Friday, December 25, 2009

One Small Child

While much of the Christian world is commemorating the birth of a baby adopted by His earthly father 2,000 years ago, the Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas January 7. For most Russians, today is like any other, but for a nine-year-old boy from a forsaken hamlet, this December 25 will be one to treasure always.

An orphan most of his life, two years ago, Yuri, then seven, looked out his orphanage window and recognized a family he had met on a Lighthouse Project trip to Wisconsin. Elated they had come for him, he bounded from the building, leaped into their arms, and found they were there for another child. Devastated by his despondency, our entire program intensified efforts to find his family. Subsequently, he was scheduled for three different trips, though illness always precluded his travel. When an orphanage director’s fiat later prohibited Yuri, an insulin-dependent diabetic, from traveling again, promoting him became more rigorous, since any family would now need to visit him in the motherland, rather than the States. After impassioned conversations with scores of families, one finally promised to adopt him, but abandoned the process after several months.

One year later, in desperation, I wrote about Yuri in this forum (Waiting Heart, Wrong Arms, 5/8/09). In June, Aaron and Robyn, adopting a child from my January 2009 Tulsa trip, read the post. In faith, recognizing him as their son, they visited him in Russia. On their first morning together, an awakening Yuri opened his eyes cautiously, fearing he had sabotaged a magnificent dream. But seeing Robyn’s smile, he beamed, chirped “Mama!” and stretched out his arms for a hug. It was real. He had a family.

While Yuri had waited much longer, my role as matchmaker was two years coming, and wholly satisfying. A much-loved aunt, to whom my mom donated a kidney, is a lifelong diabetic, so I felt a deep connection though I had never met him. In October, when I visited his orphanage, Yuri was the child I hoped to see; while I am not especially maudlin, I brushed away tears as Faith introduced me as a friend of his family. Gifted a shy smile by this boy we’d hoped to help forever, it was my most gratifying Lighthouse moment.

Celebrating the birth of another adoptee this day, our presents recall that first Christmas when the greatest gift was given. Early this morning, half a world away, another gift was lovingly bestowed and joyously accepted, mirroring God’s own compassion. While we were still sleeping, Aaron and Robyn became Yuri’s parents in a Russian courtroom. His wait over, his leap into the wrong arms history, his life in a family just beginning, a world of promise awaits this one small child.

Yuri, it’s real. You have a family. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2009


Before my journey to Russia, Hope prepped me for visiting the orphanages. She cautioned me the emotionally grueling visits would exhaust, eye-to-eye with the orphans, their needs, and the realization of our impotence to aid more than a fraction of them. On what to expect from kids, she mentioned some would be desperate to meet us, and others desperate to avoid us. Warned by misguided caretakers that Americans adopt children for their body parts, these sorry souls would come shaking, convinced we were sizing them up with nefarious intent. Thankfully, our visits thrilled most kids; some went through heart-rending extents to be noticed.

Angelina, nine, goaded into the interview room, was more prominent for her reticence. Slightly rotund, her shaggy yellow sweater exacerbated the effect. Barely darkening the door, she had to be coaxed the rest of the way. Sidling by Elaine and me, her furtive glances left little doubt she perceived us as threats.

Faith’s brilliant manner with children encouraged her to open up a little, though her voice stayed thin and unsure. I raged inwardly when an insensitive worker in the room, with no personal stake in Angelina’s future, spoke incessantly and raucously into her phone. While there had been no interruptions of the more self-assured children, the loud discourse would have fazed anyone trying to put a best foot forward. Even knowing the child’s timid manner, a banal conversation still outweighed her need to excel in an interview that might save her life. I yearned to press the “mute” button on the worker, hug Angelina, and assure her we would help her, but none of these were feasible.

Between loud interjections and guffaws in the din behind her, we learned Angelina is a third grader, likes school, and loves math and Russian. Asked if she cooks, she nodded, since she brews tea. Reciting a poem about a rainy autumn, she almost proudly told us memorization comes easily. She builds houses for her dolls, adding she teaches them to keep order in their homes. Angelina shares with her best friend, and carefully guards their secrets. I doubted she’d heard the phrase “starving artist” when she admitted she’s not good at drawing, but still plans a career in art, since “it’s a very good job.” At the end, Faith asked her to smile; the strained result exposed the effort cooperating cost.

Afterward left unheralded until the waning hours of my January trip promotions, shy Angelina is easily overlooked, and lacking the confidence to ever self-promote. If the orphanage workers prioritize socializing over helping her succeed, and if I remember only the flashy, outgoing kids, it’s a cinch Angelina will linger, unloved, unnoticed, and wondering if she’s really as insignificant as everyone else acts.

Friday, December 18, 2009


With the clock ticking, three orphans hope to travel to Moscow on our Lighthouse Project trip in January. Without host families, they are unlikely to make the journey. Families have until Monday, December 21, to sign up, and need passports in hand now to make the trip.

Alexander M., age 13, is described by Love, our Russian coordinator, as a “wonderful” boy. She was so sad when she saw he was not included on our initial trip list that I decided it was mandatory he be given a chance to come. Alexander is described by a teacher as a friendly boy, usually in a good mood, who needs a family very much. When asked if he has many friends, he said yes, explaining “the whole orphanage is my friend!”

Evgeniy, 12, has lived in the orphanage six years since his mother died. He would love to have a family. His dream is that nobody in the world would be bad, and he would like to make the world a brighter and happier place. He is my favorite child I met on my recent trip to nine orphanages in Russia.

Alexander Z., 10, is in fourth grade. He enjoys math, reading, Russian, and art. He would like to work at a factory when he gets older so he can produce something helpful. He likes friends who are kind, reliable, and don’t fight. Sledding and skiing are favorite winter pastimes. He knows how to milk cows, speaks a little English, and likes playing soccer. On our recent Moscow trip, he had a quiet, genuine charm, was helpful in the kitchen, and was an absolute pleasure to be around.

For more information on these children or our January 13-18 trip, please call Becky at (616) 245-3216.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ray of Light

Nikolai, ten, lived in foster care, helping as he could, even caring for a cow he was afraid to milk, but after three years, was returned to the orphanage. The lady he stayed with cashed government stipend checks for his care, spent years of her life with him, and took the sweet name Mama, but such considerations didn’t trump her distaste of his growing appetite, her complaint when she left him. He was disappointed and confused, though it wasn’t the first time he’d been deflated by someone he called Mama.

