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A triumph over disaster and red tape Family overcomes obstacles to adopt Haitian orphan

The last time Geoffrey Lancer made headlines, the little boy had just arrived here, after his family overcame mountains of bureaucracy to bring him from an earthquake-ravaged orphanage in Haiti to his new home in West Seneca.

Now, almost a year later, Geoffrey's concerns seem more ordinary. He delights in showing off the ornaments on his family's Christmas tree -- the usual assortment of reindeer, snowmen and plenty of Santas, even one in a miniature kayak.

A few days before Christmas, he divulged a simple wish list: a belt to hold up his pants and a truck -- "a big one."

As typical as Geoffrey's life might seem these days, the journey that brought him here was anything but ordinary.

After years in a Haitian village with no running water or electricity, Geoffrey was just weeks away from joining his adoptive family in West Seneca when an earthquake ripped his native country apart in January.

That earthquake devastated his village of Bon Repos -- and it threatened to quash his chances of joining Erin and Michael Lancer and their two adolescent children. The government in Haiti was in ruin, and all of Geoffrey's paperwork had been destroyed.

The Lancers mounted a relentless campaign to bring their son home, winning the help of Sen. Charles E. Schumer and other officials. Within days, Geoffrey arrived home, the symbol of what good can arise from the shambles of misfortune.

In the months since then, Geoffrey has grown more than 5 inches. He has mastered riding a bicycle with training wheels, tackling long outings with his Mama and Papa.

But while outward appearances suggest that the 4-year-old has adapted remarkably well to life in middle-class America, his journey has been anything but easy. The Lancers' efforts to cut through the red tape of two nations was just the beginning of their long labor of love, much as the initial homecoming is the start of a long journey for many international adoptions.

"You can't just bring a child home and love him or her and hope that'll be enough," Erin said.

The world came to know the Lancers in the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake in January, but their story began a year and a half earlier, in 2008.

Erin, a music teacher in Ken-Ton, had some Haitian students in her class at Ben Franklin Elementary, and her interest in them gave way to a deep-seated desire to adopt a Haitian child.

"One day it just popped into my head: What would it be like to adopt internationally?" she said.

"It was just so clear, this was the right thing to do," Michael added.

The couple told their children, Nicholas and Waverly, about their plans to adopt. Waverly instantly shared their excitement. Nicholas initially expressed concerns about becoming a biracial family.

"I said, 'Sometimes you're going to have to have a thick skin. Sometimes people are going to say things thoughtlessly,' " Michael told him. After a few weeks, Nicholas offered his support.

Erin and Michael began learning Haitian Kreyol so they would be able to communicate with their new child. That Thanksgiving, they traveled to Haiti to meet Geoffrey.

"It was the best week of my life," Erin said. "We spent the whole week falling in love with each other."

When that week was over, though, the Lancers said the first of many painful goodbyes to Geoffrey. He headed back to his orphanage. Erin and Michael headed back to Western New York. And they all counted down the days until they would be together again.

The Lancers would visit Geoffrey in Haiti seven more times.

In January 2010, when Erin visited Bon Repos, the orphanage director had good news: The family was just weeks away from bringing their son home. The adoption had already been finalized in Haiti.

And then the earthquake struck.

"I approached my elected officials first thing the next morning. We said, 'We need the State Department to change its policy. These kids are going to die,' " said Michael, an attorney.

Erin flew home from Haiti on Jan. 15. The Lancers kept up the pressure on Washington.

After a 10-day wait -- "the hardest period of our lives" -- Geoffrey arrived in Florida. Over the weeks that followed, the Lancers nursed Geoffrey back to health.

"We tried to keep our world as small as possible, as long as we could," Erin said. "We just eased him slowly into it."

She took the next seven months off from work.

The Lancers did all they could to ease Geoffrey's transition from Haiti -- decorating their home with Haitian artwork, cooking Haitian food and speaking to the boy in Kreyol, gradually weaving in English words.

The couple learned to adapt their parenting techniques.

"For a child who's maybe been abandoned, you can't do 'time out' the same way," Erin said. "You just can't put a child in his room and close the door. You maybe hold him in your lap quietly."

Every day, Geoffrey -- named in memory of Erin's father -- watched his siblings leave for school and his father leave for work. In the evening, the family celebrated each person's arrival back to "kay nou" -- Kreyol for "our house" -- to help reinforce for Geoffrey the fact that although they leave every day, they also return.

A few months ago, he all but stopped speaking Kreyol and completely embraced English. With the help of speech therapy a few times a week, the boy now speaks just as well as many kids his age.

"He wants to be like everyone in the family," said Waverly, 13. "If I'm doing homework, he gets out a piece of paper and says, 'I do homework.' "

And Nicholas, 16, has become a favorite partner for roughhousing with Geoffrey.

Concerns about strangers hassling the family for its racial composition proved to be unfounded, the Lancers say. Western New Yorkers have been almost universally supportive.

"Never in a million years did I ever envision myself as belonging to a biracial family," Michael wrote in the family's blog, "An even more improbable set of circumstances has made me a father to a child of rich, dark brown skin. In my eyes, [Geoffrey's] skin is the most beautiful I have ever seen.

"But, when my son smiles at me, I see no skin color at all. I see my child."


Editor's Note: The Christmas season traditionally is a time for giving to others and reflecting on life's blessings. This is the last in a series of stories about local people who have been touched by that spirit.

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