Called from the suburbs to a Haitian mountaintop


AP National Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Odette. Benita. Valancia. Atanie.

Each Sunday morning, members of White Stone Church spread photos of the girls’ grinning, impish faces across a folding table before 10 a.m. worship, then prayed for the day the children might join them.

When the churchgoers closed their eyes and bowed their heads, it no longer mattered that 1,400 miles separated them from the girls or that they lived in a Haitian village whose dirt floors and lack of running water were unthinkable in north Knoxville’s quilt of neatly tended subdivisions and fast-food drive-thrus.

They are “Our Girls,” the worshippers told one another.

Over six years, the girls of Coq Chante had come to feel like family. Now, after trips by dozens to Haiti, thousands of dollars raised and spent, and countless hours poring over adoption paperwork, the bond between the congregation and 19 children from another world felt unbreakable.

Until a Tuesday night in January.

White Stone’s worship pastor, Mark Zimmerman, had returned from Haiti at 10:45 the previous night; it was his 20th trip. The Zimmermans planned a family night at home and Mark was in the basement, where framed black-and-white portraits of Coq Chante’s girls line the paneling over the pingpong table. He was stacking wood in the fireplace when the phone rang.

Haiti has been hit by a massive earthquake, a church member told him. All the phones are out. We can’t reach Coq Chante. There’s no telling what’s happened to our girls.

“God, please,” Mark’s wife, Angie, prayed silently. “I can’t be there. You can.”

But as the first images of the earthquake’s destruction filled the living room television, the family could see that prayer alone might not be enough.

The envelope that found its way to Mark Zimmerman’s desk in early 2002 was addressed only to the church, not to anyone by name. Inside, a sheet of yellow legal paper bore a note handwritten in stilted English along with a photo of 15 or 20 children – some barely clothed, bellies distended.

“We are starving,” the caption read. “Would you please help us?”

Zimmerman added it to the pile of papers on his desk. It was still there in July, when 60 people from White Stone boarded a bus for a six-day family mission to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to teach vacation bible school at three Baptist churches.

Two were congregations of Haitian immigrants who greeted the Knoxville families warmly. The children busied themselves over the construction paper and paints the White Stone visitors offered. Zimmerman, who’d left a job as a manager for Texaco Inc. to take the pulpit, wasn’t sure what to make of these black people with French accents.

This was new territory for White Stone, an overwhelmingly white congregation of salesmen, small business owners and teachers, casting a net for young families drawn to Knoxville’s developing northern fringe. On Sunday mornings, the evangelical congregation draws a crowd of about 300 in jeans and Nikes for a service set around a six-piece band with three vocalists, offering praise in lyrics beamed on to big screens.

“We were called to the suburbs,” Zimmerman says.

By the end of that trip to Florida, though, the pastor had been doing some thinking.

“Don’t be surprised if next year at this time we’re digging our toes into Haitian dirt,” Zimmerman, standing at the front of the bus, told the group.

“We all thought he was nuts,” says Allyson Coleman, a churchgoer who made the trip to Fort Lauderdale by air because she was pregnant with twins – the first time she’d been on a plane. “I don’t know if any of us had ever heard of Haiti or even knew where it was.”

Back in Knoxville, Zimmerman dug out the letter, wondering if other churches had received one, too. In fact, a Haitian pastor, Nicolas Louis Juste, had sent thousands of letters to U.S. congregations, seeking money for his churches, schools and orphanages, says his son, Ricot Juste.

Zimmerman made some calls, then recruited an expedition party. The volunteers included Karen and Mike Bates – a stay-at-home mom and her purchasing agent husband who’d gotten sick the one time he’d traveled by plane. Also on board was Coleman’s husband, Andy, a fourth-generation printer teased for being content to spend his life within a mile of Broadway, the busy commercial drag running north out of Knoxville.

After Thanksgiving 2003, the group – with donated clothes and cash – boarded a plane, the first leg on the trip to a country they knew almost nothing about.

“It was the scariest thing I’d ever done in my life,” Zimmerman says.