Faith met him in September along with another boy who’d shared his foster home; the two thought erroneously they were brothers. When Nikolai saw a woodpecker, he was overjoyed to show Faith, to whom he wanted to explain everything. He didn’t like television, preferring instead to comb the orphanage library for books he hadn’t read. The fourth grader named math, Russian, and reading his favorite subjects, and The World Around Us his favorite book. A very good student himself, Nikolai preferred smart, helpful friends obedient to their parents. The athletic boy reveled in being soccer goalie, hunted mushrooms, and aspired to be a bodyguard to keep people safe. For all the kids she meets, I had never heard Faith rave about any like she did those two. Calling them “very bright, winners, curious, really great kids, intelligent, and with very great potential,” she tied the package with her belief that both would “achieve great things.”

Nikolai visited Moscow in October with the Lighthouse Project, a ray of light on a trip where the sun itself ventured out only once. While we awaited the host families’ arrival the first day, I shared Pop Rocks with the kids; Nikolai beamed when he felt the candy convulsing in his mouth. When I washed dishes in the hotel, he tried to wrest the scrub pad from me to clean his own dishes; he seemed mortified that someone might think him irresponsible. I lost track of the times he willingly gave up his seat on bus rides. I wondered if it was genuine until, from the back of the bus, I saw him vacate his front bench as an elderly lady boarded. Down a birch-lined boulevard, spotting a squirrel, he gesticulated with such glee no one in our group had heart to mention every American yard has several. Though he oozed charm from every pore and was never without a smile, with several more children than hosts, Nikolai wasn’t chosen for adoption on his first trip.

So with just days to find hosts for kids seeking only a chance, I’m scouring the States for someone Nikolai can call “Mama” forever.

See short video of Nikolai here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Aching for the Right Soul

At the last orphanage on our last day in the region, my relief at our completed task engendered an unseemly inertia. We’d interviewed the kids on our list and were just killing time before heading to the train station. With our ten Lighthouse charges, we readied for the overnight journey to Moscow, anxious to meet the host families arriving for our inaugural Lighthouse Project trip to Russia. Rain had been falling all day, and darkness now hid its slide into snow. Lounging on the floor in the girls’ living room, my gumption had set with the sun, my journal burgeoned with notes, and I’d long ago reached empathy overload. Katya, fourteen, stood by herself, longing to be noticed and chosen for an interview, but sans the panache to solicit one.

Faith drew her in when I wasn’t even looking. Emerging unwillingly at first from my emotional lethargy, Katya swiftly mesmerized me with her needy profundity. In the orphanage just six months, she lived with her biological mother until the woman vanished two years ago; only recently, Katya, then living with a grandmother, learned she’d died. Now, even her grandmothers don’t visit, since their ages preclude travel to the orphanage. Queried about her dream, she confided, “A family,” in one of her quickest answers; most of the others were occasion for pensive reflection. Katya attended a music school for six years, learning to play the piano. Famous for her last name, meaning “haystack,” she dislikes both the fame and the name. She believes peace and good communication would make the world better, but doesn’t believe in God, adding her mother never told her He existed.

Counter intuitively, most orphans report they like their orphanages, though I consider this more an indictment of their previous circumstances than an endorsement of institutional life. Katya, still trying to get adjusted, was emphatic she dislikes the orphanage. “It’s difficult to find the right soul for you,” she lamented, meaning the hardest part of orphanage life is finding a soul mate. Faith encouraged that with patience and persistence, she would find that kindred spirit. Asked about her desire to go to America, Katya shook off her melancholy deportment with a spirited, “Yes, with all my heart!” and demonstrated her suitability for American life by reciting a few words she knew in English. At the end, she motioned she wanted to hug me, following the lead of another girl who had latched on to Elaine. As she squeezed me, I felt the hypocrite in allowing my exhaustion to excuse my apathy.

Pondering our orphanage visits on the ride to the train, I knew I’d found in Katya the child whose outlook could most be improved by having someone take time to really care. While her orphanage was the best appointed of the nine we visited, her ache for a soul mate witnessed that the comforts proudly exhibited there were vain window dressings shrouding barren, hopeless souls.

I can find her a soul who will care. With God’s help, I can, and I must.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I LOVE This Kid

Twelve-year-old Evgeniy sits thoughtfully before us as Faith fires questions and I scrawl notes. The language barrier aids me, giving me double the time to write as Faith says everything in Russian, then English. With Elaine sitting behind me, I scribble, “I LOVE this kid!” in the margin of my book. A bit sophomoric, perhaps, but I will her to know, and now. The more he says, the more insistently I underline “LOVE.” We interview a gaggle of kids in the nine orphanages we visit before the Lighthouse Project trip to Moscow, and Evgeniy emerges as the single best interview we get.

Mom admonished, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” and Evgeniy embodies the truism of her advice. Confident, not cocky, and considerate, not brash, Evgeniy tilts his head, engrossed in the queries. Furrowing brow, he answers, then punctuates with a smile. In this beguiling way, we learn he wants to build houses, loves reading books of all stripes, enjoys “farm duties,” and has a slew of friends. With his personality, I see why.

When I first saw Evgeniy, he was similarly charming, and I promoted him as my favorite child for the October-November trip. Back then, he said he’d lived at the orphanage the six years since his mother’s death, and he’d love to have a family again. He bakes cookies, and likes gardening and eating carrots. A church neighbors the orphanage, and orphans at times attend; Evgeniy believes God created everything. When asked his dream then, he wished everyone worldwide would be good, and that he could make the world a brighter and happier place. Now, Evgeniy dreams of America; he knows some English, and would like to travel and practice it more.

In his original interview, he was “trying so hard” in school, but found Russian and math most difficult. Now, Faith allows me a question, so I request a description of a teacher he likes. Naming one, he says he chooses her because she is demanding, adding he appreciates how well she prepares her students. Said instructor teaches Russian, one of the classes he listed last year as especially challenging. Now, the Russian teacher is favorite, not because she’s easiest, but because she’s toughest. This maturity garners Evgeniy my most emphatic underlining yet. I’ve been studying Russian myself, and could benefit from a little goading under the tutelage of his teacher. I ask him, in passable Russian, if he speaks English. “I’m Zhenya,” he answers, using his nickname, as the interview concludes. He shakes Elaine’s hand, not mine, since I am still feverishly writing. I am delighted by Evgeniy, and like him even better than last time.

