When the shaking finally stopped, Bill Manassero and his family started running.
The earthquake began just before 5 p.m. last Tuesday. Manassero thought it was nothing more than a passing vehicle.
“I felt a little rolling,” he said. “It felt like a truck was going by, then it just intensified, and all of sudden the house was being whipped from side to side. We ran for the door, glasses crashing at our feet…We ran down to the street and we could see walls falling down all around us. I had my kids in my arms.”
The shaking lasted more than a half minute. The family’s house, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, was intact. Manassero, his wife Susette, and all five of their children were unharmed. But several city blocks of utter destruction lay between the Manasseros and their larger family.
The Maison de Lumiere, the orphanage that the family founded five years ago, housed 50 children. Most were former street kids; all had already endured tragedy in their short lives.
It took five frantic minutes to reach the orphanage. As the Manasseros approached, things didn’t look good. Several nearby buildings were in ruin. The building right next door had collapsed. “All I could think was, ‘I’ve got to see my kids, I’ve got to see my kids,’” Manassero said.
The orphanage stood. Only a wall outside the girl’s quarters had crumbled. All the kids were there. One little girl, a four year old named Daphne, had broken her leg under the fallen wall. No one else was harmed.
“I was just so thankful,” Manassero said. “Everyone was crying.”
Within minutes, the wounded began to arrive. Maison de Lumiere is well known in the area – three times a week, it opens its doors and serves food to the neighborhood, a feeding program that is essentially run by the orphans themselves. The orphanage also offers a free medical clinic staffed by two missionary nurses. Mainly, they run a small pharmacy and treat malaria, scabies and malnutrition.
The trickle of injured people soon turned into a flood. It became clear very quickly that the clinic would not be equipped, staffed, or have a fraction of the resources for what would be needed.
“We started to treat simple cuts and bruises, but then the real intense cases arrived – people with serious head injuries, missing limbs, and severe fractures,” Manassero said. “We did what any good missionary does when faced with impossible odds – we prayed and prayed hard. The 50 kids from our orphanage were marching back and forth, storming the gates of heaven.”
Shortly thereafter, the first help arrived – husband and wife doctor team from the neighborhood, an orthopedic surgeon whose house had just collapsed, and more nurses. And suddenly the orphanage became a triage center. More patients, however, also arrived – hundreds lined up outside the orphanage’s gates, desperate for medical treatment.
“It’s just a weird thing,” Manassero said. “I’m one of those guys who gets squeamish when my kid gets a paper cut…and here I am holding a grown man down while someone is sawing off his arm. This is not reality….I just ended up there. This is all – we’ve just got to do it. It just happens. Someone has to do it. We just stepped in.”
The Manasseros had learned to expect the unlikely. Their journey from Redondo Beach to Haiti had been, in a very real sense, one continuous leap of faith – one that began eight years earlier when they listened to their nine year old daughter Ariana.
Ari had a jar of coins. It was sitting on her dresser, and one day her father asked her what it was for. He figured she was saving for a toy, or maybe Disneyland. She crossed her arms and looked at him very seriously. “This ‘Dad, are you ever going to take me seriously look,’” Bill later remembered.
“Well, Dad,” she said. “That’s to build an orphanage and school in Haiti.”
“I was like, ‘Oh really? Sorry I asked,’” he recalled. “Like, ‘Wow, this is pretty intense for a 9-year-old.’”
Ariana had begun sponsoring a Haitian orphan named Donald the previous year through an organization called Compassion International. Donald was 4. Ari received frequent updates and photos of him.
“At the time I didn’t know where Haiti was or anything, so I started looking up what Haiti was all about,” she said. “I found out it was like the poorest country in the western hemisphere and that most kids die before the age of two. And when I started to raise money, it was first to go and visit my sponsor child there…I started sponsoring him at 8, and when I was 9 I really felt like the Lord was pulling at my heart to build an orphanage and a school and a church there. But it took like about a year or so.”
Her parents took note. Bill had left a career in marketing and advertising to start “Mr. Bill’s Music Ministry.” He performed Christian music for children. Sometimes, Ari would perform with him, making signs and singing background. He began telling his audiences about Ari and Haiti.
“Bill just started to share her dream at some of his concerts, more just to show the kids out there, you know, don’t let people despise your youth,” Susette Manassero said. “At any age, you can have a calling. You can want to do something. This is what Ariana’s dream was…to go to Haiti one day.”
