On a warm Saturday afternoon in August, 20 children jumped off a dock into a Minnesota lake and splashed each other with delight. On a very different day 4 1/2 years ago, many in this group suffered together through the devastating earthquake that hit their native Haiti.
The children, ages 3 to 13, formed friendships while living in a home for children near Port-au-Prince started by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Now, most of those same children live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with their adoptive families.
Seventeen Catholic families have adopted more than 30 children from the Missionaries of Charity’s home since 2005 (five children are still going through the process). The families have formed a community that not only fosters their children’s friendships but has enabled them to support each other through the adoption process and in raising their children.
Many of the families met at the lake home of community members in Shoreview, Minnesota, for their informal semiannual gathering.
“Imagine being adopted and going to another country and having the opportunity to know that every single person you’ve known in your whole life lives within a half an hour from you,” said Lee Stoerzinger, of Bayport, Minnesota, who with his wife, Maggie, adopted two children from the home in Haiti. “I have never heard of that — ever.”
Dave and Carol Plamann, of Oak Grove, Minnesota, who have nine children, adopted two children from the sisters in 2005. Four years later, Carol visited the Port-au-Prince home where the sisters cared for malnourished and sick children. In their 10 homes in Haiti, the sisters have cared for more than 20,000 children. Those who were abandoned, the sisters matched with families for adoption. Carol got to know the children and the couple decided to adopt two more.
“Out of this terrible event, these kids all found homes. I don’t know how it all unfolded, but I remember thinking, ‘Thank you, God,’ because what a gift.”
— Carol Plamann, whose family from Minnesota has adopted four Haitian children
In January 2010, a devastating earthquake destroyed the Port-au-Prince children’s home. Miraculously, no children, sisters or volunteers were injured, said Joyce Grabarkiewiecz, who, with her husband, Dale, is a longtime volunteer and who was at the home during the earthquake, caring for the children who are now in Minnesota.
“In the night, lying out there with all these babies about you, they were your support,” said Joyce Grabarkiewiecz, who lives in Rochester, Minnesota. “I feel like a grandma to all of them.”
Douglas and Jenifer Latawiec of Columbus, Minnesota, were inspired to adopt from Haiti before the earthquake. They received their daughter, now 5 — the first of three children from the Missionaries of Charity home they adopted — about two months after the earthquake. Their two sons, now 11 and 7, came years later.
Asked by the sisters to help find adoptive families for the other children at the home, Latawiec, Plamann and others spread the word in Minnesota. Families at several different parishes became interested in adopting from the sisters. “It really fell into place, almost miraculously,” Jenifer Latawiec said.
The children who haven’t yet arrived — two are expected this month and the others within the next two years — represent the last adoptions the Missionaries of Charity will do in Haiti because of recent changes in the country’s adoption process that prevent the sisters from matching children with families, something they’ve done since they opened their homes to children in Haiti in the early 1980s.
After the earthquake, the U.S. government declared a “humanitarian parole” policy that expedited U.S. citizens’ adoptions of Haitian children confirmed as orphans for a temporary period. Eight children came to Minnesota as a result of the policy.
After the humanitarian parole ended in April 2010, the Haitian adoption system resumed its agonizingly slow pace, and many of the families continued to wait two or three years for children. Since 2011, children have arrived to their adopted homes in Minnesota every three to four months.
“It was just ironic. ... The earthquake — out of this terrible event, these kids all found homes,” Carol Plamann said. “I don’t know how it all unfolded, but I remember thinking, ‘Thank you, God,’ because what a gift.”
The children have arrived with different levels of trauma from the earthquake: abandonment, health problems and, in some cases, they were abused before coming to the Missionaries of Charity home. Without knowing much about their children’s background, the adoptive parents have had to take a leap of faith in some cases.
“It’s been the most amazing thing I’ve ever done — and the most challenging — and I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” she said. “It breaks my heart to think of what they went through and what they lost and to think of the road for them, to undo some of it. There’s major, major trauma that especially the kids who have been through the earthquake have.”
Coming to a new country is an ordeal that’s made easier by meeting friends, Jenifer Latawiec said. “We’ll never know how important that was to them unless they can say it later on. For them to know they’re not alone ... it isn’t a whole new thing if their friends are there.”
The kids get to see each other several times a year when the whole community gathers. Smaller groups who belong to the same parish or baseball team gather more often. “We have to help each other or there’s no way,” Jenifer Latawiec said. “This would just fall apart.”
‘One big family’
Geraldine Stoerzinger, 11, wears a brightly colored swim cap to protect her braids while she swims in the lake. The best part of coming to Minnesota is swimming, she said, and she is eager to get back into the lake where several close friends from Haiti are playing. She is a long way from her native country, where she lived at the Missionaries of Charity home with 9-year-old Evan and the others. She said she is happy that Evan is now her adoptive brother.
“These kids were raised as a family in Haiti,” Jenifer Latawiec said.
“They were like one big family, and the sisters said [they] would really want them all to go to one area where they can see each other, stay in touch with each other and continue that family in a way.”
The children will experience the struggles of life, but they’ve been given opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had, Plamann said.
Each one has a chance now, Grabarkiewiecz agreed. “I’m happy to see this many of these children all together here. I think that so much of this is just God’s hand. I mean, we’ve got no control over it. It has to be God.”
Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.