At the end, a worker strides in. I’ve not met her before, and find her a dour, joyless soul. I start to offer a Russian pleasantry, but she adamantly refuses it and I forget my lines. Unprepared for this reception, I improvise as she bids us sit. With her dictatorial demeanor, I comply instantly. Faith explains to her that I have coordinated the Moscow trip, and the newcomer unleashes a tirade with an icy glare my direction. Faith apologetically translates words that sting me, and since I’d reserved my most impassioned promotion for Evgeniy, it hardly seems my doing that he is still hostless. I stumble through a witless excuse, believing with foreign language on my side, anything is preferable to silence. Ostensibly translating my words, Faith leaves me a shaking, and grateful, beneficiary of her speed on her feet. The worker is not amused, though that doesn’t appear unusual, and I’m rescued for now, and waved from her presence. Needing no second invitation, I bolt out with a little shiver.

As we hightail it back to the car, Faith tells me not to worry, that this worker doesn’t like anyone. Seeing Evgeniy’s cheer, and the curmudgeon who could wrest joy from St. Nicholas, I appreciate him and his irrepressible spirit even more. I want to help him out of here, not to avert her wrath or earn her accolades, but for him: for a good boy, who appreciates those who bring out his best, and who, after six years in this institution, still thinks he can make the world a brighter and happier place.

I LOVE this kid.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Solid Gold

Vasily, Daniil, Vladimir, and Sergei stood in the orphanage office. As alumni of Elaine’s July Missouri trip, all were summoned when Elaine, Faith, and I arrived in late October, bearing gifts for the boys with families. As each boy accepted his present, he received an all-important promise that someone in America remembered him, and was working toward his return to their family. The gifts handed out, Vasily stood there empty-handed. He didn’t have a family, and was mistakenly called. Faith mined in her bag and found a trinket, a sorry afterthought without a family's well-wish. As the other kids beamed, I could not begrudge them their elation, but there was something amiss as Vasily politely smiled alongside, small, alone, with nothing and no one.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Vasily had a family a few weeks after the Missouri trip, but a child they had been waiting for subsequently became available, and he was selected, rather than Vasily. While it was a reflection on the Russian system rather than on either Vasily or the erstwhile family, reality is no one waits for him, or readies for his return.

I loved Vasily when I met him in July; in this space months ago, I proclaimed him my favorite child on the trip (Rolla, 7/11/09). With his never-say-die spirit, he won my heart the moment we met. Newly arrived in Missouri, I was waiting at the hotel when he and his host mom drove up. I greeted him in Russian, and instead of assuming a condescending air toward my Spartan command of his language, he grinned, assured me he was well, and offered the firmest handshake a ten-year-old could muster.

All the other kids, save one, found families.

After he’d returned to Russia, Elaine and I brainstormed, but were hard-pressed to recall specific anecdotes about him. There was nothing flashy or obnoxious in him, leaving us void of a storyline. But we mutually retained memories of his omnipresent smile, cooperative spirit, unfailing positivity, willing participation, and verve for everything he tried. “How can you argue with solid gold?” Elaine reckoned, when we realized we remembered character traits, not stories.

While our first adoption from Vasily’s orphanage occurred only a year ago, several are now complete, and more pending, from this hamlet far in the region’s southern reaches. Staff there is anxious; too many adoptions on our part spells unemployment on theirs. It happened before in this region; my kids’ old orphanage closed this June. The exodus of children for America rendered the orphanage and its personnel obsolete. That’s success for the Lighthouse Project, though workers who eke out their meager existences on the backs of orphans take a less congratulatory view. Ten days ago, Hope, the Lighthouse Project director, informed me no kids from Vasily’s orphanage would be on our January trip, the result of unrest and ill-ease begotten by our recent spate of adoptions there. I e-mailed Elaine the news, noting only how devastated I was for this boy.

Days later, Hope told me our gem of a Russian coordinator, Love, had appealed the decision, asking if Vasily could travel, one more time. After he’d believed he had a family, it was unfathomable he not get a second chance at a future. Love’s sweetness is irresistible, and her request was honored.

So the final obstacle between Vasily and Moscow is finding his host family.

And how can you argue with solid gold?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

See Moscow and Visit a Russian Orphan in January

This January, visit Russia and spend time with a Russian orphan! Travelers will choose a child, fly to Russia as a group, meet and spend time with the child in Moscow, sightsee together, and decide whether to pursue the child’s adoption. Travelers not interested in adoption are welcome to join us. Single boys and girls, ages 7-14, and sibling groups, ages 7-16, are available. The Lighthouse Project will arrange transportation in Russia, lodging, activities, and most meals. Sightseeing plans include Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and other culturally appropriate activities. Cost depends on which lodging option is selected, but ranges between $1500-2000 per person, including airfare, assuming double occupancy. This is more cost-efficient than making a “first trip” to visit a child in the standard, two-trip adoption procedure. Basic paperwork includes an application and a statewide background check. Those deciding to adopt will complete the requisite paperwork in the US, returning to Russia to finish their adoption in typically one trip six to nine months later. To see photos, videos, and commentary from our November Moscow Lighthouse Project trip, read on below. For more information, contact trip coordinator Becky at (616) 245-3216, or visit our website.

A new series begins Tuesday, featuring stories of kids hoping to travel on our January Moscow trip. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


In Russia: Day 11

Wednesday dawns with more dread than anticipation, since today is good-bye. When we get to the kids’ area, they’re not awake, so our breakfast is overly peaceful. Driver Dima comes and the kids get up; we gather in the common room for a tearful farewell. Love, our Russian coordinator, revered by our adoptive families, makes an emotional speech about how we have encouraged the kids this week, and given them reason for hope. I concur silently; it’s what keeps me coming back. Love adds that she hopes we’ll come again. I’m thinking I’ll be back in January for our next Moscow Lighthouse Project trip, but she really hopes to see the families, when they return to claim their kids. Forever.

