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JDF soldier finds love in Haiti

'What a pretty little girl,' thought Henry

BY ERICA VIRTUE Observer writer virtuee@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, April 05, 2010    

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WHEN Lance Corporal Michael Henry was called by the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) to serve as part of Operation Restore Comfort in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, little did he know that within weeks, he would fall in love.

Tugging at the heart string of the tough army man is eight-year-old Sarah Lisa Keith.

Sarah's parents, Ednor Saint-Felix and Cindie Jean, were killed in the January 12 earthquake which claimed the lives of a quarter million Haitians.

Two days after the quake, the little girl was found in the rubble, still in the protective arms of her deceased mother.

Her mother's friend Jean has since been caring for the little girl, but under trying circumstances. That was until Lance Corporal Henry spotted her bathing in the dirty waters of a gully in Delmas, a community just outside the capital.

"I thought, 'what a pretty little girl'. I asked her 'where is your mama? Can you speak English?' She said yes. I asked her if she was hungry, and she said yes," Henry recalls.

"I lifted her from the dirty waters, took out my rag and started to dry her off. By then I saw a lady approaching. I asked her if she was her mother and she said yes, but the baby said no," Henry remembers.

It was during the ensuing conversation that the little girl's status was discovered.

He, like many of the JDF soldiers who served in Haiti, would routinely share his rations with Haitians he encountered as he carried out his duties. He did the same for the little girl, and when he returned to camp that evening nearly two months ago, she was still on his mind.

Glad to be posted in the same community the following day, he kept close to where he had seen her the day before, hoping to catch a glimpse.

He did.

"I saw her making a tent in the street. Somehow, I kind of like felt I was her father. I can't explain it, but I wanted to make sure that she had something to eat and that she was safe as long as I was there," he says.

When he decided to ask the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Desmond Edwards, for help, that's when he knew he had fallen in love.

"I made a phone call to my wife. It's funny, but she had also mentioned that if I saw a child who I would consider helping, I could go ahead," he says.

But having met Sarah, he wanted to do more than just help.

"So I described her to my wife and she said yes, even without seeing her. She told me to find out about the adoption process while I was there," says Henry.

Sarah was among thousands of children her age and older who were not going to school as a result of the damage to schools.

However, the daddy's instinct in Henry, who is already the father of a six-year-old, was in full throttle. One of the few teachers who survived the earthquake started private lessons out in the open for some children.

"I asked her guardian to arrange classes for her and I paid for that. I pay $100 gourdes (J$20) per week for her to attend classes. I also got a copy of her birth certificate and I am trying to get her passport," he says, urgency in his voice.

Henry says he does not want to find himself in the position of some individuals who have taken Haitian orphans illegally across the border to neighbouring Santo Domingo, or like the group of United States missionaries who were found with several children shortly after the quake.

"I am doing this the right way. So I will try to get her passport first so that she can come even for a visit. But I arranged for her to get one of the better tents and she is closer to where Food For the Poor is so she can get her name on the list to get food," he says.

Already, he has contributed US$50 towards Sarah's getting a passport.

Henry is expressing thanks to the JDF which, he says, has been supportive.

Although Sarah remains in Port-au-Prince for now, Henry speaks proudly of the little girl who speaks French, English, Spanish, as well as Creole.

His biggest disappointment was returning home three weeks ago and leaving her behind.

"I wish I could have taken her with me," he says, promising that as soon as he could, he would return to see her and tie up the passport process.

He and his family will be making their intentions clear to the Child Development Agency in Jamaica and he is anxious to get the adoption process underway and have the home inspection done by local officials.

The tall, strong, brawny soldier says he has found a daughter, and Sarah has evidently found a dad.

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