Friday, February 27, 2009

Michigan, Meet Denis

Michigan, meet Denis.

Newly thirteen, with dreams of being a “train driver” someday, Denis has spent six years in a Russian orphanage. A fifth grader earning mostly A's and B's, math is his favorite subject and Russian language his least. He likes winter and skiing, eats hamburgers and pie, and believes in God since some kind soul has taken him to church.

A world away and with little in common, we have a connection, he and I. That he depends on me without his knowledge is of monumental motivation for me. Denis was in Wisconsin with Lighthouse last year. His host family reported he yearned to help, fished with abandon, and picked peas with more gusto than finesse. Good, “normal” boys don’t stand out, though, and Denis was one of the kids who didn’t find his family.

As I flounder in my quest to locate a dozen host families for the March Michigan trip, wondering how much the recession is impacting my recruiting, I realize no one will miss one older boy if he can’t travel for lack of a host family. The director and I come to the mutual conclusion that there is no choice; Denis is one of the kids who will be left behind. All that remains is to let the coordinator in Russia know that Denis is off the trip, a message sanitized by the miles between the child and we who call the shots. The call is made easily enough, but there’s a glitch when the Russian coordinator tells the director what she’s heard from Denis’s orphanage head. Without fail, Denis comes daily to her office asking when he will be able to go to America and look for his family. The Lighthouse Project director has devoted her life to helping the older orphans of Russia who have no hope of a decent future without a family, so when she hears this anecdote our plan is toast. She cannot follow through with our decision to leave Denis behind; he stays on the trip.

As the director relates the story to me I know Denis must come. I see myself in him: persistent, a never-say-die fighter, expectant of good things in store if only we invest ourselves. I understand that if Denis has the faith to approach his orphanage director daily to make his hope of a family real, I can, must match his faith with my intercession and effort on his behalf. I determine that, God willing, Denis will travel to Michigan, stay with a host family, and meet the special people who will be blessed to become his parents.

God helping them, someone, somewhere, will see beyond dismal economic news to welcome a pea-picking boy who still believes there is a family in America who needs him to be their son.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Growing up, my mom told me stories of believers in the Soviet Union forbidden to own a Bible. Across the ocean in churchy Grand Rapids, I often wondered where Soviet Christians hid the books, but these stories fostered my concern for the persecuted church and the oppressed. Fast-forwarding thirty years, I battle for orphans and the fit’s a natural. The Lighthouse Project is scratching my itch to aid the hopeless.

An elemental aspect of Lighthouse Project trips I coordinate is the three-day Bible school the kids attend. Content is basic, but I’d be remiss addressing nothing more than the kids’ need for an earthly father. Since I speak no Russian, I have sought out a Russian believer to teach. On a 2007 trip that feels eons ago, a host family I’d known forever led me to Galina. Saintly Galina taught with such conviction that I invited her again next trip. The first day Galina’s cousin Luba came along to assist with the children; recognizing their features she told Galina the kids were from a specific region of Russia. Next day Galina needed a ride so I drove; not knowing what else to say I asked her what brought her to the United States. She told me her family, including Luba, had been granted religious asylum in the US before the collapse of the Soviet Union; Luba had been arrested for printing Bibles in the late 1970s. Though she lived in Estonia, authorities sent her 900 miles away for trial to a region of Russia where she had no connections. It was a hardship, but Galina followed to attend the trial. For her “crime,” Luba was sentenced to, and served, three years in that same region. She correctly recognized the kids because their tiny region was where she’d been tried. Incredulous to know someone jailed for her faith, I asked what town Luba had been imprisoned in. I shivered when Galina answered, “It was the tiny town of C____.” I knew that tiny town, visited it twice even, when we went to meet and, later, pick up our kids we adopted. How incredible that this forsaken hamlet, where the orphanage might be the largest employer, once detained both dear Luba and my precious children.

We gave out Russian Bibles at that Bible school as we always do, though the kids seemed as appreciative to be given anything as they were of the Bibles themselves. Safe in America and far from home, they leafed through the pages as Luba watched. I wondered if they could possibly appreciate what this same book had cost her thirty years earlier, or how she’d paid that price in their region, so far away from her own home.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Friends in Need

A few weeks back I attended a party of about fifteen Russian adoptive families; eight families present had hosted, adopted, or done both through the Lighthouse Project. The most veteran had been home with their children about six months; the least, five weeks. Trivial interactions like kids asking for money or car keys, expecting parents to hold things, and even fighting with siblings thrilled me, since these trifling behaviors are so normal for families. Orphans in the recent past, they are now sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and acting the part.

