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.