Friday, December 25, 2009

One Small Child

While much of the Christian world is commemorating the birth of a baby adopted by His earthly father 2,000 years ago, the Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas January 7. For most Russians, today is like any other, but for a nine-year-old boy from a forsaken hamlet, this December 25 will be one to treasure always.

An orphan most of his life, two years ago, Yuri, then seven, looked out his orphanage window and recognized a family he had met on a Lighthouse Project trip to Wisconsin. Elated they had come for him, he bounded from the building, leaped into their arms, and found they were there for another child. Devastated by his despondency, our entire program intensified efforts to find his family. Subsequently, he was scheduled for three different trips, though illness always precluded his travel. When an orphanage director’s fiat later prohibited Yuri, an insulin-dependent diabetic, from traveling again, promoting him became more rigorous, since any family would now need to visit him in the motherland, rather than the States. After impassioned conversations with scores of families, one finally promised to adopt him, but abandoned the process after several months.

One year later, in desperation, I wrote about Yuri in this forum (Waiting Heart, Wrong Arms, 5/8/09). In June, Aaron and Robyn, adopting a child from my January 2009 Tulsa trip, read the post. In faith, recognizing him as their son, they visited him in Russia. On their first morning together, an awakening Yuri opened his eyes cautiously, fearing he had sabotaged a magnificent dream. But seeing Robyn’s smile, he beamed, chirped “Mama!” and stretched out his arms for a hug. It was real. He had a family.

While Yuri had waited much longer, my role as matchmaker was two years coming, and wholly satisfying. A much-loved aunt, to whom my mom donated a kidney, is a lifelong diabetic, so I felt a deep connection though I had never met him. In October, when I visited his orphanage, Yuri was the child I hoped to see; while I am not especially maudlin, I brushed away tears as Faith introduced me as a friend of his family. Gifted a shy smile by this boy we’d hoped to help forever, it was my most gratifying Lighthouse moment.

Celebrating the birth of another adoptee this day, our presents recall that first Christmas when the greatest gift was given. Early this morning, half a world away, another gift was lovingly bestowed and joyously accepted, mirroring God’s own compassion. While we were still sleeping, Aaron and Robyn became Yuri’s parents in a Russian courtroom. His wait over, his leap into the wrong arms history, his life in a family just beginning, a world of promise awaits this one small child.

Yuri, it’s real. You have a family. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2009


Before my journey to Russia, Hope prepped me for visiting the orphanages. She cautioned me the emotionally grueling visits would exhaust, eye-to-eye with the orphans, their needs, and the realization of our impotence to aid more than a fraction of them. On what to expect from kids, she mentioned some would be desperate to meet us, and others desperate to avoid us. Warned by misguided caretakers that Americans adopt children for their body parts, these sorry souls would come shaking, convinced we were sizing them up with nefarious intent. Thankfully, our visits thrilled most kids; some went through heart-rending extents to be noticed.

Angelina, nine, goaded into the interview room, was more prominent for her reticence. Slightly rotund, her shaggy yellow sweater exacerbated the effect. Barely darkening the door, she had to be coaxed the rest of the way. Sidling by Elaine and me, her furtive glances left little doubt she perceived us as threats.

Faith’s brilliant manner with children encouraged her to open up a little, though her voice stayed thin and unsure. I raged inwardly when an insensitive worker in the room, with no personal stake in Angelina’s future, spoke incessantly and raucously into her phone. While there had been no interruptions of the more self-assured children, the loud discourse would have fazed anyone trying to put a best foot forward. Even knowing the child’s timid manner, a banal conversation still outweighed her need to excel in an interview that might save her life. I yearned to press the “mute” button on the worker, hug Angelina, and assure her we would help her, but none of these were feasible.

Between loud interjections and guffaws in the din behind her, we learned Angelina is a third grader, likes school, and loves math and Russian. Asked if she cooks, she nodded, since she brews tea. Reciting a poem about a rainy autumn, she almost proudly told us memorization comes easily. She builds houses for her dolls, adding she teaches them to keep order in their homes. Angelina shares with her best friend, and carefully guards their secrets. I doubted she’d heard the phrase “starving artist” when she admitted she’s not good at drawing, but still plans a career in art, since “it’s a very good job.” At the end, Faith asked her to smile; the strained result exposed the effort cooperating cost.

