Image: Greg Keck hugs orphan
Esteban Felix  /  AP
Greg Keck of the White Stone Church in Knoxville, Tenn., hugs Haitian orphan Geurline Louis on March 7 in Camatin, where she was relocated to after the orphanage at Coq Chante collapsed during the Jan. 12 earthquake. The church has had a relationship with the children of the Coq Chante orphanage going back seven years.
updated 3/14/2010 3:50:35 PM ET 2010-03-14T19:50:35

Odette. Benita. Valancia. Atanie.

Each Sunday morning, members of White Stone Church spread photos of the girls' grinning, impish faces across a folding table in the lobby, then prayed for the day they might join them.

When the churchgoers closed their eyes and bowed their heads, it no longer mattered that 1,400 miles separated them from the girls or that they lived in a Haitian village whose dirt floors and lack of running water were unthinkable in north Knoxville's quilt of neatly tended subdivisions and fast-food drive-thrus.

They are "Our Girls," the worshippers told one another.

Over six years, the girls of Coq Chante had come to feel like family. Now, after trips by dozens to Haiti, thousands of dollars raised and spent, and countless hours poring over adoption paperwork, the bond with 19 children from another world felt unbreakable.

Until a Tuesday night in January.

White Stone's worship pastor, Mark Zimmerman, had returned from Haiti at 10:45 the previous night. The Zimmermans planned a family night at home and Mark was in the basement, where framed photos of Coq Chante's girls line the paneling over the pingpong table. He was stacking wood in the fireplace when the phone rang.

Haiti has been hit by a massive earthquake, another church member told him.

All the phones are out. We can't reach Coq Chante. There's no telling what's happened to our girls.

"God, please," Mark's wife, Angie, prayed silently. "I can't be there. You can."

But as images of the destruction filled the living room television, the family could see that prayer alone might not be enough.

Plea for help
The envelope that landed on Mark Zimmerman's desk in early 2002 was not addressed to anyone by name. Inside, with a handwritten note, was a photo of 15 or 20 children, some barely clothed, bellies distended.

"We are starving," the caption read. "Would you please help us?"

It was still on Zimmerman's desk in July, when 60 people from White Stone boarded a bus for a six-day mission to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They taught vacation bible school at three churches, including two of Haitian immigrants who greeted the Knoxville families warmly.

This was new territory for White Stone, an overwhelmingly white congregation of salesmen, small business owners and teachers. On Sundays, the evangelical congregation draws about 300 in jeans and Nikes for a service set around a six-piece band, offering praise in lyrics beamed on to big screens.

"We were called to the suburbs," Zimmerman says.

By trip's end, though, the pastor had been doing some thinking.

"Don't be surprised if next year at this time we're digging our toes into Haitian dirt," Zimmerman told the group.

Slideshow: Lifeline of love "We all thought he was nuts," churchgoer Allyson Coleman says. "I don't know if any of us had ever heard of Haiti or even knew where it was."

Back in Knoxville, Zimmerman dug out the letter, wondering if other churches had received one. In fact, a Haitian pastor, Nicolas Louis Juste, had sent thousands to U.S. congregations, seeking money for his churches, schools and orphanages, son Ricot Juste says.

Zimmerman recruited an expedition party. The volunteers included Karen and Mike Bates — a stay-at-home mom and her purchasing agent husband who'd gotten sick the one time he'd traveled by plane. Also on board was Coleman's husband, Andy, a fourth-generation printer teased for being content to spend life within a mile of Broadway, the busy commercial drag running north out of Knoxville.

After Thanksgiving 2003, the group boarded a plane for a country they knew almost nothing about.

"It was the scariest thing I'd ever done in my life," Zimmerman says.

Climbing the mountain
The first thing they noticed about Port-au-Prince was the smell — raw sewage, charcoal and diesel fumes simmering in the tropical heat.

"Well Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore," Andy Coleman said, staring out of the flatbed.

Then the truck climbed 2½ hours into the mountains. For six days, the men helped build a school at Coq Chante, where Juste ran an orphanage housing a dozen girls. The women stayed in Belloc, where Juste had a home for boys.

Haiti's orphans have drawn tremendous attention since the earthquake, after an Idaho church group was arrested for trying to take children they falsely claimed were parentless out of the country without government approval. Before the disaster, Haiti was home to 380,000 children who had lost one or both parents, according to UNICEF.

