The Long Journey Home

Echo and Wisler

Three years ago, in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake, the U.S. government began granting humanitarian parole visas to children then on track for adoption – permitting them to join their adoptive families in the U.S. At Holt Fontana Village, all but two children received visas. Earlier this month, the two remaining children finally traveled to the U.S. – becoming the first Holt children to come home from Haiti since the 21 who arrived on humanitarian parole in 2010.

On January 12, 2013, a woman and her two adopted children step off an American Airlines flight in Portland, Oregon – completing the last leg of a journey that began, 23 hours earlier, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Seeing a camera, four-year-old Wislender – or “Wisler” – flashes a smile from where he sits in his mother’s arms, his legs firmly clasped around her heavy winter coat. Trailing behind them is Wisler’s older sister Beatrice, a high-spirited 7-going-on-8-year-old who bounces around in a long skirt and Mary Jane shoes. Everyone seems happy to be home – and most of all, together.

On this same day three years ago – January 12, 2010 – a 7.0-maginitude earthquake wrought massive destruction in the already troubled island nation where Beatrice and Wislender were born. In minutes, an estimated 230,000 people were dead. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians became homeless. Unthinkable numbers of children became orphans.

At the time of the earthquake, Holt was already caring for 25 orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children at the Holt Fontana Village – a care center north of Port-au-Prince and the center of a comprehensive child service program that Holt developed alongside Peter and Shay Fontana in 2003. After several agonizing hours, staff at Holt’s headquarters in Eugene, Oregon received notice that the village’s buildings were not damaged in the quake, and all the children and caregivers were safe.

In the days that followed the January 12th earthquake – considered the worst natural disaster to ever hit the Western hemisphere – the U.S. government granted humanitarian parole visas to over 1,000 Haitian children, expediting their adoptions so they could join their adoptive families in the U.S. Among the children granted visas were 21 of the 25 children in care at the Holt Fontana Village.

Four children remained behind. Of these four, two – a pair of siblings – were already matched with their adoptive family, but weren’t far enough along in the process for them to go home on humanitarian parole visas. These children were Beatrice and Wislender. When they finally traveled to the U.S. earlier this month on January 12th – exactly three years to the day of the earthquake – they would be the first Holt children to come home from Haiti since the 21 who arrived on humanitarian parole visas in 2010.

Beatrice at the Portland airport, January 12, 2013.
Beatrice at the Portland airport, January 12, 2013.

“It’s really exciting,” says Lisa Vertulfo, Holt’s vice president of adoption services, of Beatrice and Wislender’s homecoming.

Three years ago, Lisa traveled to Haiti to help process paperwork and prepare the children at Holt Fontana Village for the journey home to their adoptive families in the U.S. With few planes traveling to Haiti in the aftermath of the quake, Holt chartered a flight from Miami for Lisa, Bruce Dahl, then Holt’s director of programs in Haiti, and Mike Noah, Holt’s director of adoption services for Haiti. They flew into Port-au-Prince on January 22nd, ten days after the quake, and headed north for the little seaside town that’s home to the Holt Fontana Village.

Before leaving for Haiti, Mike and Lisa collected a couple dozen bright orange backpacks so the children could pack their belongings – including one for Beatrice (Wislender, then not yet 2, was too young to carry a backpack). They knew it was a slim possibility, but Mike and Lisa held out hope that Beatrice and Wislender might be able to leave Haiti with the other children. Like all of the Holt children who received humanitarian parole visas, they too had a loving family waiting for them in the U.S. – a single woman from Salem, Oregon, ready to become a single mother.

Half a World Away, a Loving Mother Waits

Echo Hobbs began looking into adoption in 2008, right after her 35th birthday. “I had just turned 35 and was unmarried and wanted a family,” says Echo, a devout Catholic with long, honey-colored hair and a warm, embracing manner. After exploring several different adoption tracks and country programs open to single mothers, she decided on Haiti. “Once I stumbled into the Haiti program, everything fell into place,” she says. She found the people beautiful and the culture fascinating, and she knew a natural interest in her children’s culture would help her to teach them about their heritage. “But mostly,” says Echo, “I think all those things lined up because that’s where God put it in my heart to go.”

As a single mother who owns her own business, Echo also realized that she could more easily care for an older child than a baby. She also expressed openness to parenting a sibling group. “I thought, if I adopt two, at least they’ll have each other. But if I adopt one, I can send them to a better college,” she says, laughing. “It finally came down to that – that they would have each other.” In the spring of 2009, she began the process to adopt through Holt’s Haiti program. She enrolled in parent education courses, which cover such topics as what it means to become an inter-racial family, dealing with multiple losses, bonding and attachment, and began working with a social worker to complete her homestudy.

