Ten years ago, I was out of graduate school and beginning a career in counseling. I was eager to put to use my newly honed skills working with families and children who had experienced trauma. Ten years ago, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, devastating the entire island and killing 230,000 people. These two facts would converge in a way that allowed me to see first-hand the resilience of children and families in a way that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
In the days after the earthquake, I was glued to the news wishing I could help. Living in Boulder, Colorado at the time, it seemed unlikely that I could do much more than donate to the Red Cross. I belonged to several crisis response groups through Facebook and other social media networks. A week after the earthquake, I received a message. There was a group in Colorado organizing to rescue children from an orphanage, God’s Littlest Angels, that had been nearly destroyed in the earthquake. Many of the children were already in the process of being adopted by parents in the United States. This process can oftentimes be a lengthy, years long process. Adoptive parents in Colorado and the larger region knew that their children had been in an earthquake, had survived, and were in continued danger from aftershocks, lack of electricity or safe drinking water, and growing potential of disease and illness. These parents were working to petition the U.S. government to expedite their children’s visas and adoptions so they could bring them safely home. With airports closed to just about everyone except military and humanitarian relief, they also needed to figure out how to transport these children safely out of Haiti. This could take days or weeks, but however long it would take, these parents knew that they and their children would need the support of mental health professionals to ease that transition in the midst of crisis.
In crisis work, I have been trained to have a bag packed and be ready to leave on a moments notice. Still, responding to a crisis call for the first time was a jolt of adrenaline. I received the message to head to Miami to help with the care and transport of Haitian orphans on a cold morning, January 20, 2010; I was on a plane by 3:30pm. Upon arrival at the Miami International Airport, I walked through the terminal toward a waiting room full of expectant, adopting parents. The children in Haiti had yet to leave the orphanage and miles of red tape had yet to be untangled. I had the feeling that the next couple of days and nights would be sleepless for all of us. The parents set up camp in a waiting area set aside for them. They had photos of their children spread on the floor in front of them. Families who had never met before were sharing stories, crying, laughing, and praying together. The nervous apprehension was palpable in the room.
Along with another therapist, I spent time with parents answering questions. They wanted to know how this experience might impact their son or daughter. They wanted to know how to help soothe them and ease them into this dramatically new life. We explained to parents how it would be normal for their child to regress developmentally for a short time: toddlers might want bottles again, toilet trained children might need diapers again, preschoolers might want pacifiers–and we assured them that this was healthy and normal response. Mostly, however, we listened. We wiped tears and held hands. We sat with them as they prayed. We held safe space for them.
When we weren’t with the parents, we were setting up a room for the children when they arrived. Upon arrival, the children would wait in one room and their parents would wait in the room next door. Each family would proceed through the expedited visa process one family at a time. This means that even after what would be 36 hours of waiting in the airport for the children to safely arrive in the United States, it would take more than 12 more hours for the children to go through customs and then to process each family. In the children’s waiting room, we covered the floors with baby blankets and play mats. Each blanket had baby bottles of water, pacifiers, and soft toys to cuddle. The walls were lined with clean clothes, diapers, soap, washcloths, and snacks. My colleague and I had gathered volunteers to help us welcome the children and the orphanage staff who were traveling with them. We needed volunteers to hold babies and provide a safe space for scared children. Volunteers who were willing to sing songs, be silly, and play games. We also needed volunteers to give respite to exhausted and traumatized orphanage caregivers who had protected these children through unbelievable terror. We had airline reservation personnel to Dade County Police to airport restaurant workers giving time to sit with the children.
As I reflect on that time, I have to tell you I lose track of the hours. Deep in the airport, I couldn’t tell what time of day it was, let alone how long I had been awake. I was astonished at the strength and energy of the parents. They would take turns sleeping on the floor so that someone was always awake waiting for news. We finally received word that the children had made their way through customs and would be entering the waiting area with their caregivers. I still have a hard time putting into words my time with these survivors and heroes. I will never forget the nurse who was so exhausted she slid down the wall, still holding the sick infant she was caring for. It took a bit of time to convince her it was ok to let me hold the baby so she could go to the restroom, get some water, and eat some food. She sobbed when she handed me that sweet, tiny, feverish baby. She had made it.
As the hours went by, the room slowly emptied out. One of the greatest honors of my life was to carry these babies and walk these children over to their parents so they could take them in their arms. Ten years ago. I still follow most of these families on Facebook. I have watched them grow up and thrive. And I will continue to do so. They are indelible on my heart.