“December 5th, 2010: It is becoming more of a reality. we WILL BE BRINGING VERLANDE TO VIRGINIA!!!”
A happy start to Reston mother Sharon Adams’ blog, which goes on to capture two and a half years of setbacks, piles of paperwork and prayers culminating in the ultimate adoption of a Haitian orphan girl named Verlande.
Adams, a yoga instructor who owns Rising Sun Fitness in Reston, first met Verlande during a church mission trip to Haiti in August 2010, seven months after earthquakes leveled the island nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince.
“[Verlande] was almost turning six and didn’t know any English,” Adams explained. “When I was standing back, watching her interact with the other people, when I took myself out of it, I said to [my husband] Ryan [later], ‘This child looks just like me.’ I mean of course she doesn’t probably look anything like me. But in my mind, it was just, I was watching her play and seeing myself in her.”
The story of how Verlande came to be in the care of an orphanage is unclear. She lived with her mother until about age two. She then lived with her paternal grandmother in Port-au-Prince because her mother had a new husband and the couple decided not to keep Verlande. The 2010 earthquakes struck when Verlande was five, destroying the girl’s grandmother’s home. Verlande’s biological father, Vernet, who has two now-preteen aged sons, took his daughter to the orphanage. Adams said Verlande’s father made efforts to visit Verlande in the orphanage about once every three months, which — she was told — demonstrated his love because of the cost associated with traveling to the facility just outside of the capital in Tabarre, Haiti.
As many as 25 girls ages about four to 16 were in the orphanage at the time of Adams’ mission trip visit.
“That orphanage was in really bad shape after the earthquake,” said Father Rob Merola of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Sterling, who helped organize the Haiti mission trip. About 20 adults went on the trip.
“The kids were sleeping on cardboard boxes. I think rats were a problem,” he said.
“We’ve traveled everywhere on trips. We went to Belize [in Central America] and the poverty was unbelievable, but that was nothing like Haiti... We were wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into.”
Merola said, “One thing I’ll remember about Sharon is she had that profound sense of surety that God wasn’t just calling her to Haiti, but to adopt Verlande.”
From post-earthquake Haiti’s miles and miles of chaos, rivers of debris and tent towns, Adams said she found Verlande.
The decision to adopt was not immediate. It started with sleepless nights back in Reston.
“We had never discussed adopting a child ever. We had the two children that we thought we would have and there we were,” Adams said. “I was just going on a mission trip. I wanted to work, and tell me what I can do to help and use my muscles. And I just had this feeling that I needed to go there.
“I remember standing in this kitchen saying, ‘What do you do when you feel like you’ve been brought to help someone?’”
A kitchen heart-to-heart between Sharon Adams and her husband Ryan, an engineer for the federal government, settled the decision to adopt.
The process began in October 2010. For the adoption to be approved, the couple had to submit statements from their bank saying they were in good financial standing, marriage and birth certificates verified by states of origin (Ryan is from New York, Sharon from Pennsylvania), local and state police background checks, letters of recommendation, medical checkups for both of their children — Phoebe, now-7, and Forrest, now-5 — veterinarian reports on the family’s two dogs and letters of recommendation from friends or employers.
“Must have been 30 or so forms...We were rushing around like crazy to get all this done,” Ryan said. “Even when it was hard to do, we knew we were doing something good for her,” Ryan said. “We got her out of that orphanage.”
The family also had home study visits from a social worker to confirm stability in the household.
“Once you have all this paperwork notarized, they have to be submitted to the State Department. They have to be translated into French [which is spoken in Haiti],” Sharon said. “Then you have to take them to the Haitian Embassy. And then, they were like ‘No, you can only submit eight pages per person, per day.”
Thinking the heavy lifting was near done, Sharon posted her early-December 2010 hopeful blog entry about bringing Verlande home soon. But the reality of the difficulties of international adoptions would soon hit the Adamses.
From Sharon’s blog:
“December 15, 2010: ... Verlande’s mother [Magalie] was not present to sign papers last week. We found out today that she is ‘nowhere to be found.’ Then that quickly changed to ‘We know where she is, but she wants nothing to do with the future of Verlande.’ This means that she simply doesn’t want to go sign papers... The mom has not gone to visit Verlande since the earthquake, since she has been in the orphanage; however, she also won’t allow her to leave the orphanage if she doesn’t sign relinquishment. This is simply devastating to us.”
The Adamses were told that Verlande may not have seen her mother since age two, when she was shifted to the care of her father’s family.
“January 6, 2011: Who was that in the pictures we’ve now been staring at for weeks??!!! Well, this is Haiti. That was a woman that Vernet, Verlande’s father, brought [to visit Verlande]. A friend? Girlfriend? Random person maybe trying to get the papers signed, we don’t know... For the past month, we have been told, ‘She’ll sign, she won’t sign, they can sign abandonment papers if she doesn’t, oops, no now she’ll sign... now she will not.’...
