Wednesday, August 26, 2009


When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

At the Lighthouse Project, a whole bushel of lemons dropped in our laps two weeks ago with the swine flu travel moratorium for Russian children. The somber news looked a recipe for disaster, but today we’re working on a big pitcher of lemonade, stirring, sweetening, sampling, and making something potable from our lemony windfall.

Going in reverse is usually seen as a step backward, but for kids who wait it’s a step forward. Our program has brought forty-four groups of Russian orphans to the United States in the past eleven years. Trip forty-five will not likely happen in 2009, though things look promising to resume in early 2010. Last week it appeared orphans would languish in loveless institutions longer because they couldn’t travel internationally until the ban is rescinded. Then our director had an epiphany: if Lighthouse can’t bring the kids to America, it can take the families to Russia in a mirror-image of past trips.

While exact details are still being hammered out, travelers would choose a child, fly to Russia with other Lighthouse families this fall, meet the child in Moscow over a long weekend, sightsee, and decide whether to pursue their host child’s adoption. Single boys, girls, and sibling groups, likely ages 6-15, would be available. The Lighthouse Project will arrange transportation, lodging, some meals, and activities for parents and children; sightseeing might include Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, and other culturally-appropriate activities. Dates for the trip will be October 29 - November 4. While exact cost is being determined, it would be comparable to the cost of adoptive families hosting in America and more cost-efficient than making a “first trip” to visit a child in a standard, two-trip procedure. Paperwork will be basic and include an application and a local police background check. Families planning to adopt will complete the requisite paperwork in the US, returning to Russia to finish their adoption in one trip 6-9 months later. Seven families are required for trip viability; several have already expressed interest.

Happily, kids will continue to have chances at a family while the swine flu scare rages, so I’m finding I can love this “Lighthouse in Reverse” just as I love the Lighthouse Project. I expect to travel to Russia myself on this inaugural trip, along with Missouri Lighthouse coordinator Elaine. Join us, and we’ll pour you a glass of our Lighthouse lemonade.


If you would like more details and a flyer on our Reverse Lighthouse Project trip, please call me, Becky, at (616) 245-3216 or click on “View my complete profile” on the right to e-mail me.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dr. Adoption

Growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, I spent Monday nights of my formative years with TV’s Little House on the Prairie. As I stared in traumatized disbelief, Caroline Ingalls labored to give birth, birthing my desire to adopt in the process. Dreaming in my youth of becoming the next James Herriot, I attended veterinary school, graduating with a DVM degree. Imagine my dismay to realize, months before commencement, that I’d missed my calling. Regardless, I practiced veterinary medicine seven years, enjoying most of them. Eventually I left the profession to raise our daughter, a curly-haired, extroverted tike adopted from Guatemala; four years later our Chinese daughter arrived. We had no business being at an adoption fair only six weeks after returning from China, but it didn’t stop us. Browsing booths in the exhibit hall, my encounter with Valerie of the Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project was as inadvertent as it was fortuitous. There, at that inauspicious table, I stumbled across both my life’s mission and the circuitous path leading our family to a new son and daughter.

In the six years since that November meeting, we’ve added the two older Russian kids to our family. What I saw in Russia and learned in the process was Exhibit A of the gravity of the orphan’s plight. Armed with a righteous sense of urgency, I’ve coordinated nine Lighthouse Project trips to Michigan and Oklahoma, bringing seventy-three different Russian orphans aged 5-15, some of them more than once. As coordinator, I seek families willing to host an orphan for ten days, run a Russian-language Vacation Bible School, and give the bushes a thorough, thorough beating in search of forever families. Such a succinct description of my duties belies the thousands of hours I’ve invested in them, and the phones I’ve worn out in the process. The task is formidable, since most potential adoptive families desire babies. When I succeed, the fulfillment is more than adequate to the effort, since finding families for kids literally saves their lives. Motivating my Russian work is knowledge that no safety net surrounds the kids who age out; in America, orphans without families have opportunities available to them Russian orphans could only dream of.