Once her homestudy was approved, she had completed all the steps required for Holt to match her with a child. A week after the earthquake, on MLK Day, Echo received a call from Mike Noah at Holt. “He said, ‘We’ve been discussing matching you with these kids,” Echo recalls. “‘We may be able to get them home to you next week.’”

Taken aback by this unexpected news, Echo “made a few phone calls and said a few prayers” before deciding to accept Beatrice and Wislender’s referral. Immediately, she began preparing for the possible arrival of two small children.

“Mike knew it was a long shot for the humanitarian parole visas,” says Echo. “But he said he would give it a try.” As anticipated, USCIS concluded that Beatrice and Wislender were too early in the process to expedite their adoption. They would not be coming home with the others.

“Although they had already been relinquished by their birth parents, we hadn’t had a chance to initiate the legal process for their adoption,” Mike explains. “We tried, but were not able to get humanitarian parole visas for them.”

In the days following the January 12th earthquake, Beatrice and Wislender learned that they had a loving mother waiting for them in the U.S. They would just have to wait longer than the other children to join her. “Caregivers told her she would go later, just not right now,” says Lisa of Beatrice, who appeared to take the news relatively well. As for Echo, the timeframe would remain what she expected when she began the process a year before – giving her more time to prepare for her children’s arrival.

Children who received visas wore name tags on their wrists so they wouldn't get lost in transit.
Children who received visas wore name tags on their wrists so they wouldn’t get lost in transit.

For Holt Fontana 21, an Expedited Journey Home

Although disappointed that Beatrice and Wislender did not receive visas, Mike and Lisa had no reason to concern for their safety or wellbeing. “They were being well cared for at Holt Fontana Village,” says Mike.

The Holt Fontana Village is located about 50 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, on a hill that looks out over the sea. Here, groups of ten children live in well-constructed, four-bedroom cottages under the care of a housemother. When the earthquake struck, it rattled the foundation of the village buildings, but caused no damage and no one was hurt. Unlike children in care in Port-au-Prince, which lay a mere 10 miles from the epicenter of the quake, children at the Holt Fontana Village were far removed from the chaos and devastation felt in the nation’s capital. “We knew that the children at the village hadn’t experienced the same level of trauma as the children in Port-au-Prince,” Lisa explains.

When the earthquake hit, Holt’s director of donor engagement, Kris Thompson, was visiting Holt’s programs in Haiti. In her account of the experience for the Holt blog, she wrote that the children “took it in stride.” The greatest sadness felt at the village came later, when some of the caregivers received news that they had lost family members in the quake. “As I am typing this we hear loud cries,” Kris wrote. “One of the care providers just found out two of her family members died last night…it just breaks my heart.”

While staff at Holt knew the children at Holt Fontana Village were safe, getting them home to their families was another matter. “Haiti was in a state of crisis due to the destruction of the quake,” Mike explains. “There was no way to know at the time what might happen to legal processing of cases as a result.” The families in process had already submitted their dossiers to the appropriate Haitian ministries, which now lay buried somewhere under a pile of rubble at the National Archives. Naturally, everyone at Holt felt relieved to hear that the Haitian and U.S. governments agreed to grant humanitarian parole visas to most of the children then in process for adoption.

Holt staff and caregivers with the children at Holt Fontana Village slated to go home on humanitarian parole.
Holt staff and caregivers with the children at Holt Fontana Village slated to go home on humanitarian parole.

While Holt’s staff in Eugene immediately began working around the clock to process the children’s paperwork, Lisa and Mike left for Haiti. “Our purpose was to process paperwork and prepare the children for travel,” says Lisa. “We practiced staying together, and got to know the kids so they wouldn’t be scared traveling.”

In Haiti, Mike and Lisa met up with John Seabrook, an adoptive parent of one of the children at Holt Fontana Village slated to come home on humanitarian parole. Seabrook later wrote about the experience of adopting from Haiti in a piece for The New Yorker magazine that appeared in May 2010. In the article, he describes his trip to meet and bring home his daughter Rose in the aftermath of the earthquake. At one point, he writes about the agonizing wait at the U.S. Embassy to find out when his daughter could come home. “At around three o’clock, the consular officer called [Mike] Noah to Window 3 and told him fourteen of the twenty-one children from the orphanage were on the list,” he writes. “The other seven were still pending. Noah studied the piece of paper for ten excruciating seconds, then looked at me and said, ‘Congratulations, Rose is on it.’ Our group would be flown to Florida the following night, on military transport.”