“I worry that she could end up 8 years old and maybe THEN we’d be lucky enough to adopt her. I worry, what if she is possibly BETTER OFF in Haiti???? Could that be? I truly don’t know. I don’t know. I truly don’t know... From OUR opinion, as Americans, we want to give her health, life, opportunity, love, a HOME.”
“January 13, 2011: One year post earthquake... I mostly just want Verlande to know we haven’t given up on her since she knew we were trying a few months ago. To a six year old, she must think, well then... where are they? WE ARE HERE VERLANDE. We are still trying our best and not giving up!!!”
“February 6, 2011: Verlande’s mother caught cholera two weeks ago, and died last week. It makes my heart heavy to think that Verlande will not be able to go to her mother ever, to ever return to Haiti, if we are able to adopt her, and ever talk with her mother.... Ryan’s birth mom died when he was five, so he will have this in common with Verlande.
“We are hopeful that this week on Tuesday, Verlande’s dad will meet with our lawyer, as planned, to deliver the death certificate/copy at the courthouse. This ‘should’ make possible Verlande to be relinquished to Eliette [the Adams’ lawyer in Haiti] for temporary custody, so that we can adopt from her.”
Verlande was put into Eliette’s care.
“It was two years of $550 a month to pay for her expenses,” Sharon said. The family estimates the total cost of the adoption to be between $30,000 and $40,000.
“A lot of expenses were early on,” Ryan said. A fundraiser, which included donations of $25 to thousands of dollars from friends and family helped the family continue its efforts to adopt Verlande, as well as to visit her and pay for her schooling in Haiti and housing.
Still, the family had to cut back on spending. For example, in March 2011, when Sharon and Ryan visited Haiti for a week with Verlande, the couple slept in the Miami airport rather than rent a hotel to save money.
“There is a huge financial commitment, they have all sacrificed for this,” said Ryan’s aunt, Claudia Webb. Webb adopted a U.S.-born infant son, who is now 30 years old. As a relative with adoption experience, Webb said she understood what her nephew was going through.
“It was way more complicated [than my son’s adoption]. I think they had so much more stress than we went through and I told them, ‘If someone would have told us it’s only six months more, or given a deadline, it would have been easier on us.’”
Sharon’s blog reflects the same plea for a sign of how much more was left, especially when a rule change in adoptions in Haiti would put Verlande’s adoption in peril.
From Sharon’s blog:
“Sunday, August 14, 2011:... We have been brought to our knees. There has been a change in Haitian adoption law, and our work has been crushed, as there are no more independent adoptions, which is what we were doing. Most importantly, our little girl remains waiting.”
After the Haitian earthquakes, adoption inquiries by Americans exploded, increasing from as many as 380,000 to a million, according to a New Yorker article following the crisis. The increase could have caused the law change. But so also could have headlines like that in the Huffington Post, “10 Americans Arrested In Haiti, Accused Of Child Trafficking” in February 2010, a month after the earthquake. In that story, 10 U.S. residents from the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, were accused of trying to take 33 children out of the country without the Haitian government’s permission.
Crushed by the rule change that meant, in part, starting their adoption process from scratch, Sharon said she was temporarily disheartened, but the setback only further solidified her resolve.
She wrote in her blog, “I am fighting for Verlande because she IS our daughter. If there is any slight possibility that we can bring our daughter home, we will fight.”
The next year brought more setbacks and heartbreak. For a while, Sharon’s blog went silent, a few entries reporting little news.
Then in October 2012, the family was told that their adoption decree had been approved in Haiti and that Verlande was legally adopted. Months would pass before the family finally gained approval to bring Verlande home.
Fast forward to March 14, 2013, when Sharon and her daughter stepped off their airplane at Dulles International.
“Truly, seeing Sharon and Verlande together, coming through the doors to baggage claim was an amazing and uplifting moment. They were both radiant,” said family friend Sarah Wieckowski. During the two and a half years between Sharon’s first visit to Haiti and Verlande’s final arrival in America, Wieckowski said she saw her friend overcome obstacles when others would have quit.
“I was thinking, as I was rereading the blog and crying again... I think she really — just as she lives her life — she fits so much in,” she said. “It wasn’t easy. She had to search Verlande out and make it happen.”
Today, Verlande has been home for a few weeks. She is enrolled in public school, second grade, where she will receive additional help for her blooming English skills.
She shares a room with her sister, Phoebe.
“I’m excited about, I’ll have many friends. I’m not worried about anything,” Verlande said in her Haitian accent. “[In Haiti] I was thinking of them to come take care of me.”
The family is trying to incorporate Haitian food into the dinner rotation; however, Verlande said her favorite food, like most American children, is “Pizza!”
She’ll fit in just fine.