Hartland Student Back from Haiti
MILWAUKEE - Melissa Elliott, a young woman from Hartland who attends Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL, is back on American soil and reunited with her family after being missing in Haiti after the earthquake there on Tuesday.
She and seven other students from Lynn University arrived at their collegiate home early Friday morning.
Mike and Lisa Elliott, Melissa's parents, were there to greet her.
"The private jet landed at midnight last night at a Florida airport," said Mike on 620WTMJ's "Wisconsin's Morning News.""They had two vans and a police escort at the airport waiting for the kids. They helped the kids into the van and came right to the university. I received a call from the (university's) vice president saying they were in route, and I said, 'Oh my God, we need to get going right now, so we literally ran out of the hotel, jumped in our vehicles, drove as fast as we could down the highway to try and get there before the caravan pulled in."
They followed the vans to the airport, where they had an emotional reunion.
"Melissa was the last one out of the van," he said tearfully. "We literally grabbed her and hugged her and there was nothing but tears, and we hugged her all the way into the building. All the school officials, the crisis team were inside the room with all the other families of the kids that were flown in. It was a surreal moment. It was unbelievable. Everybody hugging each other. It was an awesome moment."
The moments were harrowing for Melissa as the earthquake ensued.
"The seven kids were outside the hotel at the time of the earthquake," said Mike. "Melissa was still in the hotel. She was coming from the bathroom, and she was walking in between two beds, and all of a sudden, the floor dropped from underneath her. With that, she just covered her head.
"She saw an opening to crawl through another room, and on her way, she grabbed her purse, and she grabbed a bedsheet off of the bed and saw a light opening that was a partial opening of a window. She crawled out to the window and jumped about five feet down onto the ground. About 10 minutes after that, she met up with the other seven students. They huddled with each other, and these kids, listening to some of the stories, said 'we've now got to get into survival mode.'
"They wrote USA on their hands so people knew they didn't speak the language down there. They sat on the hill that entire night, huddled under this bed sheet. They counted at least 28-30 aftershocks. They heard a lot of gunshots coming from Port-au-Prince, and just a lot of havoc. They stayed together the entire night."
The next morning, secure that they would make it, they made a difference to others in need.
"In the morning, they started getting up - and this is the amazing part of it - these kids started walking around, helping people, putting bandages on when they could put bandages on. They went to a little triage area and were helping other people, bandaging up some of the kids and other people."
They had not heard from Melissa for two days, and were on the way to Miami and Lynn University when they got the news while landing before a layover in Atlanta.
"My wife had gotten a text message on her cell phone saying 'Hi, Mom. I'm OK and on my way to the Dominican. I'll call you when I get there.' Oh, my God. Apparently she's safe and sound and heading to the Dominican right now."
"The plane erupted, absolutely erupted in ovations. The flight attendants ran over to us and were hugging us. There was nothing but joyous celebrations. We hadn't gotten out of our seats yet."
Melissa, a 20-year-old college student from Hartland, is everything to her parents.
The Elliotts hadn't heard anything from their daughter since a massive earthquake rocked Haiti. She's been on other humanitarian missions, including a trip to Panama.
"We thought it was better to be closer to Lynn University, and Lynn University has a crisis center set up for all the family and relatives, hoping we're going to get some kind of word today about our daughter."
The situation, and the feelings involved with them, are things that few people have ever experienced, and no parent would ever want to.
Still, the Elliotts had support as they've waited.
"It's just been something that I've never imagined in my life," explained Mike.
"We've had so much support and friends in the house. Every time the phone rings, I'm hoping that it's Melissa on the other end, so that's what our hope is today."
Melissa had only been on the ground for one day when the 7.0 quake happened.
"She actually got down to Haiti on Monday, and she's on a humanitarian mission called Food for the Poor. She's down there to plant trees, paint buildings and work in the orphanage. The last contact I had with her was on Monday when she texted me that she was down there and everything was fine."
Mike described his daughter as a "very thoughtful, kind, caring person," as tears welled up in his tired eyes.
"When she was in Panama, it changed her life tremendously, seeing all the kids down there and helping them. She even said she wanted to bring all the kids home with her, and I said, 'No. You can't. We've already got four dogs in the house and that's enough for me.' But she's got a heart bigger than the state of Wisconsin."
Melissa was joined on her Haiti mission by eleven other Lynn College students including a close friend, Tom Schloemer.
The two attended Milwaukee's University School together and have been like brother and sister since they were little.
Melissa and her mother talked Tom into joining her in Haiti, at least in part to keep an eye on Melissa.
Most of the students were together in the Montana Hotel when the quake hit.
Tom and six other Lynn students managed to get to the U.S. Embassy in Port Au Prince. Melissa was not with them.
Mike says Lynn University has not just taken the normal steps in contacting the State Department for word on those students.
"The college has been fantastic. They've been in constant contact with us. They've been in constant contact with the State Department. They've been phoning us whenever they get any news. They actually hired a couple of private helicopter rescue teams to fly into Haiti from Santo Domingo, and they landed yesterday about 2:20 p.m., and there was a group of nine people who jumped off the helicopters and started to rescue and try and look for the kids."