Monday, September 28, 2009

Peppered With Love

Nicole called me first September 11, 2008; it’s in my notes but the date was easy to remember anyway. She was young enough that I wasn’t sure how serious she was, but she told me she’d always been interested in adoption. I could relate to that, though, and we had an encouraging conversation.

Within days, Nicole and husband Randy signed up to host a ten-year-old boy named Alexei. She was giddy as she outlined her plans for him for the week. It crushed them more than the other families when he was one of those kept behind in the orphanage due to last November’s quarantine. At the end, they hosted another child instead, but Alexei had already stolen their hearts. When he finally arrived in Tulsa for his trip in January, he was an obvious fit for their family. On the return flight to Russia, he flashed business cards with Randy and Nicole’s photos on them to the translator, insisting he wanted them to be his family.

Two weeks ago Alexei could put away his cards. Randy and Nicole arrived in Russia, went to his orphanage, and were welcomed like dignitaries. When he saw them, he bounded to them and leaped into Nicole’s arms, hitting his head hard on her lip. For the rest of the trip, she savored how happy her new son was to see them every time she noticed her sore mouth. Though they’d worked for this moment for months, Nicole was nonetheless taken aback by the intensity of her love for Alexei as he thanked them repeatedly for adopting him.

There were other kids at the orphanage and they swarmed the American visitors. One especially winsome boy proudly exclaimed all the kids had washed and put on their best clothes before they arrived. He asked them if they were Alexei’s mama and papa, but haunted Nicole when he added, “Do you like us?” I could envision the little chap and the look on his face as he queried; the boy was Denis (yellow circle on shirt), my favorite child from the March Grand Rapids trip. Several of the thronging orphans tried to curry favor with Randy and Nicole, making it clear they wanted to go along, “auditioning” for their own chance at a family. Kids never understand how much work has gone into the adoption before parents ever come through the orphanage door.

After court, they returned to Moscow, where Alexei purchased a gift for his new mom. They visited the traditional Moscow biggies, played football, and cuddled as Nicole counted his freckles, losing track at 122. Friday, Alexei arrived home in Tulsa, with a new, American name meaning, “saved by God.” Seldom are names so aptly chosen. Returning home to Grand Rapids late Thursday from my own vacation, I could not be in Tulsa in body, but was present in spirit.

So to Randy and Nicole: Congratulations! Your heart for orphans shines through as you’ve helped with the Lighthouse Project and now taken the ultimate step in orphan ministry. While your time in the orphanage was short, remember the kids who touched you in Russia. Even a minute with such neediness leaves you forever changed.

To Alexei: Welcome to your new family and country! We promise to keep working diligently to find families for the friends you left behind. You’ll be proud to see your parents are a part of that.

And to Denis: Yes, Alexei’s mama and papa did like you and your friends, more than you’ll know. They sent photos for me to pass on to your own mama and papa in Michigan. It won’t be long before your friends wash again, donning their best to meet the new parents coming to the orphanage, for you.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Orphan Trains

Lack of host families cut six kids from the October-November Moscow Lighthouse Project trip last week. The brutally painful deliberation caused equivocation much of the day, but in the end, Alena, Andrei, siblings Vitaly and Alexandra, Dmitry K., and Dmitry V. will travel in January to Moscow, or the US if the swine flu travel moratorium ends soon enough. The kids will wait longer, and if all goes well, avoid foster care until their turn at Lighthouse finally comes.

Recognizing we have no viable option other than to wave the white flag crushes me, especially with Alena, as I liked her so much. Under different circumstances, she might already be my daughter; we would do famously together, since we share a love of laughter, and both our hopes spring eternal. Unlikely as I now am to be her mom, I still yearned to see her and find her the lady who would.

Nine kids still scheduled to travel hail from a region twelve hours from Moscow by train. I’ve taken the train there twice for our own adoption; for a spoiled American, the trip is a grand adventure. Traveling overnight in a private compartment with two beds, the clackety-clack of the wheels and the rocking of the car induce sleep once you’re sufficiently tired to suppress your adrenalin. A doily substitutes as a tablecloth at the compartment’s table in miniature, where you take tea and meals. Warmth is guaranteed, summer or winter. Smoking is neither disallowed nor frowned upon.

