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U.S./World

Year later, 'one big happy family' of Haitian orphans thriving

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, Dec. 25, 2010

They fill their bellies with rice and beans, plantains and avocados, as they did at home.

They speak English fluently and no longer need translators.

They snuggle with warm blankets, in bedrooms decorated with strings of Christmas lights.

Nearly a year after they arrived from earthquake-shattered Haiti, the orphans who stole Western Pennsylvania's heart are thriving in a two-story cottage at Holy Family Institute in Emsworth. The nine boys and three girls known as the "Pittsburgh 12" have lived there since January, when the largest earthquake in more than a century destroyed their orphanage.

"They are happy kids, sweet kids," said Sister Linda Yankoski, the institute's CEO. "It's like one big happy family of siblings. They love each other, they fight with each other, they play with each other."

Soon, the children will leave. The U.S. government identified their adoptive parents, and Yankoski expects the sluggish adoption process to kick into high gear. Although families in Pittsburgh will adopt some children, most will move out of state.

Holy Family received 18 Haitian children who were cared for by Jamie and Ali McMutrie, two Ben Avon sisters who ran the BRESMA orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Six infants left within three weeks. The sisters returned to Haiti several times and established the nonprofit Haitian Orphan Rescue.

"It's just hard to even fathom what would've happened to those kids if they would have stayed in Haiti," said Suzie Moore of Denver, who adopted Jakob, 2, one of 54 children the McMutries brought to Pittsburgh. "I'm sad it's taken a year for those last 12, but I'm glad it's finally happening and they'll be going to their new homes."

Holy Family did not allow interviews with the children or photographs, because the adoptions aren't final and the children don't have legal guardians to grant permission. But Yankoski, who has worked at the 110-year-old institute since 1975, granted a tour of the building while the children attended school.

The brick house, named St. Joe's, is one of four nearly identical buildings on the 15-acre campus along Route 65. They're used by about 45 children and teens ages 12 to 18, who are at risk for abuse or neglect and referred there by Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families. To make room for the orphans, residents of St. Joe's moved to other buildings, but not before cleaning it and printing welcome signs in French.

"They felt proud that they could help Haiti in some way," Yankoski said. "They felt also proud that Holy Family was called upon to be the place to take the kids in."

All the rooms in the house, including a dining room with an extra long table and family room with a large TV, are decorated with pictures of the children. A second floor is reserved for 10 bedrooms. Two workers monitor the children as they sleep.

"It will be hard for them to leave each other," Yankoski said as she walked into the kitchen, where the stove, refrigerator and most other items are labeled in English and Creole, the language Haitians speak.

Their first days in the house weren't easy. Some children didn't speak English. Two had pneumonia. Many experienced nightmares, temper tantrums, even bed-wetting. To feel safe, they asked to sleep in the same room, mattresses on the floor, as they did in the orphanage.

Holy Family scrambled to find workers to care for the children. Staff members worked double shifts, unaware of how long the children would stay. Volunteers stepped up, but had to undergo 40-hour training in child development, CPR and first aid. They found people from Pittsburgh's Haitian community who spoke Creole.

It didn't take long for Yankoski and her colleagues to drum up a routine they posted on schedules that hang on the kitchen bulletin board. Within a month, they created an elementary classroom and preschool, separate from the other residents. The children received help from trauma specialists who encouraged them to talk about feelings and fears.

The children marveled at amenities such as running water. One girl was so excited to have a bathtub, she begged to take a bath twice a day. Others stuffed underwear and T-shirts into the toilet, screaming with joy when it flushed and prompting many calls to the plumber. They constantly opened and closed doors, and often slammed them, because they never had doors before.

Food became the biggest challenge: the children turned up their noses at American food. They found it boring and bland. With the help of Haitian volunteers, the staff incorporated Caribbean staples into the menu: plantains, avocados, rice and beans. Slowly, they introduced children to popular dishes such as spaghetti, pork chops, and peanut butter and jelly.

"They still love rice and beans, and we do that a lot," she said. "Everybody's eating it; all the kids here. It's become a side dish for everyone."

No one had to teach the children how to make and throw snowballs. Their first winter included the Feb. 5 blizzard that dumped more than 21 inches of snow. The campus lost power and everyone evacuated to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in West View for three days.

"Is it ever going to be hot like in Haiti?" the children asked.

In summer months, they couldn't get enough of the pool. When one of them asked for music and got CDs, a few of the boys taught their caregivers Haitian dance moves. It didn't take long for workers to realize the children got what they asked for -- bicycles, helmets, knee pads.

"They've been spoiled," Yankoski said. "We've had to limit the amount of toys and the amount of material things that they were receiving, because they almost just had to mention it and somebody would go get it for them."

The staff sought to balance that by assigning chores. Mornings, the children make their beds. Even Freddy, the youngest at age 3, picks up a cloth to wipe the table after dinner or smear the window. Someone sweeps the floor; another carries out the trash. They learned to organize their clothes and shoes, instead of tossing them on a pile.

In September, the school-aged children enrolled at Avonworth Elementary; the younger ones attend a child care program at Providence Connections in the North Side.

Yankoski spoke with pride about the experience, saying it enabled the children to learn about discipline and responsibility. Although she didn't expect them to remain at St. Joe's for so long, their time in Pittsburgh will ensure they can adapt to a family structure.

"We've grown to love these children," Yankoski said. "But we are really happy for them. ... They need to be in families. That is the most appropriate place for these children -- to be in a loving family and have every opportunity, hopefully, to grow up and maybe have some impact on Haiti in the future."

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