Monday, March 30, 2009

Smile, Nikolai!

Some Lighthouse kids are self-promoters, finding their families by force of personality. Some are clingy, finding their families when the parents realize they’re needed. Other kids come compliant, good, and quiet; were they not in your photos, you’d forget they were there. Nikolai, newly fourteen, reserved and unassuming, is such a boy. In Tulsa in January, other boys his age were boisterous, more bother, and adopted; Nikolai’s cooperation was less requited. Now in Grand Rapids, agreeable again, his future is jeopardized by factors outside his control: age, gender, and personality. He needs and wants a family, oblivious that on a Lighthouse trip, it’s possible to be so good and so little trouble that you’re overlooked.

Nikolai dreamed of visiting America, though rumors circulate incessantly around his orphanage that Americans adopt Russian children to harvest their body parts. Asked about his best friend, Nikolai described a boy he appreciated for his reliability and trustworthiness. But as of December, Nikolai’s friend was gone to Michigan, the first child adopted from their orphanage, ever. Without parents, friends in the orphanage become family, and Nikolai’s mournful eyes stared out the window as his best friend left with his new mom and dad, lacking any expectation they’d meet again. Traveling with Lighthouse in January, Nikolai arrived in Tulsa and phoned his friend daily, finding him not an organ donor, but a loved and cherished son. Ultimately Tulsa offered no family for Nikolai, but he enjoyed his first trip enough to return to America when opportunity knocked again two months later.

Quietly compliant here also, on day two of the trip I might panic prematurely that all is lost. But I’m not, yet anyway, because Nikolai has a reliable and trustworthy mentor, his best friend Sergei, providentially living with his new family immediately across the street from Nikolai’s Grand Rapids host family. When Nikolai arrived late Friday night, Sergei and his dad went to the host family’s home and stayed over an hour. Relishing his role as a voice of experience, Sergei showed Nikolai around, explained rules, and offered pointers that he, as my favorite Lighthouse child ever, was uniquely qualified to give. (It's a Boy!, 12/9/08) and (Welcome Home! Welcome Home!, 12/21/08)

Back at home after showing his best friend the ropes, Sergei’s parents went through their bedtime rituals with him. As a fifteen-year-old American boy, Sergei could feel too old to be tucked in by his mom and dad. But as a child only a few months removed from the loveless existence of orphanage life, Sergei harbors no such pretensions, soaking up this birthright of childhood. As his parents said their good nights, Sergei shared how he’d advised Nikolai to smile a lot, let his personality shine through, and show he was having fun so someone would want him to join their family. His mom encouragingly enthused, “You’re such a good friend!”

“He’s a good friend, too,” Sergei said. “That’s why I want to help him have a family.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Get Ready, Grand Rapids!

Arriving Friday, March 27, in Grand Rapids:

Cheery Lima, eleven, is called “the sunshine girl” at her orphanage. This upcoming Saturday afternoon she fulfills her dream of seeing her biological sister Lisa who was adopted in America five years ago. Lisa has been asking everyone she meets if they would adopt her sister. Because Lima loves to help people, she hopes to be a doctor.

Anton, eleven, loves dogs and cats. His teacher says he is one of the best students in his fifth grade class. His favorite subjects are math and physical education. He is very athletic and enjoys basketball, volleyball, and soccer. He wants a brother, sister, mom, and dad.

Denis E., nine, likes school and would like to be a teacher so he could teach kids to be good. He likes math because he can solve problems. He likes cows, chickens, and geese, and would like to have a dog to protect his home and a cat to protect his home from mice.

Denis L., thirteen, dreams of being a “train driver” some day. He likes winter and skiing, eats hamburgers and pie, and believes in God since some kind soul has taken him to church. He was on an August trip to Wisconsin. His orphanage director says he goes to her office every single day asking when he can go to America again to find his family.

Dmitry, nine, is in second grade, where he is earning good marks. He likes to draw, play soccer, and play with his many friends. He likes to eat meat and rolls. He would like a career as a builder. Dmitri would like to have a family.

Maya, twelve, is in fourth grade, where she enjoys math because she thinks it’s interesting to solve problems. She has a good sense of humor. She would like to be a cook when she is older. Her mother died, so Maya would like a new mother. The new mother should be kind, and Maya will be kind to her also. She dreams of having a family which also includes a kind father.

Quiet Nikolai, newly fourteen, was in Oklahoma in January, but didn’t find his family there. This trip, his host family lives across the street from his best friend from the orphanage, a boy who just arrived home in Michigan in December 2008. Nikolai would like to be a builder.

Ekaterina, fifteen, loves to cook and aspires to be a chef working in her own restaurant, specializing in typical cuisine from around the world. She is in critical need of a family; she will be unable to enter the United States on an orphan’s immigrant visa once she reaches her sixteenth birthday in early November.

Vladimir, nine, loves homework and calls English one of his favorite subjects. Vladimir won my heart when he sang his best-loved song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in adorable Russian-accented English in a precious interview he gave.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hope, Quarantined

Last evening I fired off an urgent e-mail to Michiganders who were previously involved with the Lighthouse Project, pleading for host families. Early this afternoon, having just hung up with a lady destined to be Maya’s host mom, my quest to find Valentina’s family ended sadly when my next caller was the Lighthouse Project director. Her news was discouraging: Valentina’s orphanage is quarantined, precluding her from traveling next week to Michigan. We’re now reduced to an eleventh-hour attempt to find her parents on a July 3-13 Rolla, Missouri, trip that I am only tangentially involved with. Timing leaves no margin for error; without an adoptive family in Missouri, Valentina will live out her days, however many they’ll be, in Russia somewhere, with no one who cares.

