One couple establishes an organization to help – and integrate – people with disabilities in Palestinian society
After a decade in Haiti, the Vanderpools are bringing their transformational organization to the Middle East
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by Nicole Jansezian | May 21, 2022
Dr. David Vanderpool in Haiti (Photo: Sara Kauss)
Dr. David and Laurie Vanderpool seem to gravitate to the tough cases.
Take for instance their work in Haiti. The Vanderpools sold their home in Tennessee, and David quit his practice as a private trauma surgeon, to move to Thomazeau in 2013 after witnessing the devastating effects of the 2010 earthquake on Haiti.
In the face of rampant poverty and a lack of sanitary conditions, they established a compound there building an electrical grid, a sewage system and a running water system. And, even more than deplorable physical conditions, the Vanderpools faced physical violence, kidnappings of their staff members and even the murder of the base manager.
Despite these challenges, the Vanderpools were intent on changing a prevailing mindset in Haiti that people with disabilities are a curse and an embarrassment to their families.
Nearly a decade later, at a Jerusalem cafe on a stormy spring day, the couple explained how their journey has now led them to the volatile Middle East – and more specifically the West Bank. Here they started a new outreach for their faith-basedhumanitarian development organization, LiveBeyond.
“We are always looking for people groups we can impact,” David Vanderpool told ALL ARAB NEWS. “ We are trying to improve the lives of people.”
Laurie Vanderpool in Haiti (Photo: Sara Kauss)
Last summer they established an outreach in the Ramallah area for people with disabilities, a program called Johnny’s Kids, named for Laurie Vanderpool’s younger brother, Johnny Stallings, who had Down syndrome and died 12 years ago at the age of 46.
Johnny’s Kids was originally established – and is still running – in Haiti where local workers have now been trained to provide education, nutrition and therapies to children with intellectual and physical disabilities. The compound there consists of a guesthouse, a surgical hospital, a demonstration farm, a church and a school.
With the program running well in Haiti, Laurie said they came to the West Bank in 2018 to see, “is there anything that our skillset can help here.” At some point during that month, the need became clear.
“I was missing Johnny’s Kids and I was here praying by myself in Jerusalem,” Laurie said, recalling that at that exact moment, dozens of children with special needs walked by participating in a march. She promptly joined them.
About the same time, David was meeting with people who showed him a major need in the West Bank.
“Then back in the U.S. we were contacted by the Tim Tebow Foundation that wanted to fund something here, but needed boots on the ground,” Laurie said.
This auspicious timing lined up with their research. David said they had found that scant governmental and private support in the Palestinian Authority – and a society that tends to hide its citizens with special needs – resulted in hardship on the families of people with disabilities.
The caretaking responsibilities usually falls disproportionately on the mother. Many times, the mother cannot even leave the house to shop because no one else can care for a child who is either bedridden or homebound.
“We felt that in Ramallah the tremendous burden is on the mom,” David said. “The moms are just absolutely at a breaking point.”
Currently, Johnny’s Kids is a mobile service. Local Palestinians working with the organization visit the homes of 40 participants who suffer from various syndromes and congenital diseases.
The goal, however, is to get a building where the participants can come for a program similar to the one in Haiti. Then the parents will be able to drop off their child for a day program, thereby freeing up the families to do other things.
“The benefit is going to be seen mainly in the mothers after we find a center,” David said.
Dr. David Vanderpool in Haiti (Photo: Sara Kauss)
Both in Haiti and now in Ramallah, a further aim of LiveBeyond is to help people with disabilities integrate into – and be accepted by – mainstream society, David said. While it may take years to get someone to a point of independence, it could take even longer for society to accept them as well.
Laurie’s family is a model of this unconditional acceptance. Her family treated Johnny – the middle child between four sisters – no differently despite his challenges. Her father, Gene Stallings, a legendary coach in both the National Football League and for college teams, wrote about experiences in his memoir, “Another Season: A Coach’s Story of Raising an Exceptional Son.” Johnny was a fixture at games wherever Stallings coached and the family became advocates for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.
And now through LiveBeyond, the Vanderpools combine David’s medical skills with Laurie’s personal experience and empathy to transform the lives of others. Several testimonies have already emerged from their work in Haiti. One child had been left on a mat since he was born and couldn’t even sit or lift his head when they met him. After intensive therapy and care, the boy was able to feed himself, pull himself up to standing and even start walking.
“It has been one of the most gratifying things in my life to see this,” Laurie said.
Laurie said results have a ripple effect. It has served to erase some of the stigma attached to disabilities. During their time off, some of the staff members now visit people with disabilities, take them out, bathe them if needed and bringing them in to their own homes.
“It increases wonderful values in the community, it opens hearts – and changes hearts,” David said. “It promotes kindness and charity.”
They are hoping to see similar results among Palestinians as Johnny’s Kids expands.
“We are focused on poverty relief and making kids’ lives better – that is our mission,” David said.
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