Hugging each child, all express gratefulness in charmingly accented English. The oldest boy, one whom I wondered much of the week if would agree to adoption, gives me hope with his teary eyes as Love shares. Yulya hugs me tightly, but pins a heart-shaped plastic brooch with the word “Love” on Amy’s coat. Clinging to Amy, Yulya flips a switch and lights on the brooch flash. Another girl, Larisa, hangs from Amy and insists the gift is also from her. It’s at once tacky, sweet, and pitiful.

Todd and Ellen hug their two kids; one is Denis, my favorite child from my March Grand Rapids trip, whom they’ve planned since then to adopt. They’ve come now to visit an eight-year-old girl, a possible sister for Denis. I swiftly realized the four were a family. As they leave, they turn to look again at the kids. I feel for them; letting your kids return to an orphanage is one of the hardest things in the world to do. I’ve done it before, and don’t envy them.

I exit the hostel with Jamie. She’s saying she’ll travel in January so her husband can meet Dmitry, one of my favorite kids this trip. Wives don’t usually drag husbands halfway round the world to meet orphans, so for Dmitry, who confided earlier, “I hope someone will take me,” I am blissfully encouraged.

Larry and Ahna leave conflicted, unsure of which child they’ll adopt. They’re already adopting a boy I loved from my January Tulsa trip, and they’re after a brother for him this trip. While I’m not sure who their new son will be, I know another older boy has a family, so I enjoy a generalized delight.

As we pile into Dima’s van, Love wishes us well, blowing kisses. She’s still waving as we drive away and round the corner. Once she’s out of sight, I’m already missing her. A few minutes in, Dima tells us it’s a new Russian holiday today, Family Day, just initiated a year or two ago. It seems fitting that as we leave on a day set apart for Russian families to visit loved ones, each of my host families silently mulls whether to add a child they’ve just visited to their family. Down Moscow’s wide avenues, I see place after place with significance for me. Some are special from this trip, while others are sacred from my trip to adopt my own kids. Moscow isn’t home, but I have as many happy memories here as anywhere outside the Great Lake State.

At the airport, we walk through another dusting of snow. Inside, an agent advises our flight to New York City is delayed. Seeing the others’ dismay, I’m ashamed that I’m tickled pink. I was to arrive in Grand Rapids at 9:30 tonight, and leave at 3:00 a.m. tomorrow for an 870-mile drive to Tulsa. I had cursed my inopportune planning repeatedly; now the delay solves what my organizational skills couldn’t. I ask the agent to reroute me to Tulsa, rather than landing me in Grand Rapids at noon. With flexibility stateside airline agents should emulate, she cheerfully gives me several options as she rearranges my flights. I’ll overnight in New York and fly tomorrow to Tulsa, where I’ll meet my long-suffering husband and four angels after their drive.

When we finally depart Moscow, I eat dinner, then fall into a deep slumber. I never sleep more than a few minutes on planes, but this flight comes at the end of an almost sleepless eleven days. The trip is over in no time, and I awaken to a flight attendant’s welcome to JFK. Clearing customs and immigration with bleary eyes, I am saddened by the imminence of my farewell to my host families. Bidding adieu, my heart swells for these friends who will help the orphans so close to my heart.

At the hotel, I play insomniac. I talk to Elaine two hours, as she debriefs me on the Lighthouse portion of my trip. She is hungry for details, since she left just as the families arrived. I hear my husband’s voice for the first time since I left; it’s better than e-mail. When I finally nod off, it’s with thoughts of a repeat in just over two months. I can’t contain myself; I’m excited already.

In morning’s wee hours, a taxi speeds me toward the airport. I should be thinking profound thoughts of some eloquent way to close my series on the Lighthouse Project’s first trip to Moscow, but I think only about how strangely glorious it feels, tearing through a strange city in a taxi, buckled in a working seatbelt.

Until next time, “Pah kah” from Russia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tuesday: Photos and Videos

In Russia: Day 10

Lenin Mausoleum

Always room for one more...

Hail, hail, the gang's all here!

Happy Birthday!


Kremlin Bell Tower at 1:00 p.m.

"Summer" from the Four Seasons in a Moscow road underpass

Rock, Paper, Scissors Russian-style

Happy Birthday!

My name is Denis


See accompanying story here.


In Russia: Day 10

Tuesday starts slowly over eggs, sausage, toast, yogurt, and fruit. Setting out, we’re without Faith, our translator. We stop along the way to get trip photos developed; we have albums to fill for the kids. They’ll want to show their friends back at the orphanage the activities and the people they spent time with. Some of them have an inkling we’re doing more than just sightseeing, and they’ll want to show off their new mom and dad. We drop into a photo shop, and since the chaperone and I share about 100 words in common, none of which have anything to do with photography, it is a bit of an enigma if the clerk will understand how many copies we want of each print. She writes on a paper when we should return, and we eventually establish a price, which I think I understand.

We hustle to Red Square for one of Moscow’s quirkiest sights: the Lenin Mausoleum, a cubic pyramid safeguarding either the well-preserved body of Vladimir Lenin, or a good wax effigy, depending on whom you believe. Regardless of my distaste for communism and its poster child, I believe this is one of Moscow’s must-see sights; it’s not every day you see the well-preserved body of a long-deceased world leader. The mausoleum’s hours would make a banker blush; the rest of the time, the corpse stews in preservatives, and occasionally, undergoes a change of clothes. In spite of the care, rumors an ear once fell off circulate. Lenin hoped to be buried; eighty-five years posthumously in a post-Communist Russia, his wish may be granted. Communist Party demonstrators armed with bullhorns, placards, and vintage Soviet Union flags are frequent and fervent protestors outside Red Square, taking umbrage with plans floating to bury the mortal remains of their hero. I find the modern-looking pyramid architecturally dissonant in Red Square, though its design provided seating for Soviet officials atop the mausoleum, watching military parades on important Communist holidays. During the height of the Cold War, American foreign policy workers studied annual Revolution Day photos of the pyramid to determine who was on the rise in the Party by their proximity to Josef Stalin.

In my youth, years before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I read Lenin’s remains were publicly displayed. A history buff even as a child, I added the Lenin Mausoleum to my sightseeing wish list, never believing I would check it off. Twenty years hence, on my first morning in Russia, I visited the mausoleum, and if the sight itself was underwhelming, the fulfillment of a childhood dream was not.

Waiting in a line I feared interminable, filing through metal detectors, checking bags, and under advisement that absolute silence was enforced, we traipsed through an otherwise closed-off Red Square to the pyramid. It was dark inside; a large hammer and sickle, especially creepy in this context, welcomed us. Descending black marble steps in near-darkness, I wondered who you’d sue if you broke your neck. At the bottom, around a corner, there he laid, Lenin, waxy and encased in glass, wearing red tie and subtle smirk. As I paused to see how well the ears were attached, excusing my macabre interest as historical exercise, a humorless guard snapped his fingers and pointed the way out. Up more lightless steps, out the door, my youthful desire bore fruit, absent fanfare, in under a minute.

Exiting the mausoleum, the obligatory walk along the Kremlin walls passes the graves of many a Communist luminary, including Stalin himself. For a time, Stalin kept Lenin company, though today, he reposes outside the mausoleum under a bust labeled “СТАЛИН.” We marveled at the number of red carnations left there by fawning, and historically ignorant, admirers; usually, the Stalin grave has more flowers than do other premiers. His reputation has undergone a bit of a restoration of late, as those who remember first-hand his purges and gulags pass from the scene.

Today, in Lenin the kids see the face of the darker side of their country’s history. Those who are interested appreciate the spectacle; those who aren’t dislike the same. None connect the man to his deeds, and what he did to their country and countrymen.

We cross the square to eat pizza in GUM, then rush to make our tour time at the Armory, a treasure trove of Russian artifacts in the Kremlin. Fabulously ostentatious carriages, Ivan the Terrible’s ivory throne, Catherine the Great’s embroidered gowns, and priceless objets d’art shine in my favorite Moscow museum. It’s an expensive ticket, but worth it. It thrilled me to see my own kids’ pride to be Russian, as they saw the grandeur of the exhibits. Unfortunately, my companions today, both adult and child, are less moved. I am dismayed both by their relief as we depart, and their request to return to the hotel rather than use the Kremlin tickets I already hold in hand. But with seventeen votes for the hotel, one for the Kremlin, I acquiesce. On our way out, we pass a lone violinist in a road underpass, playing Vivaldi’s “Summer,” from the Four Seasons. His gloveless hands red, I shiver vicariously, wondering at the irony of his musical selection. Standing there as long as I do, etiquette demands I drop a few rubles in his open case.

On our way back to the hotel, we pick up our pictures. The quality is sub-optimal, but the order is correct, and far less costly than I thought we’d agreed to. In the hotel common area, we serve cake to the kids and sing “Happy Birthday” in Russian. It’s nobody’s birthday, but we want them to know we love them, and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

As I clean up the dishes, an Egyptian man staying in the hotel approaches us. “You Americans are fathers of the world,” he praises. “You even care for children of other countries.”

We’re a long way from home, but apparently exuding compassion. I appreciate the affirmation, but hope more than anything that his words are prophetic.
See photos and videos here.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Part Two

When Ian Zook died in October 2004, a piece of his parents’ hearts died with him. But God enabled Mark and Karen to give another piece of their hearts away when they adopted Faith and Alex in 2006, leaving them with fuller hearts in payback.

In March 2009, Karen called about hosting with the Lighthouse Project. Frazzled in the middle of my Grand Rapids trip and not knowing their story, I asked Elaine to call them regarding her July trip to Missouri. As the first family to sign up on her first trip, Zooks provided encouragement as Elaine was finding promotion rife with disappointment. That they were willing to drive 1300 miles from their home in Florida to Missouri to host exemplified their commitment to the child they’d meet.

Faith and Alex dived into the planning, and helped raise the hosting fee by working and contributing their own money. Using a technique they’d learned in Russia, the kids spent the entire summer embroidering flowers on homemade greeting cards they sold everywhere they went. One day, Mark, a Florida state trooper, was called to the scene when a Frito-Lay truck flipped on the interstate. The chips, in boxes, were still in good condition, so Frito-Lay donated the snacks, which Faith and Alex sold around the neighborhood and to shoppers at a garage sale they held.

In Missouri, their hosting experience was more emotional than expected, but by week’s end, another piece of their hearts had been shared with ten-year-old Daniil and thirteen-year-old Luba, and the family decided to adopt both children. Faith and Alex have unselfishly rearranged their bedrooms to accommodate their new siblings, bought their Christmas presents, and willingly given up anything for themselves with cost attached. Recently, Alex needed new pants, but insisted he would do without to save money for the adoption. Faith imagines she will cook with Luba, and both kids, anxious to share everything with their two new siblings, dream about their future as a larger family. Faith and Alex’s tireless efforts to bring their new siblings home have epitomized their understanding of the “blessed to be a blessing” concept.

On the five-year anniversary of Ian's death, his family held a tribute-fundraiser they called “Love Lives On,” which earned over $15,000 toward Daniil and Luba’s adoption. Faith and Alex passed out flyers promoting their evening, helped assemble 107 baskets for a silent auction, made creative nametags for all volunteers, personally greeted all attendees, made bookmarks for the 300 who came, and cleaned up, all cheerfully, to help achieve the family goal. The evening concluded with a tribute to the veterans and active duty service personnel present. In a no-eye-stays-dry “Final Roll Call” ceremony presented by local Marines, Corporal Ian Zook’s name was called out several times. No answer coming, his helmet was placed on a rifle supported by sandbags; his boots and dog tags followed. A local church kindly hosted the event, and Ian’s boots were laid at the foot of a cross, symbolism not lost on those who knew him best.

Mark and Karen used Ian’s death benefits to pay for their first adoption, and the giving nature and gratitude of the dear children they adopted are paving the way for the second. All of the Zook kids have been givers, a testimony to the parents who raised them. When I met Mark, Karen, Faith, and Alex in Missouri, I was struck by their grief, and their heart’s desire that good should result from their loss. Karen believes that while Ian’s death could have changed them for worse, God changed them for better, enabling them to open their hearts and risk loving again. Honoring the memory of their beloved son and brother, they still seek to serve, as Ian did.


