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A Wheelchair, a Mountain, a Castle and a Dream

Sibille Buehlmann is a representative of the Swiss Paraplegic foundation, currently living in Cap Haitien and working with the rehab centre at HCBH. Here she recounts her experience of taking rehab patients up to the Citadelle for the first time.

Since we've been working with Spinal Cord Injured people in Haiti, we've had a dream of one day being able to take them to the top of the Citadelle, in wheelchairs. Situated about an hour from Cap-Haitian on top of a mountain, this fortress is one of Haiti's most famous historic landmarks and a sight that Haitians as well as foreigners enjoy visiting.

Last month, we were finally able to make this event come true for the first time. It started when we were asked to participate in a race to the top. It was thought to be for runners, but we decided to take four of our rehab patients on this experience. It's impossible for a wheelchair user to push himself to the top on his own; the climb is too steep and the road made from rocks of all sizes too uneven to manage without any help.

So, we decided to partner with another organization that would help us achieve our goal. Our friends from Streethearts, a project helping young men and boys get off the streets of Cap Haitien, agreed to partner with us. As a part of their community service project, they were introduced to what it means to be in a wheelchair and how you can help someone move around in it safely.

We teamed up 3-4 able bodied boys with one wheelchair user and started our way up to the top. We left before the official race started as we knew we would take a lot longer than the actual runners. Even though I tried to explain to everyone not to go 100% from the beginning, everyone wanted to be at the top first and started running and pushing (I was a little afraid someone would fall from their chair! They were doing great, I think almost everyone forgot to actually take a look at the beautiful view from time to time because they wanted to make it to the top as quickly as possible. But sure enough, we had to slow down a little bit as the chairs were heavier than everyone thought to push uphill in the hot Haitian sun. The boys took turns pushing and the guys in the chairs were working their arms hard to help them.

Yes, we made it! All we could see at the top were huge smiles on everyone's faces! To see two such vulnerable groups of people achieve a goal like this together was very moving to me. Kids from the streets who don't know anything about disabilities, and disabled people trusting these young men to do something no one has ever done was great! I was so proud of every single one of them!

After regaining some strength in the shade and chugging some water, we decided to tackle the many stairs make it all the way up. The beautiful view all the way to the ocean was a great reward.

The descent was going to be easy, you'd think. One of the most heard questions at the top was all downhill and they have wheels, so we don't have to push, right

Well, it turned out that it was a little harder than everybody thought. Holding the chairs on their back wheels almost all the way down and trying to not speed and control the wheelchair was the final task of the day before we made it safely back to our vehicles.

This trip was a great experience for everyone. We got stares, people asking us why we would do something crazy like this, telling us wheelchair users didn't need to go up there. But we also got a lot of thumbs up, encouraging words and smiles, people offering to help.

The most important message of the day was made very clear to everyone that was there on that day: Even if you are labelled by people in your own country as hopeless, if we work together, anything is possible!