When the Dust Settles: One Family’s Life After the Earthquake in Haiti

In Features, Human Interest, Non-fiction on July 23, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Photo: Courtesy of Kris Baker.

Written by Alex Ashley

“It was a Tuesday, and I was at piano lessons with my daughter Kimberly,” recalls Colville, Washington resident, Kris Baker, “when our church’s secretary called.  ‘Did you hear about the earthquake in Haiti?’ she asked.”

It was January 10, 2010, when a devastating earthquake struck the country of Haiti — widowing wives, orphaning children, claiming more than 200,000 lives and leaving 1.5 million people without a home.

“My heart sank,” she continues.  “I was trying to keep myself calm until I got more information and was able to call my friends in Haiti, but I could not get through to anyone.”

Everyone grieved for Haiti when the disaster hit, but the Baker family’s perspective on the country’s crisis in 2010 was unique, and ran deep: “My husband Nat and I had been to Haiti in December of 2009 to see our kids,” she explains.  They had been introduced to Haiti in 1999 by their church, leading a youth group of 18 as part of a 10-day mission trip.  They returned 3 years later, in 2002, to repeat the experience.  “On the last day of that trip, I visited an orphanage,” Kris says, “and it was a very moving experience.” Later, in November of that same year, she returned with her oldest son, Cody; her mother, a registered nurse; and a high school senior from her youth group.

“Our purpose was to work with an orphanage that adopted children out,” she explains.  “About three days before coming home, we showed up to the orphanage to work and there were two children, a brother and sister, standing in the door way, dressed their very best.  They were up for adoption.  My heart sank for them, and at the same time our eyes met and locked.  This was a life changing moment for me, and I knew then and there that I wanted to adopt.”

Nat and Kris are longtime residents of Colville, Washington.  They own Colville Construction, and have lived and worked there since 1995.

Roughly a year later, in January of 2004, Kris and Nat Baker filed paperwork with Haiti to adopt; in August, they brought home 5 year-old Kimberly, now 14.

During the holiday season of December 2009, Nat and Kris returned to Haiti to visit Kimberly’s siblings: Thamar, Davidson and Lili.  The Baker’s had filed paperwork to adopt them in the summer of 2007, but in a frustrating turn of events, the process had taken longer than they’d expected.  “We celebrated an early Christmas with our 3 children, as well as the children in some of the orphanage houses, and left for home knowing that our kids were really close to the end of the adoption process.  We started excitedly talking about what we would do when we finally got the news, and how we would fly down to Haiti to get them, spend a night in Miami and then finally take them home.  But it didn’t go that way.”

A month later, the country of Haiti lie in rubble and cinder.

Wounds Still Fresh

As part of the evacuation after the earthquake, however, the Bakers were finally able to take the kids out of the country and officially make them part of the family.

Thamar, the oldest of the four, is now 18 years-old; she was 15 when she came to live in Washington State.

Davidson, who is 16 on July 20th, was 12.

Lili, the youngest, is now a whole 10 years-old, and was seven.

That was more than three years ago.  But the children’s memories of their home in Port Au Prince hasn’t faded, nor those of the tragedy in 2010.  The wounds, in some ways, are still fresh.

“I had just come home from school,” recounts Thamar, the oldest.  She is a dark, graceful, willowy girl with an inviting smile.  “I heard my friend’s voice telling me to ‘come out.’ I told her to wait, and she said ‘come out now!’ As I was headed out the door, the house started to shake.  I was screaming ‘God save me!’ over and over again.  The house in front of ours had already collapsed, the sky was dark with dust and I heard screaming everywhere.  One house fell, and a mother died, but the baby lived.  Within an hour, people were dying and carrying dead and injured people.  The hospitals were full and telling people to go home.”

David, who was 12, adds: “It was horrible.  When I went outside, the ground was still moving.  The new house by us – it was falling down.  Then I saw this little kid, and cement had fallen on his head.  Another family was looking for their oldest son.  When they found him at the school, he had been trapped with his arm pinned for two days.  They got him out and had to amputate his arm.  We saw him in June of 2011 when we returned.”

For the Baker family, though, the challenge doesn’t end there.  Aside from struggling to purge the painful memories of watching their beautiful homeland collapse into ruins, Thamar, David, Lili and Kimberly have had to learn how to adapt and acclimate to a culture, country and language that is not their own.

From Port Au Prince, to the Inland Northwest

Walking into the Baker home and observing a family of eight is like walking into the belly of a well-oiled machine—parts always moving, always making noise, working in harmony and clicking together and apart with great planning and precision as they each lead their lives.  They invite me in; they have just gotten home from church this afternoon, and they’re barbequing.  As we all sit around a large, wooden table in the dining room—amid the crossfire of excitement and laughter and talking back and forth, they find time to share with me some of their thoughts.  Within the walls of their beautiful home, I sit—mostly quietly—and watch as the pieces of the machine move.

