Tracking down 450 children in earthquake-shattered Haiti is like looking for a needle in a haystack, a Cleveland, Tenn., resident said.
But Joan Conn said it's her duty.
"We are responsible for them," said Mrs. Conn, co-founder of the Cincinnati-based Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation. "We want to protect them, provide opportunities for them; it would be immoral for us to walk away."
Restaveks are Haitian children, usually between 5 and 15, who are unpaid servants, often given away by families who can't afford to raise them. The foundation identifies the children and works with owners to allow them to release the child to attend school, according to its Web site.
"When they join our program, we ask them what they hope for, most of them have no hope," Mrs. Conn said. "One little girl once told us, 'I just want to be human.'"
Out of 450 restavek children the foundation has identified, helped educate and monitor, only 26 are accounted for since the Jan. 12 earthquake, Mrs. Conn said Tuesday. She is on a one-week visit to the United States and flies back to Haiti Thursday.
Of the 59 children in one school that collapsed, only five were found alive. Foundation workers assume the rest died.
None of the 18 others who were in another school that collapsed have been found.
But "it gives you hope to know you were able to find a few," Mrs. Conn said.
Steering between rubble and dead bodies being eaten by pigs on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the foundation's staff, including founder and former slave child Jean-Robert Cadet, drive through the neighborhoods and check in with the school directors, trying to find the children.
When the 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, most of the children were in school. Mrs. Conn and the others don't know if the families who own the children took them with them to the countryside or if they are hurt in a hospital, lost or dead.
Their biggest fear, Mrs. Conn said, is that the devastation left by the earthquake will lead to human trafficking in which the children will be sold.
"They are the most vulnerable," said Mrs. Conn.
She; her husband, Ray; and son Clint arrived in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 8 for a three-week visit to work on several foundation programs, including an English program in the city of Port Salut.
The day the earthquake struck, Mrs. Conn had planned to stay in their apartment in the Hotel Montana - which was destroyed - but her husband persuaded her to join him in Port Salut, about four hours away.
It took them a couple of days to make it back to Port-au-Prince and assess the damage to the city and their programs. She said their apartment was gone, while their office in a compound in the neighborhood of Petionville survived.
While missionaries and other foreigners caught in the middle of the devastation returned home, the Conns decided to stay and help with the relief effort.
"We couldn't leave. We had ... ," she said, pausing as tears fill her eyes.
"We had staff," she continued. "We had the children. Things are hard in Haiti already as it is."
The foundation has been able to feed the children and people in areas outside the Petionville compound thanks to a container full of blankets and 70,000 meals of rice, vegetables and soy protein that arrived the day of the earthquake.
The foundation in Cincinnati donated the items in May and has tried to deliver them since. The container's arrival just in time is one of the many miracles the Conns said they've witnessed.
"We don't think it's a coincidence," said Desha Conn, the Conns' daughter, who is helping manage the foundation out of the Cincinnati office. "(The donations) are in areas where aid is not arriving."
While they continue to look for and ensure the safety of any potential child slave - often those who walk with their head down, dressed in rags and barefoot - they are helping rebuild area schools and walls around them to increase security, which Mrs. Conn believes is going to be a huge issue in weeks to come.
They also need tents and buildings to house the children and Haitians or Haitian-Americans who speak English and can work with them, she said.
"I know we can make an impact, especially for these kids who are so vulnerable and don't belong to anyone at this point," Miss Conn said.