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Recounting the rescue of Haiti's orphans

By Soledad O'Brien, CNN
  • Soledad O'Brien's memoir "The Next Big Story" released November 2010
  • She traces her journey from Long Island suburbia to CNN's anchor desk
  • Excerpt follows her journey to Haiti in the wake of the country's devastating earthquake
  • Buy the book at

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "The Next Big Story" by Soledad O'Brien, retelling the story of her journey to Haiti. She later turned her reporting into a one-hour documentary on Haiti's orphans called "Rescued."

(CNN) -- The moment I arrive at the Lighthouse I find the answer to the question that has been nagging me since we arrived -- how does any one person make a difference in the face of such an enormous tragedy?

Susette and Bill Manassero came to Haiti at the urging of their eldest daughter, Ariana. She was 9 and had saved coins to sponsor needy children in Haiti. She wanted to go for a visit. The Manasseros were indulging her when they came to Haiti and were shocked to find the high rates of poverty, sex trafficking and child abandonment -- some of the worst in the world. The children they met were being abused.

They were on what they thought was just a casual visit. They made a drastic decision, one that is inconceivable to so many of us. They sold everything and moved their three young children to Haiti.

What the Manasseros have built in Haiti is stunning to say the least. They have a boys' and girls' orphanage, a feeding program and ministry, a clinic and sports program. The central component to all of it is the guesthouse.

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Jonathan Olinger, a young Christian who makes movies documenting the plight of third-world children, has spent a lot of time videotaping there. Christian volunteers come and live at the Lighthouse, bringing their skills and enthusiasm and taking home a commitment to spread the word and raise funds. The volunteers are moved by a desire to leave behind their plastic lives, grasp meaning, and pursue God's grace.

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The last group that came got much more than they bargained for with this devastating earthquake.

Robert Taylor had volunteered to build furniture. Amese Kubicki had brought her stepdaughters there to get them away from the frivolity of Orange County so she could build some character into them. When I arrive, Robert is working in the clinic helping badly wounded people and Amese is caring for traumatized children. The Manasseros are guiding all these untrained people in critical disaster work while running an orphanage. They have just shut down a clinic they opened to the public.

For days, wounded, battered, bleeding people of all ages had overwhelmed the volunteers. Aid workers came to assist but there just weren't enough of them. Volunteers like Robert and Amese assist with amputations and splints, things far outside anything they have experienced. The orphanage just couldn't keep up the pace.

Jonathan has been videotaping the precarious situation here. The 47 children are sleeping outside in a big concrete play yard they call the "bins." They are afraid to go inside because of the aftershocks. The walls around the girls' orphanage have collapsed, so they are not secure from bandits.

Many of the children are uncharacteristically quiet; some are attached to the laps of volunteers and older children. When we arrive, kids swarm around us instantly, checking out our BlackBerrys and cameras and just wanting to play. There is a girl named Cendy, pronounced "Cenzy" in Creole, with assaulting eyes that look at you while she smiles off into the distance.

There are babies everywhere whom people pass off to each of us. The boys run up laughing and want us to take their pictures. They may be sleeping outside but every child couldn't be cleaner or better dressed.

Bill and Susette are amazingly calm bearing all this responsibility, considering they are close to running out of food and water. Bill has a very happy daddy personality in the face of the worst situations. He has a graying beard and mustache and is dressed all in khaki. He is constantly in action, working to keep this place running, fueling up generators, moving furniture, making endless drives back and forth between the various facilities. He pats about a hundred heads an hour.

Susette is also in constant motion, delivering orders to an army of volunteers, employees and older children with a calmness and delicacy that sends everyone off feeling they have been given a vote of confidence. This woman has it all together. It is nearly 100 degrees outside. An earthquake has just flattened half her city. They are short on everything they need to survive and unsure whether help is on the way. And she is wearing perfectly applied eyeliner and completely coordinated jewelry. She is Cuban-American and has that Latina sensibility that makes everyone feel as if they are part of one big family on the move. I like them both instantly.

As soon as we arrive, I seem to enter their whirlwind and just follow where it takes me. There is no way to talk with these people without keeping up their pace. We set up cameras in an effort to debrief Ariana on her inspirational story, and even then she and her younger siblings continue running the orphanage as we are putting on their microphones and sitting them down. I barely spit out a few questions before Susette pulls me off on one of her rescue missions. The Manasseros are treating the crisis as their full responsibility. I am awed.

