Haitian orphans finding their way

On a day when their homeland was frightened by an earthquake aftershock, seven of 54 Haitian orphans airlifted to Pittsburgh are united with their adoptive families

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Their names are Jimmy and Dania, and their odyssey has taken them from an orphanage in Haiti to wintry Pittsburgh on a dramatic rescue mission after an earthquake ravaged their homeland.

Now they have adoptive families, who shared the joyous moment of heading home with them yesterday at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

As of yesterday, seven children had left the hospital with their new families -- out of 54 children that arrived here Tuesday from the destroyed BRESMA orphanage in Port-au-Prince, according to Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is overseeing all official business and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is handling the final paperwork for the adoptions. Seven children had no families lined up.

Mr. Cherna reported that the children remaining at the hospital seemed to be happy and well fed and that he anticipated that they will find permanent or foster homes within a week.

"I'm optimistic that all of the children will be adopted," he said. He praised the work of local volunteers and urged people who want to adopt Haitian children to register with an accredited adoption agency, such as Three Rivers Adoption Council.

Jimmy's bright smile and wave was seen on the TV news as the 11-year-old left the plane at the Pittsburgh airport Tuesday. He shared that smile again, along with two songs, as he talked with news reporters at the hospital.

His adoptive parents, Brian and Debbie Lepp, both 46 and from Colville, Wash., said they first saw Jimmy's profile 2 1/2 years ago on an orphanage Web site as Debbie and her daughter, now almost 20, were considering a mission trip to Haiti. She said although the Lepps' children were grown -- their son is 22 -- they were still intent on raising more children. Jimmy would fit into their family well, she said.

"We went there and met him. It was love at first sight," she said.

Brian Lepp, an auto mechanic, talked about his outgoing newest son: "He's energetic. Everybody knows Jimmy. ... One of the parents said he's the mayor of the orphanage." Jimmy was 5 years old when he was left there and became one of the older children, helpful with the younger ones.

Then the earthquake hit and, Debbie Lepp said, they were struck by "the horror of what was happening in the country. It was really hard."

As Jimmy, who speaks English well, warmed up to reporters' questions, he said he would be staying in touch with his Haitian and new American friends and that his first impression of Pittsburgh was "cold." Then he ran off his many likes: soccer, American football, ice cream. In school, he likes English class and enjoys drawing. "I would like to drive a motorcycle, a bicycle," he said, with a smile.

Debbie Lepp teaches in the 60-student Johnson Christian School, where he will attend, although she said she didn't know what grade he will be in.

Urged to share a song, Jimmy took the microphone and started with a sweet song sung quietly, then -- as the interview drew to a close -- he volunteered another, with a prayerful "Keep my life for me please, Jesus."

Much quieter than Jimmy is 7-year-old Dania, who was going to Toccoa, Ga., with her family: dad and mom, Nathan and Catrina Brock, and one of her brothers, Austin, 12. Two more brothers and a foster sister were waiting at home.

Austin described his new sister: "She's really shy, but she's amazing ... I want to get her into dirt bikes; I don't know if that's going to happen."

Her mom and dad said it was Dania's lovely eyes that first drew them to her. Dania's birth mother, who has since died, brought her to the orphanage just before Dania's fourth birthday.

"She's very girly ... we're not used to that," said Nathan Brock, who is self-employed. His wife, a stay-at-home mother, described her daughter as very neat and "a sensitive child." The disaster has left her more subdued than before, she said.

Dania doesn't speak English and the Brocks don't speak Creole, though her parents said they are armed with a book to help them understand and speak some Creole and charades have helped them to communicate.

As a wide-eyed Dania listened, delicately holding a Barbie-like doll, her mother told of the four-year adoption experience. Paperwork was lost for a year in Haiti and twice again in the United States. Then, last week, "We were almost done," Catrina Brock said.

Hearing of the earthquake, she said she was afraid the adoption would be further delayed and she didn't know if Dania was OK.

"I had moments of madness," she said, getting herself ready to parachute in, to hike in from the Dominican Republic, to get her daughter. Reuniting in Pittsburgh was deeply moving, she said. "Meeting her here was more emotional, more fulfilling."

She said she was grateful to all those who helped bring the children out:

"I cannot thank them enough. The world's eyes are on Haiti ... There are so many orphans. Taking care of widows and orphans is God's greatest calling for our lives."

Nathan Brock said he looks forward to raising Dania and someday, he said he hopes she can give back to her homeland.

"Unfortunately, there's so much pain and suffering ... the other orphanages heard about the BRESMA orphanage [finding safe haven for the children]," he said, and now they are asking for help. He urged Americans to ask their public officials to help many more orphans in Haiti.

His wife had the highest praise for Ali and Jamie McMutrie, the two sisters from Ben Avon who cared for the orphans at the Haitian home.

"They showed true character and beauty ... they said they were taking all 54 of them and they did."

For information on the Three Rivers Adoption Council, see www.3riversadopt.org or call 412-471-8722. Their address is 307 Fourth Ave., Pittsburgh 15222.

Jill Daly can be reached at jdaly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1596. First Published January 21, 2010 5:00 AM


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