On the coattails of the Lighthouse Project I’ve met people whose beings brim with the same compassion for orphans; some of these kindred spirits are as dear as sisters to me. Fifty-nine children, including sibling groups as large as three, kids as young as six and as old as seventeen, and children with sundry special needs have forever families. Current events in Russia notwithstanding, I hardly feel finished. God willing, there are many more children, and a few dear friends, to come.

My training for this quasi-volunteer position has been as rigorous, expensive, and all-consuming as veterinary school, provided by three girls and a boy who work to keep Mom on her toes and seventy-three kids whose would-be futures have provoked me to repeated and frenetic action. A full-time position as a veterinarian would be less time-consuming and more prestigious, but since finding my calling I’ve never looked back.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Missouri Loves Company

Last week, shrugging off advice we rent, we’d driven our one vehicle, an older, high mileage Silhouette threatening to strand us, to Tulsa. Excessively emboldened by our trouble-free trip, we left for Tulsa this time serene in the confidence of last week’s precedent.

I don’t expect I’ll drive to Tulsa again without stopping to see my sweet friend, Missouri Lighthouse coordinator Elaine. On Friday, we’d made good enough time through the night to justify a lengthy visit. Elaine and her husband Kenny own a car dealership in St. Robert. Per our request, they’d been watching for a van in our price range to replace the Silhouette. Elaine was working, so we visited her at the lot. Walking into the showroom, we laughed that the trade-in value of our wheels was surely rising with its reliability on our frequent Tulsa runs. After a three hour stop, we waved goodbye and hurried on our way.

I-44 in central Missouri is a scenic route wending through tree-crowned hills and limestone outcroppings. It was a scorcher, and as the van labored up a hill near Conway, 45 miles west of St. Robert, it became clear we’d taken it one trip too far. Providentially, we were near a downhill exit so the van coasted off the interstate. In my humiliation pushing it to a gas station, I had visions of Julie arriving at the airport, new brood in tow, oblivious to the extent we’d gone through to greet them there. Adding to the comedic inconvenience, our cell phone chose this particular day not to work, so we were left to plead for techno-mercy from passersby. People always love my children, but this time we benefitted less from their charm than their urchin impersonations made doubly convincing by riding all night, then being stranded in the hot sun. Lent a phone, I called Elaine, scarcely recounting our woes before she became a take-charge Wonder Woman without my even asking. Bidding me not to worry, she promised to call in their driver, send a flatbed truck with a minivan we could take on to Tulsa, and take the disabled van back to the dealership. She also called my mother-in-law in Tulsa, telling her to go to the airport herself, since we’d likely be too late to make it.

Sitting at a gas station table in resignation, we consoled ourselves knowing Julie would realize it was the thought that counted. We cut a piteous enough pose that a station employee offered us a pizza she’d made in error. When the flatbed arrived, our things were ready and we leaped into the replacement van. With a little more than three hours and 220 miles to go to Tulsa, it seemed remotely possible that with smooth sailing, we might make it in time to the airport if we hurried.

Entering Oklahoma, we’d made great headway, so I made my welcome sign en route. Close to the airport, we found that, not only would we be punctual, but we would be early. When Julie, Dave, their two biological sons, and three new children entered the waiting area, our family was there waiting, looking like we’d spent the day by a busy road, but waiting nonetheless. How delightful to surprise my serially hosting friends, to finally meet Vladimir, and to hug, then hug again! I wanted Julie to know how special her adoption was to us, and I think she understood.

Elaine called later while we were at dinner and said we could take the van back to Michigan while we looked for something else. But after our 220-mile test drive and the impeccable service of Mid-Missouri Motors, we were interested in the van Elaine and Kenny had graciously lent us. Our van shopping had been conveniently completed alongside the Missouri interstate-- no going to look, no wondering about color, just grab it and go, no fuss at all.

On our way back home today, we went through a toll booth in Oklahoma. The same collector from last week saw our kids in the back and told Randy, “Be careful driving. I see you’ve got precious cargo there!” Even the toll people are friendly in Oklahoma; it’s one of the reasons, besides being Julie’s home, that I love coordinating Lighthouse trips there. Through Rolla, we stopped again to see Elaine, Kenny, and their kids at home; we showed off our new van, but they acted like they’d seen it before. Seeing them on weekends could be habit-forming.