Until this very moment I felt like I had Katrina stuck in my head, the image of a nonresponsive government and a disempowered public. I came to Haiti expecting nothing from their government and next to nothing from my own, even though its shore is just a quick plane jump away. Now, sitting in a Jeep with this Energizer Bunny of a Cuban woman, I am suddenly transported to another mental place.

I am rattled. Everyone is, actually. There are not just dead people all over this town, but there are aftershocks big and small. You don't know what to expect or when to expect it. There is not enough food or water and no power at all. So driving through Port-au-Prince is like driving through desperation. I lose track of how many places we visit where the people need help. Susette has so little to give out, but she has boxes of canned goods and bread and water and is doing her part.

We go to another orphanage where the kids are all sitting quietly outside. The director says he is desperate. He has no sponsors in the United States anymore and has no one to call for help. They have no food left and the kids are weak. She hands them all bread and they eat, but there is no long-term solution to deliver.

We walk through a ravine where tents are being raised. The people are eating where they sleep and go to the bathroom. This place can't last. I know no Creole but I have no trouble communicating. I barely use our translators. It's amazing how people can make themselves understood in a crisis. Their French meets my few words of French and Spanish and hands move. The next thing you know, we are walking right behind them to see an injured child or a damaged home. Everyone wants to tell us his or her story. They want America to know they need help.

A school next door has pancaked onto tiny desks and word is it was full of children. People walk by carrying bags of recovered supplies. Cars roar by carrying loads of people, injured and hungry, to unknown destinations. Someone occasionally carries a gun, but mostly they are just normal folks on their way toward nothing in particular. We walk down a ravine, dense with tiny structures fractured by the earthquake. People are living in the rubble of their lives.

We take Susette and go visit her former wash lady, who breaks down into her arms. She has five children living in a small one-room concrete hut with a tin roof. Her oldest child, Daniel, used to work for Susette and now goes to college. He is the sole provider for his family and he is missing. She shoves his picture in my hand and wails. I need no translation.

This all feels like it happens in an instant, but it takes a full day. I bounce through the cracked streets of Delmas 73 in Port-au-Prince in Susette's Jeep, racing along as if we are headed for an emergency room even when we are going a few blocks. Tall iron gates with no windows swing open to our last stop. We enter the grounds of Quisqueya Church, a vast grassy enclave where several orphanages have set up tents. There are only enough tents for a few staff people and older children. We can see that most of the little ones are out beneath some trees in playpens.

As we hop out of our vehicle, we can hear the children whimpering like little kittens. The sun is so hot and full it's blinding. The smell of hot grass and child vomit fill the air. We run up as if we are about to push a child past an oncoming train. And then we just stop. The caretakers had covered the playpens with mattresses to block the sun. The heat is trapped inside and the children are withering. I've never met such quiet children. There is not enough food or water at this place, either. Susette's face turns completely cold and she stands at a distance as I walk among the playpens. I push the mattresses aside more than once and a flash of hot air moves in. Flies land on one boy's eyelid. He is too weak to wave them away. A girl struggles to roll over. She is maybe 5.

I stop at some boys who look to be about 2. I know boys this age. I've had boys this age. Their eyes are missing something. There is no white, just red. The lashes droop as if they are a great weight. Their lips are so dry they blend in with the skin around them. There is no moisture in their skin; not enough water inside them to sweat in the 90 degree heat. I touch their heads, one by one. The tight little Afro on one boy traps dirt like a bird's nest.

One bald kid has tiny blue veins tracing along his skull like a road map. He rises up suddenly to meet me. I kneel down to meet him. He can barely lift the weight of his dirty diaper. He stands like a drunk. I stroke his back a few times and he falls forward against the railing. His head tilts toward me. His mouth is half open. I look into his eyes and see nothing. I stop. I begin to stand up and move away. The boy suddenly cries out. He has just enough tears left to drop some for me. His tiny chest heaves. His head wobbles unsteadily on his neck. I fall back. "Don't cry. Don't cry," I beg him. He has no reaction.

Then suddenly I just can't take it. The heat inside me rises as rapidly as the heat around me beats down on my head. A swell of emotion settles in my head and I just completely lose it. I begin to cry, too. Our foreheads touch. His is dry. Mine is moist. We are both so hot. His little body trembles. My spine collapses so my back is in a hunch. Some of these children will die this week. Some of these little black children in playpens on this terribly beaten island will die. They will die in the heat. They will die alone. They will wither away whether I do a story about them or not. They will be overcome regardless of whether the word gets out that they need help. They were barely better off before the ground shook, before a legion of rescue workers and journalists descended on their homeland for the umpteenth time in history to tell the story of Haiti's woes. His agony overwhelms me. I can do nothing for this boy. Nothing right now. Nothing tomorrow. Nothing at all, nothing but cry.