As the Russian countryside whizzes by, your window frames a living museum into your child’s “normal.” Adoptive parents of older kids have missed so much of their son or daughter’s life. We naturally feel shortchanged fretting we have missed every first: steps, words, a lost tooth, a school day. While it’s tempting to pretend our children had no existence before us, it’s disingenuous and counterproductive. Seeing the country that molded them and made them the person we love is an antidote to our mental dishonesty, and a treasure to seize with abandon. Russia has rather blatant problems, but a country that allows its greatest asset, its children, to leave for the chance of better life elsewhere is most surely doing something right.

Train stations in Russia’s larger cities have huge platforms where trains queue. Disenfranchised orphans live under these platforms, kids who have either aged out of orphanages or run away from institutions or abusive families, trying to make their own way in squalid orphan “cities” beneath the feet of those who travel between the regions. Russian social workers claim large metropolises like Moscow and St. Petersburg have at least as many orphans on the street as in the orphanages, and train stations are the end of the line for many. Traveling here, an overactive imagination is not required to wonder how many kids eye you, kids for whom help arrived too late, if at all. Life in the train city is hellish, as kids spend their days stealing, strung out from sniffing glue, or trying to eke out a meager existence in any way imaginable.

I intend to go to my kids’ region this fall and visit a few of the orphanages where we routinely work. I’ll pass through the Moscow train station, the orphans there little knowing my journey purposes to keep others from joining them. Traversing my kids’ region, I’ll wonder which ramshackle house was theirs before we adopted them; wonder which places I see, they’ve seen. In adoption, questions always outnumber answers. But knowing the joy my kids have brought, and seeing what might have been for them and what already is for others, both questions and answers are rendered superfluous by the quest for families for the kids for whom our October trip comes a little too soon.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Socking Despair

Artom huddled in bed in the evening, knitting socks while his roommates played, unshamed by the eleven-year-old’s industry. His handiwork provides a little comfort from the cold, but is impotent to combat the emotional frigidity that permeates everything. In his region, vodka is a staple and cheaper than milk. Accordingly, children become social orphans when their parents prioritize drink over the needs of their offspring, forfeiting their parental rights. Summers here are short, and vitamin D deficiency rife amongst the inhabitants, who seldom see the sun. The orphanage abuts a prison in this forsaken North Russia village populated by aggressive thieves not yet behind bars. Many orphans’ parents are imprisoned, but not for the political “crimes” that once doomed Soviet-era prisoners to live, work, and die here.

Years ago, there was no industry in the region, but in the 1930s, Josef Stalin brought jobs, of a sort, when he decided to connect five large lakes there by a canal stretching 141 miles from the White Sea to the Baltic. A megalomaniac’s monument, the canal offered the bonus of disposing of Russians whose existences Stalin found inconvenient. While some of the more than 100,000 sent to work on the canal were criminals, more were intellectuals, political prisoners, and victims of reprisals and informants. Ill-equipped with little more than pickaxes, shovels, and rudimentary wheelbarrows, prisoners downed trees, chipped through rock and frozen earth, and hauled it all away, completing the 30-mile artificial stretch of the canal in 20 months.

In the backwards organization of the gulag system, criminals ran the camps; others would have realized, and cared, that much of the workforce was comprised of the persecuted upright. Their families seldom knew where they’d been taken, and whether they’d lived or died. Enduring inhuman conditions, tens of thousands perished from overwork, starvation, disease, and freezing.

One of the ironies is how little the canal benefits shipping, given its insufficient depth for most ships, but how mightily it affects the orphanages of the region. Stalin’s heavy hand populated the area in the early years of the twentieth century but orphaned thousands in the process. Many of the region’s residents are descendants of those who somehow survived the gulag and Stalin’s canal project.

Faith, the translator for all our Lighthouse Project trips, grew up in the Soviet Union long after the canal’s completion, but the surrounding area was such a feared byword for the oppression of the state that her family countenanced no reference to it, so great was the fear of ending up there. When she visited the region in February, interviewed Artom, and saw him at work on his socks, she fought the sensation she was walking on skulls. Gloom smothered everything with a despair denuded of hope. At the orphanage, a strangely invitingly-named shell of a structure, Artom’s teacher welcomed her, exhibiting wooden objects carved and given her by prisoners with the decorum to feel remorse over orphaning their children via their prison sentences.

Meanwhile, palpable despondency reigns. Artom knits his socks, trusting he’ll better himself by the exercise. He likely hasn’t given it much thought, but his busyness with yarn and needle is faith’s defiant act. Even a waif, still hoping adoptive parents seek him out, can play his bit role to help himself, his friends, and his region shrouded in hopelessness.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cutting Dreams

With so many things I love about the Lighthouse Project, it seems petty to blog about the one I don’t. But since it slapped me last week and threatens again now, I call it fair.

