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My husband John and I travelled to Haiti in the summer of 2012 and bonded with the most amazing 6-month-old girl. Our Cassandra was beautiful and largely happy and so tough! Born most likely prematurely in Port-Au-Prince, Cassandra’s birth mother could not breastfeed, and Cassandra was not thriving on the “porridge” used to by families who cannot afford baby formula. Cassandra had come to the orphanage at about 4 weeks of age weighing only 4 and a half pounds. She was a tiny girl! When we received the referral, our baby girl was nearly seven pounds but still struggling to grow. The nurse at her creche, Maison des Anges, did a wonderful job but Cassandra’s first 6 months were fraught with fevers and failure to thrive.
She was just turning the corner at 6 months when John and I met and fell in love with her. And that’s what it was for both of us. When I held my daughter for the first time, the emotions were similar to holding my newborn biological sons. She was in my heart. She was part of the family. The fact that our adoption decree was not yet final and we lived hundreds of miles away in North Carolina did not change the feeling that we were now the parents of three children—our two biological sons and our beautiful daughter.
The incongruous feeling came when I tried to relay all the joy and anxiety that comes from meeting your daughter then leaving her in very capable hands but still a third-world country; most people did not understand. My parents and in-laws didn’t yet consider her their granddaughter; my brother and his wife were very supportive but thought we were crazy. My sons, Dylan (age 7) and Gabriel (age 3), were largely confused. How could they have a sister who existed only in photographs and conversations? I wanted them to experience some of the anticipation that comes with a new family member, but wasn’t sure of the best approach. I went about my days in the summer and fall of 2012 in a state of anxious hopefulness, talking endlessly about Cassandra to my closest friends and seeking online support from women going through the same journey.
I became determined to make our family feel as whole as possible. We were fortunate that Maison des Anges welcomes parents to visit at any time. We had also finally received our adoption decree, although homecoming was still many months away. Under the previous law, the adoption decree meant that Cassandra was our child while we were in Haiti; she just lacked the US Visa and Haitian passport required to come home.
We planned a trip to visit her over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. To bring our family closer together, we decided to take our older son Dylan to meet his sister. The orphanage and CAS worked together to help us plan the best trip possible. We took Dylan to a travel clinic for immunizations not available from our pediatrician. We also gave him a malaria prophylactic and took antibiotics “just in case.” It was a tough decision, but we ultimately decided it was best for our younger son, Gabriel, to stay home. He was not yet old enough to take the necessary precautions with eating and drinking.
We flew out of Raleigh in a crazy thunder-snow, spent the night in Miami, and were in sunny Haiti the next morning. Already Dylan was having quite the adventure and he had yet to meet his sister.
MDA had hired a driver with an excellent reputation. He picked us up at the airport and took us straight to MDA (only about a 10 minute drive), where we picked up Cassandra and headed to a resort on the coast. That drive took about an hour and a half. For the uninitiated, driving through rural Haiti can be quite the adventure! Families should be prepared for different “rules of the road” including fairly high speed driving, lax observance of traffic lights, and passing on two-lane roads.
We arrived a little frazzled but all in one piece. The hotel was lovely, right on the turquoise water with a pool, restaurant, and immaculate grounds. Our room was on par with a Hampton Inn (other than the non-potable water situation!)
At the hotel, we had a nice weekend to bond as a family under what felt like “normal” circumstances. I was grateful that Cassandra took right to us on only our second meeting. Dylan was fascinated with her! We parked ourselves in the shade, where Dylan helped me take pictures and video of his new sister. He also enjoyed splashing in the very calm, clear water and watching the fisherman come in with giant lobsters. He got so excited when he spotted what looked like a puffer fish. The family bonding time was fabulous. Cassandra had become real to Dylan.
Of course, I did take serious precautions taking a younger child to Haiti. In addition to the medical steps discussed above, I was very cognizant about food and drink. At the time we flew to Haiti, an upgrade to business class was not terribly expensive. We took advantage of the free checked bags, and I filled a large suitcase with water purchased in the USA (while the bottled water provided at MDA is safe, there is little control or regulation in the country and care must be taken when purchasing water). It may have been off-putting to locals; however, no one got sick and Cassandra had the benefit of several days of clean water in her formula (which I brought from the US). We also allowed Dylan to only drink our bottled water and soda in the restaurant (no ice) – “Mom, you mean I can have all the Sprite I want? Haiti is great!” We fed him only cooked foods; he took a pass on all the wonderful looking fruit. We also brushed our teeth with the bottled water.
The trip went so well! When it was time to leave Cassandra at the orphanage, Dylan was confused. He didn’t really understand why we couldn’t bring her home. He was sad, but not in a debilitating way; for the rest of the adoption journey, he was much more involved in the process.
I lived in Panama as a child just slightly older than Dylan and I remember being struck by the poverty and all things non-American. I wondered if Dylan would have the same experience, seeing poor children and slums. But he saw Haiti through the magical eyes of a happy child. The women at the orphanage doted on him. When I asked him what he liked best about Haiti he said the people were so nice. He also loved the ocean, had a kid’s fascination with the hotel, and enjoyed the animals on the orphanage grounds and the goats he saw on our drive to and from the beach. Through his eyes, the poverty took a backseat and Haiti was a magical place.
We have no regrets about traveling to Haiti with Dylan so that he could meet his baby sister. It was an amazing experience for Dylan that made Cassandra’s homecoming in June of 2013 that much easier for him (and probably for her, as she had a third familiar face). I would do it all over again!
Carolina Adoption Services is a non-profit, international children's charity committed to finding stable, loving, adoptive homes for children in need of permanent families and dedicated to improving the quality of life for orphans and vulnerable children worldwide. In addition to comprehensive adoption services, CAS offers programs and services such as home studies, humanitaria...Learn more, see kids, or contact agency 630 North Elm Street North Carolina
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Rest in peace sweet boy and please know you will never be forgotten