I finally let go of this child. The eyes of my colleagues are fixed on me. Susette stands a few feet away and waits. "Jesus, there is so much sadness in this country," I tell her. "How do you do this? How do you go on?"

Susette becomes the first of several people in Haiti who tell me the starfish story. The story is adapted from the works of Loren Eiseley, an American philosopher who wrote many books that were contemplative and humane. His essay "The Star Thrower" is treasured by people who do relief work, whose lives are a mission to help the less fortunate. A man is walking on a beach full of starfish perishing in the sun as the tide rolls out. He comes upon a boy who is throwing them back in the ocean one by one. The man asks the boy why he is bothering with the dying starfish when there are so many of them and he could never save them all.

"It doesn't matter," the man tells him.

"It matters to the one," replies the boy.

Susette and Bill take enormous comfort from that story, from narrowing their vision to the group of desperate boys and girls they can rescue in the face of this enormous tragedy. We return to the orphanage at dusk, a vast complex of white plaster and concrete lit by the glow of a generator's lamp. The children are clustering even closer to the adults and some of the volunteers are singing and praying with them. As soon as we enter, a group of them surround us once again. It is amazing how children can smile even when they are scared.

Susette has a very firm idea of why she is in Haiti. It's to raise these beautiful kids. She doesn't process adoptions, even though she is supportive of the concept and is adopting two kids herself. Hers is a lifetime commitment. She says early on some of the boys told her she would leave the moment things got hard. Her promise that she would never do that has intensified her devotion. Bill and she barely interact since they are so busy, but their movements are coordinated like some kind of machine with lots of moving parts. Bill begins playing music and trying to lift the children's spirits for what will surely be a night of more aftershocks.

I ask a group of the older ones what they think of the rush to get kids to the United States for adoption. Their English is terrific considering they are learning it here. These children love their orphanage and the Manasseros, so the question is awkward. No one wants to say they don't want to be adopted, because they have no idea why this lady with the TV cameras is bothering to ask. But a few talk of rebuilding Haiti, of being here to help each other out. There are some dreams of escaping the poverty and destruction around them. Then they all begin to talk of adoption with a sadness that is heartbreaking.

"Everything here is destroyed. There is nothing for us. I would miss my family, but they would be happy for me," says a boy into the approaching darkness. "But it would make me sad."

As our evening wraps up, Bill comes charging in with a group of newcomers. They are Christian missionaries who flew themselves into the Dominican Republic, rented trucks and bought food and water, and have arrived at the Lighthouse bringing hope. They do not even know the Manasseros. They had no plan, no government behind them, nothing but a desire to go help. Everyone hugs and cheers and Susette turns to me -- and if I am not mistaken, she is gloating.

"Miracles do happen," she says. "See, they've heard the starfish story, too." They begin to unload the truck of supplies into their basement as the children sing "Hallelujah" into the hot Haitian night.

We wake up to more aftershocks every few hours that night, sending us into the parking lot each time, exhausted and shaken. The food is making us sick so we're relying on the PowerBars now. I have never had so much bottled water to drink. We spent most of last night filing stories and sending pictures. A massive telethon for Haiti is being simulcast and we are contributing footage.

We revisit the Maison des Enfants orphanage to see how they have fared. I had done live shots from there for several hours showing a group of ailing babies in the back of a truck. (They are too young to eat food but there is no formula so they are sick and dehydrating.) There was an outpouring of sympathy for their plight when the story aired in the United States. When we arrive, they are loading the babies into a van, and the toddlers and older children into a bus. The staff looks desperate. They say they are making a run for the U.S. Embassy with over 100 kids they believe are eligible for adoption. They think the children need to show up in person in order to be processed, and they are desperate to get them out of Haiti. They take a thick black Sharpie and write "FHG" on all the kids' hands -- For His Glory adoption services.

We hop aboard along with a volunteer medical team from Denver, carrying the children who are most ill. The staff leads the children in singing "Hallelujah." They urge the kids to clap and pray. The bus hurtles forward into the steaming hot, dusty, broken streets of Haiti. There are no seatbelts and nowhere near enough adults to hold all the little children, so a lot of them are getting knocked about. I have three kids on my lap and one is throwing up. The staff keeps calling their colleagues at the embassy, who can't seem to give them a clear idea of whether they should be coming at all. There is all sorts of debris in the road, it's a very bumpy ride, but also really hot. The temperature rises above 90 degrees. The children are wilting; more are throwing up, really just uncomfortable. One of the medics forces a baby to take Tylenol. They keep telling Tanya Constantino, who is leading the operation, that they are worried about the children's health.