Out of the blue, people started sending money to make this dream come true. Ari’s interest in Haiti, meanwhile, became more and more passionate. She put together books about Haiti that included pages and pages of laminated photos of orphans.
“I used to have this Haiti journal and I had these pictures of kids in it, and I would just keep it,” she said. “And when I would get grounded, instead of being grounded from going to see my friends, I’d get grounded from my Haiti journal. I’d be devastated.”
When Ari was 11, they decided to go on a 10-day trip to Haiti. Bill, Susette, and Ari were part of a group of 14 people, including other members of their congregation in Redondo, King’s Harbor Church. Ari’s parents weren’t sure whether their daughter’s obsession would be a passing thing or not, but they felt a responsibility to nurture what might be her calling.
“In our minds, we thought we were just going to go and see what this is all about,” Susette said. “I was thinking maybe when she turns 18 or 19 or whatever she’ll wind up in Haiti, but never did I think we were going to live there.”
Ari knew the minute she arrived in Haiti that she was where she was supposed to be.
“I just knew when I walked off that plane, ‘Okay this is where I’m going to live one day,” Ari said. “I just knew it.”
That day, it turned out, was coming sooner than she could have imagined.
The Manasseros toured the country and performed at most of the places they went, which included various churches and orphanages. The concerts were in open schoolyards, roadsides, even on the back of a truck, and the Haitians responded joyously.
“They were extremely receptive and wonderful,” Bill recalled. “And they sing in Haiti! They sing loud, they sing beautifully, and we were just so enjoying doing this for them.”
On the second to last day, they went to an all-boys orphanage. What would transpire there would change the Manasseros’ lives forever.
They realized something was amiss at this orphanage almost upon arrival. Their group had brought several suitcases full of shoes for the boys. Some young men associated with the orphanage, however, took the suitcases. They said they would give the shoes to the boys later.
There was an obvious hierarchy. The older boys dressed well, while many of the younger boys were essentially in tatters. The man who ran the orphanage was glossy-eyed and had a gash in his forehead. Susette was wary; she asked an interpreter to ask some of the kids – almost all who spoke only Creole – if anything was the matter.
Nothing was set up for a performance, so Bill played acoustically in the boys’ shared living area. The kids responded enthusiastically, and then performed songs for their guests.
“I just brought my guitar in and played without amplification or anything…then they started singing for us these Haitian songs,” he said. “It just brought us to tears. That was the place that hit us the hardest. The kids.”
When the Americans were about to leave, one of the little boys held onto the hand of a teenage girl who was part of the visiting group. He spoke to her in English.
“Please,” he said. “Take me out of this place.”
Those were the only words the boy uttered. The girl was shocked; the sincerity and desperation in his quiet voice startled her. And then, as they drove away from the orphanage, the interpreter grabbed Susette.
“Yes,” she said. “He is molesting those boys.”
On the plane back to the States the next day, Susette could not stop thinking about those boys. She had videotaped the orphanage visit, and images of their faces kept playing across her mind’s eye. She turned to Bill.
“This plane is going the wrong direction,” she said.
The feeling lingered as she settled back into life in Redondo.
“From the moment I got back I was feeling unsettled with these kids,” she said. “I remember videotaping them…and I’m not a highly emotional person, I don’t know, I feel like I’ve seen it all – these were street kids, but we’d gone to the city dump and seen worse. Yet I was videotaping it, and I remember when they began to sing to us I just started literally weeping behind the camera. I can’t describe it anyway other than I felt He was saying, ‘I am showing you something, I am downloading something, there is a special thing going on here.’ And I had no idea what it meant, but there was a spiritual connection with those kids.”
A month later, Susette received an email from the aid group that had helped organize their tour of Haiti. The director of the orphanage had been attacked by nine of the boys. Both he and the boys were in jail. The remaining children were alone at the orphanage, without food or water.
Two days later Bill and Susette were on a plane to Haiti. They had no real plan. All they knew is they had to help those kids. They rented a two-ton truck and hired a driver in Port-au-Prince and headed for the outskirts of town. As they neared the orphanage, they saw the boys, in a ragtag group, trudging down the hill from the building. They had just been evicted, and they were carrying what few possessions they had. One boy carried a dirty old mattress; another, a bicycle frame – no wheels, just a frame. Nearly all clutched the little red rags that they used to wipe down cars in traffic for a few pennies – their only way of earning money.