On the cusp of finding a family in Michigan, Valentina instead is victimized by orphanage quarantine, keeping her “home”. Worse is the worry her hope has been quarantined, too.

Friday, March 13, 2009


A few weeks back Faith, our Lighthouse Project translator, was in Russia visiting orphanages we work with. Looking for new kids and checking on children awaiting their family’s arrival, one of her stops included the institution my kids were in. Faith met with the children on her schedule and was going out the door when the orphanage director told her about Valentina. Most children who travel with Lighthouse are “social” orphans: kids who found themselves in an orphanage when their biological parents’ rights were terminated due to alcohol abuse and child neglect. As a true orphan with deceased biological parents, Valentina was a bit unusual. She arrived at the orphanage with four younger siblings, but when they were taken by Russian foster families, Valentina was left feeling she had no one in the world. As word spread that Faith was at the orphanage seeking kids for trips to America, Valentina urged her orphanage director, a rotund, Russian-blonde I met twice and liked well, to let her see Faith, pleading that she needed to seek a family in America as her parents were dead and her siblings were gone. Acquiescing, the orphanage director spoke to Faith, who agreed the eighth grader should be interviewed, though there wasn’t time to do so at the orphanage.

Valentina’s orphanage is a winding-roaded two hours away from the regional capital, where both Faith the director were imminently bound. Given an opportunity to be considered for a precious trip to America, Valentina seized the chance, though it meant she would endure a joyride to the capital to spend time with Faith. Like many Russian orphans who seldom leave the orphanage, she gets carsick. An ever-changing Russian landscape formed the backdrop of her interview, which proved she gutted out the white-knuckle ordeal heroically. Valentina displayed a reluctant charm, punctuated by laudable episodes spent willing her stomach to compose itself. When Faith worried she might not be able to persevere, the director offered a commendation of Valentina’s ability with younger children, who idolize her as a role model.

Most kids do not travel on Lighthouse trips so soon after they’re discovered, but Valentina’s story and age mandated special consideration. Turning fifteen during the Michigan trip, she’ll need to be adopted before her sixteenth birthday to enter the US on an orphan’s immigrant visa. Absent an adoptive family’s expeditious intervention, Valentina will return home and hopeless to no one in Russia. While her age makes it urgent she finds a family, and soon, it hampers my search for said hosting family. Even those who profess to be host-only, void of adoption intentions, ask no further questions once I mention her age.

I continue promoting her, fretting at my failure to find a family. Valentina says there is no one for her in Russia. Two weeks before her scheduled arrival, there is no one for her in America either.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Attempts to recruit host families in recession-weathered Michigan had been taxing of late; it seemed almost everyone I spoke with had lost a job since our last conversation. I’d been feeling like a lone cheerleader in a dark, vacant stadium, goading enthusiasm from a nonexistent crowd, when the lights finally went on late Friday night. A dearly treasured friend of the Lighthouse Project left joyous news in a word-thrifty thirty-second voice mail, conferring hope beyond my deserts and allowing a euphoric Oklahoma family to say yes to Lima’s adoption.

Five years ago another friend adopted Lisa from Russia, only to discover impossibly late that she had a younger sister named Lima in a different orphanage. Home in Michigan, Lisa settled in but didn’t forget her sister left behind, faithfully praying and tirelessly spreading the word of a waiting orphan in need of a family. Sweet Lisa’s prayers got an emphatic affirmative at 9:03 p.m. last Friday in a message that stole my breath away. That news of this joy could be imparted with such economy in verbiage was art I did not equal in ensuing conversations with the new family, Lisa’s mom, and the Lighthouse Project director.

Since Lima’s family-to-be didn’t even know about her while the January Tulsa trip was in their town, they’ll host her in March in Grand Rapids, Lord willing. Besides meeting her new parents, Lima will see Lisa in a poignant reunion I’d give anything to witness. I expect they’ll embrace, maybe hold hands, as Lima shares with Lisa what her last five years have held. While Lisa no longer speaks Russian, she recalls orphanage life sufficiently that her heart will understand what this week means to Lima. In a mercy gifted by youth, Lima will not struggle wondering what words of gratitude would be appropriate for the sister whose prayers have secured her place in the heart of a family.

At my age, I suffer no equivalent delusion. I ache to convey appreciation to my Friday caller, but can't assuage apprehension that anything I’d say would be woefully disproportionate to the gift. I must trust the determined love that compels Lima’s new family to venture across the country, then around the world, speaks the volumes of thankfulness I only wish my words could.

As I continue seeking families for March, I have new optimism that I’m no longer alone in my Lighthouse stadium. The stands aren’t packed yet, but benevolent friends are filling them. With prayer and more effort we’ll be ready by game time. For a new family beside themselves with elation, for Lisa who prayed without ceasing, for our incredible friends who will never know the depths of the Lighthouse Project’s gratitude, and for Lima who waited five years and two visits to find the family who will love her, I am cheering tonight.