Sergei, fifteen and home six weeks, beamed as he introduced his taller but months younger new sibling to me as his “little sister.” Already popular around his neighborhood for the rounds he makes with the family snow blower after each dusting, his parents raved about him and his transition, ebulliently sharing their plans to add a Russian twelve-year-old to their family within the next few months.

A newly-minted mom of an eight-year-old boy, home four months ago from my kids’ orphanage, told me how her son had hated math when he started school. Now she hears how easy it is, and math papers wearing stars all over their refrigerator prove it. She told me she loves being a mom.

Maybe a party is not the right venue, but beyond merely finding homes for orphans I am on a mission to support and encourage parents through some of the emotional dissonance I know from personal experience is common to newly adoptive families. Families excited about adoption expect the euphoria to continue once their child arrives home. The post-adoption let-down, as families try to establish a “new normal,” distresses some who don’t recognize how typical it is. A recurring refrain is new families feel like babysitters; early on I wondered when “someone” would come to pick up my kids and take them “home.” While far beyond this stage now, it reassured then to know I was not the only mom waiting for the doorbell to ring. (It never did.) Families who fought to get their kids feel a shame in sharing the transition challenges with others they worry wouldn’t understand. Having been there, I want new families to know they’re not crazy, or at least not alone.

The newest family had been home five weeks with their fourteen-year-old daughter, who is already attending school. Her dad told me about the different girls they are inviting home, and their work to structure visits to ensure their daughter is making friends and succeeding in the interactions. Unusually, he hadn’t noticed the babysitter phenomenon and was working hard to “enjoy every moment.” Lamenting the time he has already missed, he consciously values what remains to him. I was refreshed by his sentiments, and left the party believing his perspective surely smoothed the jolts inherent in older child adoption.

Children sixteen or seventeen are allowed to enter the United States on an orphan’s immigrant visa on the coattails of a biological sibling under sixteen being adopted at the same time. Russia also requires kids ten and older to consent to their adoption in court for the adoption to be approved. At the party, the mom of seventeen-year-old Misha and his now sixteen-year-old biological sister Tanya, both home six months, told me they are adjusting well to their new school. This past fall, Misha started for his high school soccer team, while Tanya was a cheerleader. Back in Russia, Misha pondered the ramifications of an earth-shaking decision, foreseeing the difficulties he’d face living in a new family and country. Without parents to guide him, he turned to his best friend, a boy with a family. His friend told him to go, that it would be best for his future. Knowing they’d probably never see each other again, Misha’s friend’s generous advice has likely saved his life. His friend had the safety net of a family, and was magnanimous enough to wish on Misha the same blessing.

Both kids have friends here now, though Misha’s Russian friend has left some big shoes to fill. Sometimes we Americans suppose we’re the only ones who care for orphans, but Misha’s friend contradicts this self-congratulation. A friend in need might come from anywhere, and the miles that separate Misha from a boy whose name I don’t even know lack power to rescind the gift he’s given.

Monday, February 2, 2009


My host families could vouch: I love talking on the phone, especially about Lighthouse and adoption. It’s a serendipitous combination for a coordinator, since prepping families for the emotional rigors of hosting is a big part of the job. Racking up untold hours on the phone and e-mail with those who bring fulfillment to my life’s mission, I have new friends even before I match faces to names at the airport meeting. The week unfolds and our bond tightens as I, absent an athletic bone in my body, captain a team of families elating with the pride of parents about “their” child’s achievements and strengths. We strategize where we’ll find forever families, seek solutions to kids’ medical needs neglected for years, and concoct frenzied eleventh-hour schemes to foster one last meeting with a potential adoptive family, amongst other sundry tasks. Straining together toward a momentous goal engenders a camaraderie I revel in.

