“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28
Matt and Denise Clark were married in 2002. Both had been married before. Denise, a mother of four, had been divorced and moved to Georgia from Michigan. Matt’s wife had died six years earlier, at the age of 33, following a cancer diagnosis.
Matt has lost eight close family members to cancer, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. In 2007, he lost his only biological son, Josh, after his cancer fight. A 2006 graduate of Fayette County High School, Josh was just 19 when he died.
Mission work had not been a big part of life for the Clarks before Josh’s death. Denise took her first mission trip to Mexico in 2005 with their church, Heritage Christian in Fayetteville. Josh was sick at the time, she remembers. Matt would begin joining her on mission trips after Josh passed.
What followed has been an evolving love story as the couple discovered a whole new world to embrace in Haiti and four little girls that will soon call them Mom and Dad.
“I will say that if he had not passed, I can guarantee that if he had not passed, we would not probably be adopting. I probably would never have been in that situation to where I fell in love,” Matt says of Lavitha (13), Rose Kerline (9), Myrlanda (12), and Daphkar (8).
The church began making mission trips to Haiti in 2011. Matt remembers their trip in April, about 14 months after the massive earthquake which devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince.
The two of them fell in love with the people of Haiti. They would stay at New Life Children’s Home in Port-au-Prince, an orphanage run for thirty years now by American Mariam Fredericks. The first year they helped to reroof a church building and assisted with other small construction projects in what was still a devastated city.
Fredericks had been traveling to the mountains of Haiti for decades, arranging medical clinics in rural areas where disease and malnutrition are rampant. In many cases, she would bring children back to the orphanage to bring them back to good health.
“She goes into the mountainous, tropical area. It’s just remote villages. I went with her on one trip, it was amazing,” Matt says. “We’d hike back into these villages and do medical clinics. That’s where their families bring kids in that are just dying of malnutrition. She would bring them back to the orphanage to get them to good health. Some of them live, some of them don’t. Two of the boys that we brought back on that trip did not make it.”
It was on a return trip in 2012, after the two had already developed affection for so many of the children at New Life, that Denise felt a calling. She believed God was calling the two of them to adopt.
“When we got home, she started talking to me about it, and I started listing all the reasons not to,” Matt remembers. “I’m too old, we’re empty nesters, but I knew deep inside that that’s what we were supposed to do.”
Both were near the age of 50. Denise’s four children were grown, and they had four grandchildren that kept them busy. Life was great, Denise says, and they easily could have relaxed and enjoyed life as many urged them to do. Yet they both felt the calling.
Denise said she knew they would adopt a girl. Life is difficult for young men in Haiti, where the unemployment rate is around 70-percent. It’s nearly impossible for young women, who often turn to prostitution just to survive.
Matt says once he “quit making excuses” to not adopt. He decided they should adopt two girls. He’d read about the struggles for other adopted children transitioning to life in America, and felt bringing two together would allow them to share that transition.
They’d been thinking about adopting Lavitha, now 12, and Daphkar, now 7, who they had met at the orphanage. The two are cousins. Lavitha’s parents both died of cholera in 2010. Her deceased mother was the sister of Daphkar’s father, who is nearly 70 now and too old to care for children.
They found out that Lavitha had a younger sister Rose Kerline, who will be 9 in October.
Daphkar also had a sister, Myrlanda, who is now 12. Myrlanda was a Restavec, the creole word for a child slave. Many parents in Haiti are too poor to care for their children, and send them to work as domestic servants in other people’s homes. The Restavec Freedom Alliance estimates there are more than a quarter million Restavec in Haiti, most of them girls.
Matt remembers going to the home to speak to Daphkar’s parents and get their blessing for them to adopt, what is called relinquishment. Despite the language barrier, he remembers the mother’s look, a silent but clear request to take Myrlanda as well, to keep them together and give them hope.
“Without her saying anything, I knew what they were asking, and I said absolutely. We said we wouldn’t separate the other two sisters, and I didn’t want to separate these two either, so we ended up with four girls,” Matt says.
For the struggling parents in Haiti, relinquishing their children for adoption is often the greatest thing they can do for them. Daphkar’s mother works at a sewing factory in Port-au-Prince, where she makes less in a month than an average American makes in a day, Matt says.
“That’s something we both still have a hard time comprehending. It takes so much more love from them to give them up than it does for us to adopt them. As much as we love those girls, we know that they have to love them more to give them up,” Matt says.
Having decided to adopt the four girls, Matt and Denise began the long and involved process that has now taken around three years and counting. Just the American side of the process took about a year after they began to file paperwork in August of 2012. At this point they’ve each been fingerprinted eight times as the adoption process works itself through layers of government bureaucracy.
The reactions to their plan have been mixed.
“Some people say we’re crazy,” Denise says. “Some people say what you’re doing is great. I don’t think it’s great, I just think it’s something that we’re supposed to do.
“Like I said, our life was set. People said how are you going to have a normal life at your age? I’m 50. We have a great life, we love each other, we found each other, and what we have between the two of us is amazing. But we were still missing something, something in our life. We came home, we had a normal, laid back life, but there was something missing.”
Matt said his life experience had affected his whole concept of a “normal” life, and so he wasn’t so concerned with people that doubted them.
“When people talk about a normal life, I want to say what’s normal? I lost a wife when she was 33 years old, lost a son when he was 19, both my parents are gone at early ages. I’ve lost eight people in my family to cancer via aunts, uncles, cousins. What’s normal?”
There was another element for Matt. He loves his four stepchildren and his grandchildren as well, yet he’s missed something since he lost his only biological son, Josh.
“I was telling someone the other day one of the reasons why. I gotta be honest with you, I just need somebody to call me dad again,” Matt says.
As for the girls, the transition is sure to be a challenge, and the two are prepared for that. Lavitha and Daphkar are more adept with English than their sisters because they’ve spent more time around American missionaries, but all of them will need to improve. And for Matt, there will be quite an adjustment ,as well.
“I never had a daughter, really, and I wanted one really bad. It’s going to be scary. A wife, four girls, and the dog’s a female,” Matt laughs. “I don’t have a chance.”
The most optimistic timeline is for the girls to be “home” here in Fayetteville by the end of the year. The average adoption, they estimate, takes around four years and they’re about three years into the process.
They’re both understanding that the process is lengthy but they’re incredibly anxious to have their daughters here.
“We’re frustrated, mostly because we’ve been down there so much and we miss them. A lot of adoptive parents never even meet the children until they go get them,” Matt says, referring especially to adoptions from China. “We have spent a lot of time with these girls.”
The hope is that one day soon one of those trips will include a return trip with four more passengers.