Coordinating Lighthouse Project trips is exhaustingly labor intensive; oddly, the bulk of the work is seeking host families. Through nine trips, I have found I need to speak with ten families on average to find one host. My goal is finding one per week; a good week nets two.

Though I am never slothful, my efforts aren’t always requited. At those times, my friend Hope calls; as director of the program, she has a gigantic heart for children. She’ll tell me we need to cut kids from the trip because they can’t travel without a host. Sometimes she spends sleepless nights thinking about it. Before, she’d choose who was off; lately, as I have gained experience, she’s asked me to decide myself. Crueler still, sometimes I have to rank them.

So I ask myself, which girl should seek employment in prostitution when she’s not adopted? Which boy might be part of the 10% of aged-out orphans who commit suicide? Which child, needing just a chance, should I deny?

It’s not exactly a feel-good job.

This past week, I had to remove kids to eliminate need for six families, but I cheated a little and just picked six kids. I settled on a sibling group; Andrei, a boy who already came twice; Alexandra, a girl about whom I knew nothing; Dmitry B., a boy Hope liked; and a girl who was ill during her interview. Even after prayerfully weighing each situation and doing my best, there was no satisfaction.

When Hope saw my list, she wanted Andrei on the trip. It worked out splendidly: within hours, a Missouri family who had been praying almost two months called to say they wanted to adopt him. He was off the trip, but for the right reasons. (Transformed, 11/8/08) Hope said Dmitry B. was a “good boy,” so he’d travel, too. That day, I saw Alexandra's interview; ultimately, I had ranked her first to come off the trip, since lacking information makes promotion impossible. After seeing her, I couldn’t leave her behind. While she was not charming, she exuded neediness, and need always trumps charm. Alexandra told about a group of younger orphan girls she’d befriended; she visits, eats with, and plays with one particularly special five-year-old. Alexandra hoped to be included on the trip, and she wants a mama and papa. The neediness cooked my plan; she would travel, too.

As I ponder how to champion our upcoming trip to Moscow, I have no experience to summons. I have statistics on my Lighthouse Project trips to the States, but it seems risky to extrapolate between US and Russian versions. Finding hosts willing to travel to Moscow has been an uphill battle, even though the cost to fly, stay, sightsee, and eat in Russia is only slightly more than hosting here.

Hope told me yesterday to decide again whom we retain for Moscow. Having a host family keeps a child on the trip, but now the discussion revolves around which kids are even options for travelers. So while the children’s fates seem more God’s prerogative than mine, tomorrow I make choices that feel all too reflective of my impotence.

Whom should I pick?

Evgeniy, 12, whose enthusiasm I loved, who says he tries “so hard” in school? His dream is for everyone to be good, and to make the world a better place. Should I rob him of his chance to have his world be a better place?

Maybe Dmitry B., 13, the good boy? When asked how long he’d been in the orphanage, he immediately gave the exact date he’d entered, and added he had no regrets. He said he hoped someone would “take him” and he’ll get to live with a good family, neither too rich nor too poor. Siblings would be a bonus.

Vasily, 10, who won me over in Missouri with his jolly answer and firm handshake in response to my butchered Russian greeting? Vasily had a family, but lost them when another child became available.

Dmitry K., 13, who counts as his goals to do better in school and help the poor? This aspiring Egyptian archeologist likes honest, fair people and dislikes fighting.

Alena, 10, with one of the most charming interviews I’ve ever seen, out of hundreds? Her effervescence, optimism, smile, and giggle oozed charm; if we could adopt now, I would not be writing about her.

Anton, 12, who feels like my nephew, since my sister-in-law hosted him? During a school visit, the gym teacher invited him to play volleyball. She thought he’d be too self-conscious, but he leaped up, took his spot without the gym clothes everyone else wore, and made a real contribution to the game.

Vitaly, 7, and Alexandra, 5, whose ages should have led to a host long ago? I know little about them; how do I advocate without anything to say? I cannot shake the feeling they’re goners.

So tomorrow will dawn, and I’ll answer Hope’s call with less enthusiasm than usual. I’ll do my part, cognizant no sense of accomplishment awaits. I’ll just hang up the phone, feeling guilty for having done my job.

I love the Lighthouse Project.

But not this.