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A return to Haiti, planting seeds for the future

By Soledad O'Brien, CNN
Soledad O'Brien took her 9-year-old daughter, Sofia, to visit the Light House orphanage in Haiti.
Soledad O'Brien took her 9-year-old daughter, Sofia, to visit the Light House orphanage in Haiti.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Soledad O'Brien returns to Haiti, this time with her 9-year-old daughter
  • She hopes to teach a lesson about the grief and joys of those around us
  • Seeing the changes through daughter's eyes touches O'Brien
  • 9-year-old bonds quickly with orphanage children

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Soledad O'Brien's upcoming book, "The Next Big Story." O'Brien guest-hosts CNN's "Larry King Live" at 9 p.m. ET Monday, with the focus on Haiti.

(CNN) -- I returned to Haiti in mid June, over a month after having produced a documentary called Rescued on two children whose precarious lives depend on an orphanage run by American Christian missionaries. I don't have another story to report. I just want to go back. I am haunted by these kids. Cendy Juene is just 6 and she has no one person in the world caring for her, just the kindness of the staff at the Light House orphanage. Mark Kenson Olibris, the caretaker at the orphanage, is a young man who has grew up there and now promises he will help rebuild Haiti. They are so resilient, so inspiring, they leave me wanting to know how life is unfolding in their shaky circumstances. I decide to take my oldest daughter Sofia who is nine. She looks totally thrilled we are going together. So am I. I see this as an opportunity to share with her a major lesson I have learned from my time in Haiti. That one person can change the world, if only by changing a piece of it.

She takes a breath when we land, not from the jolt of the plane, but out of pure excitement. I am so happy to be taking this trip with her. The people in the plane clap and so does she too. I love the sight of her rolling her luggage through the airport behind me. I love that she is seeing what I do. I delight in explaining to her that a plane to a place devastated by an earthquake is jammed because there are so many people who want to help. Half of all Americans say they plan to give money to help Haiti and over a billion dollars have already poured in. Sofia has brought pencils and art supplies, cards and Reece's Pieces for Bill. She is jazzed to be able help at the orphanage. Her hair is gathered in a low ponytail. She's wearing a T-shirt with "I am happy!" written on it. The airport sparkles from the hot sun. The windows that were shattered post quake have been repaired. The chaos I remember from our last trip here has faded. The two of us probably look odd walking out to an airport full of military helicopters with tents set up on the grass next to the runway.

One of the CNN security people who worked with us on our last trip picks us up at the airport. We stand in one long line where it's baking hot, but everyone is calm. The baggage claim, inoperable the last time we were here, is churning along. We are 30 minutes early so there's a calm that's unusual at the airport. Outside we make a brisk pace out the airport gates. Sofia scoots along like a pro, energized by the coolness of being in this new country with all the hubbub. We arrive at the tent city, which is even bigger this time and feels more permanent. There are "snaker" stores, lean-tos with gleaming white American brands. Tons of rubble have been swept into piles. They look like they are there for good. The place looks cleaner. Or at least more organized.

We drive by Robert Duvall's soccer camp. He is a Haitian man designated a hero by a special program of CNN. I met him when he came to an event for my documentary. He has a large football-field sized space with cows grazing on the sidelines. He used to run a soccer camp to mentor kids. Now he has installed tents donated by Italian volunteers. They stand in tiny rows in one corner. Duvall had worried about the tent cities encroaching on his soccer camp, but he's managed to have it both ways, creating housing and keeping his beloved camp. The tents feel like they're not going anywhere soon. There are very few places to escape the sun.

We drive on through Cite Soleil. "Goats! Goats!" says Sofia. "Pigs." She sees them running though metal shacks where hundreds of thousands of people live. She is such a city girl that she drives through Haiti's biggest slum and notices a pig. There are bullet holes in some of the walls. There are some markets but garbage and plastic water bottles choke the canal. There is no clean water here but plenty of empty plastic. I know there are many people who would think this is an odd place to take a little girl. But I feel as if I am opening a door for her, and also, quite frankly for me. I am not here to report, on a crazy mission scraping at the edges of danger. I am here to teach my daughter that we must never get far from the grief and joys of the people around us. That we share a place on this chaotic earth with people of varied means. That we live in a land of possibilities, those we seize for ourselves and those we create for others.

