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.”