1 Reporter, 4 Haitian Children My Family's Incredible Journey


My six children raced through the house, squealing as they played a raucous game of tag. One was dressed as Batman; another tunelessly played a harmonica. A crash resonated from the playroom, followed by a guilty silence. My wife, Emma, and I sat, unflinching, at the kitchen counter of our Orlando home, calmly drinking our coffee. “Hey,” she said casually. “Do you want to watch a movie tonight?”

Yes, we have developed the unflappability that comes from having six children between the ages of 4 and 8. Two of them are our biological kids; we adopted the other four from a Haitian orphanage in 2013—although as time progresses, we’re noticing that distinction less and less.

A Life-Changing Moment

Before I went to Haiti, my day-to-day existence was happy, comfortable, predictable. As a PEOPLE staff writer, I spent my days interviewing celebrities and reporting on crimes. I had been married to my college sweetheart for 16 years; we had two young children, Mia, now 7, and Ezra, 6. Emma and I had agreed—and I had surgically ensured—that our family was complete.

But that was before my editor called me on Jan. 12, 2010. A catastrophic 7.0 earthquake had leveled the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, killing nearly 300,000 and leaving more than a million homeless. Within two days I was stepping over body bags in the bloodstained parking lot of a collapsed Haitian hospital. Doctors amputated children’s crushed limbs without anesthesia. I looked to the sky in desperation, vowing to God that if I could get through this assignment, I would do something significant to help.

By Christmas 2010 a cholera epidemic had ravaged the country. There on assignment again, I stood in a dingy prenatal clinic, watching nurses resuscitate an abandoned premature baby boy. The head nurse, a no-nonsense British woman, explained what would happen if the infant survived. “He’ll go to an orphanage,” she shrugged matter-of-factly. “We’ve had 13 children abandoned so far.”

I had seen those orphanages: squalid buildings crammed with sad-eyed children. In extreme cases poverty-stricken predators would sell the vulnerable orphans as “restavecs”—indentured servants. Others would become part of Haiti’s burgeoning sex trade. I called Emma. “If I could adopt all these kids, I’d do it,” I said. Her response stunned me: “I’ve been looking into it,” she said quietly. “It takes a long time, but it can be done.” Perhaps we wouldn’t be able to save this particular baby, but we could save others. And with that thought, my well-planned, well-ordered life went out the window. “We can figure it out,” I said. “Let’s go for it.” The enormity of what we were about to do wouldn’t hit us until much later.


We asked our agency for two kids—a boy and a girl younger than Ezra, who was then almost 3. They sent us grainy photos of a boy, Bianov, 2, and a girl, Nerlande, 8 months. Right away, a complication: Nerlande had an older sister and brother, but the orphanage was going to split them up. We flew to Haiti in August 2011, hoping for clarity. Mia and Ezra came with us, although they were too young to fully understand what was happening. “You’ll adopt them all,” predicted a friend, who had adopted several children. “Over my dead body,” I insisted.

We arrived at a well-kept mountainside building that was far nicer than most of Haiti’s orphanages. The kids had lived there for several months; like many children in the country’s orphanages, they had been left there because relatives were unable to care for them. Bianov stared at us with deep, unblinking eyes. I picked up Nerlande; she shrieked so loudly I nearly dropped her. Her siblings, Etienne and Valine, then 5 and 3, looked forlorn. What little they said was in Creole. Mia and Ezra played, unaware their lives were about to be upended. It wasn’t a picture-perfect scene, but the moment was magical. “I think these are all our kids,” whispered Emma, who always jumped at the chance to help others. I squeezed her hand. “I do too.”

We had reason to think we could pull this off. I had been adopted as a baby. After locating my troubled biological mother in 2000, I realized the impact of my stable adoptive parents. Many friends in our church had adopted domestically and internationally as an extension of our Christian faith. But even those close to us were baffled when we announced our plans. “You’re adopting four at once?” my father asked incredulously when I called him. “Whatever you do, we’ll support you.”

The adoption moved glacially. Clerical errors caused long delays. I begged bureaucrats for help. Our savings dwindled; we spent 88 percent of my 2012 salary on travel and fees. We visited the kids every few months, loaded down with toys and candy. When we left, they were inconsolable. At the end of one trip I held Valine as she wept for an hour. “I’ll be back for you,” I whispered. By November 2013 we were in despair. And then I got the e-mail that changed everything. After nearly three years, the process was complete; we could bring the kids home. It was finally happening.


The children were used to goodbyes; all they had experienced was upheaval. But this was different: They were leaving everything they had ever known. On the way to the airport in early December, 5-year-old Valine got sick, a result of the bumpy ride and her jumbled nerves. Four-year-old Bianov, exhausted by the strange sights, fell into a deep sleep on the plane. As we walked through the front door of our home, their eyes widened. Etienne, 7, and Valine threw open the refrigerator door and yelped with excitement. They jumped on their beds. Bianov pulled all the toys out of the toy box. Finally, exhausted, they fell asleep.

The first weeks were a blur of extreme highs and lows. Etienne taught himself to ride his sister’s bike the day after we got home; a neighbor pressed two folded $100 bills into my hand to buy him one of his own. Friends brought us dinner. By the weekend our house had become the place to be for our neighborhood’s under- 10 set; 17 kids played in our yard while the parents sat in lawn chairs and talked.

Our four new children’s personalities began to show themselves: Etienne happily helped with household chores and displayed an athletic streak. Valine and Nerlande smothered us with hugs and kisses. Bianov’s sense of humor was infectious. No longer the “Haiti kids” whom we had visited but not really known, they were becoming fully formed members of our family. To our astonishment, Mia and Ezra—who we feared would never forgive us for shaking up their lives—didn’t look back. “Do you wish things could go back to how they used to be?” I asked Mia one day. “No,” she replied, looking puzzled. “Why would I?”

But without a doubt, it was the hardest thing we had ever done. We struggled to meet the emotional needs of all six kids. Even with the help of a Haitian friend, we sometimes had trouble communicating. I packed on 30 lbs. and occasionally had trouble getting out of bed. “You’ve been angry lately,” Emma told me one March morning. “I think you’re a little depressed.”

Self-doubt plagued us. When mischievous Bianov coaxed the neighbor’s puppy into licking the face of his terrified sister, I put him in time-out. As he cried, I wondered if I would have punished Ezra for the same thing. I became obsessed with treating each kid equally. As the stress began to unravel us, Emma and I argued about banalities. We went days without talking about anything meaningful. We fumbled to find each other again.

The months rolled by. We slogged through the days, almost not noticing that life had begun to take a turn for the better. We enrolled the kids in school in January, and after varying adjustment periods for each, they flourished. In July we took a family beach vacation. As the kids played in the waves, Emma and I looked at each other: We were happy again. Our days were exhausting, but they felt like accomplishments rather than battles. We had successfully taken apart our family of four—and emerged as a family of eight.


After school one day, Etienne addressed me in perfect English. “Dad, I don’t want to be called Etienne anymore.” He wanted to be called Steven, the English translation, instead. Bianov decided he wanted to be James. We agreed, knowing some loss of heritage was inevitable yet hoping they always identified with their Haitian roots.

I didn’t need to worry. Haiti still resonates with our family—including my American-born kids, who have learned an impressive amount of Creole from their new siblings. A few months after they came home, we volunteered for a church charity drive, assembling food packets for families in developing nations. Steven, a.k.a. Etienne, worked tirelessly. Before we even sampled a packet of the rice and soy mixture, he told us, “I know what this tastes like.” He was 4 when the earthquake hit, and the hazy memories lodged in the corners of his mind. “A man came to our village when I was small. He had boxes of this food on the back of a donkey. It tasted good.”

So here we are, the eight of us, unremarkable except for the way we became a family. We’re no longer saving up for a trip to Hawaii; we’ll go back to Haiti instead. The house needs a paint job, and we’re still not sure how to swing college tuition for six, but we feel blessed. When we saw suffering we couldn’t ignore, we took a leap of faith—and found the rewards far outweighed the sacrifices. Comfort is overrated; sometimes it’s necessary to take risks. We’re trying to teach that lesson to our kids.

At breakfast the other day Valine handed me a folded-up card made of construction paper. She climbed into my lap as I read. “Dad, thank you for adopting me,” she had written. “This is the best family ever.” I gave her a squeeze, hoping my voice wouldn’t tremble as I answered. “Thank you,” I said softly. “I think so too.”

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