Year after airlift to Pa., Haitian children thrive

Dania Brock is no longer afraid to go to the bathroom at night. The rats that haunted the outhouse in Haiti can't get her in Georgia.

Dania Brock is no longer afraid to go to the bathroom at night. The rats that haunted the outhouse in Haiti can't get her in Georgia.

Ketia Brenner is learning three languages — English, Spanish and Hebrew — and spends Friday nights eating popcorn and drinking root beer by the fireplace in Seattle.

And Jimmy Lepp, once the unofficial "mayor" of his Port-au-Prince orphanage, is saving money for a dirt bike and learning to play the drums in Colville, Wash.

One year after crossing over a body-filled Haitian ravine and singing hymns to stay calm on their flight to Pittsburgh, they and 51 other children rescued a week after the historic Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake are, for the most part, thriving.

And they're learning to be part of something they haven't had in years, if ever — a family.

"They have done better than I would have ever dared to dream," says Diana Boni, the adoption coordinator with Owensboro, Ky.-based All Blessings International who worked with the 54 children and the Pittsburgh siblings who had helped run their orphanage as volunteers.

The Pennsylvania airlift was the first of many that would, over four months, bring some 1,100 Haitian children to waiting U.S. families.

Ranging from 11 months to 16 years old, most whisked away in the hastily arranged Pittsburgh flight knew their adoptive families before the quake. The parents had spent months or years taking classes, reading books and visiting Haiti to prepare.

Yet for the children, there was still a sense of loss: They'd been happy and adored at the orphanage. They'd lived with dozens of playmates. Some, born into poverty and given up by their birth families out of love and necessity, even saw relatives occasionally.

But after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake flattened countless buildings and killed an estimated 316,000 people, Port-au-Prince sank into desperation and violence. Food and water were scarce. Shots rang out beyond the orphanage walls, forcing frightened children to lie still on the floor.

The orphanage staff worked with people back home, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, to arrange the daring rescue mission that involved the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. And in just a week, they made that bus ride over the ravine.

"They saw that," says Boni, "and the older they were, the more traumatized they were by that."

But they knew where they were going and who would take them in. They trusted in what they'd been told.

"They were ready to believe," Boni says, "that in the United States, we don't run out of water."

Critics, however, screamed that proper procedures were circumvented and some children were taken without their birth families' permission. The U.S. government says it facilitated only cases it could confirm had been approved by the Haitian government, offering children "humanitarian parole" to protect the integrity of nearly 1,000 legitimate adoptions.

But among those who landed in Pittsburgh on Jan. 19 were a dozen children who had not been through the adoption process and did not have new homes — 12 children who should have been left behind, critics say, until it was clear their relatives had consented.

"You can't make good decisions when there are such extreme circumstances," said Felicity Northcott, director of the Arthur C. Helton Institute for the Study of International Social Service in Baltimore. "... Proper procedure needs to be followed in all cases."

Imagine, she says, the outcry if German missionaries had flown to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and taken 12 children to Europe.

"I can't imagine we'd feel comfortable with people from another country saying, 'Well, the U.S. has a terrible record with child welfare ... and it's in the children's best interest,'" Northcott said.

Seven of those 12 now have families around the country and are said to be doing well. Only one adoption failed: A 13-year-old boy with severe emotional trauma from the quake and underlying psychiatric issues remains in federal custody in Miami, where he's being treated while officials try to find a foster family.

Boni says the boy, nearly catatonic from the quake, had threatened his new family, drawing violent pictures and exhibiting "extreme distress."

"They truly tried everything possible to keep him in a home environment," she says.

The other four children remain at the Holy Family Institute's orphanage in Emsworth, Pa., where they're looked after by Creole-speaking staff and trauma counselors, attend public school and await family matches. Sister Linda Yankoski, the institute's president, says they could move to new homes within weeks.

"They will just blossom that much more in an intimate family setting, with a mom and dad and bothers and sisters who will be able to take them to the next step," she says.

Though some critics accused Rendell of political grandstanding with the airlift, that's not how first-time parents Ross Haskell and Jean Griffith see it.

