The poverty may have been mind-numbing for Niskayuna’s James Roche, but when it came to dealing with the children, he felt right at home.
“You can only prepare for it so much,” said Roche, a engineering major at Catholic University in Washington and one of 14 students from the college to perform mission work last May in the inner city of Kingston, Jamaica. “It’s really sad that people have to live like that. It’s quite different than growing up in a nice suburb in the U.S.”
Roche and his classmates spent two weeks in Kingston in 2013, working largely with a population of developmentally disabled people, most of them children. This year, he is returning to Jamaica at the end of the spring semester for 10 days to serve as the leader of another student group.
Typically, students are only allowed one mission trip during their time at Catholic University, but Roche is an exception. Having recently lost his 29-year-old sister, who suffered from cerebral palsy and intractable seizure disorder, Roche’s life experience makes him too valuable of a resource for the school not to take advantage of again.
“I don’t know if scared is the right word, but a lot of people don’t know how to handle someone who is disabled,” he said. “Last year, you could tell some in our group were a little hesitant to get started. But when I saw those children, I just jumped right in.”
On Nov. 20, Caitlyn Roche died on her 29th birthday. Her brother hopes to honor her memory by returning in May to the Missionaries of the Poor in Jamaica with a check for $29,000 — $1,000 for each year of his sister’s life.
The youngest of four sons of Mark and Pat Roche, James is home from school for the holidays. He had also hurried back to the area in November to be at his sister’s bedside when she died. He is to return to Catholic University on Jan. 13.
“I was never really aware of how my life was different because of my sister, and it was only a few years ago that I realized how difficult it was for my parents and how well they handled my sister and how much they loved her,” said James Roche. “She touched people. We learned a lot from her, and I learned a lot from the people in Kingston. It’s quite humbling.”
Bethlehem House was created in 2001 and serves as a safe haven for disabled children in Kingston, a city of more than 900,000 people. It is run by the Missionaries of the Poor, a Roman Catholic group started by Father Richard Ho Lung in Jamaica in 1981. About 60 children live at Bethlehem House, and the group has five other mission homes in Jamaica. The group receives no government funding, instead relying strictly on a small staff, Roman Catholic seminarians, volunteers and fundraising to maintain its presence.
“Our volunteers aren’t trained,” said Jane Rodgers, a spokeswoman with the Missionaries of the Poor headquarters in Atlanta. “All they have is an open heart, and they are directed by the Lord to do the best they can. They assist our brothers that are there, and it might be something as simple as bathing and feeding people.”
Sometimes, according to Roche, more is asked of the volunteers than they can deliver.
“If you had some medical knowledge, you could be a big help,” said Roche, who is spending his holiday break interning at Guth Deconzo Consulting Engineers in Troy. “I remember a couple of times when they were asking us if anybody was a nursing student or on their way to becoming doctors. They needed that kind of help, but all we could do was a little tutoring. We really didn’t have any of those special skills.”
According to his mother, Roche’s experience in Jamaica last year made him better appreciate his sister’s circumstances in Niskayuna.
“In the early years, James thought that everybody had nurses and teachers and therapists around the house,” Pat Roche said. “When he came back from Jamaica last year, I think it was the first time in his life he realized how lucky Catie was to be raised by a good family. We’re not saints, but she was well taken care of, and he never would have thought of Catie as being lucky.”
James Roche’s work in Jamaica and his eagerness to return didn’t come as a shock to Brother Jim Moore, the Catholic University administrator who directs the school’s mission program.
“James is a great young man with a very loving and compassionate heart,” Moore said. “His work with me on the mission trip to Jamaica last year proved to me the kind of young man he truly is. He loved his sister very much, and when I found out that he was raising money for the home for disabled children we visited, I was not surprised.”
Mark and Pat Roche met while students at SUNY Plattsburgh. Mark, a 1971 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake graduate, and Pat, who graduated from Suffern High School in Rockland County the same year, were married in 1977 and moved back to the Capital Region, where Mark Roche began working as a computer programmer at General Electric in Schenectady.
Pat Roche, who also earned a nursing degree from Maria College in Albany, gave birth to their first son, Mark, in 1978, and then had two more boys in the next four years, Paul and Matthew. Then, in 1984, Caitlyn came along. But while her older brothers had grown up running track and playing football, Caitlyn never had the opportunity to be an athlete.
“We had a doctor who was known as being quite blunt, and he told us that Caitlyn was no minor miracle,” said Pat Roach. “Before her second birthday, he told us that she should be totally physically and mentally dependent.”
Caitlyn’s first few years were her best, according to Pat Roche. As difficult as it was for her to deal with cerebral palsy and partial paralysis on her left side, the seizures made life miserable for Caitlyn.
“She’d have a seizure pretty much every day, and on a bad day she could have three or four,” said Mark Roche. “It was definitely debilitating. Her whole body would be shaking. Then, after being wiped out from that, another one would start.”
Still, the Roche family tried to include their daughter in everything they did.
“We always had the idea that whatever we did, we brought Caitlyn along with us,” Mark Roche said. “We bring her to the movies with us, to a restaurant, on vacation. It got to be more and more difficult the last few years.”
Caitlyn walked with assistance most of her life, earned an Individualized Education Program diploma from Niskayuna High School and on her best days could communicate a bit with the family and others.
Caitlyn was hospitalized quite often in the final years of her life, but her death still caught the family off guard. Leaving St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany after Caitlyn died at 10:33 a.m. that Wednesday morning, Pat and Mark Roche both thought of the first time they left St. Peter’s without her — on Nov. 20, 1984.
“I had a C-section with Catie, and I didn’t want to leave the hospital without her, but they said, ‘You’ve got to go,’ ” said Pat Roche. “So we left St. Peter’s without her, and then we walked out without her again in November on the same day. I was crying, but I also felt the timing was like a gift from God. It was just her time.”
Mark and Pat Roche are longtime members of St. John’s the Evangelist Church in Schenectady, and they agree that their experience with Caitlyn has deepened their faith. For Mark, the passage in Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” offered some comfort.
“We’d do the same thing every day, and she would never get any better,” said Mark Roche. “You would wonder, ‘What sense does any of this make?’ It was that one passage where Christ talks about ‘the least brothers of mine’ that was the only thing that made sense to me.”
“There were plenty of tough moments, times when you felt like you were being pushed to the brink, but there were also good ones,” his wife added. “Even when I had to get up in the middle of the night and go clean her and change her, you always felt good at the end. You’d position her and get her all set, and she would give you this big smile. We don’t miss her disability, but we miss her presence.”
For James Roche, who was a linebacker and captain of his Niskayuna varsity football team, the example set by his parents provides a lofty standard he hopes to match in his lifetime.
“When I saw some fliers about the mission trip at school, one of my friends encouraged me to apply, and I was fortunate enough to get accepted into the group,” he said. “I haven’t thought about it much, but I probably got that from my parents. And then, when I got asked to go back to Jamaica and be a leader, that was because dealing with kids with disabilities was easier for me because I grew up with Caitlyn. I guess she was lucky in some ways, because what my parents did was amazing.”
The Roche family has collected just more than $7,000 so far in their effort to raise $29,000 for Bethlehem House. Anyone wishing to donate can send a check made out to “Missionaries of the Poor” in care of Mark and Pat Roche, 678 St. Marks Lane, Schenectady, NY 12309.