Afterward left unheralded until the waning hours of my January trip promotions, shy Angelina is easily overlooked, and lacking the confidence to ever self-promote. If the orphanage workers prioritize socializing over helping her succeed, and if I remember only the flashy, outgoing kids, it’s a cinch Angelina will linger, unloved, unnoticed, and wondering if she’s really as insignificant as everyone else acts.

Friday, December 18, 2009


With the clock ticking, three orphans hope to travel to Moscow on our Lighthouse Project trip in January. Without host families, they are unlikely to make the journey. Families have until Monday, December 21, to sign up, and need passports in hand now to make the trip.

Alexander M., age 13, is described by Love, our Russian coordinator, as a “wonderful” boy. She was so sad when she saw he was not included on our initial trip list that I decided it was mandatory he be given a chance to come. Alexander is described by a teacher as a friendly boy, usually in a good mood, who needs a family very much. When asked if he has many friends, he said yes, explaining “the whole orphanage is my friend!”

Evgeniy, 12, has lived in the orphanage six years since his mother died. He would love to have a family. His dream is that nobody in the world would be bad, and he would like to make the world a brighter and happier place. He is my favorite child I met on my recent trip to nine orphanages in Russia.

Alexander Z., 10, is in fourth grade. He enjoys math, reading, Russian, and art. He would like to work at a factory when he gets older so he can produce something helpful. He likes friends who are kind, reliable, and don’t fight. Sledding and skiing are favorite winter pastimes. He knows how to milk cows, speaks a little English, and likes playing soccer. On our recent Moscow trip, he had a quiet, genuine charm, was helpful in the kitchen, and was an absolute pleasure to be around.

For more information on these children or our January 13-18 trip, please call Becky at (616) 245-3216.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ray of Light

Nikolai, ten, lived in foster care, helping as he could, even caring for a cow he was afraid to milk, but after three years, was returned to the orphanage. The lady he stayed with cashed government stipend checks for his care, spent years of her life with him, and took the sweet name Mama, but such considerations didn’t trump her distaste of his growing appetite, her complaint when she left him. He was disappointed and confused, though it wasn’t the first time he’d been deflated by someone he called Mama.

Faith met him in September along with another boy who’d shared his foster home; the two thought erroneously they were brothers. When Nikolai saw a woodpecker, he was overjoyed to show Faith, to whom he wanted to explain everything. He didn’t like television, preferring instead to comb the orphanage library for books he hadn’t read. The fourth grader named math, Russian, and reading his favorite subjects, and The World Around Us his favorite book. A very good student himself, Nikolai preferred smart, helpful friends obedient to their parents. The athletic boy reveled in being soccer goalie, hunted mushrooms, and aspired to be a bodyguard to keep people safe. For all the kids she meets, I had never heard Faith rave about any like she did those two. Calling them “very bright, winners, curious, really great kids, intelligent, and with very great potential,” she tied the package with her belief that both would “achieve great things.”

Nikolai visited Moscow in October with the Lighthouse Project, a ray of light on a trip where the sun itself ventured out only once. While we awaited the host families’ arrival the first day, I shared Pop Rocks with the kids; Nikolai beamed when he felt the candy convulsing in his mouth. When I washed dishes in the hotel, he tried to wrest the scrub pad from me to clean his own dishes; he seemed mortified that someone might think him irresponsible. I lost track of the times he willingly gave up his seat on bus rides. I wondered if it was genuine until, from the back of the bus, I saw him vacate his front bench as an elderly lady boarded. Down a birch-lined boulevard, spotting a squirrel, he gesticulated with such glee no one in our group had heart to mention every American yard has several. Though he oozed charm from every pore and was never without a smile, with several more children than hosts, Nikolai wasn’t chosen for adoption on his first trip.

So with just days to find hosts for kids seeking only a chance, I’m scouring the States for someone Nikolai can call “Mama” forever.

See short video of Nikolai here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Aching for the Right Soul

At the last orphanage on our last day in the region, my relief at our completed task engendered an unseemly inertia. We’d interviewed the kids on our list and were just killing time before heading to the train station. With our ten Lighthouse charges, we readied for the overnight journey to Moscow, anxious to meet the host families arriving for our inaugural Lighthouse Project trip to Russia. Rain had been falling all day, and darkness now hid its slide into snow. Lounging on the floor in the girls’ living room, my gumption had set with the sun, my journal burgeoned with notes, and I’d long ago reached empathy overload. Katya, fourteen, stood by herself, longing to be noticed and chosen for an interview, but sans the panache to solicit one.

