EDITOR'S NOTE – They were "our girls" – the children of a Haitian orphanage, taken to heart by a Tennessee church. But then an earthquake struck, and the congregation sprang to action. The second of two parts.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – "It has been a very long and deadly night for our friends and family in Haiti," Mark Zimmerman e-mailed the worshippers of White Stone Church.
And in Knoxville, too, the morning after the earthquake – Wednesday, Jan. 13 – had been slow to come.
Zimmerman, the church's worship pastor, and others had been awake all night – consoling one another, trawling the Internet for information, dialing phone numbers in Haiti again and again.
But six years after the congregation stumbled on the country and then embraced children in two of its mountain villages, they felt powerless.
Atanie – the 4-year-old girl who church members Lorie and Darrell Johnson hoped to adopt – was dead, crushed when much of the orphanage at Coq Chante collapsed.
Sixteen girls who'd fled the orphanage – including Valancia, the 12-year-old the Zimmermans sought to bring in to their family – had spent the night sleeping on the ground and in the bed of a truck.
Another girl, 10-year-old Odette, was supposed to have been with them. But it turned out she'd gone to Port-au-Prince with her birthparents to finish the adoption paperwork for church members Andy and Allyson Coleman. No one had heard from them since. The fate of Wousamy, 6, was also unknown.
"I don't have words for the past 24 hours," Allyson wrote on the family's blog, Bringing Odette Home.
"I feel with everything in me that she is OK & I know that God is in control. I can't wait for a phone call with two words I have been longing to hear all day ...
At a vigil Wednesday night, Allyson Coleman and Lorie Johnson wept in each other's arms.
But as the congregation joined in prayer, church leaders agreed on the need for action. The next day, member Brian Lloyd left for Haiti – through the Dominican Republic, then up to Coq Chante by motorcycle and on foot, a journey that would take three days to complete.
Mark began gathering supplies and a relief team to follow. Kevin Rudd worked the phones, calling elected officials for assistance and waking at 4 a.m. when circuits in Haiti were briefly free.
On Thursday morning, Allyson Coleman's phone rang just as she was signing in to have lunch at school with her daughters.
"Your baby's OK!" Rudd said.
Odette and her parents had survived the earthquake. They hadn't slept for most of two days, walking nonstop until they reached the mountaintop. Allyson found her twins, Abby and Molly, at the lunch table, and told them the news; cheers rippled through the school cafeteria.
Two days later, Karen Bates was in the living room, still staring at footage of the earthquake, when the phone rang: Wousamy was safe.
"Thank you, Lord," she said.
Late on Monday, Jan. 18 – six days after the earthquake – the Obama administration announced that Haitian children in the process of being adopted by U.S. families would be allowed to enter the country immediately once expedited permission was granted. White Stone's families rushed to prepare, realizing children they'd awaited for as long as six years might arrive within weeks.
Three nights later, Rudd flew to Fort Lauderdale to rally with a pilot and private plane, paperwork for Wousamy and five girls from Coq Chante in hand. He called ahead to Lloyd and Zimmerman in Haiti, telling them to have the six children waiting on the runway on Friday morning.
Back in Knoxville, the congregation waited for word from Rudd, who rushed to the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince for final approval.
"THEY HAVE THE PAPERS!!!" Andy Coleman posted to his blog, as word came that the plane carrying the children had lifted off.
Then, "ODETTE IN IMMIGRATION!!!!" The group reached Florida and met up with some of the adopting parents.
It wouldn't be long now.
In Knoxville, families flocked to the airport toting balloons, teddy bears and welcome signs. Driving down Alcoa Highway, Karen Bates remembered the infant she'd first held six years earlier and fought back tears.
At the airport, more than 200 White Stone worshippers, families and friends packed a civil aviation terminal. When the planes taxied to a stop, they strained for a glimpse of children on the tarmac.
Then the doors slid open – and Wousamy walked in to a pandemonium of embraces and cheers.
It took until Sunday night for Allyson Coleman – after a whirlwind day of introducing Odette to hot running water, tropical fish tanks and drinking straws – to take a seat at the computer and reflect on all that had happened to her family and to White Stone.
"God is GOOD!!" she wrote.
For six children and six families, this is only the beginning of the story.
On a Friday morning at Copper Ridge Elementary School, Angie Zimmerman is simultaneously finding her way through three new roles.
She's the teacher of a fifth-grade class that just welcomed a new student from Haiti. She's the mom to Kayla, who talks happily about sharing her clothes and bedroom with a new Haitian sister. She's the adopting mother of Valancia, who until a few weeks ago had never seen a water fountain or an elevator – and who now sits beside Kayla in Zimmerman's Room 133.
Today's lesson is drawn from the Weekly Reader, with a photo of a boy's bandaged head on the cover. "Healing Haiti," reads the headline.
"Not only are they going to have to rebuild their buildings and homes," Angie says to her students. "They're going to have to rebuild their relationships – and rebuild trust."
The lesson must be all too real for Valancia. But it's hard for Angie to know, exactly, partly because of the language barrier. English is the first hurdle for Valancia and the others, although they seem to comprehend much more than they vocalize and they vacuum up new words fast. Then there are all the things beyond vocabulary and grammar that are harder to quantify.
But the adoptive families are still trying to gauge the memories and feelings their children brought with them. When Odette and Taylor Coleman, Valancia and Kayla Zimmerman are chasing each other around outside Andy and Allyson Coleman's kitchen window, they're just four happy kids.
But Andy remembers the shock of his first visit to Haiti in 2003. For the girls and Wousamy – dropped into a land of six-lane highways and microwaveable bacon – the adjustment has to be jarring.
The other afternoon, Andy hunkered down on the floor with Odette, making a house together out of Legos, when she began talking about the earthquake in a mix of English and Creole.
"She said her cousin and her uncle had died and she saw them. And she said her aunt had died but she didn't want to look. It made her too sad," Andy recalls. "She shared as much detail as she knew we could understand."
On a Sunday morning, four weeks after the celebration at the airport, the folding table in the hallway outside the gym/sanctuary is spread with pictures of 19 faces from a faraway world.
But now, as the White Stone children's service begins and "Let's Get This Party Started" thumps from the speakers, two Zimmerman 12-year-olds – Kayla and Valancia – dance in synch across the stage.
Kevin Rudd ambles sheepishly through the door holding the purple handbag that Benita – the 10-year-old who's proving that maybe he doesn't yet know everything about being a father – draped across his arm when she rushed off to join the others.
The adults are juggling parenting, plans to rebuild the orphanage and efforts to bring 12 remaining girls to the U.S. At times, it still doesn't seem real.
But their children embrace the moment.
"Odette. Benita. Valancia. Islande," read cards and signs, decorated with hearts and flowers and posted on bulletin boards around the perimeter of the gym.
Adam Geller is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in New York. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.