In the more than three years since the tragedy in 2010, the Baker family—all eight of them (Kris and Nat have two older, biological sons, Cody and Kyle)—have had the chance to redefine the dynamics of their family, adjusting and adapting to the blessings and challenges of a multicultural household.

“My sister and I were both adopted,” Nat says, “and I was successful.  So I have nothing but confidence that our kids are going to do well and succeed.  We are also very realistic that it takes effort and persistence.  Nothing comes without some work attached.”

“All four children have come to us non-English speaking,” Kris says.  She remembers battling with language barriers when Kimberly started Kindergarten about three weeks after arriving in the States.  “She had failed every entrance exam, but we knew she was smart and that it was just the language barrier we needed to work on.” For the first few weeks, Kris took time off and attended school with Kimberly and, as she adjusted, tapered off the time she spent with her in school.  Within a couple months, she was speaking great English and learning a lot.

The other three – Thamar, David and Lili – have, of course, had to face the same challenge.  “It can take sibling groups a little longer to learn a new language, because they aren’t forced to learn as fast.  A sibling group will talk to one another in their native language.”

Understandably so; imagine coming from a land that speaks predominantly French-Creole, and trying to adjust to a rural community in the inland Northwest.  But they’ve done it.

“By summer of the first year they were here, they were coming home speaking English, which was pivotal in their adaptation.”

But Baker says language, although perhaps the most obvious, wasn’t the only interesting challenge.

“Culture in itself can be a challenge,” she explains.  “For example, my kids came from a culture of owning very little, and so what you did have, you shared.  Here, it is ‘this is your towel, your toothbrush, your shoes’ etc.  And although there are some items it is obviously best not to share, it has also taught us what a selfish culture ours can be.”


Kris says there are other things about the children’s Haitian culture that have represented challenges.

“Haitians live in very tight quarters,” she continues, “so there is no ‘personal bubble,’ so to speak.  Here, we really had to teach the kids a little at a time how to give people space when going to sit beside someone or walking behind them, etc.”

But aside from minor cultural differences such as language, personal barriers or even clothing and personal appearance, the kids have undertaken the massive task of adapting to an entirely new and unfamiliar culture, with elegance and charm.

“From what I heard,” says David, 16, “America was going to be like heaven, but it isn’t.  But I still like living in the United States, being able to go to school, get involved in sports and have friends.” David is a handsome young man with a bright smile.  He is shy like a teenager—mostly nodding and offering polite “mm-hmm’s,” as responses, but built strong like the football player he plans to one day become.

Lili, the youngest at age 10, shares her appreciative outlook very simply: “I like it.  It’s different.  A lot of people said I was going to be rich and have a lot of money.  When I got here, I thanked God for a family, having food and getting to have my own shoes.  I really loved everyone from meeting them before.  Especially Cody.  He used to let me climb on him in Haiti.  He’s a great big brother.  When I saw pictures of him and Kyle, I knew it was going to be a good family.”

It’s clear that Nat and Kris are in love, not just to each other, but to these children who have become theirs.  “Ours is a world that doesn’t grasp what it means to be dedicated, to be committed,” Nat says.  “Right,” Kris adds in agreement.  “Adoption isn’t for everyone, because it isn’t an experiment.  Once you adopt, you can’t take them back and say ‘hey, things didn’t work out like I had planned, so it just isn’t going to work out for me.’ You are, and should feel committed.”

Thamar, 18, graduated on Saturday, June 8th.  On Monday the 10th, she received a job offer to work at a clothing store in Colville – an appropriate fit, since fashion is one of her passions.

“Our kids have thrived because of our family, friends, church, community and the grace of God,” Kris adds.  “The older children are finding work.  People are hiring them knowing they have only been here for a little over 3 years, but they are very patient and willing to teach our children new things.”

Moving Forward

As I prepare to leave after spending the afternoon with the family, I ask a final question: What next? What are your goals for the future?

“I want to be a professional football player,” says David.
“I want to get into fashion and modelling,” says Thamar.

“I want to be a singer and an actress,” says Kim.

And Lili? “An artist,” she answers with a big smile.

You see, they haven’t been taught that these dreams are unachievable, that they’re “unrealistic,” and therefore not worth striving for.  They haven’t been taught that giving up is the answer, or that you shouldn’t work for what you want.  ‘I’ve made it this far,’ they might think.  ‘Why can’t I fulfill my dreams?’ So the goals they set for the future, and who they purpose to be as they grow up—they are as real and as tangible as we can imagine.

To say the least, the work of the Bakers, Kris and Nat, has been a powerful testimony to the intensity of pure, unadulterated human kindness that exists in small-town America.  And their six children – theirs is a story of triumph and victory, overcoming odds and obstacles to become the good and respectable people we should all aspire to be.

Meet the Baker family.

Published: Sunday, August 11, 2013 in the Spokesman Review


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: