Carri and Tom Williams fell in love with Haiti some seven years ago when they adopted two sisters from an orphanage there.
Despite substandard conditions — staff hanging clothes to dry on bare electrical wires, babies left in their cribs to cry — the couple grew attached to the people and the culture.
"My memories are very warm," Carri Williams said. "I remember the hope and perseverance and strength of people living in poverty."
Today, when the couple and their children see pictures of earthquake-ravaged Haiti on television, it brings tears to their eyes.
"My heart, it's beyond broken," she said. "I feel like Haiti is my other home and I want to be there, but there's nothing I can do."
The couple's life in Modesto feels far removed from Haiti. Now parents of six, they live in a two-story home on a cul-de-sac blocks from Vintage Faire Mall. Tom, 49, works for the Modesto Irrigation District. Carri, 34, home-schools their children, ages 3 to 13.
But Haiti always is in their thoughts, especially now that the capital, Port-au-Prince, is in ruins. Many adoptions have been halted because of the disaster.
"Pre-earthquake, there were a lot more children in Haiti than could be cared for," said Carri Williams, adding that many parents in Haiti choose adoption for their children because they feel they cannot provide for them.
According to UNICEF reports, Haiti had about 380,000 orphans before the quake — nearly 4 percent of its population — though an estimated half were not true orphans. Child trafficking is a major problem, UNICEF says.
The couple say all but two of the 150 children at the private orphanage their daughters lived in had at least one parent or family member living. "We need to make adoption an option for parents who say, 'My heart's desire is for them to go to North America and have a family love and raise them,' " Carri Williams said.
Photos tug at heart
The Williamses long have been drawn to Haiti. They married in 2000 and struggled with infertility. They looked up information on international adoption online. Photos of Haitian children in the country's many orphanages popped up.
At first, the Williamses, who are white, were hesitant to adopt a child of another race. They lived in Superior, Wis., and the community was not diverse. They feared some family members wouldn't accept the new addition.
But the photos lingered in Carri Williams' mind.
"When I looked at the children from Haiti, I saw them and I knew," she said. "I knew our child was there."
The couple and her 6-year-old son from a previous marriage, Zachary, planned to travel to Haiti twice — first to meet the infant girl they planned to adopt, then to take her home.
Because of bureaucratic hassles, common in Haitian adoptions, they ended up making six trips over 10 months. The baby, Rachelle, was 17 months old when she came home.
During each of their weeklong visits, the Williamses would pick up Rachelle at the orphanage, where Carri Williams said too few workers took care of too many babies. The couple were told there was one nanny for every four infants. "But that's not what we saw," she said. "Most of the babies were left in the cribs most of the time."
The Williamses would take Rachelle to their hotel and care for her there. She often was sick, they said, and had multiple skin problems, including scabies and, at one time, ringworm. "We'd get her healthy, give her back, get her healthy, give her back," her mother said.
All the time, they were told the adoption was held up because of paperwork. In the end, the Williamses suspected the organization operating the orphanage, which later dissolved following corruption charges, drew out the process. Adoptive parents were required to pay $500 for each month their child was housed in the facility.
Once, when the Williamses were visiting, orphanage workers asked Tom, an electrical lineman, to take a look at their wiring. He discovered the staff hanging wet clothes on bare wires.
Another time, orphanage workers took them to meet Rachelle's Haitian family. The child's birth parents had five other children to care for. Food was scarce. The older kids scavenged what they could find to eat on the streets.
The Haitian couple felt their youngest children could receive better care from the orphanage, so they took Rachelle and a sister, Risi, to live there.
When the Williamses learned that Risi, then 3, was in the orphanage, they adopted her, too. Again, the process was lengthy. Risi came to Wisconsin about 18 months later, when she was 4.
Family keeps growing
The family soon moved to Modesto, attracted by the prospect of warmer weather, greater ethnic diversity and a job for Tom. They adopted two more children, 3-year-old Zarayah and 4-year-old Makaylah, who were born in California. Carri Williams gave birth to a child, Zavier, now 5.
Haiti has a special place in the hearts of the Williams children. They look at the scrapbook their mother made of the family's trips there. They have books with photos of the countryside — lush mountains and sandy beaches — and understand this is the place where Risi and Rachelle were born.
Their parents told them about the earthquake, minus the graphic details. "We let them know there's been great destruction," Carri Williams said, "but that it's still a beautiful place."
Meanwhile, the couple try to keep tabs on Risi and Rachelle's birth family through a missionary friend in the country. The girls' birth parents and siblings are alive but are among the estimated 1.2 million people left homeless by the earthquake.
The Williamses hope to adopt again, though not from Haiti. Most orphanages in the country require adoptive parents to have fewer than four children. Still, the couple pay close attention to the news as it relates to Haitian adoption.
Some children, already well along in the adoption process, were allowed to come home with their adoptive parents earlier this month. Some have been kept in Haiti because their paperwork is not far enough along or buried in rubble.
Many children who appear to be without parents are likely not orphans and are searching for families they were separated from in the quake. UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman, formerly of Modesto, told The Associated Press this month that the organization is starting a program to identify children who lost or can't find their parents. UNICEF also is working with other groups to put children who are alone into facilities where they can receive food, water and psychological help.
In the months to come, Carri Williams hopes to travel to Haiti to help with the effort. Her dream: to retire to Haiti and help the country's orphans.
"That's where my heart is," she said, "that's where I belong."
Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2358.