Paula Jean Baptiste, a native of Haiti, lives with her family in Elmont and makes her living aiding the elderly. On Sunday, she was the center of attention as everyone gathered under a silver and green "Welcome Home" banner at a Cedarhurst restaurant.
In 2008, she'd been hired to care for Gary Carleton's father, William, and when he needed around-the-clock care, she brought in her sister-in-law, Marie, and a cousin, Adrienne Lamoure, to help.
After William died last year, his family asked Jean Baptiste to take on another task: Instead of caring for the elderly, would she consider caring for an infant? She agreed to care for William's granddaughter.
Little did Jean Baptiste know that the baby would help fuel her determination to get back home after an earthquake brought a terrible and abrupt end to a visit to Jacmel, Haiti, about 25 miles from Port-au-Prince.
Jean Baptiste recalled the awful moment on Jan. 12 when the earthquake hit.
"My sister Malen was saying, 'God, God,' but I did not know what was going on," she said. Jean Baptiste dropped the mirror she was holding as the tremors worsened and joined other relatives as they rushed from the house.
She would spend the next evening sleeping outside, away from the house, which was damaged. And the next day, Jean Baptiste woke up determined to make her way home.
She walked, rode in a car, and on five different motorcycles past unimaginable destruction. And death. All the while, she thought about her family. And about a baby named Brooke.
"They needed me and I needed to get back home," she said.
Meanwhile, her family on Long Island kept trying to reach her. And the Carleton family tried, too, by reaching out to the State Department. Both families talked to each other almost every day.
One night, Brooke's mother, Alison, woke up crying. She'd dreamed that Jean Baptiste was gone, one of the many bodies of loved ones still beneath the rubble. Grieving, she sent the family the last photo taken of Jean Baptiste before she left for Haiti.
That's when her uncle, Gary, stepped in to comfort her. He never stopped believing that Jean Baptiste was alive. "We'll give her a party when she gets home," he promised Alison and other family members.
Two days after the earthquake, Jean Baptiste was at the Port-au-Prince airport. She remembers seeing the camera crews and trying to get on television so her family would know she was alive.
"We were crying, yelling for someone to help us," she said.
But Jean Baptiste was able to make it to a telephone, where she called her husband - who passed along the news to the Carleton family. Last week, she finally made her way home, and to the party in her honor.
A few days later, she stood in the midst of two families, most of whom had never met each other before. "I see that they love her," said her daughter, Daphne, as Jean Baptiste pulled 10-month-old Brooke close for a kiss.
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HOW TO HELP
* You can help immediately by texting "HAITI" to "90999" and a donation of $10 will be charged to your cell phone bill and given automatically to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts.
* Wyclef Jean, a rapper and hip-hop artist from Haiti, urged people to text "Yele" to 501501 to donate $5 toward earthquake relief. Yéle Haiti is a grassroots movement inspiring change in Haiti through programs in education, sports, the arts and environment, according to its Web site.
* The State Department Operations Center has set up the following number for Americans seeking information about family members in Haiti: 1-888-407-4747. The Red Cross has also set up a Web site to help family members find and contact relatives.
The FBI warned Internet users to be wary of e-mail messages seeking donations in the aftermath of the quake. People who want to send money or assistance should contribute to known organizations and should be careful not to respond to unsolicited e-mails, officials said.
Other Web sites accepting donations include: