In the midst of tragedy, a new life
Couple’s adoption of two Haitians finally goes through
Published: January 22, 2010, 12:07 am
In the midst of one of the worst catastrophes to strike the Western Hemisphere in the past century, something wonderful happened to the Rev. Charles Whited, a Lutheran pastor from the Town of Tonawanda.
Whited, who has done volunteer work in Haiti for years, was there last week when a massive earthquake rocked the nation. The quake caused misery for millions, and Whited will never forget all the tragic scenes he witnessed — from the smell of decaying bodies to the screams of brutally injured people.
But he also will never forget something else — that the chaos of the quake enabled him to finalize two adoptions that he and his wife, Susan, spent four frustrating years trying to complete.
And when the exhausted minister flew back to Buffalo on Monday, the couple’s two new children — Lovelie, 11, and Wisken, 7 — arrived with him.
“I would never say I am thankful for the earthquake. It was horrible,” Whited said during an interview. “But it’s probably true that, if not for the earthquake, these kids would not have been allowed to come home with me. I look at it as God’s way of making something good come out of the worst of situations.”
As Whited and his wife spoke in an office at First Trinity Lutheran Church on Niagara Falls Boulevard, Lovelie and Wisken sat nearby, smiling, looking at books and talking softly to each other in their native Creole language.
“In Haiti, we know families whose entire home is no bigger than this office,” Whited said.
He smiled as Lovelie and Wisken went outside to play in the snow, something they had never seen before their arrival in Buffalo.
The happy scene contrasted sharply with jarring images that Whited recalls from the Jan. 12 earthquake and its aftermath.
“We went through a hospital that had chickens running down the halls and wounded people with flies all over them,” Whited said. “No windows. Patients were everywhere with broken limbs, but they didn’t have the doctors or the medical equipment to treat them. And there were a lot of angry people outside. They couldn’t even get into the hospital. Security people were beating them with sticks to keep them from forcing their way in.”
Whited traveled to Haiti with a group of 14 missionaries from his church. Each year, the church sends a group to help out at the Children of Israel orphanage in the city of Les Cayes.
Most of the group returned to Buffalo on a military cargo plane after five days at the orphanage. But Whited and one member of his church — Dale E. Jaenecke, 43, of Grand Island — stayed behind another day, in hopes that travel visas could be obtained for Lovelie and Wisken.
They spent that last day in Port-au-Prince, where they saw some of the worst of the earthquake’s damage.
“The devastation we saw there was unlike anything I’ve ever imagined,” Jaenecke said. “Crumbled buildings, thousands of people just wandering around because they had nowhere left to go. Gangs of kids setting up roadblocks. The pictures you see on TV don’t register how bad it really is.”
The 50-year-old Whited hopes that two good things will come from Haiti’s tragedy.
For one, he hopes the quake will alert more people to Haiti’s desperate need for help. Haiti is the poorest nation in the hemisphere, and even before the quake, it had huge problems with its health care, education programs and infrastructure.
He also hopes the catastrophe will compel Haiti’s government to become more cooperative and reasonable about foreign adoptions.
“Before the earthquake, an average of 300 Haitian kids became orphans every day. Now, it’s going to be a lot more,” Whited said. “There are so many beautiful kids in orphanages there, just waiting for good homes.”
Susan Whited, also 50, described the difficulties that she and her husband encountered with Haitian adoption authorities — including bribery demands from some officials.
She said Lovelie and Wisken officially became members of the Whited family on July 7, 2007, when Haiti’s government signed an adoption decree. But the government refused for more than two years after that to approve visas for the children to travel to America.
“There were about 17 different steps you had to go through, and at least a dozen different documents you had to file,” Susan Whited said. “If one word was misspelled on a document, they told you to go back and get it redone, and it had to be perfect. And this was in a country where 80 percent of the people are illiterate.”
According to the couple, Haitian officials asked for bribes of $500 to $1,000 at several points during the process.
“We refused to pay the bribes. It’s just wrong. If couples pay bribes, then every couple will be asked to pay bribes,” Susan Whited said.
Whited does not believe he would have been able to bring Wisken and Lovelie home on this trip without the support of Jaenecke and Barbara Walker, an American woman who runs an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Walker spent two days persuading Haitian officials to issue visas to Wisken and Lovelie.
Saturday night, Whited, Jaenecke and the children slept on the ground outside Walker’s orphanage, which was badly damaged by the quake. During the night, a major aftershock awoke everyone, knocking down another wall at the orphanage.
Sunday morning, Whited, Jaenecke and the kids headed to the madhouse scene at Port-au- Prince’s airport, where thousands of people were lining up to leave the country. They quickly found that their battle with Haiti’s bureaucracy was not over.
“We had three different security checkpoints to go through, and each time, the Haitian officials there would not let us through,” Jaenecke said. “We just kept asking to talk to different people, telling people our story, begging them to let us through. For every ‘yes’ we got, we got 100 ‘nos.’ ”
Whited said he and his group would never have gotten through the checkpoints without the intercession of U.S. military officials. He said he could not understand why Haitian officials kept making it difficult for his two adopted children to leave for a better life in America.
Finally allowed to board an American military cargo plane, they arrived in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday. They spent the night snoozing in an Orlando hotel before flying to Buffalo on Monday.
Susan Whited and a huge crowd of church members were waiting for them at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
In the past few days, the couple has begun the task of teaching English to Lovelie and Wisken. “They’re both eager to learn our language,” Whited said. “We put little signs up on things, like the stove and refrigerator, to let them know what the words are.”
The pastor said Lovelie was taken to the orphanage after both of her parents died when she was seven months old. He said he did not know the circumstances of how Wisken ended up at the orphanage.
“In Haiti, I’ve had mothers walk up to me with babies in their arms, asking us to take the kids to America and adopt them,” Whited said. “That’s how bad things are down there. I tell them, ‘I wish it was that simple.’ ”
Whited thanked staff members of Sens. Kirstin Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer, both New York Democrats, and Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, for trying to help them with their adoptions.
Despite their difficulties with Haiti’s adoption system, the Whiteds have every intention of continuing their volunteer work in Haiti. Their teenage son, Jon, was with his dad on this year’s trip. Their daughter, Sarah Wood, a nurse, will leave for Haiti this weekend to spend a week volunteering there.
“We asked the group that went with us this year if they would consider going back next year,” Whited said. “Every single one of them said the same thing — we’re going back.”