Haitian Orphans Arrive in Pittsburgh

Orphans from Haiti arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport, Jan. 19, 2010.
Last Updated 6:45 p.m. ET

A charity relief mission carrying dozens of young children from an orphanage in earthquake-ravaged Haiti has arrived in Pittsburgh.

Fifty-three children from infants to about age 10, along with Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, were on the Air Force flight, which landed at Pittsburgh International Airport about 9:30 a.m. ET.

"I'm so proud to bring these kids back to Pittsburgh. It's awesome!" said Alison McMutrie, who with her sister had been caring for approximately 150 children at the orphanage they run in Port-au-Prince. "I think I'm dreaming. I don't know when I'm going to wake up."

Workers, some carrying children, disembarked the plane and boarded waiting buses. Other children walked by themselves and waved to onlookers.

Some children were wrapped in blankets as they adjusted to the Pittsburgh weather - 32°F and overcast, compared to the sun and 82° temperatures they had left behind.

Medical workers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and, in some cases, adoptive families are waiting for them.

Moments before speaking with CBS News correspondent Manuel Gallegus, Jill and Bruce Leeer of South Dakota were reunited at Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital with Ange Laurette and Pierre Cardin, the Haitian girl and boy they've been waiting for a year and a half to adopt.

"They look happy and content," Jill Leer said. "But I think they are exhausted."

Leslie McCombs, a senior consultant for government relations at UPMC who was also on the flight, said she'll never forget seeing the kids for the first time. The children were sitting in vans with the sisters, reaching out of the windows and waiting for help.

"We got on the van and they starting singing, they were clapping and giving us high fives. They were saying prayers," an emotional McCombs said. "It was amazing."

The children were taken to UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Doctors who examined them say they are remarkably resilient, Gallegus reports.

"I would have to they they arrived in quite good shape. They are in general healthy, very few of them had any significant dehydration whatsoever," Dr. Richard Faladino said.

About 100 other children from their orphanage are being cared for by Dutch and French agencies.

"When we found out everyone was okay and everyone was alive and we knew we had to take action, I never imagined that this is how it would turn out," McMutrie said at a press conference.

"It was a long week, it was a really tough week living in a driveway with hundreds of children, but the fact that we're here now is certainly worth it, and just thank you to everyone."

Complete Coverage: Devastation in Haiti
Haiti Quake: How You Can Help

She said the children were happy to arrive: "They know that they're coming home and hopefully to go home to their adoptive parents. The kids felt hopeless, too, because Haiti's in a really bad state right now. But they're doing great. There are some kids who had become dehydrated, running some fevers, basic baby stuff, but the team that came have almost nurtured them back to health already - everyone just took someone under their wing and took care of them.

"I'm Ali to them, but when I'm there, my sister and I are their moms," McMutrie said. "We have a family - we don't just have a group of kids that get fed. We all care about each other and love each other. And to be asked to leave without one was just not an option.

Marc Cherna, Director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said it was hoped that, once the children were cleared medically, their adoptions could be finalized promptly.

Many of the adoptive parents were done with the legal process when the earthquake hit, Cherna told told CBS Station KDKA. "Now hopefully we can finish it up."

To that end, a courtroom has been set up at Children's Hospital and the adoptive parents are arriving from all over the country. "The judges are all set," Cherna said. "We expect a good portion of these children will be adopted today."

The landing capped days of preparations and maneuvering by American caretakers, lawmakers and government officials. The orphans were cared for by two Pittsburgh-area sisters whose network of family and friends used Facebook and Twitter to let the world know they were in dire need of food, water, diapers - and a plane to ferry them out of Port-au-Prince after last week's massive earthquake.

Gov. Rendell, a crew of medical personnel and several Congressmen also were on the flight that carried the group out of Haiti late Monday and headed for Orlando, Fla. He told reporters that Alison's sister, Jamie, is still in Orlando with the 54th child, pending completion of paperwork. He said preparations are being made to fly them up to Pittsburgh.

Jamie McMutrie arrived in the Haitian capital in 2006, and with her sister (who moved there two years ago) run an orphanage called BRESMA.

After last week's earthquake destroyed much of the Haitian capital, the sisters contacted officials at UPMC, who in turn contacted the governor. Rendell reached the Haitian ambassador to the United States on Sunday, said the governor's spokesman, Gary Tuma.

The ambassador advised Rendell it would be "a good idea for the governor to be personally on the flight" because he could use his stature to cut through red tape, the spokesman said.

Rendell and U.S. Rep Jason Altmire, D-Pa., said Haiti's ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, as well as the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and even the White House all helped get the children out.