"I don't want to jeopardize the children, but I want to do what's right for them," she says.

I'm afraid for the kids who are already in precarious health. A pickup flies by carrying corpses beneath a tarp, and it takes a moment before I fully appreciate what I'm seeing. I avert my eyes. My photographer, Tawanda Scott, and Rose Marie Arce (my co-author) are standing at the front of the bus videotaping and asking questions as the bus moves. Suddenly, the bus jolts sideways on the road and they get thrown forward into a few other folks who are standing along with some small kids. They are sturdy women so it was a strong jolt. The kids scream and begin to cry. The bus charges forward. There has been a very strong aftershock while we are in motion.

"What if I've made a mistake?" Tanya cries out. Then the van ahead of us stops and one of the staff gets out and comes aboard. "We just got a call from the embassy telling us not to bring the children," says the staff member. Tanya argues with him and urges the drivers to press on. We come within two blocks of the embassy when she finally decides to stop. The children pour out of the hot bus onto the sidewalk, shaken and crying. A few dozen begin to pee and others throw up.

"The children do not want to go back to the orphanage. They want to go to America," Tanya says firmly of the assortment of babies, toddlers, and children around her. The medical team is frustrated. They insist that this is not a good plan. Tanya relents and they decide to turn back. We call CNN on our satellite phone and ask them to speak with the embassy. They tell us the embassy staff never asked the children to come and do not believe the trip is necessary. They have a lot of paperwork to do and can't speed it up without risking children being taken from their parents illegally. Haiti has a big problem with child sex trafficking. Tanya is crestfallen.

I grab Rose and Tawanda and get back into our car with the CNN drivers and security team. We decide to head for the airport, where we have been told other orphanages have gotten the green light to leave. The trip begins to feel like that crazy scene in the movie Hotel Rwanda, a frantic race to escape. The stream of people making for the airport seems endless. When we arrive there are 21 children whose adoption agencies have completed their paperwork. A team of relief workers from Utah has rented a chopper. They airlift the orphans from their crèche and drop them at the airport into the hands of U.S. soldiers. Tall, broad-shouldered, American servicemen are walking around with tiny Haitian kids, and they are feeding them cold clean water.

A group of wealthy Americans, employees of a tech firm with no connection to the orphanage, have bought and stocked a private plane and come to help. They have volunteered to take these children to Fort Lauderdale. The children cling to whichever adult will pick them up. We make a quick decision to board the plane, get home so we can tell their story. We are carting small kids on our laps, have shown our passports to no one. There is no order at this moment in Haiti, no rules. As we are beginning to move, there is a knock at the airplane door. A man outside begins to beg the pilots to take an American woman and her adoptive son. They begin to cry. The pilots look at each other and relent. We take off with 22 kids aboard.

Sometimes, you just do what you can. The adoption issue is so very complicated. It is a fact that it is not a solution to the misery of so many of Haiti's children. There are just not enough adoptive parents to go around, not even considering what it does to a nation of parents for people to take their kids. But for these kids, at this moment, they have embarked on a new life. These absolute strangers just up and got a plane and came to their rescue. The reality of what's happening doesn't hit everyone until we're high in the sky. Then a lot of the guys just stroll down the aisle looking as if their lives have embraced new meaning. Their act of generosity has enhanced them as much as these children. They are high in the sky in more ways than one.

CNN has sent a live truck to the Fort Lauderdale airport, and when we land an incredible human moment unfolds on TV. "We have just landed at Fort Lauderdale International Airport," I say on live national television. "And we're actually very close to where these adoptive parents, we're told, are waiting in a hangar."

What's happening, though, is the children have to be processed through first, so they're going through immigration, they're going through customs, and they will load them back on the plane and roll that plane to the hangar, where they get to meet their American parents.

"But what a day it has been," I say to one of our anchors, feeling like I have landed in some alternate universe. As I'm speaking, the plane finally gets a chance to unload and the adoptive parents rush up the runway screaming with arms outstretched.

A little boy smiles and screams "Mommy." His moment of recognition speaks volumes about the relationship he has built with his adoptive mom. A few other children look bewildered, even frightened. The parents are universally in tears. I look at the faces of these Haitian kids in the Fort Lauderdale airport bound for far-off states in the middle of America with their mostly white parents. Each of these little faces has a remarkable story behind it and quite an adventure ahead. I am not done with my work in Haiti. I am just home for now.