Blessed emotionally last week’s trip, we were blessed physically this trip with providential care at every turn. We broke down close enough to Elaine at a time she could help us, we got an especially long test drive of a vehicle we needed anyway, and we avoided a trip to Missouri later to look at other vehicles, all in time to see dear friends come home. As if that weren’t enough, the deal was sweetened with free pizza.

Sometimes I wonder why people are so nice to us. The answer is God directs us every step of our way, putting us where we need to be, when we need to be there, and allowing us to meet those we need to meet. As we have blessed, we have been smothered in blessings. God has been good to us again and again. And now He wants to use us to bless others.

Tulsa, Times Two

Having spoken to hundreds of potential host families in thousands of conversations, I’ve developed a sixth sense as to what flies and what doesn’t. I’ve learned cold calls are an exercise in futility. No matter how highly recommended a family comes, if they lack the motivation to make a call, they’re unlikely to care enough to host a child. I never break this rule, but did once, for which I’m thankful.

Days before the arrival of November’s Tulsa trip, I needed hosts and felt desperate. I heard about a family looking to adopt who might be interested in hosting, so with gritted teeth I acquiesced to a suggestion I call. When Julie picked up the phone, I apologetically introduced myself and braced to receive a bum’s rush that never came. Instead, with a smile in her voice, Julie proclaimed her gladness I’d phoned. Two hours of talking and laughing later, I had another host family. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d met a serial hoster.

Julie and her husband Dave hosted ten-year-old Dima; eight-year-old brother Vladimir was unable to travel. Midway through the trip, Julie tearfully confided her dread of Dima’s return to Russia. She loved him she said, but more important was how she said it: “I’m trying to memorize every freckle on his face!” The attention to minute detail in her love sold me, once and for all: Julie was a keeper.

January brought another Tulsa trip. Asking her to host would have been heartless, so busy was she with her own adoption by then. But nearing arrival and in another bind, I asked her anyway and was elated by her joyous agreement. Julie was a godsend: a snap of the fingers sent her scurrying to assist. She met me at the airport when I arrived in town, lent me her phone for the trip’s duration, and brought bags of food my second day when I admitted mid-afternoon that I’d been so busy with calls I hadn’t shopped, having eaten only a package of cinnamon Tic Tacs in Tulsa. When she knew of a need, Julie was quick with a hand and sympathetic ear.

I faced my March Grand Rapids trip with despondency, by now believing Lighthouse incomplete without Julie’s involvement. Besides being a dear friend, she endeared herself further as an aficionado of my blog. She called breathless one day about fifteen-year-old Ekaterina, whom I’d recently written about. (Marching On, 2/2/09) I was shocked, but after praying about it, Dave and Julie decided to host her in Michigan, earning the honorific of first family found by blog. I was there when Ekaterina called her “Mom.” Julie sniffled, “I’ve never been called Mom by a female voice before!” Because they were already in the process of adopting Dima and Vladimir, the couple was able to add Ekaterina to their adoption without much paperwork fanfare, important since she was on the cusp of her sixteenth year. (Choking Up, 4/3/09)

I’d intended all along to welcome them at the airport when they returned with their kids. But timing was inopportune, since Randy and I had driven to Tulsa the previous weekend to attend a welcome party for another adoptee. Additionally, I was due in Tulsa days later for the August Lighthouse Project trip. We reluctantly concluded I’d skip the airport homecoming, visiting instead during the August trip.

All day Thursday, it chafed knowing Julie was returning and I wouldn’t be there. When the Lighthouse Project director called me mid-afternoon to confirm the August trip had been cancelled due to the Russian swine flu resolution, I realized we could make Tulsa. By 5 p.m. we’d decided to go, though I wanted to be at the Grand Rapids airport that night to see fourteen-year-old Masha arrive. Her parents had worked valiantly for seventeen months to fundraise for her adoption; I’ve seen families with much more miniscule obstacles abandon adoption plans. All the while, Masha’s parents were team players, attending others’ airport homecomings and almost all the Russian adoption functions I was at while they awaited her. I owed them a welcome of their own upon their return.