To contribute to the Zooks' adoption of Luba and Daniil, or to purchase greeting cards embroidered by Faith and Alex to benefit the adoption of their new siblings, please contact Becky by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Part One

As a straight-A, top-of-his-class student, Ian Zook could follow any dream, but sought instead to serve. His interest in missions stoked by trips he traveled on in high school, he struggled to discern where the Lord wanted him. After deliberating between missions and ministry and spending a year at Bible school, he shocked his parents when he enlisted in the United States Marines. Settling on that path toward a career in law enforcement, Ian followed his father, a Florida state trooper.

Mark and Karen, Ian’s parents, were supportive of the decision. Because of his college background, he enlisted as a Private First Class, his clean-cut appearance earning assignment in the Security Forces. After boot camp, he guarded a nuclear submarine base in Georgia, allowing him many weekends home in Florida. As infantrymen, Marines are obligated to fight in the event of war. With a conflict raging in Iraq, Ian planned to spend the last seven months of his enlistment there. When Karen confided misgivings over Ian’s impending deployment, he reassured her, “Mom, I know where I’m going!”

Ian arrived in Iraq in September 2004. Assigned to a safe zone, he volunteered for a more dangerous area where action abounded. One time, Ian, now Corporal Zook, was part of a Humvee convoy. He followed a driver who came under fire and fell from his vehicle. Ian leaped from his own Humvee, scooped up his fallen comrade, and raced through a hostile area in pursuit of treatment. The young man died while being evacuated, a moment of tragic epiphany for Ian.

Another day, Ian was a Humvee passenger. When the driver was reluctant to drive, Ian volunteered. Their vehicle hit a buried anti-tank bomb, whereby Ian’s passenger and erstwhile driver lost both legs. During the rescue, Ian was shrapnel wounded. For extraordinary bravery and resultant wounds, Corporal Zook was awarded a Purple Heart.

Ian wrote home, telling his parents in a twelve-page letter about his experience on the battlefield. While distraught over the carnage surrounding him, he’d seen God’s hand of protection repeatedly, and found sustenance in His protection. His parents had never read such a difficult letter; Corporal Ian Zook, 24, had died for his country three weeks before its arrival.

October 12, 2004, Ian’s Humvee hit three bombs buried together in Iraq; when they detonated, he sustained injuries leading to his death, for which he was awarded a second Purple Heart. When his platoon returned from Iraq in 2005, the Zooks were invited to Twentynine Palms, California, where the men were stationed. Ian’s sergeant, the man who gave them the details of his last moments, met them there. In a meeting both excruciating and cathartic, Mark and Karen learned this sergeant was a committed Christian. Desperate to know if anyone had held Ian’s hand as the Lord called him, they marveled at God’s provision of a believer to comfort their son in his final moments when the sergeant answered, “I did.” About 40 other platoon members shared memories and anecdotes; the resounding refrain was Ian was a Marine and friend of unusual valor. In his too-short life, Ian touched others around the world.

In death, he was about to touch more in a country he’d never even visited.

Mark and Karen had been foster parents shortly after their marriage, and had flirted with the idea of adopting since. They revisited the idea after their Twentynine Palms trip, unable to shake the sense that a child somewhere awaited them. With their perspective on pain and loss, they felt specially equipped to parent a suffering child. After considering manifold options, Mark and Karen settled on an eleven-year-old Russian girl named Anya. Paperwork complete, they met her in Russia, expecting to consider a second child there if feasible. Information on a potential son was presented to them, and they wrestled in prayer that night over their decision. In the morning, they met the boy, eleven-year-old Alex. Encouraged by their meeting, they signed papers agreeing to adopt both children. At the park that afternoon with Anya and Alex, Alex asked about the memorial bracelets both Mark and Karen wore. Zooks thoughtfully told him they were a remembrance of their son, with his name and birth date. Karen added, “Ian’s birthday was the day after yours.” Alex corrected, “No, that’s my birthday, too!” Buoyed in their belief that Alex was meant to be theirs, in September 2006 Zooks returned to Russia to bring home Anya and Alex. Anya soon expressed preference for her new middle name, Faith.

In their time home, both children have immensely blessed their family. Faith and Alex know the tragedy that encouraged their adoption and express love for Ian as if they’d known him. Both keep photos of him in their rooms, because they want them. Ian is buried close to home, and his grave never lacks fresh flowers, lovingly tended by Alex. On a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, a committal service for another serviceman was underway, and Alex instinctively removed his hat, covering his heart. Mark and Karen find inspiring the appreciation both kids have for their new homeland, the country their Ian loved enough to die for.

Someday, on golden streets, the Zook family will be united for the first time as Faith and Alex embrace the brother whose sacrifice in Iraq shared with them his family in America, the brother they know only from their parents’ cherished recollections. Mark and Karen now better grasp the Bible verse Ian claimed for himself early in high school, Philippians 1:21: “But for me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In giving up his life, Ian saved Faith and Alex’s lives.

The cost of their adoption was high, but Ian Zook could afford it. He knew where he was going.
See CBS' January 5, 2007 The Early Show feature on the Zook family
"The Ultimate Sacrifice" here

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It's a Circus: Photos and Video

In Russia: Day 9

On Sparrow Hill, overlooking Moscow

Trinity Church, on Sparrow Hill

Moscow State University

Outside the Moscow State Circus

Faith, impersonating the Moscow coat ladies

Moscow State Circus

At the circus

Larry steals the show at the circus

Larry with his masterpiece

Our trolleybus breaks down

On the trolleybus after the circus
See accompanying story here.

We Love Lighthouse!

Spinning Elena

Yulya and Larisa skipping with Amy

Faith the Coat Lady

Riding the trolleybus

Larry, the American star of the Moscow State Circus


See accompanying story here.

