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On the High Wire of Life, Love Sustains

New America Media, News Feature, Text: Khalil Abdullah // Photos: Joseph Rodriguez Posted: Jun 16, 2008

Editor's Note: In Miami, a single mother struggles to support a disabled son on a diminishing patchwork of government benefits, sustained by faith and joy in her child. This is one in a series of portraits of families around the country who are involved in the Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign), a national initiative aimed at lifting the voices of working families and developing a national platform based on their concerns. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Khalil Abdullah is a Washington, D.C., based editor for NAM.

MIAMI -- At 12 years old, Christopher Coupet is wheelchair-bound and has limited control over his body. He faces other challenges as well, but lack of a mothers unconditional love is not one of them.

His mother Carolle Coupet did need some assistance, however, in order to get Christopher situated at the Equal Voice for Americas Families town hall meeting in Miami.

Staff from the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center held open the side door at the top of the ramp and wheeled Christopher down the long hallway of the Episcopal Holy Comforter Church. Once through the doorway of the transept (the aisle forming the short side of the cross in a churchs floor plan) they helped lift Christopher into a pew.
CoupetCarolle Coupet sits with Christopher on her lap in a church
pew during Miamis town hall meeting.

For a good portion of the morning, Carolle Coupet patiently held Christopher on her lap. Christopher could have remained in the aisle in his wheelchair, but it would have been far more difficult for his mother to whisper, as she was observed doing, a few calming words into his ear when he became restless.

The Coupets and almost 200 other attendees listened as speakers from community organizations outlined challenges and offered solutions to issues besetting South Floridas neighborhoods and psyches. Equal Voice, with the support of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, has been convening town hall meetings throughout the year across the country to bring into focus the lives of low-income Americans.

After the town hall concluded, Coupet agreed to talk about her life as a widow and a single mother. She spoke though Carole Wilson, an interpreter contracted to provide translation services in French for the Haitian community at the event.

After Coupet left Haiti, she headed to Canada where a deeply rooted Haitian migr community offered employment opportunities for Creole-only speakers like herself. For three years, Coupet worked as a live-in caregiver for a Haitian family in Montreal.

There is a stark contrast between Caribbean climes of Haiti and the chill of Quebec. When asked why she left for the United States, her initial response was that Canada was too cold, an answer often veiling the circumstances resulting from meager salaries that render immigrants unable to afford heating fuel or a warm winter wardrobe. But it was the chill of her employers, who Coupet said became abusive toward her, that prompted her to once more pull up stakes.

I was no longer being treated fairly, she said. The employer-employee relationship devolved from one of acceptance and welcome to a terrible dynamic Coupet chose not to tolerate.

Coupet moved to Florida and soon married. Her husband worked at Anderson News, a Miami-based wholesale distributor of books, newspapers and magazines. He, too, was from Haiti, and had two children still living there from a previous marriage. Christopher was to be his third child.

It was a difficult pregnancy, Coupet recalled. She said Christopher has cerebral palsy, a broad term for a number of non-progressive medical conditions. In Christophers case, Coupet said her son suffered oxygen deficiency to one side of his brain during premature birth. His speech and movement were affected.

When Christophers father died in 2005, Coupet filed for public assistance. Between the monthly disbursement she received as a widow and her sons disability check, she has managed to patch together a functional life around Christophers daily schedule.
CoupetsKarine Auguste, a counselor at Sant La, listens to Carolle
Coupet (left) as Christopher waits in his wheelchair.

Christopher is enrolled as a fifth grade student at Merrick Middle School, a public school that provides him with special education training and assistance.

When he goes to school, thats when I have to run my errands. Sometimes I go to school for English, she said, adding that time for herself is limited as she is Christophers full-time caregiver. I dont have anybody to help me; I cant go to work. Her rudimentary English skills makes it that much tougher.

Now she is facing an additional financial challenge, in part because Coupets deceased husbands two children have moved from Haiti to the United States. This made them eligible to receive a portion of the survivors benefits, resulting in a net reduction to Coupets monthly income.

Even with food stamps, after the cost of rent and public transportation are subtracted from the Coupets combined funds, there is no margin for unexpected expenses, and Carolle Coupet has had health challenges of her own. Primarily dependent on Americas social insurance safety net, hers is not a unique struggle--a tightrope journey made yet more difficult by circumstance and fate.

Coupet said she had several reasons for coming to the town hall meeting. Sant La [Haitian Neighborhood Center] has done a lot for me and I wanted to show my support, she said. She also came to learn what resources were available for Christopher and to make it known about the challenges that she and others like her are facing. I need help and I wanted my voice to be heard.

Coupet said it is unlikely she will attend the Birmingham town hall in September because of the cost and difficulty of providing the necessary arrangements to assure Christophers comfort.

Yet, when Carolle Coupet speaks about her son, the worlds harsher edges recede. The translator can barely keep pace as Coupet becomes animated in describing Christophers delight at seeing his best friend Albert in school; how he loves to go for a ride in a car, or how he throws his head back and lets loose an exclamation of joy.

Christopher's exclamation reverberated a few times in the Episcopal Holy Comforter Church during the town hall meeting. Christophers disability prevents him from speaking, but his is an equal voice also, soul-filled with the miracle of love and life.

Photos Joseph Rodriguez/New America Media

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