- Associated Press - Sunday, August 27, 2017

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) - Bringing a 30-child orphanage choir from Haiti to the U.S. to sing around the nation isn’t as easy as it sounds.

If it doesn’t sound particularly easy, you’re right - it’s worse, according to Linda Gunter, co-founder of Georgia ministry Love Him Love Them, which counts a children’s choir made up of orphans from the 2010 Haitian earthquakes among its projects.

“We had to raise the funds to get 30 kids here, not to mention the fact that the Haitian and U.S. governments had to work together to allow an entire orphanage out of Haiti, and even if you have money you have to have a visa, so you have to have a passport, so you have to have a birth certificate - dealing with children, literally the only members of their family, pulled out from under rubble, and they didn’t even have birthdays,” said Gunter. “That’s the level we started at.” The choir performs several shows in at the Southside United Methodist Church.

Gunter’s path to bringing the choir overseas for a few months each year to perform started with a tragedy, when five Haitian adoptees were orphaned after Gunter’s best friend died, alongside her husband and mother. The five kids, ranging in ages from seven to 17, would have ended up in foster care, but Gunter and her husband, David, decided to take the children in.

The newly-formed family’s third Christmas together, the Gunters decided to forgo another materialistic holiday, and instead focus on spiritual growth for the kids.

“In the September 2011 family meeting, we said, ‘This Christmas, nobody gets anything, and the money we normally use to buy gifts, we’re going to take you back to Haiti and find an orphanage to help,’” said Gunter. “It didn’t go over well in the beginning.”

On Christmas Day, during the trip, the family was introduced to an orphanage run by a music teacher, Gunter said, where the children were taught to sing. Conditions were squalid, but the children had talent.

“They were not a professional choir, just a bunch of kids who lost their families in the 2010 earthquake, thrust together,” said Gunter.

She recalled sitting on a urine-stained mattress, surrounded by kids without running water, who sang “This Little Light of Mine” to her in five different languages. The experience shook Gunter.

“Here were these children who lost anything and everything they had, no running water, no tree, no gifts, singing with the joy of the Lord,” she said.

Soon after, the family held another meeting, and agreed that the kids at the orphanage were counting on them, and that they’d have to go back and start finding ways to help. The family, said Gunter, haven’t had a traditional Christmas with gifts since.

They focused on their ministry, taking over an orphanage in Haiti and starting programs that provided education, religion and Christmas gifts for area orphanages, with similar programs based in Ukraine. Gunter said the organization recently poured the foundation for a medical facility in Haiti.

In spite of those successes, bringing the choir stateside was never far from Gunter’s mind.

“If those kids could change my heart and life with one song, I knew if I could get them here they would change everyone’s life that hears them,” she said.

Digging through the legal requirements for transporting the kids was a challenge, and even after the family successfully brought the children to the U.S. for their first few months of performances, nothing got easier. Gunter said that on the ride to the airport to pick the kids up, six busses - six altogether different vehicles - broke down, one after another, and she swears it’s no exaggeration. The language barrier was much sturdier than the vehicles, requiring volunteer interpreters to work with the kids. And then there was the American dream, which proved to be a distraction for the children, who were fascinated by always-available running water.

“It took 45 minutes to get them out of the bathroom at the airport,” Gunter said.

When they perform, the kids sing Christian songs, with older residents at the orphanage serving as live musicians. They sing in English, French, Creole, Spanish and German. Gunter said that she’s “never seen a dry eye leave our concerts.”

Time tends to fill up quickly around the choir. Laundry is a test of willpower and endurance when it’s for 30 kids. There are also day trips and activities, like fishing and going out for ice cream, in addition to six additional shows in the Gadsden area through the next week and a half.

Gunter laughed when asked how she has energy to keep up with it all.

“I’m drinking my third cup of coffee now,” she said. “But the Bible tells us, ‘When you are weak, I am strong.’”

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