After Masha’s homecoming we finished packing, setting out at 1:20 a.m. Friday. Julie would be in at 7:50 p.m., and with an 870-mile drive looming, we couldn’t procrastinate. Knowing my mom wouldn’t sleep because she’d be praying us to Tulsa, I felt guilty. At that same hour we left, Dave and Julie were in Moscow rushing toward the airport for their flight home, and dear Lori, who’d fundraised for her Inna’s adoption with a single-minded devotion, was beginning her session in the Russian court. So much was happening; I clearly had my own prayers to say on behalf of friends half a world away. With Randy driving all night beside me the second weekend in a row, my kids cooperating in seats behind me, my mom’s prayers covering us, and friends in Russia finishing adoptions, commitment to the Lighthouse Project and the kids we help hardly distinguishes me.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Swine Before Pearls

Nine-year-old Anna’s dream of having a doll hit a roadblock Thursday. Her eleven-year-old sister, Anastasia, aspires to be a rescue team member someday, though now she could stand rescue herself. The sisters, having faced unusual difficulty in life measured even by the low bar of orphan expectations, were scheduled to travel on the August Tulsa Lighthouse Project trip. Tragically, the past tense “were” is operative here.

Two decades removed from the Cold War, the powers within Russia still seek to capitalize on any perceived flaws of the West, gleaning a grim self-satisfaction in construing facts to suggest things are worse elsewhere than at home. The current Western trouble du jour is the so-called “swine flu," claimed by the Russian media to have consigned Americans en masse to sick beds and hospitals. Never mind no one I’ve met knows anyone ill from the disease: to hear the Russian media tell it, the West is in its death throes, crippled by the flu’s virulence.

My good friend Hope, director of the Lighthouse Project, lived in Russia for eight years. She calls this most recent exaggeration of the woes we Americans navigate a different chapter of the same playbook used daily during her Russian sojourn. In a misguided attempt to redirect focus from the rather blatant problems within Mother Russia, a spotlight is beamed on other, more prosperous, parts of the world, magnifying their relatively inconsequential hobgoblins. The insinuation is existence elsewhere is even more precarious than within the motherland. That facts demonstrate otherwise is less material than is seemly.

This coping mechanism propagated by the tradeoff of reality for fantasy might be politely overlooked were the ramifications of such cultural pride less pernicious. On Thursday afternoon, I received most unwelcome news when Nadia told me my August trip was cancelled due to, of all things, swine flu. A resolution passed by the regional government forbids group travel by children to several countries, the United States included, until the pandemic subsides. It matters not that host families were eager to share ten days with the children, or that several of said families expressed intentions of adopting the child they planned to host. In its wisdom, the regional power hierarchy has protected the orphans, not by sending them to American families who might love them and want to adopt them, but by keeping them at “home” in their orphanages.

While exact numbers depend on the source consulted, most agree the statistics for Russian orphans who age out of the system without families are grim. Kids leave the orphanage by age 18; lacking productive alternatives, many girls turn to prostitution, many boys to crime. Life expectancy on the street is brutishly short and measured in months. Aged-out orphans are as likely to commit suicide as to become productive members of society: 10% of kids fall into each category. Meanwhile, I must dutifully derive comfort knowing these orphans are securely cloistered in their orphanages, safe from the pervasive ravages of swine flu, though at the expense of their one realistic chance of a family.

Alexander, 12, described by his orphanage director as needing a family “very much,” gushed, “The whole orphanage is my friend!” when asked about his friends. He’ll make do without American friends for now. Evgeniy, 12, speaks a little English and hoped to practice in America. His dream of making the world a brighter and happier place is on ice, and I’m less a cynic than a realist believing it will be longer, if ever, before the world is a brighter and happier place for this effusive boy. Sisters Elena, 14, and Lidia, 12, had a potential adoptive family in Missouri for July. When a passport issue kept them off the trip, Missouri coordinator Elaine and I solaced ourselves thinking they’d be on the August trip. Elena, a very good student, would like to be an attorney, but she doubts she'll be able to. If she stays in Russia, she’s probably right.