We drive over mountains of dirt, literally piles of garbage. But the streets are full of workers. Markets with fruits and candies and ginger root. At one end, there's a port. The water is so blue, we are tempted to jump in. Baby pigs wander the streets. "What's that?" I ask when I see a bright blue and white building that looks newly built. A new police station right in the middle of Cite Soleil. I guess something is being built. We zip past barbershops, women cooking in these massive metal tubs. On the main road, it's stunning how little has changed structurally. I look into Sofia's eyes. It's all so new to her.

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We arrive at the Light House. Children surround Sofia. Cendy appears and suddenly begins hiding in case I have any more cameras. Sofia intrigues her. This girl with no mother is fascinated by my relationship to Sofia. Sofia plays all the hand games I played with Cendy on my visits. Sofia who is ivory White, fair like her father, is already getting red from the sun. She crouches down and extends her palms in a game of nerves -- will the other person slap your palms before you retreat. Cendy remembers when I did this with her. She looks at me and immediately connects with my daughter. It is a fascinating dance. Sofia has seen the documentary. I wonder what is going on in the heads of these two little girls. The boys get in line to play too. "Me next. Me next!" they shout. Sofia's connected and she's beaming. She's figured out how to break through as a stranger and she's proud of herself.

While she is playing with the kids, I get to see Susette and Bill Manassero, the directors of the orphanage I profiled. They are Christian missionaries from California who are raising Cendy and 49 other children here in Haiti. They do not do adoptions so they have become the lifelong caretakers of all the kids. Susette is on a mission today to evacuate a sick baby and needs to go talk to some people. Just a typical day at this orphanage. She pulls me into her rush. I glance over at Sofia who looks at me like she wants to stay. The hot sun splashes sparkly bits of light on the vast concrete bin where the children are playing. The laughter bounces against the walls and mixes into a cheery symphony of children's' sounds. Marc Kenson is there too, smiling and excited to see me. He has seen the documentary he is in and is very excited that included the music of Wyclef Jean, Haiti's big star. The playground is full of optimism and life. Sofia heads down the street to the girls' dorm to work on crafts with the older girls. Cendy races after her, so they can stick together. My child has become playmates with a kid from my documentary about disadvantaged Haitian children. How crazy is that! So I leave my nine-year-old playing in an orphanage in Haiti, which somehow at that particular moment seems like the safest place in the world

We head out to look for a doctor who can do tests on the baby Susette and Bill are trying to evacuate. We take a treacherous road through collapsed buildings. The city looks exactly the same as it did days after the quake in many places. A building that was leveled just sits there pancaked flat. Susette tells me the women who are sitting on the sidewalk under the building selling fruits and vegetables were all crushed to death in the quake. But now I'm worried that we're going to impale our car, or even ourselves on the metal bars sticking out from the house. Our driver slowly rolls by the debris. All the drivers in Haiti seem to be pros at dodging metal and stone.

We meet Vanessa who runs Angel Mission Haiti. She shows me a picture of her 17 kids -- two biological and more than a dozen others. She explains what documents are needed to get the baby evacuated to get his medical care in Pennsylvania. They need legal documents that are notarized, promise letters from the hospital and the cardiac surgeon who will do the work. Vanessa is a stout woman with short blond hair and a suntan. She wears shorts and a bright short-sleeved shirt, almost what someone would wear on a Caribbean vacation. She is covered with beads. She's moved her desk outdoors because her Internet has failed today and she's borrowing from a neighbor. The downside of this arrangement is she's hot, so she's arranged bed sheets around her to try to block the sun out.

Children's Hospital in Philadelphia has promised surgery for free, but the sticking point seems to be that humanitarian parole has ended. Humanitarian parole is what the U.S. government gives someone who is brought into the country without a visa. The baby has big eyes and surgical tape holds a feeding tube in place. He is six months old and weighs seven pounds. His twin, a girl, is doing better. Their mother has been feeding her but had been ignoring him a bit, afraid to bond because she sensed he might not survive. Now they realize he has an operable heart problem. The surgery is straightforward, but impossible in Haiti. His name is Adriano.

