At the end of orphans' scary journey, a Haitian oasis

Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 7:09 AM
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FOND PARISIEN, Haiti -- After a tense week at their crumbling orphanage in Port-au-Prince, the dozen children protected by Lifechurch volunteers were evacuated on Monday afternoon to a beautiful orphanage 40 minutes away, nearer the Dominican border. Two of the men and two women stayed behind for the night to guard their food, generator and other supplies.

The security situation deteriorated quickly at the Rescue Children orphanage early in the day, with scowling men knocking on the gate demanding food. And looters showed up for the first time in the Santo neighborhood, about a mile northeast of the Port-au-Prince airport.

The men from Lifechurch, in Allentown, Pa., packed a hired truck with two big bottles of water, clothes and the tent that the children had slept in since the quake a week ago. After a hurried lunch of potatoes and carrots, 12 children piled into their SUV and the truck, along with senior pastor Randy Landis, “house father” David Harris and “mama” Regina Benoit.

Rescue Children orphanage in Haiti
David Friedman /
Mission leader Ramon Crespo says goodbye to Roger, 9, before the children and staff of Rescue Children orphanage evacuate their compound.

“Don't let Pastor Randy come back for us after dark,” whispered mission director Ramon Crespo, “and tell my wife not to come.”

Crespo stayed behind with church volunteer handyman Ramon Morales and house mothers Anita Delcine and Mama Ketteley. The plan was to return to pick up the two women, but for the two Ramons to stay the night, providing security for the rest of the belongings they had collected in the few months of running the orphanage.

Yes, Crespo said, he understood that nothing at the house was worth his life. But he couldn't leave, not with the generator and the food still there. And he said he wanted to keep the damaged house secure from looters so it could be handed back over to the owner's attorney properly.

Outside the gate, for the first time the children saw the collapsed houses of their neighborhood, including one just down the street where three people died. "Oh, look at that one," they said repeatedly in  Creole.

INTERACTIVE: Meet the children

The caravan passed out of Port-au-Prince into the hills toward the Dominican border. Forty-minutes away, past banana groves and cactus fields, they came to the edge of a large lake in a place called Fond Parisien.

Rescue Children orphanage in Haiti
David Friedman /
Rodlin, 10, looks out a car window at the grounds of Love A Child orphanage, his new temporary home.

This was another world entirely. Behind guarded fences, the red tile roofs of Love A Child Mission contain a 20,000-square-foot orphanage, a health clinic, a giant warehouse for food distribution and a Christian radio station. Three horses grazed in the front yard under a sliver of moon. There was even  a playground.

The 67 orphans at Love a Child turned out to greet the newcomers, under the command of founders Bobby and Sherry Burnette. Or Sherry's command, anyway. She's the one with the whistle and a belt, and knows how to use both. “Rapid! Rapid!" she yelled, and the younger children all helped unload the truck, even huge bags of clothes and mattresses.

Rescue Children orphanage in Haiti
David Friedman /
The Rescue Children orphange children, left, meet the children of the Love A Child orphanage.

The new children were photographed, one by one, in police booking photo style, holding a paper with their name and age. In an assembly, each new arrival was paired up with a longtime resident to be a mentor.

“Everything that you see is yours now. This is your home,” minister Bobby Burnette told the orphans from Port-au-Prince in his Florida drawl. Both age 62, the Burnettes met at a church tent revival in Orlando, and started spending their Christmas vacations in Jamaica, handing out food. “Some people told us that Haiti was poor, so we came here in 1971, and the children stole our hearts,” Bobby said. They moved here permanently in 1991, started handing out powdered milk from a 50-pound bag, and have built a TV-fueled mission built on accountability and high standards.

All the talk of a devastated Haiti is bunk, Bobby Burnette said as Sherry got the children organized.

“Haiti people have a survivor mindset,” Bobby said. “They'll come right through it. We've had dental clinics and we run out of Novocain. A Haitian will sit in a chair and you can pull as many teeth as you want. A Haitian can take pain because he's used to pain. That's their life.”

Rescue Children orphanage in Haiti
David Friedman /
All the kids are enlisted to help unload the belongings of the Rescue Children children.

Then the children went in pairs to stow their clothes in cubbies in a bunk room. Then there was time for a shower and a hot meal on a tablecloth: meat loaf, potatoes, even strawberry ice cream. The adults would sleep outside in a tent, but inside they had a good cell phone signal, air conditioning and Wi-Fi.

Not all the children slept in bunk beds. Because of the quake, Bobby Burnette said, many of the orphans fear sleeping in the building. So several dozen sleep by the house gate, on pallets on the floor, so they can run out quickly if there's a tremor in the night.

Landis, the pastor, was worried about his volunteers and staff still back in Port-au-Prince. He was prepared to drive back in the dark to pick up the women, but the U.S.. State Department advised otherwise: Do not go back into the city. If you're out, stay out. Maybe we can send some military personnel to pick up all your people. Maybe not. But stay out.

On a cell phone, Landis tried to explain to Crespo that they should all evacuate tonight. Crespo refused. Come for the women if you want, but he would stay.

A second wave of Lifechurch volunteers was due in from the Dominican Republic late Monday, but there was no sign of them yet.


SLIDESHOW: Church rushes to help orphange in Haiti

Doctors stopping at Love a Child's medical clinic said the border was backed up for six to eight hours. They were waiting for 90 gallons of gas, which they needed to continue ferrying injured patients out of Port-au-Prince. In the clinic, a Haitian woman pulled from a collapsed five-story building had a crushed ribcage. A man who suffered trauma to his bladder had not peed in three days. Doctors at Love a Child patch them up as best they can, then bus them to a U.N. hospital just across the border.

At 10:30 p.m. the second team from Lifechurch arrived at Love A Child. Six on a medical team from Lifechurch settled in at the medical clinic. The new arrivals included Ramon Crespo's wife, Luz, who helps run the church's mission work. She was told that Ramon sent word, a stern word, that she was not to go into the city. "I will deal with my husband," she said.

So Pastor Landis and David Harris -- along with four big, strong men in the new volunteer group -- headed back to Port-au-Prince. They plan to load up a truck and bring it out on Tuesday.

Just after 11, their white SUV headed out of the Love a Child gates and into the darkness.

“Life is a series of risks and rewards,” Landis said before leaving. “Having an effective life is getting that balance right.”