A year and a half ago, the Coq Chante orphanage in Haiti got its first light bulb. To celebrate, the some 18 children there stayed up until midnight playing board games.
The bulb was powered by solar panels on the roof. The children also had filtered water to drink. And someone made sure their education continued.
Who was responsible for that? A church in Knoxville, Tennessee, called the White Stone Church. And, in a large part, a television station that sponsored an annual golf tournament to fund the orphanage and, in the process, fell in love with it.
WBIR-TV, Channel 10, has sponsored the Barefootin’ for Haiti Golf Classic at Three Ridges Golf Course for the last four years. In that time, it has raised about $200,000 for the orphanage. But, perhaps even more importantly, during that time the people of WBIR have come to know the people of the church and the tiny inhabitants of the orphanage. WBIR’s Russell Biven, the “voice” of the golf tournament, has been particularly involved.
Over that time, seven Knoxville families have entered into the laborious process of adopting orphans from that facility and the people of WBIR have followed and rejoiced in the efforts of those families.
So you can imagine the emotional impact when, on Jan. 12, news broke that a massive earthquake had hit Haiti, destroying the orphanage and putting its child residents out on the street. The church — and the TV station — sprang into action.
“I’ve heard it said that a TV station is like a person with a very small body and a very big mouth,” notes WBIR’s news director, Bill Shory. “We don’t have a lot of people to do things, but we can make a lot of noise.”
Folks from the church and the TV station called on U.S. Senator Bob Corker and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper – politicians who already were in touch with people on the ground in Haiti – to try to expedite the adoptions that were in process so they could get the seven children out of Haiti as quickly as possible. They were glad to hear that the process could be hurried up, but frustrated to hear that it still would take weeks for that to occur. They also got the devastating news that the youngest of the orphans, a 3-year-old girl named Atanie, who already had adoptive parents waiting here in Knoxville, had been killed in the earthquake.
Then, last Thursday, they unexpectedly got word that the children could leave in two days if all the arrangements could be made.
WBIR basically set up a “war room” in Shory’s office where people could come together, work the phones and try to figure out how to make things happen.
A plan was hatched. A missionary plane arranged through Knoxville-based ProVision Foundation would fly to Haiti to pick up the children. But each of the children would have to be met by one of his or her adoptive Knoxville parents in Fort Lauderdale before he or she could pass through immigration authorities and enter the United States. Professionals recommended that the children, who already had been subjected to so much trauma, be kept together as they made the transition from Haiti to Knoxville.
So the folks in the war room tried to figure out how to transport the children and a parent for each one from Fort Lauderdale to Knoxville as a group.
They called the commercial airlines trying to arrange seats. Because of the short notice, none of the airlines could offer that many seats on the same flight. They called any local company they could think of that might have a corporate plane to lend to the effort. Because of the tight time frame, many companies just could not mobilize quickly enough, although one company donated $10,000 to the effort.
But Pilot Corporation was able to make its jet available. Although it was not large enough to accommodate the whole group, the families could be divided between it and the ProVision plane. They could board the planes together and the planes could land together in Knoxville, giving the children a lot of together time.
Unbeknownst to Pilot at the time, one of its employees, Al Fitzpatrick, and his wife Sheri were among the adoptive parents with children on the flight. Al flew to Fort Lauderdale to meet 7-year-old Jayla. The folks at Pilot requested that Fitzpatrick and Jayla be among the passengers on its plane.
Because of WBIR’s involvement, Biven and reporter Erin Donovan were offered a seat on each plane. They took extraordinary video along the way that can be viewed on the WBIR Web site. And, of course, they got emotionally involved in the story which became much more than just a story.
“My prayer the whole time was that God would get these kids home,” Biven said afterward.
As the kids and their parents exited the two planes at McGhee Tyson Airport Saturday, I overheard Biven say quietly to himself, “This is it. This is what it’s all about.”
I glanced at the two police officers beside me, and they wiped tears from their eyes. “Airplane fuel fumes,” one said sheepishly. “Bad allergies,” the other one said. All the other local media had gathered on the tarmac at TAC Air, as well. Hard-bitten reporters and camera folks teared up, too, as did a normally cynical former-reporter PR person.
Despite the joyous homecoming on Saturday, the job is not over. “I’m trying to stay focused,” Biven said yesterday. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for the other children that are still down there. We’ve got to get the other 12 out.”
The folks at WBIR say it doesn’t matter to them that their role in the transport wasn’t mentioned in other news coverage of the event. Biven just shakes that off. “I’m just trying to do what I feel led to do,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s a God thing.”
But Jennifer Stooksbury of White Stone Church has a slightly different perspective. “Without WBIR, it simply wouldn’t have happened,” she said today. “It wouldn’t have happened.”
Photo credit: All photos by Julie Koonce Morris of WBIR