ESSENCE.com contacted Kristin Heaton, an adoptive mother of two Haitian little girls, who flew over from the devastation in Haiti on the U.S. Military C-17 that landed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Tuesday. The flight--which transported 53 Haitian orphans and garnered attention from around the world--was made possible by President Obama's decision to relax some of the red tape surrounding adoption laws to save more Haitian children. Kristin Heaton and her husband Scott started the adoption process with Haitian authorities in 2006. Read a Haitian-American's account of waiting to hear from family after the earthquake. Find out why a popular Haitian musician is singing "Haiti Will Never Die."
Essence.com: You started the adoption process in 2006? So you'd been to Haiti to see the little girls you wanted to adopt? KRISTIN HEATON: It is a heart wrenching process--and I have been to visit Haiti 11 times since 2006. There is a lot of red tape and procedural systems you have to endure to adopt these children. When I would visit and see so many sick little children in orphanages, or wandering around without clothes or food, I started the process to adopt one child--and ended up going through all of the procedures to adopt two little girls--Bettania and Dieunette, who are now seven years old and two years old. Essence.com: When you heard the earthquake struck Haiti did you fear Bettania and Dieunette were dead? HEATON: Absolutely. I would see the devastation on CNN and just pray and pray that they were somehow saved. I wanted to fly there right away, and there was no way to even get there. I went for what seemed like forever with no information on whether they were dead or alive. My husband and I got a call from one of the authorities in the United States who thought the girls were alive but there was no way we could go there and they couldn't tell us for certain. [We knew] several orphans had survived the quake. Essence.com: And, then you learned the girls would be on the plane that was a part of the relief mission by the Obama White House and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to fly some of the orphans whose adoptions were in the process to be with their American adoptive parents? HEATON: It was the best news we had ever received [but] I was still worried and anxious. We had had so many disappointments over the years in thinking we could bring our daughters home. We've had their rooms ready for them; we have a puppy for them, an outdoor playhouse in the yard, and my older son and daughter went through the heartache as well. I didn't want to get all my hopes up to be crashed but Scott and I flew from Nebraska to Pittsburgh to be there when the plane filled with orphans landed. Essence.com: It must be hard to let go of the fear even when you knew the plane had landed? HEATON: So difficult--things were still going wrong. Another parent who was a volunteer in Haiti (Jamie McMurtrie Heckman) missed the plane that came to Pittsburgh and somehow her little girl, Emma, was inadvertently left behind on the bus when they were loading the plane with the orphans. Jamie went back to get Emma so they never made the flight. Anything could go wrong. Essence.com: Could you see the girls when they landed? HEATON: No, we were only allowed to see them after they had a series of tests and shots at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. After a day we were only allowed to see them for ten minutes at a time. They had strict rules and they wanted the children to be safe and healthy so it felt like torture but we just had to wait. Essence.com: Did you tell them you were here to take them home? HEATON: I was very cautious and gentle with them. We'd visited with them so many times in Haiti but I had hope each time we could leave with them and the dream never came true. I kept thinking this will be like all of the other times and we will have to leave our sweet little girls. It was emotionally devastating but I tried to keep the faith. I just kept reminding myself how lucky we were that they were alive and that in itself was a complete miracle. I spent so much time in Haiti, which was already in desperate need of help before the earthquake. So for the girls to survive living there against the odds and to survive the quake, I just wanted for the hospital to take care of them but I also longed to hold them, to have them with me. Essence.com: That didn't happen right away but I spoke with you just after it did happened, and you were joyous. HEATON: It was pure joy. I have them in my arms and I have had them in my arms since 11:30 last night when I was finally given my daughters. I still have this feeling I will have to give them back but this is our first night having dinner together and going to sleep together as a united family. They are officially in our family now. Essence.com: Bettania and Dieunette were not sisters? HEATON: They are sisters now, but no, they were not biological sisters. We spent time together with them every time we visited and they were put into the same Haitian orphanage so they know each other well. They have a bond. I am just so thankful they are both alive. Essence.com: How did this all begin for you? Lots of people are looking into helping Haitian children, but you started this process about five years ago. HEATON: My [biological] daughter Victoria is 17-years-old and when she was about 13, she