But Haiti's orphanages have long taken in children who don't fit that narrow definition. Before the earthquake, about 180 licensed orphanages and 200 without approval operated in Haiti, home to 40,000 to 50,000 children, said Tom DeFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group.

Thousands were like most at Coq Chante and Belloc — surrendered by living parents too poor to care for them.

That first morning, White Stone's women set up a makeshift clinic. Soon, Karen Bates noticed a Haitian woman walking toward her carrying an infant topped with a pink crocheted cap.

"She handed him to me. I was standing there looking at his little face and I thought, 'OK, maybe this is what I'm here for,'" Karen Bates recalls. "I turned around and she was walking down the road. Oh my God!"

The mother of tiny Wousamy (Oo-SAH'-mee) came back at day's end. But she returned every morning, placing her baby in Karen Bates' arms. He was the youngest of eight or nine children in a family struggling for food, the couple learned.

On their last morning, the churchgoers boarded the truck for the airport when the woman reappeared, trotting alongside the moving flatbed, holding out her baby.

"Mama Wousamy, Mama Wousamy," she called to Karen Bates, who broke into tears. At the airport, Mike Bates came back from the men's room to realize he'd missed a conversation among other members of the group.

"Hey," one of the men said, slapping Mike on the thigh. "You're going to adopt a kid."

The Bates' small, white-sided house on Ledgerwood Avenue was already full, thanks to their own children, then 4, 10 and 11. When they heard adoption required an evaluation of the home's worn-out carpet and thrift shop furniture, Karen and Mike feared they wouldn't be approved.

But just before Memorial Day in 2004 one of the women from White Stone called. All week, churchgoers filed in and out of the house, ripping up carpet, lugging out furniture, painting and cleaning. When Mike Bates scheduled the home visit, the adoption counselor told him an anonymous donor had already paid the bill.

Meanwhile, Mark Zimmerman couldn't stop thinking about the afternoon in Haiti he'd taken an 8-year-old girl named Evannel to a hospital for treatment of a broken arm.

"There were people laying on the floor and puddles of blood," he recalls. "I didn't even think about going back to Haiti for another year."

In October 2005, though, White Stone returned. Zimmerman preached at Juste's church in Coq Chante. Afterward, each of the girls from the orphanage kissed him on the cheek.

"Nobody ever treats these little girls like their little girls," he thought.

Still, by the time White Stone returned to Haiti in December 2007, Mark was frustrated. There was only so much 27 Tennesseans could do in a week divided between poor villages.

Juste suggested a trip to the beach. On a Thursday morning, the visitors boarded the flatbed and 12 girls from Coq Chante climbed onto their laps. The girls lived on a tropical island, but most had never set foot in the ocean.

"That was the day that everything changed," Mark says.

He spent hours watching the girls wade timidly in to the surf. By afternoon's end, church member Carol Stout floated in the sea with a 9-year-old named Islande (IZ-lahnd) clinging to her back.

But the girls' time together was running out. The previous year Juste had suffered a stroke. He'd begun closing orphanages and Coq Chante would be next.

Maybe this is what God has in mind for us, Zimmerman told the others, on the roof at sunset. They couldn't solve Haiti. But what if they could care for these children like their own?

Spreading the word, and pictures
Back in Knoxville, White Stone women wrote up descriptions of each girl and paired them with photos.

There was Valancia, the orphanage's 10-year-old jump rope expert. Her self-confidence and smile reminded the volunteers of Zimmerman's daughter, Kayla.

Odette, about the same age, her head decorated in pigtails, wouldn't leave the volunteers' laps. She suffered from malaria and worms.

On Sundays, churchgoers spread the pictures across a table at Brickey-McCloud Elementary School, whose gym White Stone rents for worship, asking families to sponsor a child. Andy Coleman made up a brochure with all the photos at his print shop on Broadway.

"Our Girls," read the script on the cover.

Two of the last arrivals at the orphanage were sisters, but the only photos were dark and out of focus.

"Nobody is going to pick this child because it's all blurry," Lorie Johnson told herself, studying a picture of Atanie, about the same age as her own daughter, Emmaline, then 2. "I'm going to take this smallest one."