The first thing they noticed about Port-au-Prince was the smell – raw sewage, charcoal and diesel fumes simmering in the tropical heat.

“Well Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” Andy Coleman said as the churchgoers stared out of the flatbed.

Then the truck climbed 2 1/2 hours into the mountains to work in Juste’s churches and orphanages. For six days, the men helped build a school at Coq Chante, a village of makeshift homes without electricity where Juste ran an orphanage housing a dozen girls. The women stayed in Belloc, where Juste had a home for boys.

Haiti’s orphans have drawn tremendous attention in the weeks since the earthquake, after an Idaho church group was arrested for trying to take children they falsely claimed were parentless out of the country without government approval. Indeed, before the disaster, Haiti was home to 380,000 children who had lost one or both parents, according to UNICEF.

But Haiti’s orphanages have also long taken in children who don’t fit that narrow definition. Before the earthquake, about 180 licensed orphanages and perhaps 200 more without approval operated in Haiti, home to 40,000 to 50,000 children, said Tom DeFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, an Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group.

Thousands of those children were like most at Coq Chante and Belloc – surrendered by living mothers and fathers too poor and overburdened to care for them. In Creole, such an orphanage is called a “creche,” a home for the parentless, a facilitator of adoptions, but also a refuge – albeit frequently overcrowded, understaffed and without enough to go around – for children of parents who don’t see any other option.

That first morning at Belloc, White Stone’s women set up a makeshift clinic in the courtyard. But Karen Bates wandered around, unsure what to do.

Soon, she noticed a diminutive Haitian woman walking toward her, a bundle in her arms – an infant, perhaps 8 months old, wrapped in a blanket and topped with a pink crocheted cap.

“She handed him to me. I was standing there looking at his little face and I thought, ‘OK, maybe this is what I’m here for,'” Karen Bates recalls. “I turned around and she was walking down the road. Oh my God!”

The mother of tiny Wousamy (Oo-SAH’-mee) came back at day’s end. But she returned every morning, placing her baby in Karen Bates’ arms. He was the youngest of eight or nine children in a family struggling for food, the couple learned.

On their last morning, the churchgoers climbed into the truck for the ride back to the airport when the woman reappeared, trotting alongside the moving flatbed and holding out her baby.

“Mama Wousamy, Mama Wousamy,” she called to Karen Bates, who broke into tears. At the airport in Port-au-Prince, waiting for their flight, Mike Bates came back from the men’s room to realize he’d missed a conversation among other members of the group.

“Hey,” one of the men said to Mike, slapping him on the thigh. “You’re going to adopt a kid.”

The Bates’ small, white-sided house on Ledgerwood Avenue was already full, thanks to their own children, then 4, 10 and 11. When they heard the adoption process required an evaluation not just of them but of the house fitted with worn-out carpet and thrift shop furniture, Karen and Mikes Bates feared they wouldn’t be approved.

But just before Memorial Day in 2004 one of the women from White Stone called. They’d been chosen for an extreme home makeover. All week, churchgoers filed in and out of the house, ripping up carpet, lugging out furniture, painting and cleaning. When Mike Bates called the adoption counselor to schedule the home visit, the woman told him not to worry about the cost. An anonymous donor had already paid the bill.

Meanwhile, Mark Zimmerman was trying to figure out what to make of his experience in Haiti. He couldn’t stop thinking about the afternoon he and two others insisted on taking an 8-year-old girl named Evannel to a hospital in Port-au-Prince for treatment of a broken arm.

“There were people laying on the floor and puddles of blood,” he recalls. “I came home and I didn’t even think about going back to Haiti for another year.”

In October 2005, though, he led another White Stone group to Haiti. Zimmerman preached at Juste’s church in Coq Chante. Afterward, the girls from the orphanage surrounded him, tugging on his shirt until he bent down so each could kiss him on the cheek.

“Nobody ever treats these little girls like their little girls,” he thought.

Still, by the time White Stone returned to Haiti in December 2007, Mark was frustrated. The church brought $35,000 raised for Juste in a benefit golf tournament that fall. But even with the money, there was only so much 27 Tennesseans could do in a week divided between poor villages. It was like fighting a forest fire with a watergun, Mark told fellow churchgoers.

