Get ready, Lake County. A little piece of the
catastrophe is coming to us.
Beginning as early as next week, up to 200 children left orphaned and homeless by the calamitous
in Haiti are expected to begin trickling into the Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center in the north part of the county.
They could be staying for months, until living relatives are found, or they could be staying forever. No one knows.
It's part of a combined relief effort by the Florida Baptist Convention and the Florida Baptist Children's Homes.
While Florida Baptists are experienced in disaster — they're got more "teams" than then
— an official at the convention said that housing children at Lake Yale is "virgin territory."
Think of it: These children have just lost their families, faced the chaos in their country alone and typically do not speak the language of the place to which they are coming. They must be terrified.
We can help. But first, here's a little information on what the Baptists are up to and how this will work.
Before the Jan. 12 earthquake, relief workers estimated that up to 350,000 children in Haiti were orphans, the result of years of anarchy, violence and poverty. The Baptists support a number of orphanages in Haiti, so they are familiar with how the system works. The Jacksonville Baptist Association, for example, supports the El Shaddai Orphanage in Bon Repos, just outside Port au Prince, the capital city that suffered so much devastation.
That orphanage still stands, and the Baptist conference last week sent a team of doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians who worked from it. At the moment, the Baptist conference has seven missionaries in the country, and another 20 workers who run a guest house in Port au Prince. It, too, is standing.
The conference's disaster teams have begun collecting donations and sending them mostly by containers aboard ships. They'll be distributed by the various Baptist-supported agencies in Haiti.
'We stand ready'
Meanwhile, officials are working with U.S.
office to get the U.S. government to lighten up and send orphans here. The government so far has allowed seriously-injured orphans into the country on temporary visas, and it is beginning to turn attention to the others in need. It's tough to work through the bureaucracy because of the governmental chaos in Haiti, said Jerry Haag, president of the Florida Baptist Children's Homes.
"We're having conversations with the
. Paperwork may not exist for many of the children. But regardless of whether they're orphans, we can provide medical help, clothing and the emotional support these children need," Haag said.
"We've heard rumors that there are children flying in here. So far none of it has materialized. But we stand ready at a moment's notice to house up to 250. If you tell us you have children on a plane, we'll be there to care for them," he said.
It's that simple. The goal is to take care of hurting children in need. The rest is just logistics. Complicated logistics, hamstrung by a crumbled government awash in misery.
Officials from the Baptist Conference and the Children's Homes spent last week at the Lake Yale facility on County Road 452 making sure that officials at the conference center can look after the children properly. They can.
The kids, who could be coming on military aircraft or private relief planes, will be housed in several big bunkhouses. They'll be cared for by prescreened workers and volunteers who are ready to respond at any time.
The conference center had meetings scheduled, and workers are calling some of the groups scheduled to use the center and telling them that they can't come, said Paula Foster, director of guest services at the center.
"We hope they understand — these kids are hurting," she said.
The first 100 children will go to Lake Yale. Then, another 50 could be housed in one of the Baptist Children's Homes in Miami. After that, the conference center will make some changes to be able to take another 100 kids if necessary, Haag said.
Diapers desperately needed
Once they arrive, workers will take digitized photos of the children and send them back to Haiti with as much information as possible in an effort to find surviving family members. It's expected that many of the kids will return to their homeland "healthy, strong and knowing they were loved," Haag said.
And those without living relatives?
"We can find these children homes where they will have a forever family," Haag said.
So what can Lake Countians do now?
At the moment, the Baptists need personal-care items for the children whose arrival they are anticipating. Later, they may need more volunteers and some specific clothing.
For now, they're starting to collect items like diapers. There never seems to be enough of those. They also could use baby formula, nonperishable food, sanitation packages including disposable gloves, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, topical over-the-counter antibiotics, snack food such as granola bars, blankets, towels and washcloths.
What is donated at the Lake Yale Conference Center will stay there and be used to care for children here — unless the center receives more than it can use. In that case, the excess will be loaded into shipping containers and sent to the Baptists' missions in Haiti.
Anyone who wants to make a donation of money to effort can do so on the organization's Web site,
. All the money received will go to purchase items needed in Haiti. Haag said the administrative costs and shipping fees are being picked up by the Baptists.
The Lake Yale Conference Center is about eight miles north of Eustis on C.R. 452. The phone is 352-483-9800.
Other ways to help
If you're interested in helping in other ways, here are a couple options:
•Injured children from Haiti are being sent to the Shriner's Hospitals across the United States, and the South Lake Art League is sponsoring an event to paint "Treasure Boxes" where the patients can stores their belongings while they are hospitalized.
It is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 21 at the South Lake Art League at Cagan Crossings, 16640 Cagan Crossings Blvd, Unit 304, Clermont.
The league is asking that those participating donate either $5 or two sturdy, basecoated shoeboxes.
Kathie Camara, the league's acrylic instructor, will supply the paint, brushes, patterns and instructions. Need more information? Call 352-241-6407 or e-mail the league at
•Give a Kid a Backpack has temporarily refocused its mission on helping to provide tents for the homeless in Haiti.
The agency is asking for gently used tents or a donation of $35 to meet its goal of sending 500 tents to the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean nation.
Donations can be sent to Give A Kid A Backpack at P.O. Box 120397, Clermont, 37412. Tents may be dropped off at 2105 Hartwood Marsh Road, Suite 6, Clermont.
or call 877-452-7225.
Lauren Ritchie can be reached at