Faith drew her in when I wasn’t even looking. Emerging unwillingly at first from my emotional lethargy, Katya swiftly mesmerized me with her needy profundity. In the orphanage just six months, she lived with her biological mother until the woman vanished two years ago; only recently, Katya, then living with a grandmother, learned she’d died. Now, even her grandmothers don’t visit, since their ages preclude travel to the orphanage. Queried about her dream, she confided, “A family,” in one of her quickest answers; most of the others were occasion for pensive reflection. Katya attended a music school for six years, learning to play the piano. Famous for her last name, meaning “haystack,” she dislikes both the fame and the name. She believes peace and good communication would make the world better, but doesn’t believe in God, adding her mother never told her He existed.

Counter intuitively, most orphans report they like their orphanages, though I consider this more an indictment of their previous circumstances than an endorsement of institutional life. Katya, still trying to get adjusted, was emphatic she dislikes the orphanage. “It’s difficult to find the right soul for you,” she lamented, meaning the hardest part of orphanage life is finding a soul mate. Faith encouraged that with patience and persistence, she would find that kindred spirit. Asked about her desire to go to America, Katya shook off her melancholy deportment with a spirited, “Yes, with all my heart!” and demonstrated her suitability for American life by reciting a few words she knew in English. At the end, she motioned she wanted to hug me, following the lead of another girl who had latched on to Elaine. As she squeezed me, I felt the hypocrite in allowing my exhaustion to excuse my apathy.

Pondering our orphanage visits on the ride to the train, I knew I’d found in Katya the child whose outlook could most be improved by having someone take time to really care. While her orphanage was the best appointed of the nine we visited, her ache for a soul mate witnessed that the comforts proudly exhibited there were vain window dressings shrouding barren, hopeless souls.

I can find her a soul who will care. With God’s help, I can, and I must.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I LOVE This Kid

Twelve-year-old Evgeniy sits thoughtfully before us as Faith fires questions and I scrawl notes. The language barrier aids me, giving me double the time to write as Faith says everything in Russian, then English. With Elaine sitting behind me, I scribble, “I LOVE this kid!” in the margin of my book. A bit sophomoric, perhaps, but I will her to know, and now. The more he says, the more insistently I underline “LOVE.” We interview a gaggle of kids in the nine orphanages we visit before the Lighthouse Project trip to Moscow, and Evgeniy emerges as the single best interview we get.

Mom admonished, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” and Evgeniy embodies the truism of her advice. Confident, not cocky, and considerate, not brash, Evgeniy tilts his head, engrossed in the queries. Furrowing brow, he answers, then punctuates with a smile. In this beguiling way, we learn he wants to build houses, loves reading books of all stripes, enjoys “farm duties,” and has a slew of friends. With his personality, I see why.

When I first saw Evgeniy, he was similarly charming, and I promoted him as my favorite child for the October-November trip. Back then, he said he’d lived at the orphanage the six years since his mother’s death, and he’d love to have a family again. He bakes cookies, and likes gardening and eating carrots. A church neighbors the orphanage, and orphans at times attend; Evgeniy believes God created everything. When asked his dream then, he wished everyone worldwide would be good, and that he could make the world a brighter and happier place. Now, Evgeniy dreams of America; he knows some English, and would like to travel and practice it more.

In his original interview, he was “trying so hard” in school, but found Russian and math most difficult. Now, Faith allows me a question, so I request a description of a teacher he likes. Naming one, he says he chooses her because she is demanding, adding he appreciates how well she prepares her students. Said instructor teaches Russian, one of the classes he listed last year as especially challenging. Now, the Russian teacher is favorite, not because she’s easiest, but because she’s toughest. This maturity garners Evgeniy my most emphatic underlining yet. I’ve been studying Russian myself, and could benefit from a little goading under the tutelage of his teacher. I ask him, in passable Russian, if he speaks English. “I’m Zhenya,” he answers, using his nickname, as the interview concludes. He shakes Elaine’s hand, not mine, since I am still feverishly writing. I am delighted by Evgeniy, and like him even better than last time.