It's a Circus

In Russia: Day 9

Monday morning, we take the trolleybus. Their wires are ubiquitous overhead in Moscow, but I’ve never ridden one before. Faith is looking out windows, identifying landmarks, and offering her own brand of insight. Off the trolley, we stroll a birch tree-lined boulevard. Young Nikolai spots a squirrel with such enthusiasm we haven’t the heart to mention how common they are in the States. On Sparrow Hill, Moscow’s highest point, we overlook the city’s sprawl. The Kremlin’s golden domes are easily visible, and on this unusually clear day, good eyes can just pick out a dome or two of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Trinity Church is close. This Russian Orthodox church was shuttered during Communist times, as were all churches the government knew existed. Used for storage until Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, today the church again fulfills its sacred purpose. In Moscow, we’ve found enough English speakers that travel has been a snap. But at Trinity Church, the door bears signs in only Russian and German. Faith says this church is strict on appropriate attire; men are forbidden to enter with hats, or women to enter without. Women tourists are excused with winter hats and hoods, but a devout Russian Orthodox woman would never enter sans scarf covering her head. Dark inside, candles flicker, illuminating the gold leaf on the omnipresent icons of saints and apostles. Aromas of wax and incense join forces as smoke wafts in the domes, made visible by light of the small windows high in the church. Russian Orthodoxy is ritual- and tradition-bound, based on sensory appeal to create a religious experience for the worshipper. Our kids, exuberant outside, are reverent and quiet inside. Yulya studies the icons, then confides in her diary. She’s faithfully taking notes everywhere describing her week; I’ve seen her writing at the hotel, on the trolleybus and metro, and now in church. I yearn to read her words, as I admire her pursuit of the more cerebral. Leaving the church, the kids face the sanctuary and cross themselves three times, in Orthodox fashion.

Gazing over Moscow on Sparrow Hill, Russia’s most prestigious institution of higher learning towers behind us. Moscow State University, whose graduates are welcome anywhere, is housed in one of Stalin’s seven neoclassical skyscrapers, built in the 40s and 50s. Considered eyesores by some, the gargantuan “seven sisters” are scattered in Moscow, housing hotels, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, apartments, the university, and other entities. Until 1990, the university was Europe’s tallest building. The building’s shell is replete with communist symbolism and propaganda; statues glorifying the deeds of farmers and workers, hammers and sickles, and a twelve-ton red star adorn it. It was formerly very difficult to get into the university, Faith says. Admission was granted only by passing demanding entrance examinations, or string-pulling with officials in high places. In Communist times, students attended tuition-free. Faith laments that today, the education is pricey, and entrance reserved more for the moneyed than the qualified. As the kids pose in front their country’s Harvard, Faith says about 10% of today’s students are orphans with sufficient promise that the country cannot afford to let them slip into the abyss awaiting most aged-out orphans. Seeing ten-year-old Nikolai, Dima, and Yulya here, I try to imagine them toting backpacks on campus, striving to better themselves if this trip doesn’t end as I hope for them. Perhaps it’s unrealistic, but I derive solace knowing there is a glimmer of hope, however small, for a few of the 700,000 + orphans of Russia.

We’re on to the circus. While in Russia with our own kids, we were goaded to attend, though our efforts at economy precluded it. I make up for it today by accompanying ten giddy orphans who dance up the steps toward the round pavilion housing the spectacle. We’re running late, and the coat ladies here are no faster than elsewhere. In her most brazen act yet, Faith vaults the counter and collects our coats, hanging 19 up in the time the coat ladies do one or two. I am taken aback by her chutzpah, but she is fast, and we sit down in our nosebleed seats with a minute to spare. The circus begins with a triumphant fanfare and laser show, and continues with clowns, acrobats, and a smattering of animals. The costumes and props are extravagant, though even from a distance, the scandalous skimpiness of some of the women’s costumes appalls me. Underdressed and suggestively posed, one rides out on a camel to Faith’s chiding, “This is Playboy!” Despite the first-rate quality of the acts, I am embarrassed at having scheduled this, and groveling thankful my husband and son aren’t along. At the intermission, Faith leads us to vacant seats ringside, and we down a brown bag lunch. When the circus resumes, we see everything better.

Toward the performance’s end, after an especially revealing act, Larry, our most reserved traveler, sits blushing, thankful a cloak of darkness covers him. In a flabbergasting display of multi-lingual clairvoyance, a bumbling and miscreantic clown bursts from the ring, dashes up a few rows with spotlight shadowing, and grabs our Larry! As she drags him from his seat, I am incredulous he goes with her. Our group roars, releasing an incongruous amalgam of emotion: mortification, concern, and hilarity. In the center of the ring, she hangs a cloth over poor, chagrined Larry, with only a cutout for his head. In the blinding spotlight, he is unaware he wears a drawing of a muscle-bound man, complete with strategically-placed fig leaf. Another clown-accomplice draws a life-sized caricature, shakes Larry’s hand, never realizes he’s an English-speaking monoglot, and directs him still blushing, drawing in hand, to his seat. Our group applauds Larry, his good sportsmanship, and his expeditious return. When the circus is over, Larry is a Lighthouse Project celebrity, posing for pictures with his drawing, accepting congratulations, and vowing never again to gloat that the spotlight isn’t on him.

Faith reenacts her cloakroom attendant imitation, then we head into the chill. Back on the trolleybus, we travel one-half mile before it breaks down. We switch to another trolley, ribbing, smiling, and reminiscing over the most fantastic events of our day. Maybe trolleys don’t break down daily, and maybe clowns don’t accost every American circus-goer, but as we settle into our return home to the hotel, we laugh that we have now had every experience Moscow offers.

This is our best day, and I, for one, am glad to share it.


See photos and video here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Giving Up On Sasha: Photos and Video

In Russia: Day 8

Read accompanying story here

Nikolai stalking pigeons at the Lenin Library

Kids at the Kremlin

State Historical Museum, Kremlin, and St. Basil's Cathedral

Lighthouse Kids in Red Square

Lighthouse Kids in GUM Mall

Lighthouse Kids at Resurrection Gate, Leading into Red Square

Lighthouse Kids with Cossacks at State Historical Museum

Denis Reading at the Bookstore

Eliseevsky's Gastronom

Lighthouse Kids on Statue in Metro

Sasha, age 8, with Faith

Preveyet from Russia!

Giving Up On Sasha

In Moscow: Day 8

Yury Luzhkov had a brazen plan, and ever the politician, made an audacious promise to accompany it. Weary of the snow that falls on the country’s capital, and sick of the expense of cleanup, the mayor of Moscow decreed in mid-October that it would not snow in his fair city this winter. With the approval of the city council, Luzhkov hired the Russian Air Force to spray clouds outside Moscow, encouraging snow to fall before it reaches the city limits. We wake up Sunday morning to find Mr. Luzhkov no different than American politicians: full of expensive promises he can’t keep. A light blanket of snow has fallen, likely the first of many this winter, the mayor and the Russian Air Force’s attempts to control the weather notwithstanding.

