Wednesday, February 24, 2010

No Chance at a Chance

Bouncing along the back roads of Russia, swerving at the penultimate nanosecond to pass cars we’re tailgating, I’m grateful for the plentiful potholes and our Volga’s poor shocks, as our driver must temper his speed somewhat in heed of them. The day before I’d left home, I’d acquiesced to Hope’s advice to buy insurance for the trip. In the back seat, watching wide-eyed as we surge past a motorized contraption defying categorization, I comfort myself with a promise from the insurance brochure that, should this jaunt end in my demise, repatriation of remains is a covered benefit. Immediately after one of our risky passes, an ambulance flies by. The way we’re driving, I worry we’ll see it again.

We’re ambitious today, visiting four orphanages, the furthest a death-defying three hours south of our home base. So many of our orphans hail from this backwoods institution, I’m anxious to see it. While no orphanage replicates a family, there is a quality continuum, and this one is at the bottom. The orphanage is in a sizable town also housing a large prison; some kids here are orphaned by a parent’s incarceration. Tiny wood dwellings trimmed in blue line the road; at one, an elderly babushka restrains a leashed cow in her postage stamp yard outside the orphanage grounds.

The Volga halts outside the orphanage. Grubby children spill out heavy doors to greet us, and shadow us in. A row of posters bearing Soviet-era safety admonitions hangs just inside, on walls thick with paint. Soiled linoleum, ’70s-style, covers creaky floors; workers in blue house dress uniforms and caps pretend to sweep but eye us warily, without welcome. After several kids’ adoptions, they worry our success will close the orphanage, at the cost of their jobs. Faith navigates the orphanages effortlessly, and we hurry to keep pace with her. I can’t get over how purposefully we race into each, meet the kids on our list, and run out. Here, children form a gauntlet along a corridor, watching us rush by. Many older boys in ill-fitting, shiny suits appear and vie for our attention as we head for the office. A teacher tells us she’s been waiting for us six hours on her day off. It’s a friendly rebuke, and she proudly breaks out an album of her daughter’s weekend wedding. In several photos, the bride is flanked by adoring parents, one of whom will introduce us to kids without any, once we’ve seen her own child. The normalcy of this Russian bride’s life, contrasted with the lives of these orphans, who know no normal, smacks me hard with its inequity.

Several kids from Elaine’s trip, and a few from mine, enter. Egor, nine, clutches a gift from his anxious family, but doesn’t open it until Faith urges him. He beams at the photo of himself and the family, taken in Missouri. Faith tells him they’re excited and coming soon. “They will be my family forever?” he chirps, incredulous. “Forever,” Faith assures, adding that another boy in the orphanage, Sergei, will be his brother ("He Just Won Our Hearts", 7/17/09).

Vasily, ten, is mistakenly summoned with three boys awaiting families. I’d loved him in Missouri, but no one chose him to be a son. When the three with families receive gifts, Vasily alone stands empty-handed, trying heroically to smile, as if it doesn’t matter. Faith produces a trinket, but it’s a sorry substitute for a care package from waiting parents (Solid Gold, 12/1/09).

We begin meeting prospective kids for future trips. The amount of need distresses, but that I’ll have a substantive say in who travels and has a chance at a future, and who stays behind and ends up dying on the streets, is beyond agonizing. Vanya, age unknown, stands in a group outside the door. “Please show us,” he entreats the teacher guarding the entry. He wants to be a welder, and aspires to visit America. He calls Denis, newly in the States, his best friend ("Tell her you want a family, too!", 2/18/10). Andrei, thirteen, is next. He likes to read, but not too much, he says, ironically hastening to add his favorite poet is Pushkin. He dreams of travel. Sergei, ten, likes to read, especially the aptly-titled Reading. Asked if he cooks, we’re told he makes soup from a powder. Andrei, nine, claims he knows English, and scrawls a “w” on paper as proof. He doesn’t yet have a dream. Dima, 15, has wiled away eight years of his childhood in the orphanage, and no longer remembers his parents’ faces. He yearns to ask them why they hid away so long and never visited him. He graduated his class with honor last year, but turning sixteen in less than six months, will graduate from the orphanage without a family. He dreams of seeing his best friend Sergei again. Now in America from one of my trips, and home less than a year at the time of this visit, Sergei is the first child adopted from this orphanage (It's a Boy!, 12/8/08).

Our last subject is Slava. Faith’s first question is his age. “Sixteen,” he says, as my heart sinks. “There’s nothing we can do,” Faith moans, but asks a few more questions, out of courtesy. His dream is to visit home to see what happened to his family. I wonder if he notices how much shorter his interview is than all the others, or if he  realizes donning the suit was in vain. As Faith dismisses him, she tells the doorkeeper sixteen-year-olds cannot enter America on an orphan’s immigrant visa. “I know,” the teacher explains, “but when he begged me, ‘Please show me to them!’ I couldn’t tell him no.” It’s enough to rend the chilliest heart.

