FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Three months ago they were strangers or acquaintances.
Across South Florida, scores of Haitian-Americans have opened their doors and hearts to displaced earthquake survivors, embracing them in a vast extended family. They've given over spare bedrooms, dens and living rooms to men, women and children who lost loved ones, homes and, in many cases, everything they owned in the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The host families felt compelled to help. They couldn't sit back and watch refugees from their homeland, who already had been through so much, trudge from shelter to shelter.
"There is a solidarity that exists," said Gepsie Mettelus, an agency director in Miami's Little Haiti. "It's a sense of brotherhood and unity."
But it's not easy. Plagued by memories of heartbreaking chaos, survivors struggle to find their footing here. Home life is a wave of emotions, joy one minute and haunted silence the next. Given the shaky economy, some families who are already burdened must stretch their limited resources to accommodate a bigger household.
About 7,000 Haitians arrived in Florida immediately after the earthquake and thousands more followed. Many came to South Florida, which has the state's highest concentration of Haitian-Americans.
Limited public food and health assistance are running out. They face the challenge of finding employment with no work permits and having to navigate new terrain with a new language.
Agencies and pastors who serve the Haitian community are the middlemen, connecting the refugees with other Haitian families to keep them off the streets.
Mettelus, executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Little Haiti, said many of the center's 2,000 clients took in earthquake survivors. But Mettelus said as time goes by, the host families find it harder to cope.
Her center asks the houseguests to be considerate of how much electricity and water they use. She encourages them to help around in the house while the host is at work.
"There are some people who have been to three or four families already," said Marie Francois Nelson, a coordinator at Minority Development & Empowerment in Oakland Park. "Sometimes we have families where there simply is not enough space for them to find somewhere to sleep."
Through networks like the Haitian relief task forces in Broward and Palm Beach County, word spreads about what displaced families need.
"Under this type of crisis, we have to respond," said Joe Bernadel, president of the Palm Beach Haiti Relief Task Force. "We cannot wait for plans to be made when people need housing now."
Here is how three South Florida families are coping.
In Lauderdale Lakes, the church ties that bind
Napel Leveille runs down the stairs, one hand on the banister, the other adjusting his tie. "We won't be long, Mommy," he tells Cleomie Lambert in Creole as he plants a kiss on her cheek.
Lambert tells him to stop and eat some of the rice and beans and cow's foot she prepared for dinner. Then she grabs a plastic container and packs it with food he can take with him.
Before an earthquake devastated their homeland, Leveille, 23, and Lambert, who is in her 50s, had never met.
But there is new life in Lambert's three-bedroom townhouse, which she shares with her elderly mother and two young men who left Haiti with their lives and little else.
Lambert, a pastor at Beth El Missionary Church Inc., first opened her home to Kelly Peterson Millien, 26, in late January. Then she heard about his good friend Leveille and welcomed him, too.
"They are so loving," said Lambert, who has grown used to daily calls from her houseguests, checking to see if she's OK.
Both young men are the sons of Haitian pastors, which is one of the reasons they believe they bonded with Lambert almost instantly.
At times Millien and Leveille fill the house with songs, jokes and joyful memories. But there are those quiet times when they can't help but think of family members lost in the quake, their own interrupted lives, and their uncertain future.
Millien lost 16 relatives, including his father. They were together in his father's church praying, when the earth started shaking.
"It was so quick, so fast, and then there was silence," he recalled. On his left arm and back are scars from the four days he spent trapped under debris.
The two friends have become an integral part of the music ministry at Lambert's church. Millien, a singer, and Leveille, a drummer and sound engineer, perform regularly on Sundays and teach music to the youth group.
They would like to enroll in college and find jobs here, but they are on visitor's visas and may not apply for work permits.
Spending time at church, they say, helps to fill the void and reminds them of life in Haiti.
On a recent Sunday morning, Millien sang a solo in Creole as Lambert looked on, like a proud parent, from the pulpit.
Millien said when he arrived he felt like he was on a lonely road. Lambert's generosity has helped him appreciate what he has.
"We have a lot of people praying for us," Millien said. He has two mommies now, the one he left behind in Haiti and Pastor Cleomie Lambert.
In Lake Worth, six kids under one roof
"It was like a basketball team," says Paulette Seide.
For two months Seide's family hosted earthquake survivors Kerline Pardo Denis and her husband, Marc, along with their four daughters, ages 8, 7, 5 and 3.
With Seide's two children at home, Norah, 9, and Marcus, 6, they ended up with six children under one roof.
Suddenly the morning rush included getting five children ready for school. There were a lot more showers, breakfast plates and high-pitched voices filling her five-bedroom house.
The kids grew to love the chaos, Kerline Pardo Denis said. Norah Seide enjoyed teaching her houseguest Sarah, 8, to ride her bike.
Seeing them all together now, it's hard to believe they didn't know each other until Seide heard their story at Bethel Baptist Evangelical Church in Delray Beach, where she is an active member.
Kerline Pardo Denis, who worked in customer relations at a bank, was trapped there for three days before rescuers found her. She was one of only three people out of nearly 100 in the building who survived, and she was seriously injured.
She was in a wheelchair until a few weeks ago. Now she can get around with a cane.
Once she came to South Florida, securing medical attention wasn't her only mission. Her family of six had to find long-term lodgings. At first they stayed with a cousin in Boca Raton, but space became too tight.
Seide stepped up and let them stay with her, but that could not be permanent, either.
About a week ago, a friend of Seide's with a vacant three-bedroom house said the family could move there temporarily.
The couple said they like where they are now, five minutes away from Seide. They are not sure how long they can stay, since their visitors' visas will expire in a few months. It's a struggle not having any money coming in, but the children are afraid to return to their homeland.
"They keep saying Haiti is broken," Kerline Pardo Denis said.
In Miramar, two families in community service combine
The Mathieu family -- two grown sisters, a child and a toddler -- has gone from a comfortable house in Les Plaines to a single bedroom in Miramar.
Even now, Yanick Mathieu, 37, says she still feels the vibrations that took away everything, and almost everyone, she had.
"Sometimes I'm sitting down and I feel trembling," she said through a Creole translator.
When she learned the Mathieus were refugees, Miramar resident Myrtho Valcin, 60, told them they could stay with her and her husband. She had become acquainted with the two Mathieu sisters, Yanick and Renied, through their work with The Boy Scouts Association of Haiti.
Valcin is a health counselor at Minority Development & Empowerment in Oakland Park.
Over the years they had visited back and forth. This time, out of necessity, Renied Mathieu, 40, brought her two children, a 9-year-old girl and a 10-month-old boy. Her house in Les Plaines was destroyed and her belongings lay crushed in the ruins.
Valcin has tried to make the visiting family's transition a smooth one.
She makes time in her hectic schedule to ferry her guests to doctor appointments, church and family gatherings.
"I have to keep them busy," Valcin said. She said the women were so used to their full lives in Haiti that too much quiet and inactivity can make them depressed.
The mood in the Valcin house has changed, lightened, at times, by a toddler. The mother of 33-year-old twins said it's been a long time since she had a small child living there.
Valcin baby-proofed for little David, the 10-month-old. In her brightly lit den full of Haitian art, she moved the coffee table off to the side so he has room to take his first jittery steps. Bottles and formula have a spot on her kitchen counter.
When he's not pitter-pattering around, the toddler seems to have a permanent spot: resting on Valcin's shoulder.
"These are our people; we have to do this," she said. "We have to look out for them."
(c) 2010, Sun Sentinel.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.