Juste suggested a trip to the beach. On a Thursday morning, the visitors boarded the flatbed and 12 girls from Coq Chante climbed onto their laps for the 45-minute ride down to Jacmel. The girls, singing most of the way, lived on a tropical island, but most had never set foot in the ocean.

“That was the day that everything changed,” Mark says.

He spent hours watching the girls wade timidly in to the surf and savoring ice cream. By afternoon’s end, church member Carol Stout floated in the sea with a 9-year-old named Islande (IZ-lahnd) clinging to her back. Stout hadn’t done that since her own kids, all now grown, were small.

But the girls’ time together was running out, Juste told the visitors. The previous year he’d suffered his first stroke, leaving him unable to continue fundraising. He’d already begun closing his five orphanages and Coq Chante would be next.

Maybe this is what God has in mind for us, Zimmerman told the others that night, as they sat on the roof watching the sunset. They couldn’t solve Haiti. But what if they could care for these children like their own?

Back in Knoxville, some of the White Stone women who’d been to Haiti wrote up descriptions of each girl and paired them with photos, introducing the children to the rest of the congregation.

There was Valancia, the orphanage’s 10-year-old jump rope expert, who loved the stickers White Stone brought as gifts. Her self-confidence and smile reminded the volunteers of Zimmerman’s daughter, Kayla.

Odette, about the same age, her head decorated in pigtails, wouldn’t leave the volunteers’ laps. She suffered from malaria and worms.

Islande, 9 and small for her age, prized chewing gum and a pair of sunglasses she had commandeered from one of the visitors from Knoxville.

On Sundays, churchgoers spread the pictures across a table in the lobby of Brickey-McCloud Elementary School, whose gym White Stone rents for worship, asking families to pick a child to sponsor. Andy Coleman made up a brochure with all the photos at his print shop on Broadway.

“Our Girls,” read the script on the cover.

Six more pictures were added to the table as new girls moved into the orphanage. Two of the last arrivals were sisters, but the only photos were dark and out of focus.

“Nobody is going to pick this child because it’s all blurry,” Lorie Johnson told herself, studying a picture of Atanie, who appeared to be about the same age as her own daughter, Emmaline, then 2. “I’m going to take this smallest one.”

Keeping Coq Chante open would require $5,000 a month for food, teachers and the workers who ran the orphanage. The churchgoers brought dresses for the girls, built them beds and painted the two-story cinderblock orphanage a fresh coat of white. It quickly became clear, though, that they’d taken on a much bigger job than anticipated.

Johnson, a kindergarten teacher who describes herself as “a little bit high maintenance”, was so unsure of what to expect from Haiti she brought a hairdryer on her first visit. In Coq Chante, she picked up Atanie to dress her for church when the little girl started coughing, until writhing intestinal worms twice the thickness of spaghetti spewed from her mouth.

“She’s laughing and I’m screaming because I’m seeing this thing moving from my back and down to the ground,” Johnson says.

Meanwhile another volunteer, machine tool salesman Kevin Rudd, spent the week trailed by Benita, a girl with a toothy smile who kept reaching for his hand. He assigned her to carry some of his tools and pass them over while he worked on construction projects.

When the churchgoers returned at year’s end, Angie Zimmerman sent Mark with a gold bracelet hung with a tiny “Z” charm to give to Valancia, who daughter Kayla had chosen to sponsor.

When Mark called home that night, his voice sounded shaky. Then he put Valancia on the phone.

“Thank you for the bracelet, Angie,” the girl said in a sing-song voice.

Four days later, on the long drive home from the Atlanta airport, Mark was back on the phone with Angie, trying to explain all the things going through his head.

“Tell me,” Angie asked. “Are we getting ready to adopt this little girl?”

More than four years after that first trip to Haiti, the Bates were still waiting to bring Wousamy home, their application caught in Haiti’s bureaucracy. Now they had company.