The Lighthouse Project exists because few families set out to adopt older children. For adoption purposes, kids even two years old are considered “older,” and therefore, harder to place. Most families will not go to Russia to seek out an older child, and a majority of the hosts I’ve found in my nine completed trips hosted without the intention of adopting. Typically, adoptions have occurred when people met children already here and then realized they wanted an older child. During this travel embargo, people could still travel to Russia to meet kids, and I’ll be encouraging them to do so. But for this to happen, I’d have to improve my record of finding families committed enough to meet kids overseas.

I skew optimistic and generally find silver lining in any situation, but my Pollyanna-ish outlook is strained by this state of affairs. Since acceptance is our only option, I suppose my spurned host families and I will have to find our peace knowing Anna, Anastasia, Alexander, Evgeniy, Elena, and Lidia won’t catch swine flu from you, or me, or any of the other Americans like us wallowing in swinish contagion.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Blessed, Part Two

In the crowd were other friends I joyed to see: a family who’d kindly sacrificed their chance to host last November when a quarantine spared their host child but not another’s; a family who hosted in both November and January, and heard yesterday it’s their turn next to get eleven-year-old Alexei; and a family who realized after reading my blog that God was calling them to adopt nine-year-old Yuri in addition to Denis, 13 (Waiting Heart, Wrong Arms, 5/8/09). It was a great pleasure to finally meet Mikhail and Alli, home July 10. Their sister, Tatyana, was the only child in their sibling group allowed by their orphanage director to come on the November trip, so I’d not previously met the two of them. When Tatyana recognized me, giving me a spontaneous smile and hug, Mikhail followed with a charmingly syllabicated “Hel-lo!” What a delight to see them all together, at home with their family. (Multi-Media, 11/15/08)

Earlier in the day, I’d been fretting about Lori, scrimping for almost 18 months to bring home fourteen-year-old Inna. (Struggling, 2/2/09) Tuesday this week, the call Lori’s faithful heart believed would one day come, did: her court date had been assigned, and she was to leave for Russia Sunday. Only one trouble: this fantastic news left her just six days to find the remaining $4000 for her adoption. Standing at the airport, jostled by euphoric sign wavers, a tear-jerking interruption in the form of a call from friends saying they wanted to help her left me absolutely choked-up and, uncharacteristically, not able to speak.

When I’d arrived at Katya’s party last evening, her mom thanked me for the fifteen-foot “Добро Пожаловать!” banner I’d sent to their home for their arrival, and invited me to come by and see it in her yard. This morning before departing for home, we stopped by, visited over raspberry smoothies, and heard enough anecdotes to choke up the most stone-hearted. After fifteen years in an orphanage, when my friend picked her up in Russia, Katya exclaimed in wonder, “I’m not an orphan girl anymore!” A few days after Katya’s court, she helped another teen-aged girl, Masha, prepare for her own court appearance. Katya, hunched slightly with cerebral palsy, advised shy Masha to stand up straight, pick up her chin, and speak to the judge with conviction. Katya suggested Masha wave her arms when saying she wanted to be adopted, her dramatic demonstration giving her advice a final air of credibility. On the phone, Masha’s new mom told me both Katya and my friend were “angels,” a description as apt as any. When their stay in Russia was over my friend flew home with Jesus’ saying, “I will not leave you as orphans,” resounding in her mind all the way. A call to my friend never ends before she prays for me, and she didn’t deviate during my home visit either, praying before we departed for home for straightened paths for my upcoming Tulsa Lighthouse trip.

I’m not home yet as I write these words, but it’s already abundantly clear the 1800 miles we’ll travel have come with blessing, plus interest, for the effort. It’s no surprise, I guess, since Jesus Himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” I gave a little, then received at every turn on this diminutive journey: devoted company for the drive; a visit with kindred spirits in orphan care; a chance to surprise my angel friend who never cries “Uncle!” if the question’s about giving; the immense satisfaction of an epic airport home coming I had a little role in; a gift of love to help extraordinarily patient Inna get her mom; and a story about an erstwhile orphan, not yet home, already helping another child seize her chance at a family. I know when St. Francis of Assisi said, “It is in giving that we receive,” he wasn’t talking about my little excursion. But whizzing by exits and mile markers as the odometer on the van creeps upward, my full heart knows he might just as well have been.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Blessed, Part One