At the end of an intense week fueled primarily by adrenalin, we reunite at the airport in a solemn spectacle grossly disparate from the festive atmosphere of a week ago. In scenes as predictable as the Russian government edict mandating the return of all whether they’ll be adopted or not, most orphans stiff on arrival now cling to their families, though a few prefer a more solitary grief. Exacerbating the somber aura is the chaos of checking fourteen kids’ bags with their one chaperone’s. A brave-faced group photo is the last item checked off the Lighthouse itinerary before damp-cheeked kids shuffle resignedly away, stealing repeated glances at sniffling hosts. Their reticence to return to the life they know does nothing to assuage our fears for them of what we don’t. We can’t know if it’s warm inside the orphanage, or if there are blankets enough in the room they might share with ten others, or if they’ll get adequate food, or if there is a caretaker who singles them out as special. These are but details in a quagmire of dreary confidence that there will be no mom or dad at the door with a hug and the question, “How was your trip?”

Once the kids leave sight range, there is little more for me to do than thank the hosts, remind them to stay in touch, and go home to wonder why the phone stopped ringing. But for the families who sent a piece of their heart through the security screening checkpoint, a return to normalcy is a bit more tortured. Some know immediately they cannot leave their child in Russia. Others take a more circuitous path to the same conclusion.

No longer a greenhorn, I understand adopting older kids is at once harder and more rewarding than the uninitiated mind imagines. All adoptive families count the cost, though tyros have difficulty appreciating them all: birth family trauma, aftereffects of institutionalization, language, school, new culture, adjusting to family life and expectations. And no one ever tackles these challenges before staring down an opponent which has stopped many a promising Lighthouse phone conversation cold: Russian adoption is unapologetically the most expensive in the world.

Not that it matters when you’re scrapping the bottom of the barrel, but the cost is not the kids’ fault. They, as much as the families left holding the bag, are victims of a system contrived by two separate governments. Complying with reams of regulations requires crowds of workers on both sides of the ocean, all engaging in legitimate work, many to earn less in a year than an adoption would cost. As an adoptive mom, I empathize with parents who suffer a gnawing agony recognizing their impotence to protect their waiting child from whatever might harm at the orphanage. My kids, chiding they thought we’d never return, empathize with orphans dogged by doubt as the wait multiplies without Mom and Dad arriving as promised. I suffer alongside kindred spirits who suppress a paralyzing terror of their child aging out before they can scale a fundraising Everest that would seem laughably insurmountable were they not so sure God had directed their steps to its base. Most cruel is each of these miseries find their root in delay caused by the herculean challenge of adoption fundraising.

While grant availability is trumpeted wherever adoptions are sold, reality is there are too many potential recipients for too few actual awards, and exacting specifications eliminate worthy applicants. Facts are sterile and low grant-to-need ratios academic could I not so easily put flesh on them. While I suffer no dearth of examples, an excruciating one is Lori and her would-be daughter, Inna, who visited Grand Rapids in March 2008. At age 14 ½, Inna has endured ten months’ wait as her hopeful mom in faith trusts God to break down doors which seem to shut more readily than open. In the months since Inna returned Lori has been turned down for all seven grants she’s applied for, because she’s single. While I have no option but to defer to the collective wisdom of these organizations which believe she would be better off with both a mother and father, I recalcitrantly wonder if Inna would be as demure as she sits in a loveless institution with neither.

One year ago, before the realities of fundraising set in, Lori had enough equity in her house for a home equity loan; she would take the loan now, but her equity is gone. She sought help from her church, a small body with a no-support policy, and was refused to avoid the impropriety of exception. Lori has bartered free-lance photography for a home study written by a sympathetic social worker and gone to Illinois to swap shots for donations. She no longer buys groceries and has dialed her thermostat down to 52°; she’d turn it down further to get Inna home but worries she’ll freeze the pipes. In a final, desperate effort, she applied for a personal loan; wizened by the lending crisis and seeing no collateral other than a Russian orphan, the bank declined her last Friday. After ten months of clawing struggle, Lori has about $5000; at this rate, Inna might be twenty-five before the coffers are full.

Inna has a biological sister, Luda, already in America. Luda calls the orphanage periodically; discouraged by the delay, Inna recently confided fear that Lori wasn’t coming. Luda reassured her that Lori loves her so much she is working heroically to raise the money. I spoke with Lori Monday; she told me she would be heartbroken, but she will let Inna go elsewhere if she has made no further headway by March. Since Inna can’t enter America if she turns sixteen before Lori can adopt her, the lady who believes God has called her to mother Inna would step away in a Solomon-esque decision to give her a chance at any family. Lori brightened quickly when she added she did not think this would be necessary, saying, “God has a plan.”