We walk through Luzhkov’s snow to an English-language church service in an old theater school. Attended mainly by ex-pats, translation into Russian is provided via headset for Russian speakers. Midway through the service, the kids leave for children’s church, which Faith translates for them. When our service ends, we find Faith standing on a bench directing the entire class. Nothing in the scene surprises me; Faith is a natural ringleader, no matter who’s involved. I shake my head in bemused wonderment. “We learned about the Christmas story,” is Faith’s only explanation, as though it clears everything up. We lunch at a little café in one of the theater’s nooks and crannies. While the wait is insufferable, the food is tasty and inexpensive by Moscow standards. A sink on the café’s back wall substitutes for the napkins they do not provide.

The metro whisks us to the city center and Kremlin. Along the way, we stop in front of the Lenin Library to feed pigeons. Anton, twelve, catches several and gives them carefully to other children. Some kids feed sunflower seeds to birds tame enough to eat out of their hands. We circle the Kremlin wall and honor Russia’s Unknown Soldier. Turning right, we climb a hill beside the State Historical Museum, and get our first glimpse of Krasnaya Ploschad, known to Americans as Red Square. At the far end of the square stands Russia’s most iconic symbol, gloriously flamboyant St. Basil’s Cathedral. It’s the ninth time I’ve seen it, but cresting the hill by the historical museum, it still takes my breath away.

Built in 1555-1561, legend claims Ivan the Terrible was so smitten by its design that he blinded the architect to ensure a masterpiece its like would not be constructed elsewhere. While Ivan was not above maiming and killing, the subsequent activity of the St. Basil’s architect suggests the legend is only that. More recently, Josef Stalin thought the cathedral obstructed the exit from Red Square, and he entertained repeated notions of its destruction to facilitate his military parades through the square. Today, gazing in awestruck admiration at an edifice without equal, we are debtors to the architect who curbed Stalin’s ambition, trading his freedom for airing his opinion, doing time in the gulag for threatening suicide if the folly was consummated.

The kids pose in front of the cathedral and most good-naturedly pose in the chill. We retreat into the ritzy GUM Mall (pronounced “goom”), home of upper crust western merchandisers like Cartier, Dior, and Estee Lauder. A glass and steel arcade covers the three-story mall, and bridges span the main hallway. In Soviet days, the mall was nationalized and never suffered the shortages for which the rest of the country was infamous. Faith used to wait for hours in lines here that snaked through Red Square for the opportunity to buy whatever GUM had in stock. It was advantageous to know an insider employed here; this inside information might glean a shopper a coveted item otherwise unavailable. Faith once went to GUM to purchase shoes. When she reached the head of the line, those available were three sizes too small, but she dared not bypass them. Such was life in the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, things in GUM today are less attainable than in communist times; grossly inflated prices ensure most people there are working, browsing, or warming up.

On our way out of Red Square, we see two men dressed as Cossacks outside the State Historical Museum. The kids stop to ogle them, and the men browbeat us to pay for a picture. As we hesitate, Faith works her magic. The men ask her if the kids are orphans; when she says, yes, we’re here to spend time with them, the Cossacks tell us to take the picture free. I ask Faith later how they knew the kids are orphans. “They have good eyes, and know orphans when they see them,” she says cryptically.

We enter a bookstore, and Dima shows us a section where he has already read most offerings. The store is distressingly overcrowded, making browsing a bane rather than a pleasure. I recall an insightful book I read about marketing. Researchers observed shoppers in stores to determine how many times they could be jostled while looking at an item before they abandoned it and moved on. They found buyers would tolerate being bumped from behind twice, but not thrice. The researchers called this result the “butt brush effect,” a name and concept burned into my brain. While in this bookstore, I conclude the research was not done in Russia, since the butt brush effect would come into play after three seconds, and the bookstore would go out of business within days. Of all the things that would make life in Russia doleful, I find the overcrowding everywhere to be among the most egregious.

On the way home, we visit my favorite Russian store, Eliseevsky’s Gastronom. Formerly known as Gastronom Number One when nationalized in the Soviet era, the supermarket sells gourmet foodstuffs and houses my favorite pastry counter in the world. The ceiling and walls are carved and gilded, and chandeliers illumine the products. I worry I’ve irritated Faith with my incessant requests for Eliseevsky’s and their peerless chocolate croissants, but one bite reminds me I can withstand her impatience. Faith thinks I should buy a croissant in a street underpass and save the Eliseevsky mark-up, but the ambiance of the store is worth every ruble to me.

All week, Alexander M., eight, known by his nickname Sasha, is challenging. He lags behind, fights holding hands, and struggles with correction. I worry as we walk through the metro, holding his hand at times as he strains to get away, that someone might think I’m a foreign kidnapper. Sasha doesn’t cooperate at St. Basil’s and whines at the smallest provocation. Every few minutes our walk is punctuated by, “Sasha, nyet!” or “Where’s Sasha?” He worries me because his getting lost could shut down our program, and because the way he’s acting, he’s not likely to find a family. I can’t in good conscience put a child like him on another trip when other kids also needing a chance will be more compliant. Sasha needs good parenting, and I hate to think at his age, his behavior on a single trip might doom him to a lifetime as an orphan. I desperately will him to behave, more for his good than ours. When it doesn’t work, I decide dejectedly there are other, more likely candidates for adoption. Knowing there are more kids than families, Sasha's second trip would take a chance from another child. I resist giving up on anyone, but can’t harm other innocent kids who need families as badly as he. It’s a helpless feeling seeing an eight-year-old unwittingly making a major life decision alone and unawares.

There’s nothing feel-good about it, just a good faith judgment call, trying to help as many kids as possible get home forever. But right now, I have no reason to believe Sasha will go anywhere other than back to his orphanage.

See accompanying photos and videos here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I'm Lovin' It: Photos and Videos

In Russia: Day 7
See accompanying story here.
Gorky Park

Moscow Metro

Dima on the Metro
Down the Escalator at the Moscow Metro
Moscow Metro Crowds
Yuri Gagarin Monument and Cosmonaut Museum
Vladimir Lenin in October Square

Moscow McDonald's

World of Kindness

Lighthouse Kids Ride the Metro