I took a road trip with my better half Thursday. Randy doesn’t just tolerate my Lighthouse Project activities, he embraces them. He never says no when saying yes will benefit the program in some way. Randy has cared for our four kids himself for stretches while I was out of town coordinating trips, spent his inopportunely-timed birthday at Chuck E. Cheese because the Lighthouse kids were having a get-together there, told me one hundred times to go ahead and pick up the phone for Lighthouse calls arriving at dinnertime, helped prepare mailings at all hours of the night, and gone on thankless paper chases for every trip I’ve done in the past two years. We left Michigan on Thursday, drove 870 miles to Tulsa, arrived at 5 p.m., and headed back Friday morning to Grand Rapids another 870 miles. While the story revolves around the few hours spent in Tulsa, for Randy it’s less compartmentalized. His cooperation borders on the fanatical no matter how creative my suggestion; a girl couldn’t ask for a more supportive husband. When I proposed this audaciously abbreviated trip to attend a welcome home party for a dear friend of the Lighthouse Project, Randy didn’t bat an eye, insisted of course we should do it, and said he’d drive. As it transpires now, we are speeding by semis less full than my heart has been in the short time since we left home.

Heading west on I-44 to Tulsa, I had a great excuse to stop and see Elaine, coordinator of last month’s stupendously successful Rolla, Missouri, trip. It was great to see her again; even three weeks apart left us with plenty of catching up to do. Randy, who’d been polite enough to show interest in my spate of stories about the Missouri trip, felt like he knew Elaine already when he finally met her yesterday. We ate lunch with her and her husband, celebrating their anniversary with more Lighthouse Project talk. Randy got a kick out of meeting another husband as tolerant of his wife’s Lighthouse work as he is.

Late afternoon brought Tulsa; my friend, for whose daughter Katya the party was held, had no idea I was coming. I’d been racking my brain for months trying to figure out what I could do to show her how special she and her family are to us. (Happy Birthday, Katya!, 7/9/09) So when I heard about a welcome party for Katya that would be like a baby shower, only for a fifteen-year-old, I knew I had to be there. When my friend saw me, it took three proclamations I’d come to Tulsa just to go to her party before she finally believed me. Each avowal on my part was punctuated by a hug from her. The third hug, when she finally believed I really was there just for her, was so emphatic that I had to brace myself to keep from falling to the floor. Her reaction was more than I could have hoped for. I didn’t know anyone else at the party, so I made literal small talk with Katya, given my painfully limited Russian vocabulary. When my friend’s phone began to ring, Katya called, “Mama, Mama!” and hurried the phone to her. She had waited fifteen years to call someone that; knowing I’d had any part in making that one word reality was worthy of a tear. Later, opening gifts, Katya found the partygoers’ generosity overwhelming, so her mom took over the unwrapping honors. Kids in orphanages are not accustomed to receiving presents.

After the party, there was just time enough to get to the airport to welcome a family arriving with new brothers Losha, 12, and Jacob, 15, both from the November 2008 Tulsa trip. (Tulsa World article, 11/10/08) I’m a veteran of countless airport homecomings, and the assembled throng was, by far, the largest I’d seen. The boys beamed from ear to ear when they saw the signs and heard the ascendant cheer as they entered the airport’s waiting area. Several of the family’s other children had stayed behind in Tulsa while their parents went to Russia. Reunited, their mom Marie cried and had to reassure the younger ones her tears were of the happy variety. That my own young daughter had the same reaction on my return from Russia years ago was worth a few more tears on my part. As Marie saw me in the crowd, her face registered shock. We shared a long embrace, and her whispered “Thank you!” gladdened my heart at having had part in the festal occasion. When they’d gotten Jacob at his orphanage the previous week, he was the only child there: the rest were at camps or with foster families for the summer. My dear friend Julie, also in Russia picking up her three new children, was along for the ride, too, and found it odd to see an orphanage sans children. I sometimes lament our efforts make scarcely a dent in the worldwide orphan population, but that vision of Julie’s was a sneak preview of what we work toward every day with our program.
Due to length, the remainder of this entry will be posted Wednesday.