Part of that plan is Lori’s young friend McKenna, set to turn seven; she hit it off with Inna, who is likely a little delayed, in March. On her birthday party invitations, McKenna requested guests bring money for Inna’s adoption rather than gifts, helpfully adding as she told Lori her decision, “And I have thirty girls coming!” While McKenna might not realize her gift is likely to leave Lori with money to raise, Lori recognizes the selfless gesture and the encouragement it confers far transcends its intrinsic value.

Several months ago, Lori was overjoyed by a before and after story she heard about Inna. Back at the orphanage after her trip, Inna told workers she had become a Christian at the humble three-day Vacation Bible School all Lighthouse kids attend. Better yet, she backed the claim with a changed life. A young Christian herself, this moved Lori, who anticipates the growing they’ll do together.

Inna will have a mother, and soon. She already has a Father. And Lori has her grants: two jewels of encouragement bestowed by Inna’s Father assuring her He does, indeed, have a plan.

Marching On

Questions about which kids found families are hallmarks of the end of a Lighthouse Project trip. While patience is a virtue I still need to cultivate, I’ve found trips like these might take a few months to completely sort themselves out. That said, some families were definitive enough that I am quite confident these children have found their forever families in Tulsa: Alexei, Denis, Ekaterina, Vladislav, Larisa, Eduard, and Sergei. Anton M. and Ivan have families seriously considering them, fomenting realistic hope within that I might move their names one sentence forward, soon. Three other children have families giving them some level of consideration, and two returned to Russia without any prospects of a family.

The January kids were still en route to Russia when I began anticipating my next trip, yet I confess more shock than elation at being asked last week to do a March program in Grand Rapids so close on the heels of Tulsa. Since I live there I could not argue that Grand Rapids was inconvenient, but the drain of my incessant efforts to stoke interest in January kids who might die if I failed has not, even now, subsided. Leaving on a Lighthouse sabbatical tempted, a larger tease than I would have expected. It would not have been for long; even in my three short visits to Russian orphanages I sensed an emotional permafrost that mocks the Siberian tundra. Nonetheless, it took a final appeal to the immediacy of that need by my friend Hope, the Lighthouse Project director, to extract a yes to coordinating a trip sooner than I would have chosen.

My favorite child from Tulsa was a freckled, blonde-haired nine-year-old who enchanted me, proclaiming his love of homework and English classes, and topping it off with a Russian-accented English rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” While I work until the wee hours of the morning on behalf of every child entrusted to me, I especially liked Vladimir. Occasionally there are kids so winning I cannot understand why no one picks them; I have settled on the explanation that it is God’s will and timing, and that their family must either be somewhere else or they don’t yet know there is a Russian child searching for them. For one of these reasons, Vladimir did not meet his family in Tulsa. A few years ago, the Russian government started compensating families for providing foster care to orphans. Foster care has become more popular in poorer regions than the rest of Russia as government payouts for care have increased. While I would not paint all Russian foster families with a broad brush, does it take a cynic to wonder if there’s a connection, and why only families in poor regions want to foster? And is it a coincidence that once kids reach the age of sixteen, when government payouts cease, many foster families suddenly lose interest in the kids and turn them out to the streets? The Lighthouse kids’ region is quite impoverished and Vladimir’s orphanage, my own kids’ orphanage “alma mater,” is a hotbed for foster care. A child of his age would most certainly be picked by a foster family before I could do the next available trip in June. By consenting to do a March trip, perhaps I can save the boy who stole my heart with his song from a lifetime without a family who loves him.

Also scheduled to travel is fifteen-year-old Katya. Only nine months from her sixteenth birthday, Katya will be unable to enter the United States on an orphan’s immigrant visa once she reaches that milestone. At the stroke of sixteen, hope of adoption is fruitless, leaving little to anticipate beyond an unspeakable future of degradation and a brutishly shortened life expectancy. A trip delayed until June would be three months closer to a sixteenth birthday promising to be anything but sweet. Maybe by taking action just a few months earlier we can rob the Russian streets of a charming girl who still has the audacity to dream of life as a chef rather than life as a prostitute.

The clock doesn’t stop for Vladimir or Katya. I must be as relentless.