Dutch and French agencies were caring for the other 100 or so children from the orphanage, which was badly damaged.

CBS News correspondent Seth Doane visited another orphanage on Monday, on the east side of Port-au-Prince. It was completely collapsed in the quake. But 78 kids survived - orphans who have lost their home once again. If it wasn't for one woman's dedication to the youngsters, they would be alone amid the rubble.

Photos: Haiti's Orphans
Orphan Blog
More on Haiti's orphans, hurdles of adoption

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano answered widespread calls Monday and implemented a temporary policy known as "humanitarian parole" which allows orphaned children from Haiti to enter the United States on an individual basis to receive care.

The beneficiaries of the policy fall into two categories:

• Haitian children already in the process of being adopted by U.S. citizens (and already approved for inter-country adoption by the government of Haiti), and

• Those previously identified as eligible for inter-country adoption and have been matched to U.S. citizen prospective adoptive parents.

"We are committed to doing everything we can to help reunite families in Haiti during this very difficult time," Napolitano in a press release. "While we remain focused on family reunification in Haiti, authorizing the use of humanitarian parole for orphans who are eligible for adoption in the United States will allow them to receive the care they need here."

The application of the "humanitarian parole" policy by DHS came after the United States last week granted temporary protected status to Haitian nationals in the United States as of Jan. 12, allowing them to stay in the U.S. for the next 18 months.

In Belgium too, authorities are seeking to speed the adoption of children from Haiti and 13 could be arriving in a week or so.

Even before the earthquake, Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries, was awash in orphans, with 380,000 children living in orphanages or group homes, according to the UNICEF.

There are 150 children in three BRESMA houses, but Chad McMutrie said his sisters were focused on bringing over the youngest.

The Dutch government has also sent a planeload of immigration officials to Haiti who will try to locate and evacuate 100 children who were already being adopted by Dutch parents.

Also Monday, Indiana-based Kids Alive International, which runs orphanages around the world, is expected to take 50 Haitian orphans to group homes in the Dominican Republic, the organization said in a news release.

Notwithstanding the U.S. policy, the Catholic Church in Miami is working on a proposal that would allow thousands of orphaned children to come permanently to America. A similar effort launched in 1960, known as Operation Pedro Pan, brought about 14,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba to the U.S.

Under the new plan, dubbed "Pierre Pan," Haitian orphans would first be placed in group homes and then paired with foster parents, said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami.

"We have children who are homeless and possibly without parents and it is the moral and humane thing to do," Agosta said.

Archdiocese officials said many details would have to be worked out and President Barack Obama's administration would have to grant orphans humanitarian parole to enter the U.S.

In the meantime, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said the United Nations is establishing a group whose mission on the ground in Haiti will be to protect children - orphans and non-orphans alike - against trafficking, kidnapping and sex abuse.

And orphanages that were operating in Haiti before the earthquake are scrambling to keep their kids safe, sheltered and fed. Those with damaged buildings are pledging to rebuild and take in more children, if needed.

Three of the four orphanages operated in Port-au-Prince by Planting Peace, a Melbourne, Fla., non-profit, have been damaged, forcing staff to move everyone into one building. They are now trying to secure homes in Haiti for the kids, the group's founder, Aaron Jackson, told The Associated Press in an email. Rainn Wilson, who appears in the TV show "The Office," is raising money for the group, Jackson said.

Jackson said all 37 of his orphans are physically fine and he would like to help more children.

"There needs to be some communication from the government level about what we need to do. Can we take these children?" he said. "We're ready. We've already raised a fair amount of money where we can go out and get an orphanage running soon."

Sherrie Fausey had to evacuate 30 children from her Christian Light Foundation orphanage in the capital after her facility was badly damaged in the quake.

Fausey, a former Florida elementary school teacher who came to Haiti 10 years ago, acknowledges that her job - daunting before the quake - has become even more challenging now.

"Wherever the Lord sends you, he'll make you content to be there," she said. "Times can be hard, but I'd rather be here in all this rubble. It's where my kids are."

At the Israeli field hospital, doctors are expecting to treat many more orphans in the coming days.

On one of the hospital's stretchers, Patient No. 236, a 6-month-old boy, lay on a hospital stretcher, crying in pain. Relatives brought him to the medical centre shortly after the disaster, then left. They didn't tell anyone the boy's name.

Doctors suspect the infant had meningitis long before the earthquake - and they also suspect that no one is coming back for him.

"We will wait to discharge him until there is a facility that can grant continuous care," Amit said.