Keeping Coq Chante open would require $5,000 a month. But it became clear to churchgoers they'd taken on a much bigger job than anticipated.

In Coq Chante, Lorie Johnson picked up Atanie to dress her for church when the little girl started coughing, until writhing intestinal worms twice the thickness of spaghetti spewed from her mouth.

"She's laughing and I'm screaming because I'm seeing this thing moving from my back and down to the ground," Johnson says.

Kevin Rudd spent the week trailed by Benita, a girl with a toothy smile who kept reaching for his hand. He assigned her to carry some of his tools.

At year's end, Angie Zimmerman sent Mark with a gold bracelet hung with a tiny "Z" charm for Valancia, who the family sponsored.

Mark called home that night, then put Valancia on the phone.

"Thank you for the bracelet, Angie," the girl said in a sing-song voice.

Four days later, Mark was back on the phone with Angie, trying to explain all the things going through his head.

"Tell me," Angie asked. "Are we getting ready to adopt this little girl?"

After more than four years, the Bates still waited to bring Wousamy home. Now they had company.

Kevin Rudd was having trouble working and sleeping. Three weeks after getting back from Haiti in May 2008, the couple was on their back deck when Kevin blurted out something about adopting a little girl named Benita.

That night in bed, he started crying. Gina didn't know what to think. Had he considered what it would cost to bring home a child?

But she and Alex returned from their own trip to Haiti, and the Rudds filled out adoption papers. Kevin listened to "Creole Made Easy" CDs repeatedly on long drives between sales calls.

White Stone's trips to Haiti were no longer spaced by years, but by weeks, the church's role growing as Juste's health failed. He died in March 2009.

Each time the missionaries returned, it seemed another family followed the Bates' lead. Al and Sherry Fitzpatrick decided to adopt Dieula, to be renamed Jayla. Andy and Allyson Coleman filled out the paperwork for Odette.

In December 2008, Carol and Johnny Ray Stout were driving home from an early dinner at El Chico's. At 49 and 50, they were among the oldest of White Stone's families, proud new grandparents. Now, as the career electrician drove, his wife began to weep.

"Here we go," Johnny Ray told himself. He pulled into the parking lot at Kmart, certain Carol was about to admit to an affair.

"I just really feel like the Lord wants us to adopt a little girl," she confessed through tears.

Meanwhile, Lorie Johnson pushed husband Darrell to go to Haiti and meet the little girl named Atanie. In November 2009 he finally made the trip.

When Lorie returned to Coq Chante weeks later, she carried the 4-year-old into the house where the missionaries slept — a privilege reserved for girls whose adoptions were under way.

It was a Sunday night, Jan. 10.

Atanie, freshly bathed and giddy with the adventure of sharing Lorie's bed, rolled under the covers until she fell asleep. But in the night she stirred and Lorie felt two small, warm hands reaching for her in the darkness.

"Are you there?" Atanie murmured.

Not all made it out alive
"Do you have any news about the girls?"

The Zimmermans' phones kept ringing. It was Tuesday, Jan. 12, and television was reporting a massive earthquake had hit Port-au-Prince.

Kevin Rudd tried every Haiti number saved to his cell phone but could not get through.

The evening passed without word at the Coleman house and Allyson settled into a fitful sleep. Then, soon after midnight, a sound downstairs awakened her. Sitting up in bed, she heard Andy weeping.

At last, one of the calls had reached Haiti, churchgoer Brian Lloyd explained when Allyson joined Andy at the dining table. Much of the orphanage at Coq Chante had collapsed. And their Odette was missing.

Mike and Karen Bates, too, were roused to learn that Wousamy could not be accounted for.

At 12:57 a.m., Lorie Johnson's phone rang just as the home alarm sounded, indicating a car had pulled into the driveway. When she picked up, Kevin Rudd was on the line. "Which door do you want me to come in?" he asked.

Downstairs, she opened the door to find Mark at Kevin's side. The men stepped in, their eyes cast down.

"The orphanage has collapsed," Kevin said. "Everybody got out except Atanie. And she's gone."

"No! It can't be!" Lorie cried as she fell to the couch, sobbing.

"It can't be. I was just there! Everything was fine. Everything was OK.

"These are our girls!"

Part II: After the quake

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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