Begin Again

Married to a Haitian and responsible for an orphanage-school for more than 400 children in the island, the model Carolina Bittencourt will never forget January 12: while she was giving birth to her daughter, her husband's homeland crumbled to pieces.

By Gabriel Ruas Santos Rocha

Carolina Bittencourt knew that January 12, 2010 would not be a day like any other, since at 2pm she would enter the delivery room at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York to give birth to little Olivia, fruit of her union of two years with Haitian businessman Cedrick Roche. What Carolina couldn't imagine was that this day would be twice unforgettable. When she was taken back to her room, finally awaken and split between the joy of her newborn daughter and the postpartum pain, she started receiving a series of unexpected text messages. These messages congratulated her on the birth of her child but ended with well wishes to Haiti and often inquired whether Cedrick's family was safe, which at that moment made absolutely no sense. Carolina, who had founded an NGO which maintains an orphanage-school and a dental clinic in the small Caribbean island three years ago, thought this sudden interest was strange. When she turned on the television, it was all made clear. She stared at Cedric perplex, and happiness gave room to despair facing the images of devastation and chaos.

The country was in ruins, thousands of lives were lost, not to mention the anguish of not knowing what was the real situation of their family. Journalists still weren't able to properly report the extent of the damages, Cedrick relentlessly called his parents, with no luck. Until connection was finally established with an uncle. The relief of knowing that at least one of his family members was alive and safe was indescribable, and the news his uncle brought were even better: Cedrick's parents were also alive and well. Cedrick, who comes from a privileged family, owners of a chain of supermarkets and resident of an area with better infra-structure, could breathe only partially relieved, since now the main concern of this couple was to find out the whereabouts of the children of the orphanage and what was the current condition of the NGO Lakay Pam. Cedrick made hundreds of calls, but didn't get anywhere. The brief phone connection he had with his uncle before was lost, and the sun set with no possibility of new communications. Now more than ever, it was necessary to pray and hope for the best.

Carolina at the orphanage's nursery in Port Au Prince, Haiti.

Carolina at the orphanage's nursery in Port Au Prince, Haiti.

The television in the bedroom remained turned on, non-stop. Olivia, the new member of the family, seemed just as nervous as her parents and didn't sleep for more than an hour. Carolina could not set aside the happiness about her daughter, but the possibility that all those children in Haiti, not just the 400 of her orphanage, could be dead, hurt or without shelter, repeatedly broke her heart. Even today she finds it hard to put into words what was going through her head in those first few hours. The Brazilian model had always been very close with the children of the orphanage, saw the arrival of many of them still very young, at that institution, she saw up close how they grew and developed, and she was also very close with some of the parents of the children who attended school at Lakay Pam.

On the morning following the earthquake, phone connections were reestablished for a few minutes. Cedrick was able to speak to his family, and they still had no news about the orphanage, since all access was blocked by rumble and despair. The supermarkets had been partially destroyed, but luckily his brother in law was spared with only some bruises underneath the building. After a brief bulletin, the connection was once again lost, and for several hours would not be re-established. At this point North American news outlets had already set up camp in order to bring more precise information about the conditions of the country - after all, New York has the largest Haitian community outside of Haiti - and several nations started deploying help. Seeing the global mobilization, Cedrick and Carolina felt a certain relief. Even knowing that the human and material support would have immense difficulty getting to its destination, they had an intuition that it had finally come the time for Haiti to receive the attention it had needed for so long. Three hours away from New York city by plane, that is the poorest country in the Americas, for years with no potable water and four daily hours of electric power. It also holds one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. These are not data to be proud of, and Carolina started her work exactly because of that. The few NGO’s that extensively work daily to bring change faced enormous difficulties – from corruption and government bureaucracy to gang related violence and threats. Haiti has been in a state of civil war and continues to suffer the consequences.

Exhausted for the lack of sleep and long hours of crying, Carolina and Cedrick knew that there was no time to rest. They pondered that the earthquake might have been a way of Mother Nature to show the world that this is the time for action, not in five minutes, not tomorrow. Therefore, still in the hospital, they began to work. Between a nap and some time with their daughter, Carolina sent off emails to her friends in fashion. The answers poured in like a flood. Top models Raquel Zimmerman, Coco Rocha, Natasha Poly and Alessandra Ambrosio were the first ones to offer help, as were the fashion designers Narciso Rodriguez and Richard Chai. This was the beginning of another journey, of reconstruction. For Carolina, it’s an opportunity to help this country grow the right way, of replanting trees and irrigating the land so that it’s fertile. It is necessary to rebuild the headquarters of their NGO, reestablish lost connections with the orphans and families of their students, reassemble the dental clinic, which was put together with the help of the Brazilian NGO Turma do Bem. The efforts were elevated to the highest potency, and actions which were delayed with the birth of Olivia were now back to being a priority. On the 12th of last month, a fund raising event organized by the couple in an art gallery in the Meatpacking District in New York gathered the elite of the fashion industry to benefit Haiti. Olivia was a month old. Carolina hopes that the birth of her daughter is also a sign for Haiti’s rebirth.

----------------------

Originally featured as a cover story in Vogue Brazil #379 - March 2010