I go back to the Light House to find Sofia having a tougher afternoon. She is having trouble communicating. A lot of the kids have not mastered English and she knows no Creole. She accompanies the Manesseros to the feeding program where hungry neighborhood kids come eat. She looks very sad. It makes me sad. She tells me she doesn't know how to help people who are living in tents. I tell her she is doing what she can do by being here. She gets back to taking care of little girls, applying stickers and playing games. The boys find her fascinating. They all like her. A little boy named Richard says: "You are so pretty." I say "Thanks." He says, "No. No. Sofia! Sofia. Sofia is so pretty." They're sort of awkward around her. But her heart is breaking. I think it will make her grow up a bit, see that there is a larger world around her and she can make it better if even in a small way. I hand her my camera. I tell her it will help her communicate with the kids. She takes their pictures and they take hers.

A group of seven kids, three girls, four boys, organize a performance. The clouds roll in just in time to provide some cover from the blazing sun. All the children begin to giggle as the cables are rolled out into the bins. A computer reboots and goes "dun dun dun dah!" They all laugh at the universal sign for it's on. They are so cute. A hip-hop tune comes on and they do their dance: "uh uh uh uh. I'm free from sin." It's Christian rap. When the music ends there are big cheers.

The next group is the smaller kids. The cheers are deafening. Cendy is in a summer dress, lacy and gauzy and lavender. She's got new braids. She ignores me but loves Sofia. I could have used Sofia on the last trip when we ran around trying to get her picture. Cendy, quiet, shut down, camera shy, retreating little Cendy is going to dance with nine other kids! Katie, a volunteer from California who's been reaching out to Sofia, leads them in a song. "There are seven. There are seven.

Con-tin-ents.

Con-tin-ents."

Cendy stomps her foot to the song. She is so cute.

People are yelling out names: Keso, Markendy. I give my BlackBerry to Eli, the Manesseros' son to email my own son, Charlie. "I hope to meet you one day." I have 4 kids. I've sent a picture to Celia and Charlie who are emailing sorrowful notes about missing Sofia and me. Jackson has gone to watch the World Cup with my husband, Brad. We wind up inside the house where the flies are ignoring the merciful cross breeze. A screen door would cost $1,000 so Eli is sent to get a fly swatter. He is ten and strong and the flies have no chance. The Manasseros are living in a new house that is big and airy, much bigger than their last one, which was tagged with a yellow mark that means the cracks make the house unsafe. Get them fixed or move out. So they moved out. There is a big living room with a TV on the first floor. We are in the guest room downstairs. Upstairs there are three more bedrooms, with bunk beds for the kids. And there is the most amazing view from the upstairs veranda--stunning, and over the rooftops. It's lovely.

The next morning Sofia wakes up before me and I'm told she's upstairs having a tea party. By breakfast every child in the house has silly bands, the latest kid craze back home. A boy named Fanfan is wearing seven on his right arm -- all the way from the wrist to under his armpit. He's getting ready to go off to school. Sofia has given him every dinosaur shaped silly she has. Kenny has three on his left arm, and one on his right wrist. He wanted lobsters and alligators. And the N.Y. for New York Yankees. They are a hit. I watch Sofia watch the small children who switch effortlessly between English, French and Creole. I feel like all my lectures on teaching them to speak other languages have just been outdone by this moment.

It's the last day of school so there are ice cream treats. Whitney, a tall auburn haired girl from California came to teach. She was promoted to principal after her first day. She's leaving and so is Ashley who works in the clinic. Susette says they've had such great volunteers. Some have come from their church, some from the website, some were drawn by our documentary. The heat is getting to Sofia. It must be 95 degrees today and there are no clouds. She's flushed and has finally agreed to knot her hair up on her head. She spent part of the morning giving out treats to neighborhood boys who asked me first for water (I had none) and then to take their photo. She is still so quiet, nodding her head yes and no.

Adriano is ailing and the orphanage is still working on his case. Meanwhile, I get to hold him on my lap. He isn't squirmy like most babies this age, which reflects his ill health. But he has that warm baby summer smell and hope in his eyes. I feel a peace come over me like I have not felt in ages, not through the rush of work or even the incredible moments of joy I experience each day with Brad and the kids. I am sitting in Haiti where a quarter million people died in an excruciating catastrophe. Their government is fractured, their history promises little revival. American generosity is far reaching but fleeting. These kids will likely never know the advantages and possibilities handed to people like me just a boat ride away. I have a sick child on my lap. But I can help. I can be here. I can hold Adriano on my lap while they successfully negotiate his rescue. I can tell his story. I can teach my daughter that she may just bring these kids stickers and smiles today but the growth in her heart can help her reach far beyond this sunny afternoon in Haiti.

CNN's Rose Arce contributed to this report.

 
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