Haiti to Hatboro
After the devastating earthquake, a Haitian orphan finds stability in Montgomery County
by Stephanie Twining

It started off as a simple wish. Carolyn Simon wanted another child. Her son, Matt, was grown and ready to move out of their home in Hatboro. So the single mother decided to adopt.

At the same time, 1,500 miles away in a country incapacitated by poverty, violence, disease and political unrest, a boy named Wadner also had a wish—to leave the orphanage he called home and have a family to love him and keep him safe.
“I had had my eye on Haiti for a while,” Simon says. “It was something that caught my interest, and I had wanted to do a trip there for a long time. So I went on a mission trip there with my son in October 2008.”

Brebis de Saint-Michel de L’Attalaye (BRESMA) orphanage in Portau-Prince, Haiti, was managed by Pittsburgh natives Jamie and Alison McMutrie. The sisters spent most of their time living in one of the three houses and caring for approximately 150 orphans ranging from newborns to 13-year-olds. Wadner, a wide-eyed ball of energy, lived in the “Big Kids’ House,” for ages 4 and older.

When Simon and her son arrived in Haiti to spend four days at the orphanage, they quickly bonded with Wadner, then 6 years old. Despite the language barrier—the Simons do not speak Creole—the three were able to laugh and play, like a family.

“I originally thought I was going to go for a child under 3, but things change,” she says. “It was just meant to be.”

Even though BRESMA was one of the fastest at processing adoptionsit would still be a frustrating 12- to 18-month wait for Simon as her paperwork was handled by the governments in the U.S. and in Haiti. Once she was approved, she was allowed to make periodic visits to the orphanage and take Wadner to a nearby hotel for the length of her stay.

Each time, she was greeted with smiles of recognition from her future son.

“He had been there for a very long time and just wanted to be part of a family,” Simon says. “He understood the system.”

On Jan. 12, the day of the massive earthquake, Simon says she was where she should have been in the process.

“We were going to have Christmas with him,” she says. “I was packing my suitcase in one room, and I heard the news in the other room. That was a horrible moment.”

It wasn’t long before Simon heard news from the orphanage that all the children were safe, but then, amidst dozens of powerful aftershocks, she lost communication.

“Jamie and Ali were there. They were using Facebook and Twitter to let people know what was going on,” she says.

For Simon, the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming—and the images of death and destruction on the news were heartbreaking. When she heard the report that a plane carrying several of the children from BRESMA was on its way to Pittsburgh, Simon hit the road.

She didn’t find out that Wadner was on the plane—which by fate happened to be the one procured by Gov. Ed Rendell—until he was taken to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and she was allowed a 15-minute visit.

The reunion, though brief, was joyful.

“It was the best,” Simon says. “He ran over, leapt across all these kids, and ran up. He jumped up and hugged me and wrapped his arms and legs around me.”

She still isn’t sure if Wadner understood everything that he went through to get there; the communication barrier is a difficult one. One thing that didn’t require words, however, was the happiness of both mother and son, finally able to go home together.

Wadner’s first few weeks in Hatboro have been generally happy, though uniquely overwhelming. An outpouring of support came from the local community, including food, gift cards and medical care. He was invited to Harrisburg to be introduced during the governor’s budget address. He has even spoken via Webcam and phone to a few of his friends from BRESMA who were also placed with their new families in America and Canada.

Communication between Simon and Wadner is improving, and his outgoing nature helps exponentially. “He’s very good at showing me,” she says. “He’s very expressive. He understands that I don’t know. I try to show him when he doesn’t understand what I’m saying, and he’ll show me.”

His days have also been filled with activities that most area 7-yearolds have been at for years: seeing snow (lots and lots of snow) fall from the sky; meeting the family dog; watching Transformers; begging for a toy at Walmart; and the biggest one—starting first grade. “He’s the celebrity of the school— we keep calling him the mayor,” Simon laughs. “There are two first grade classes and the other class is jealous that they didn’t get him in their class. I don’t think he’ll have any trouble making friends.”

According to Diana Boni, Haiti program coordinator for the nonprofit adoption agency Alliance for Children and for Kentucky Adoption Associates, many of the nearly 600 children who have left Haiti for their new homes are doing just as well as Wadner.

“All of these kids were really well prepared to be adopted, so there were not a lot of surprises for them. They knew they’d be coming here,” Boni says. “But most of my kids are doing better than I thought. I’m stunned at how resilient these kids are.”
At this stage for families like the Simons, Boni says the most important thing is to be sensitive to the trauma the children endured and to cultural differences, like how most Haitian children aren’t used to sleeping in a bedroom all alone and will feel more comfortable sharing a room—and even a bed—with their parents.

While Wadner continues to bond with his new family and adjust to life in a Pennsylvania suburb, the situation in Haiti remains dire.

Boni says the best way to help is through fundraising and donations. They need to purchase food, water and medical supplies, as well as pay severance to the orphanage staff that is no longer needed. There are also plans to rebuild the damaged areas of BRESMA, including the schools it operates to provide free education and meals to Haitian children.

Until the Haitian government is stabilized, initiating new adoptions is not possible. But Boni is hopeful that the hundreds of families that have expressed interest in Haiti will still be there when the time is right to provide a happy ending—like Wadner’s—for another child in need.

HelpHaiti Donate to Alliance for Children by visiting AllForChildren.org