started saying that my husband and I should adopt. I just said "We are too old! We had you and your brother when we were in our twenties!" But she planted the idea and the more we talked about it the more it became real to us--that it was something we wanted to do, something we should do. Essence.com: You have one adopted son--Nathaniel, who is 20. He looks to be a different race than your White family? HEATON: Yes, Nathaniel is American and we adopted him as a baby from Colorado, not another country. He is of Hispanic and Indian decent and he is a son to us just as Victoria is a daughter. They are wonderful kids and they are so excited to have two new sisters. Essence.com: Nathaniel, what's your take on all of this? NATHANIEL: I was just a baby when my parents adopted me but I have been loved and cared for in every way my whole life. I am so happy Bettania and Dieuette will have the same thing. I am grateful to be a part of it. To give back in my own way. To my two new sisters. (editorial note: Nathaniel is a gorgeous young man) Essence.com: How did you originally decide on Haiti to be the country you adopt from? HEATON: My husband did a lot of research on countries in need. I am a housewife in Nebraska, My husband is a car dealer. We aren't world travelers or anything like that, we just wanted to find a place where children seemed the most in need. Essence.com: And even before you visited Haiti, you felt it was the right place to adopt children from for your family. Why? HEATON: It came down to statistics. My husband found stats that showed a large percentage of Haitian babies die before their fourth birthday because of starvation. The poor country just doesn't have the means to care for all of these little babies. It broke my heart when I read about it and after I went over and spent time there I knew it was the right decision. We had to help. Essence.com: You say this tragedy in Haiti brought a "blessing in the middle of a crisis." How so? HEATON: It brought my daughters to me. I don't mean to sound selfish but we had been trying for so long to adopt Haitian children and after the paperwork and all the procedures were finally done, it still was going to be several months before the girls could come to the United States. The only reason I have them now is because of the earthquake but it's not just my girls and my family who may find a blessing in this and I am determined to make that the case. Essence.com: How could this tragedy bring a blessing to other children of Haiti? It's hard to wrap our heads around that thought when we watch the devastation on television. HEATON: These children were suffering for years and years. I would visit and ask for children I'd come to know and recognize--and they'd have died. Children die in drives just because they don't have enough to eat. I think there are millions of people who feel the way I do--that it is our responsibility as human beings to help those who are least advantaged. This crisis has shone a light on Haiti. Americans and people of all nations see the conditions in a much clearer way than ever before. There are so many children in need, even the ones who we rejoice when we see them get saved after nine days in the rubble. But what now? They are alive but they have no food, clothing, shelter, water and it was very much the case for many of these children before the earthquake. Essence.com: And your role in helping those other children, Kristin? HEATON: I am just a Mom and a housewife in rural Nebraska. No one knows who I am -- probably not even the name of my small town. I am not someone people would listen to or care what I had to say but now, they see my story and they hear me talk about all the other little children who need help. I'll be honest I would've preferred to have my girls home with us long ago but I believe there was some purpose in all of this happening to us. I feel a responsibility to help these other children since my own girls were saved and they are now home with me. We are flying to Nebraska in a few hours to bring them home. Essence.com: What is home like for them? HEATON: They each have their own bedroom, a lot of room to play, a puppy, a playhouse in the backyard...lots of clothes and food for them...but most importantly--they have the love and nurturing of a father, mother brother and sister who love them with their entire hearts. Essence.com: What do they say to you about this journey? What did they say about the earthquake? HEATON: They don't speak very much English--teeny bits here and there. We will teach them. I didn't want to upset them though. My seven year old will tell me later I am sure and my two year old is still a baby so I am not sure what she will be able to remember when she is able to communicate. Essence.com: Nebraska has been following your story in a big way? HEATON: Yes, there is a big homecoming planned for our daughters. I had the support of friends and other mothers through email over the years of this process. Just when I would feel so down, another mother would reach out to me and give me hope. It sustained me and now I want to give hope to others, especially to the orphans of Haiti. I never realized until last night, when I held my daughters in my arms that God had a plan for me, for us. for our family. We have a responsibility to help get homes for the orphans in Haiti like Bettania and Dieunette and we welcome that responsibility