Kevin Rudd, the kind of guy who loved to roughhouse with his teenage son Alex and make fun of wife Gina’s “chick flicks,” was having trouble working and sleeping. Three weeks after getting back from Haiti in May 2008, the couple was on their back deck setting up a sun canopy when Kevin blurted out something about adopting a little girl named Benita.

That night in bed, he started crying. Gina didn’t know what to think. In seven years, she told her husband, their house would be paid for. Had he considered what it would cost to bring home a child?

But when she and Alex returned from their own trip to Haiti, the Rudds filled out the first adoption paperwork. Kevin bought “Creole Made Easy” CDs and played language lessons repeatedly on the long drives between sales calls. Too impatient to wait like the Bates, he began shepherding their application through the process as well as his own.

White Stone’s trips to Haiti were no longer spaced by years, but by weeks, the church’s role growing as Juste’s health failed. He died in March 2009.

Each time the missionaries returned home, it seemed another family followed the Rudds’ and the Bates’ lead. Mark and Angie Zimmerman told their children to get ready for a sister named Valancia. Al and Sherry Fitzpatrick decided to bring home Dieula, to be renamed Jayla. Andy and Allyson Coleman filled out the paperwork for Odette.

In December 2008, Carol and Johnny Ray Stout were driving home from an early dinner at El Chico’s. At 49 and 50, they were among the oldest of White Stone’s families, proud new grandparents. Now, as the career union electrician stared ahead at the road, his wife of 29 years began to weep.

“Here we go,” Johnny Ray told himself. He pulled the Jeep Cherokee into the parking lot at Kmart, certain Carol, a longtime teaching assistant and school secretary, was about to admit to an affair.

“I just really feel like the Lord wants us to adopt a little girl,” she confessed through tears.

Meanwhile, Lorie Johnson was campaigning for husband, Darrell, to go to Haiti. Finally, in November 2009, Darrell Johnson turned his one-man chiropractic office over to another practitioner and went to meet the little girl named Atanie his wife couldn’t stop talking about.

When Lorie returned to Coq Chante weeks later, she carried the 4-year-old into the house where the missionaries slept – a privilege reserved only for the girls whose adoptions were under way.

It was a Sunday night, Jan. 10.

Atanie, freshly bathed and giddy with the adventure of sharing Lorie’s bed, rolled over and over under the covers until she fell asleep. But in the night she stirred and Lorie felt two small, warm hands reaching for her in the darkness.

“Are you there?” Atanie murmured.

“Do you have any news about the girls?”

The Zimmermans’ phones kept ringing. It was Tuesday, Jan. 12, and television was reporting a massive earthquake had hit Port-au-Prince.

Kevin Rudd tried every Haiti number saved to his cell phone but could not get through. Don’t worry, he told his wife, Coq Chante is miles away. Then CNN reported the quake’s epicenter at 13 miles southwest of the capital – nearly half the distance to the orphanage – and he grew silent.

The evening passed with no word at the Coleman house and Allyson settled into a fitful sleep. Then, soon after midnight, a sound downstairs awakened her. Sitting up in bed, she heard Andy weeping.

At last, one of the calls had gotten through, churchgoer Brian Lloyd explained when Allyson joined Andy at the dining table. Much of the orphanage at Coq Chante had collapsed. And their Odette was missing.

Mike and Karen Bates, too, were roused to learn that Wousamy could not be accounted for.

At 12:57 a.m., Lorie Johnson’s phone rang just as the home alarm sounded, indicating a car had pulled into the driveway. When she picked up, Kevin Rudd was on the line. “Which door do you want me to come in?” he asked.

Downstairs, she opened the door to find Mark at Kevin’s side. The men stepped in, their eyes cast down.

“The orphanage has collapsed,” Kevin said. “Everybody got out except Atanie. And she’s gone.”

“No! It can’t be!” Lorie cried as she fell to the couch, sobbing.

“It can’t be. I was just there! Everything was fine. Everything was OK.

“These are our girls!”


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2 thoughts on “Called from the suburbs to a Haitian mountaintop

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