While Mike stayed behind with the remaining seven children, John Seabrook and Lisa Vertulfo escorted 14 children on the C-5 military transport plane that would take them home to their families. “At times, the kids were scared,” says Lisa. “It was dark and noisy because it was a cargo plane. The plane also moved slower than a commercial flight.” What would take one hour on a commercial flight took three on the military plane, says Lisa. Some of the kids got sick on the bumpy, three-hour journey to Miami. The 4-6 year olds squirmed in their canvas netted seats. Seabrook and his daughter fell asleep.

Once in Miami, the children stayed the night at a child residential center called His House. The following morning, their parents came to take them home. But before they dispersed across the U.S., the children had a chance to say goodbye to each other at a party Holt families and staff held for them at the hotel. “It was good for them to be able to say goodbye,” says Lisa.

While one or two children will every so often leave the Holt Fontana Village to join their families, the departure and separation of 21 children at once was unprecedented for Holt’s Haiti program. At only one other time in Holt’s history has a crisis overseas moved the U.S. government to evacuate children en masse – sending them by military transport to their adoptive families in the U.S. In April 1975, Holt evacuated exactly 409 children from Saigon in what has now famously become known as the “Vietnam Babylift.” Holt’s flight was one of several agency-arranged “babylifts” at the end of the war. It came two days after President Gerald Ford announced that all Vietnamese children currently identified for adoption to U.S. families would be airlifted out of Vietnam.

Lisa escorts 14 of the children home on a military transport plane.
Lisa escorts 14 of the children home on a military transport plane.

A Family of Three, Together at Last

After the rush to unite 21 children with their families in the aftermath of the earthquake, Holt turned to the children and families most impacted by the tragedy. Staff at the village immediately readied cottages for an influx of children in need of temporary care. Holt built several small houses and distributed emergency supplies among families we already served at the time of the quake. To help more families regain stability, our staff in Haiti also expanded Holt’s family preservation program to the region of Jacmel – where approximately 10,000 people lost their homes. As the crisis subsided, Holt began to look toward more sustainable solutions – developing programs such as vocational training and educational assistance to help families achieve self-reliance, and equip them to support their children in the long-term.

While many children came into care at the village after the earthquake, Holt delayed processing of new adoption cases. With local infrastructure devastated, Holt staff needed time to assess how the process may have changed in light of the quake’s damage. About a year later, in 2011, Holt resumed adoption services from Haiti – matching all children eligible for adoption from the Holt Fontana Village.

Although Holt halted any new adoption cases, our staff continued the process for Beatrice and Wislender. Beatrice, only 4 when the quake hit, soon became one of the oldest children at the village. After the quake, many children entered care temporarily while their families worked to regain stability. As children came and went, Beatrice took on a leadership role of sorts – guiding and directing the younger ones. Sarah Halfman, Holt’s director of programs for Haiti, would often visit the village. Every time, Beatrice would come running and call her name. “Beatrice,” she says, “had one of the most vivacious personalities at the village.”

Beatrice at Holt Fontana Village, August 2012.
Beatrice at Holt Fontana Village, August 2012.

In the three years it took for Beatrice and Wislender to come home, their mom visited twice – giving them a chance to bond a little. Echo wrote cards and sent photos of the three of them together. As the day approached when Echo would travel to finally take them home with her, Wislender told Sarah all about how his mom was coming and they were going to fly on an airplane.

At last, Beatrice and Wislender would come home. On a balmy Caribbean winter day, three years after the earthquake that devastated their birth country, they boarded a regular Boeing 737 with windows that looked out over a peaceful Port-au-Prince. Twenty-three hours and three connections later, they landed in a new world. At first, everything scared them – “the dogs, the cats, the coffee grinder, everything,” says Echo. Not yet at ease with their surroundings, Beatrice and Wislender still sleep together in the same bed at night. “But just in the last few days,” says Echo, “they’ve made leaps and bounds in adjusting to their new environment.” In two weeks, they start school. This is good, their mom says, as they do better when they are around other kids.

“It’s definitely a change and overwhelming for all of us and we have these great moments where they’re lovey and huggy and kissy, and moments where it’s a two-hour screaming fit,” she says. “I don’t expect the rewards to come right now.”

Right now, she is just happy to have them home.

Echo helps Wisler put on his winter coat as they prepare to go home.
Echo helps Wisler put on his winter coat as they prepare to go home.

Holt’s international adoption program from Haiti is currently undergoing many changes due to Haiti’s recent ratification of the Hague Convention. Haiti’s central authority for international adoption – IBESR – will now play a major role in the matching of children with adoptive applicants. Until IBESR makes known details of how their new child referral system will work, families interested in adopting from Haiti are encouraged to contact Mike Noah, Holt’s Director of Services for Haiti, before applying.

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