At the end, a worker strides in. I’ve not met her before, and find her a dour, joyless soul. I start to offer a Russian pleasantry, but she adamantly refuses it and I forget my lines. Unprepared for this reception, I improvise as she bids us sit. With her dictatorial demeanor, I comply instantly. Faith explains to her that I have coordinated the Moscow trip, and the newcomer unleashes a tirade with an icy glare my direction. Faith apologetically translates words that sting me, and since I’d reserved my most impassioned promotion for Evgeniy, it hardly seems my doing that he is still hostless. I stumble through a witless excuse, believing with foreign language on my side, anything is preferable to silence. Ostensibly translating my words, Faith leaves me a shaking, and grateful, beneficiary of her speed on her feet. The worker is not amused, though that doesn’t appear unusual, and I’m rescued for now, and waved from her presence. Needing no second invitation, I bolt out with a little shiver.

As we hightail it back to the car, Faith tells me not to worry, that this worker doesn’t like anyone. Seeing Evgeniy’s cheer, and the curmudgeon who could wrest joy from St. Nicholas, I appreciate him and his irrepressible spirit even more. I want to help him out of here, not to avert her wrath or earn her accolades, but for him: for a good boy, who appreciates those who bring out his best, and who, after six years in this institution, still thinks he can make the world a brighter and happier place.

I LOVE this kid.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Solid Gold

Vasily, Daniil, Vladimir, and Sergei stood in the orphanage office. As alumni of Elaine’s July Missouri trip, all were summoned when Elaine, Faith, and I arrived in late October, bearing gifts for the boys with families. As each boy accepted his present, he received an all-important promise that someone in America remembered him, and was working toward his return to their family. The gifts handed out, Vasily stood there empty-handed. He didn’t have a family, and was mistakenly called. Faith mined in her bag and found a trinket, a sorry afterthought without a family's well-wish. As the other kids beamed, I could not begrudge them their elation, but there was something amiss as Vasily politely smiled alongside, small, alone, with nothing and no one.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Vasily had a family a few weeks after the Missouri trip, but a child they had been waiting for subsequently became available, and he was selected, rather than Vasily. While it was a reflection on the Russian system rather than on either Vasily or the erstwhile family, reality is no one waits for him, or readies for his return.

I loved Vasily when I met him in July; in this space months ago, I proclaimed him my favorite child on the trip (Rolla, 7/11/09). With his never-say-die spirit, he won my heart the moment we met. Newly arrived in Missouri, I was waiting at the hotel when he and his host mom drove up. I greeted him in Russian, and instead of assuming a condescending air toward my Spartan command of his language, he grinned, assured me he was well, and offered the firmest handshake a ten-year-old could muster.

All the other kids, save one, found families.

After he’d returned to Russia, Elaine and I brainstormed, but were hard-pressed to recall specific anecdotes about him. There was nothing flashy or obnoxious in him, leaving us void of a storyline. But we mutually retained memories of his omnipresent smile, cooperative spirit, unfailing positivity, willing participation, and verve for everything he tried. “How can you argue with solid gold?” Elaine reckoned, when we realized we remembered character traits, not stories.

While our first adoption from Vasily’s orphanage occurred only a year ago, several are now complete, and more pending, from this hamlet far in the region’s southern reaches. Staff there is anxious; too many adoptions on our part spells unemployment on theirs. It happened before in this region; my kids’ old orphanage closed this June. The exodus of children for America rendered the orphanage and its personnel obsolete. That’s success for the Lighthouse Project, though workers who eke out their meager existences on the backs of orphans take a less congratulatory view. Ten days ago, Hope, the Lighthouse Project director, informed me no kids from Vasily’s orphanage would be on our January trip, the result of unrest and ill-ease begotten by our recent spate of adoptions there. I e-mailed Elaine the news, noting only how devastated I was for this boy.

Days later, Hope told me our gem of a Russian coordinator, Love, had appealed the decision, asking if Vasily could travel, one more time. After he’d believed he had a family, it was unfathomable he not get a second chance at a future. Love’s sweetness is irresistible, and her request was honored.

So the final obstacle between Vasily and Moscow is finding his host family.

And how can you argue with solid gold?