"It was no longer a question of adoption," says Haskell, "It was a question of rescue."

The couple from Wichita, Kan., had been matched with baby Alexander since April 2009, visiting him in Port-au-Prince every two or three months.

Now 2½, he is one of the true orphans, abandoned at birth. He's learning English and Creole with the help of a Haitian tutor.

Last summer, while visiting relatives in Philadelphia, the family met with Rendell. It was private, in a city park, without news cameras.

"Governor Rendell was interested in one thing — knowing how our son had grown since he'd last seen him," Griffith says. "Difficult, perhaps, for some to believe in this era of distrust of politicians, but there it is."

Rendell says now he was compelled to help, not only because his constituents needed it but because he was touched by the devastation "just as a citizen of the world."

And Haiti, besieged by unsanitary conditions, a wave of cholera that has killed thousands, lack of housing and other problems, has even greater adoption needs now.

Boni, who adopted five children from Haiti long before the quake and has coordinated U.S. adoptions there since 2003, says more women are dying in childbirth. Men are showing up at orphanages with babies they can't afford to feed.

There's a widespread — but mistaken — belief that Haiti is no longer allowing adoptions, Boni said, but she has 50 children awaiting families.

The adoptions are slow and stressful, taking 18-24 months. But to the new families, it's worth it.

Catrina and Nathan Brock of Toccoa, Ga., believed 8-year-old Dania would be OK in her new life from their first day together. As tired as she was, she sang quietly in the back seat during the long drive home from Pittsburgh.

Dania, who never had formal schooling, now attends first grade and plays with three brothers who are 9, 11 and 13. She's bright and creative, her mother says, always drawing, reading and joking.

"That first month after she came back, I kept looking for signs. I kept waiting. I had read tons of books and was just watching for the red flags. And it kind of never did happen," Catrina says. "After month four, I just said, 'No, there's not going to be anything. It's all good.'"

But it's not always that easy.

Just as 9-year-old Ketia Brenner must learn to be a daughter, her single, first-time mother Laura Brenner is learning to be a parent.

Unlike many involved in the airlift, the two had never met. Laura had a plane ticket to Haiti for Jan. 15 — three days after the earthquake. On Jan. 19, the two stared at each other in an empty room in Pittsburgh, unable to speak each other's language.

"She says now, 'You looked scared of me, Mom,'" Brenner recalls. "And I was."

They went shopping for a winter coat and shoes, then headed across the country to Seattle.

Ketia is in third grade at a private school. On Friday nights, they turn off the electronics, light a fire and catch up on their week. They laugh and dance.

They also go to counseling.

Ketia struggles with explosive anger that her mother believes stems from fear of being abandoned again. Ketia's father died, and her birth mother gave up all legal rights, leaving Ketia to spend three years in the orphanage.

"It's kind of like an arranged marriage, in a way," Laura says. "There's no divorce, of course, but we really, really had to learn who each other are, and how to learn to love each other and take care of each other."

Nearly six hours away, in the small Washington town of Colville, 12-year-old Jimmy Lepp is learning to be a son.

At the orphanage, he mediated disputes between younger children. He was used to being in charge. So when Brian and Debbie Lepp took him out in public, he didn't understand why he couldn't run off without saying where he was headed.

"He had to learn boundaries. He had to be reminded a lot," Debbie says.

Older siblings, Kyle, 22, and Emilee, 21, are already out of the house, so Jimmy is also learning to live as an only child. He's in third grade at the private Christian school where Debbie teaches, getting individual instruction.

On the telephone, he speaks so quickly his words run together.

He loves his full-size bed, he says. His feet dangled off the crib-sized mattress at the orphanage. He loves his four cats, his video games and his new family.

But there's that other family he sometimes wonders about — his birth mother in Haiti and two younger siblings he never lived with.

It took months to get his mother on the phone. When they finally spoke, Jimmy had forgotten so much Creole they couldn't understand each other well.

"I miss my friends in Haiti," he says softly. "And my sister and my mom and all my family. I miss all them."

He worries about them.

"I might go to visit," he says. "But I won't stay."


Smith reported from Morgantown, W.Va. Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed reporting.

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