PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — It was just too much for 4-year-old Francia.
The little Haitian girl was hungry. She was tired. She'd spent the past week and a half sleeping in the dirt. Now, 80 orphans — her lifelong friends and playmates — were leaving for America and she was being left behind.
"It's good to be finally loading kids on the bus," said Tawnya Constantino, a Salt Lake City neurologist who was instrumental in the fight to get the children to safety. "But it's hard to see the kids who aren't going, like Francia who is sobbing."
Some of Francia's friends ran gleefully to the belly of a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane bound for Orlando, Fla. Others went warily, clinging to relief workers like Constantino. Ranging in age from infant to young teenager, they are going to adoptive parents in several states, but not Utah.
The children arrived safely in Florida Saturday afternoon.
It took involvement from the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, various U.S. government leaders and the dogged persistence of Tawnya and her husband, Greg Constantino, an attorney. Not to mention Utah Haiti Relief.
"Who hasn't been involved?" Tawnya Constantino said, just before carrying a child onto the plane.
As children walked up the ramp of the massive plane's cargo hold, Pierre-Rebert Alexis, director of the orphanage known as Maison des Enfants de Dieu — "House of the Children of God" — was thoughtful.
"I'm thinking of how the life of the children will be and how the parents in America will be so happy," he said.
Among them was a 7-year-old wearing a pink-striped outfit and a wide smile that sometimes turned upside down in her suddenly strange surroundings. Asked in English to write her name in a reporter's notebook, she penned y-o-o-m-i-d-e. Asked where she was going, she softly said, "Colorado." Through translator Craig Nelson, Yoomide then said in her native Creole that she was "happy and scared."
Nelson, an American Fork doctor who served an LDS Church mission in Haiti, was heading home on the same flight after treating earthquake victims for a week with two other doctors who also are former missionaries in the country.
That the children would leave Haiti was not certain Saturday morning, and it was a little tense as Tawnya Constantino, the orphanage's medical director, tied up myriad loose ends.
More than 100 children, like Francia, were left behind. Relief workers intend to try to move more children out this week.
Each child who left Saturday had "FHG" written in Sharpie marker on the underside of his or her arm. The acronym stands for For His Glory, the nonprofit outreach program that supports the orphanage. Greg Constantino is the organization's secretary and treasurer. He worked the phones from Salt Lake City.
Only kids with those letters on their arms were allowed on the bus going to the airport. And Kurt Tanner, a member of the Washington County Sheriff's Search and Rescue team, made sure of that. He checked each arm and rewrote on those whose letters had faded.
As each child stepped onto the bus, Rick Yeomans, chief chaplain for California-based Emergency Ministry Services, anointed each child's head with oil from the Holy Land. He also led relief workers in a hand-holding prayer, asking God to bless this new chapter in the children's lives. At the same time, a dozen nannies from the orphanage were rhythmically singing and dancing to send off the children.
"This is joyous and heartbreaking at the same time," said Mike Gibson, a For His Glory Outreach board member, standing with his back to children who were left behind. "I don't even want to turn around and look at the kids who aren't going right now."
The newly established Utah Haiti Relief organization also participated in the effort.
"It's not about anything but the kids. Honestly, the only thing we need to do is get them on that plane today," said Erik Sorensen, a Utahn who helped start www.utahhaitirelief.org.
Nannies at the orphanage made sure the children who left Saturday traveled in clean clothing. Clothes have been strewn across the orphanage to dry all week. Each time it appeared the kids would be leaving, the nannies hand-washed their clothes in metal tubs.
"We are organized and ready to travel," Tawnya Constantino said before getting the green light to head to the airport. "We're just waiting for flight confirmation."
Meantime, some 200 children played, cried and laughed in the Maison des Enfants de Dieu orphanage as several dozen nannies tended to their needs the best they could.
Several women mixed baby formula and cuddled newborns under a tent. Youngsters in fresh clothes lined up for a spoonful of cold cereal with milk. Seven toddlers clung to the rail of a crib. A dozen others played in a tent filled with mattresses.
But mostly the children wanted to be held. By anyone.
They walked up to strangers with arms outstretched and longing in their eyes.22 comments on this story
St. George residents Brian and Tonya Wilson, who arrived in Haiti on Friday night to help in any way they can, quickly obliged.
"All they want is someone to hold them and give them attention," Brian Wilson said with a child draped around his neck.
"It just tears at my heartstrings," said Tonya Wilson, who held a baby girl who couldn't have been more than 1 month old. "I'd love to do more. It's really sobering."
The Wilsons, who have been married for 4 1/2 years, have no children. They said they're now thinking about adopting a Haitian child. Said Tonya Wilson, "I just fell in love today."