The Manasseros picked the boys up. All 45 crowded into the back of the truck. The first order of business was to get food. They found a pizza joint and bought 20 pizzas. But when they brought the pizzas to the truck, the boys didn’t budge.
“Come on,” Bill said. “We have pizza!”
They all just sat there, until finally Bill handed out the pizza, one slice at a time.
Next, they tried to find lodging. Nobody would take the group. Hotels even refused to let them pay for rooms because the boys were street kids. The kids at one point became frightened when they passed a waste area known as a place where murdered street kids were frequently dumped, particularly back in the days of dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Finally, a friend told them about an abandoned old school. It was called Bon Repose – good rest – and they could stay there. It was an hour’s drive, and by now, night had fallen. They were driving to the school when Susette had a realization.
“We were going out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “The stars were out. I remember being in the back of the truck and seeing this little kid curled up with his red cloth. That was the moment for me. Because I literally prayed, ‘Lord, where are your people? These kids need help. You need to send someone.’ And I just really felt in my spirit the words come across, ‘I have sent someone. It’s you.’”
They hired a cook and a manager and returned to the States. Shortly after arriving back in Redondo Beach, they gathered their kids – Ariana, who was 11, Vienna, 8, and Elijah, 4.
“They sat us down in the living room the day the day they got back,” Vienna said. “‘We are moving to Haiti. How do you guys feel about that?”
“I was so excited!” Ariana recalled. “I was hoping when they were gone that we were going to move there.”
The family spent much of the next year back in forth between Redondo and Haiti. They had to make some difficult decisions. Some of the older boys, they discovered at one point, were stealing rice and selling it for drugs. They decided to keep only the boys 12 years old and younger. It was a heartbreaking decision, but the Manasseros felt it had to be done in order to protect the younger children.
In November 2005, the entire family moved permanently in Haiti. They had sold their house and most of their possessions.
“Everything we owned we had in these little 30-gallon plastic bins,” Bill said. “We each had two bins, and that was our entire life.”
“The possession part wasn’t that hard,” Vienna said. “I just had my toys. It was hard to say goodbye to family and friends, like leaving them behind.”
They were supported by their church, King’s Harbor, both spiritually and financially. But some family members and friends questioned what the Manasseros were doing. They felt they were putting themselves in harm’s way. Bill had no argument to offer.
“We basically didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “We had no pretense. We had no clue.”
Susette said their plan, from the moment they first went to Haiti, was simple. “Just to walk our faith,” she said. “We’ll figure it out when we get there.”
The first year was enormously difficult.
There were constant threats from thugs hired by the former director. A gang arrived armed with AK-47s and took one of the boys. Later, word reached the Manasseros that the former director was out of jail. They had to hire guards.
“He was trying to find us,” Bill said. “He came up to us and said, ‘I am taking you down. You are not going to get away with this. I want my kids back.’ It was like a business competition in his mind.”
They were forced to conduct an emergency exodus and go into hiding. Eventually, they found the compound that would become their orphanage. They called it Maison de Lumiere, the house of light, and founded a non-profit called Child Hope International to help fund it.
Other problems arose within new community. The Manasseros had been warned that the orphans would be difficult – they had, after all, suffered severe emotional traumas – but hadn’t really fathomed it. Once, in Redondo, they’d received a call from a young missionary woman who was helping at the orphanage. She was surrounded by angry boys armed with broken glass. “It’s like Lord of the Flies!” she exclaimed.
Upon arrival, they saw this side of boys firsthand. For the first 18 months, the threat of violence hung frequently in the air.
“They weren’t little angels,” Susette said. “They pulled knives on us and basically didn’t trust us. I think that is what was going on. ‘You don’t really love us. You are going to go back.’”
“There were times we were just like, ‘What are we doing?’” Bill said. “There’d be an argument and we’d come to intervene and one would turn on us – one boy with a broken bottle. Threatening to burn the house down – that was a popular one.”
The answer, the family learned, was to love steadfastly.
“Bill and I both learned it was never about getting a pat on the back,” Susette said. “Like God was saying, ‘You are never going to get that, and that is not why you are here…I want you to just pursue them and love them unconditionally.’ So when we’d walk in, we made it a point to run up to them and give them a hug, even if they didn’t want it. Hug them and tell them you love them. Even when they are being rotten, hug them.”
