Days of laughing and learning

Claire, young survior of Haiti quake, settles into her Auburn-area home
By: Gloria Young, Journal Staff Writer
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Three months after being rescued from the earthquake, Haitian orphan Claire adores being in the United States. And she’s picking up her new language like a magnet. “She loves anything where she can express her English,” her new mom Debbie Bryditzki said Monday. “She says the Pledge of Allegiance louder than anyone in class. Some of the words aren’t correct, but she thinks they are.” Claire had lived in a Petionville orphanage for most of her life when the Bryditzkis discovered her during a mission visit to the island in 2007. “We were nowhere near thinking about adopting,” Bryditzki said. “We had three older children. We were clearly on the road to having our kids grown and out of the house — and having an empty nest.” But it turned out to be love at first sight. “She was the first little Haitian girl we met,” she said. “We just bonded. She was in my arms the entire week and it was a very tearful good-bye.” The Bryditzkis were nearing finalization of the adoption process at the time of the massive quake, which shattered the capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns. A few days later, Claire was flown to California to be with her new family. She’s been a wonderful addition, Bryditzki said. There have been some rocky moments, but a lot of progress, too. “The first couple of months were very difficult,” she said. “I think it was a combination of the shock for her of leaving Haiti and her family and friends.” Part of it was the transition from living in an orphanage to becoming part of a family. “(In the orphanage) they would push and shove,” Bryditzki said. “That’s what was modeled to her. That’s what she knew. She’s a strong-willed little girl. I know that helped her survive what she’d been through.” The family has rallied around Claire and shown her a lot of love, but also established rules. “We’ve been real consistent with her consequences for behavior, and she’s really thriving with those boundaries,” Bryditzki said. “Easter week was a real turning point for her.” Oprah Show comes calling In a big moment for the family, Claire and the Bryditzkis will soon be featured on the Oprah Show. “Just out of the blue I got a call — it was on Good Friday,” she said. “My caller ID said ‘Harpo, Inc.’ I thought, could it be? Then I thought it was probably a telemarketer, so I started walking away from the phone. But something said, ‘you’d better get this one.’” The caller was Keela McCormick from the Oprah Show, who interviewed her for more than an hour. “A couple of days later they were booking flights,” Bryditzki said. The following Tuesday, a producer from Oprah visited the Bryditzkis in their Auburn-area home. The following day a film crew, including Lisa Ling (formerly of The View and currently a National Geographic reporter and special correspondent for the Oprah show), spent the day with the family. “She played with Claire and interviewed her and interviewed us. It was a wonderful time with her,” Bryditzki said. Then on Saturday, Winfrey interviewed them via Skype. “It was wonderful,” Bryditzki said. “She’s just a real down-to-earth friendly person. She asked a lot of in-depth questions.” Adjusting to America In the meantime, Claire continues to settle into her new life. With her English getting better, she’s now starting to communicate her feelings. “She talks about how scary the earthquake was and loud the noises were,” Bryditzki said. “She’s very sensitive to loud noise. She’ll cry and say how much it upsets her.” She sometimes talks about discipline at the orphanage. “There were spankings,” Bryditzki said. “It would really hurt. It made her very sad.” For someone used to deprivation, food has been a big issue for the child. “She’s had an obsession with food and the quantity (she eats). She would gorge herself,” Bryditzki said. “It has taken a long time for her to get comfortable with the fact she’s going to get another meal so she can feel at ease with food.” At the orphanage, Claire received one meal a day — a plate mounded with rice and beans. “That’s what continues to be a meal in her mind,” Bryditzki said. But she’s gradually learning that there will always be plenty to eat. “Recently she had a big bowl of cereal for breakfast, ate three-quarters of it and said she was full,” Bryditzki said. “That was a victory. She’s getting it.” Transitioning from a year-round hot, humid tropical climate to the foothills’ chilly and rainy winter was tough for her, too. “She’s very sensitive to cold,” Bryditzki said. “We have to bundle her up.” Something totally unexpected for the family is the racism the Bryditzkis have encountered. “I guess I was a little naïve about racism in this area,” Debbie said. “There have been a couple of displays of that. One was in a grocery store in Auburn. A gentleman was looking at Claire with a horrible evil look on his face. He didn’t look at me at all. I quickly moved her away. Then we had the same situation at a fast-food place.” But, thankfully, the negative reactions have been few and, socially, the little girl is thriving. She’s developed a closeness to her siblings and made quite a few friends — at school and in the neighborhood. She’s even taught herself how to ride a bike. “She does it one-handed and with no hands,” Bryditzki said. Claire loves to draw and color, and has learned how to use scissors. She watches limited TV, but particularly likes Dora the Explorer. In fact, a couple of weeks ago (following the Oprah interview) Nickelodeon sent her a box of Dora the Explorer products. “She has them all over her room now,” Bryditzki said. Jim Wesley, Bryditzki’s brother-in-law and Claire’s uncle, has witnessed the child’s transformation. “She had a hard time transitioning from life in Haiti to America. The values and ways of bringing up children are different there,” he said. “She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t fight for her rights. In Haiti you have to fend for yourself for food and toys. Now she’s sharing, she’s not being aggressive with us, let alone on the playground. “She’s got a great personality. She’s a crackup. She makes us laugh. She has all kinds of stories. All of a sudden she’ll come out with her own little joke and just crack everyone up. She has a quick mind.” The fact that Claire is assimilating into her new environment was very clear recently. “I’ve learned a valuable lesson in setting boundaries for kids,” Bryditzki said. “Claire taught me this in answering a question. When she was asked if she liked California, she said she loves it. When asked why, she said, ‘because when Claire’s hungry, Mommy gives Claire food. When Claire’s naughty, Mommy says no, no.” For the Bryditzkis, tough days and all, it is a joy to have Claire as part of the family. “We are so thankful we’ve done it,” Bryditzki said. Gloria Young can be reached at