Rwanda, where according to Debbie, people who are blind are typically unskilled, abandoned, and/or illiterate. There are no schools for the blind, and no government programs to provide training to blind children or adults. Vanantie, who graduated from university in December, received an education by way of an experiment by the government, wherein her studies were sponsored and the university provided access to a computer and sighted classmates to help her.

Debbie Gleeson is not blind and she has no specific training in blindness. She is, however, a skilled computer trainer (software training is another of the many gifts she has given during her Rwandan visits), and when she learned that Vanantie would lose her newfound access to technology upon graduation, she was moved to acquire the laptop and braille display. (A blind friend in Gleeson's hometown of Elmira pointed her in the direction of the Seika as a low-cost display.)

Pierre and Vanantie, Gleeson reports, are rapidly becoming advocates for people with disabilities in their region—they locate them, and provide them with information and encouragement as they are able. The couple has two small children, and they feel blessed to live in a house rented to them by the government. They give what they can to others, having taken into their little home a young blind woman named Emily who had lived alone in her hut of palm leaves and tin, afraid to venture out, waiting for others to bring her food. Now, living with Pierre and Vanantie, Emily is also learning to read braille and gaining self-confidence.

"Pierre is an incredible organizer," Debbie says, citing as an example the delivery of the 150 collapsible white canes she took with her on her last visit to Rwanda. To distribute the canes, she and Pierre secured a cargo van of sorts and then drove to each of the various villages where he had located blind people.

When Gleeson tells Vanantie and Pierre about her blind friend in Elmira, a man who is employed, has a family, a guide dog, and advanced computer skills, they are amazed. With each trip, she brings more information and what limited supplies her three suitcases can hold. Having a job at all is a rarity, whether one is blind or sighted. On Gleeson's most recent visit, Pierre's massage work had diminished from three appointments per week to one, and Vanantie has not yet found employment.

All utilities in Rwanda are pay-as-you-go, Debbie explained to me, in the way that prepaid cell phones are in the United States and Canada. On each visit, Debbie purchases electricity, charcoal for heat, Internet service, and cell phone minutes for Vanantie and Pierre as well as others. There are no land-line phones, so all communication is done by cell phone, typically text messaging.

Each time Gleeson travels, she is permitted to carry three suitcases into the country. With such space limitations, she is sometimes more confined by the luggage restrictions than by the generosity of others who donate to the cause. Still, she manages each trip to take shoes, sewing machines and, last fall, the 150 white canes.

Gleeson speaks with awe of the many wonderful people she has met in the course of her self-appointed work in Rwanda, and with equal awe of the poverty and pain mixed with hard work and optimism she has witnessed there. The sewing machines she donated, for example, were electric, and electricity must be purchased in increments and is expensive. Parts are also expensive. One light bulb on a sewing machine cost about 1,000 francs, the equivalent of $2 Canadian, an amount that a Rwandan could use to buy food for a couple of days.

Her husband, who still works in their company part-time, will be traveling with her for the first time on their next trip in January 2012. Together, she said, the couple will be engaged in building either a house or a school. As usual, Gleeson will also be teaching women to sew, purchasing electricity and internet service for as many as she can, and delivering more blindness-related tools and information to Pierre and Vanantie. Sadly, she was informed on her last visit that the suitcase maximum will be reduced to two, further limiting the amount of supplies she is able to carry.

Serious health issues in her own family may well mean that Gleeson will make only one Rwanda trip in 2012, but this inspiring woman is by no means finished with her devotion to enhancing the quality of life for people with and without disabilities, in this country filled with so many challenges.

"We have been very blessed," she says simply of her husband and herself. "We are not wealthy, but we are able financially to make these trips and purchase [the goods and services] as we have."

In addition to providing software training and sewing lessons, distributing white canes and providing one blind couple with assistive technology, constructing homes or schools and sponsoring children to attend elementary school, Gleeson is carrying information and plenty of hope to people who are hungry for more than just food.

To read more about her ongoing work in Rwanda, visit Debbie Gleeson's blog.

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