It worked. Slowly, trust grew. There was often weeping as the breakthroughs occurred, but one by one, the boys began to realize they were safe and loved. A blossoming occurred.
“We had people that knew them before and see them today, and they are not the same kid,” Susette said. “Honestly, it’s been a transformation. And I can’t even say we were responsible. I mean, it was something God put in these hearts. It was all about love.”
The orphanage itself was likewise transformed. What began as one meal a day grew to two, then three; a small school was added, then a medical clinic. Perhaps most significantly, the orphanage expanded, adding a whole wing for girls. Bill helped launch several little microbusinesses for the kids. The most successful which was rebuilding cell phones, and with that revenue – as well as stateside sponsors – many of the kids were able to go to schools for the very first time. The kids had originally attended the school at the orphanage, but to be able to put on a school uniform, wear a donated backpack, and sit in schoolrooms alongside other children was a very, very big deal.
“Every year, I take them out to celebrate at the end of the year, based on their grades – all the kids in the top three spots,” Bill said. “And this last time, it was 16 kids, just first, second, and third….in different classes. It just blew my mind. Really, they are smart kids, and they are doing really well.”
The children themselves started a feeding program that primarily serves other street kids, many who live in nearby ravine.
“Each day, a different team of kids heads up the operation,” Bill said. “They cook and serve and offer Bible stories to kids, and it’s all run by our kids. We are not doing anything. These are all kids that have grown up in our home. That was a shift that happened…You know, street kids are so lowly regarded in Haiti there used to be death squads that would hunt them down on the streets like rats, throw them in the back of a truck and dump them out in the country side. And so to see these same kids, considered street rats, feeding other kids…it’s just amazing.”
The Manassero’s vision is that these same kids will become a beacon of light for Haiti itself. The first class of boys began graduating this year, and while some are being sent to the States for education, all intend to return, to lift up their country.
“If we are doing everything we are supposed to be doing, these kids should not only be able to leave the home, but succeed,” Bill said. “That is really our next big question – the older kids, as they start to move into Haitian society, how are they going to do? If we see at the end of that cycle these kids are able to move out and bless Haiti, then we will know things are good.”
Haiti was in great need of blessing last week, and the children at Maison de Lumiere stood ready.
They were, of course, terribly frightened by what occurred. They are so traumatized that they have yet to sleep inside, so terrified are they of being buried alive by another quake.
But as the orphanage became a hospital, the children helped however they could, whether it meant cleaning, serving, or just comforting.
“Fifty angels,” Bill said. “Even some of the youngest ones…We’ve got one guy, Claremond, he’s 10 or 11, and he’s been there every day, cleaning up stuff on the floor…He’s just a beautiful little kid that wants to do something.”
It has been a constant trial. Last Thursday, medical supplies were almost gone. Bill had to go outside the orphanage walls and sadly inform people that the medical clinic would be shut down. The people, he said, reacted with utter gentleness, contrary to the many reports of riots elsewhere in the country.
“I am not seeing any of that,” he said. “I am just seeing these beautiful people. They are trying to take care of one another.”
The clinic didn’t shut down, it turned out, until earlier this week, when patients were transferred to other care centers. Every time they reached the brink, somebody would arrive – an SUV full of doctors in one instance – and the triage would continue.
“What I’ve learned is that in spite of the insanity of it all, little miracles are everywhere,” Susette said. “We may have seen over 500 people the first four days at our makeshift triage center, and not one perished. We had Haitian doctors walk in, unexpected, when we needed the help at that very moment because we were inundated with bodies.”
Their son, Elijah, has helped run the pharmacy. Vienna has tended to patients, and their two adopted kids, Frankie and Kenny, are sleeping outside and helping the orphanage kids. Ariana, who this year graduated from high school and moved into the orphanage, has been tending to little Daphne, the 4-year-old who broke her leg.
Bill Manassero said that he felt like they were all in the palm of God’s hand. “There is no safer, better place for us on this entire planet than where we are right now,” he said.
As he surveyed the scene, his eyes lingered on Ariana.
“I cannot take credit for anything that has happened,” he said. “There were just a ton of lives saved that were saved by our makeshift clinic, and it all goes back to Ariana. All I know is people are alive today because of a little girl’s dream. And that just blows my mind.”
For more information or to contribute, see www.childhope.org or www.edivvy.com/childhope