We’re still in demand, but hours away from our hotel, with two orphanages yet to visit. As we scurry out, kids trail, requesting pictures with us outside. Faith opens the trunk and they circle, curious what treasures it hides. While Elaine and I wait in the Volga, kids knock on our windows and wave. When Faith climbs in and we drive out, a few kids chase us. I can’t tell if they’re playing, desperate, or both.

Speeding toward our next stop, I am deeply disturbed. The orphanage’s condition is abysmal, but the urgency the children show transcends mere lack of comfort. They’re hopeless, and know it better than the orphans we’ve seen until now. Adoption is a new phenomenon here, and already the kids are clawing to see us, putting on their best clothes, queuing, pleading if they have to, for their chance at a chance.

Most gut-wrenching is Slava, whose unhappy fate Faith described with truth cruel in its brevity: “There’s nothing we can do.” Kids age out of orphanages daily, and it bothers me. A lot. But a desperate face now exemplifies this factoid, a face I’ve just seen for the first time, when it’s already too late even to try. There is no help for Slava, or Dima either. I’m heartsick, and expect Slava to haunt any sleep I eke out in upcoming days.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Tell her you want a family, too!"

In the eleven trips I’ve coordinated, I’ve repeatedly observed quiet, compliant children are in grave danger of being overlooked, while obnoxious kids glide into families.   In all my trips, Denis is unique: his shyness landed him his family.  His hosts Aaron and Robyn heard about the Tulsa Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project through another hosting friend, and signed on shortly before the trip. Like 80% of hosts, they expected to serve only as a bridge between an orphan and an adoptive family, until Denis’s painful reserve stabbed Robyn in the heart. One morning, eyes brimming with tears, she confided she had a quiet child already who, dropped into a similar situation, would never shine and find a family on such a trip. That epiphany, time, and prayer proved the prompts her family needed to pursue adoption of Denis.

Joining Denis on that trip was his best friend, Dmitry. During Dmitry’s visit, he craved hugs, loved laughing, amazed his hosts Lee and Stacey with his artistic prowess, and declared his wish for a car and garage some day. Though initially afraid of the family dachshund, her name was the first he learned, and soon cries of “Louuu-see!” were followed with laughter as she sprang into his lap. Lee and Stacey raved about his attitude, organization, kindness, and enthusiasm for their activities. At the community program the Lighthouse kids present on our American trips, Lee hoped to give a testimonial on his behalf, and seemed genuinely disappointed when I declined. Dmitry, in no demand at age thirteen, returned to Russia with the prayers of his hosts, but without an adoptive family.

In December, after Aaron and Robyn appeared in a Russian court to finalize Denis’s adoption, they left him in the region, as required, and returned to Moscow. Denis, briefly back at the orphanage after spending time with his new family, called our Russian coordinator Love while waiting. Too retiring to ever have pled his own case, but acting with the urgency of one fearing to leave his best friend hopeless, Denis offered Dmitry the phone. As Love spoke with Dmitry, she heard Denis imploring in the background, "Go ahead! Tell her! Tell her you want a family, too!"

In our autumn visit, we saw desperation at Denis and Dmitry’s orphanage we witnessed nowhere else. Kids there made efforts, heartbreaking in their failure, to dress up for us; one boy, already too old for international adoption, sported a shiny polyester suit as he pled with his teacher, “Will you show me to them?” Departing without meeting everybody, kids followed us out the door, some even chasing our car as we drove off.

Waiting in this forlorn place his few last days before his family’s second coming, Denis, erstwhile orphan but now a son, disdained to save only himself. Summoning strength he’d not shown in his own search, now he’d do what he could to pass his blessings on.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mission: Never Accomplished

Yakov, a shriveled goatherd wrapped in an ancient camouflage coat, tended his meager flock along the road to our first orphanage, and seemed more surprised than flattered at our stop. Our driver, having given too little thought to risking our lives behind the wheel, was sufficiently obliging for several photo stops; besides the goats, we posed with the sign at the outskirts of town, and shot the hamlet church and its ten napiform domes. Thousands of miles from home, but within minutes of our target, I was stalling with the dread of a mourner en route to a funeral visitation, pregnant with purpose, but reluctant to consummate. Conversation sputtered minutes from the orphanage, in a dichotomous aura of anticipation and foreboding. While I’d been to an orphanage before, it was to pick up my own kids, not to see the need.

Outside the institution, gas pipes a foot in diameter skimmed the ground, then rose up, forming an unsightly bridge over the dirt road just beyond. Sheep freely wandered as geese rested warily in the street beside their pond, framed at its far end by a motley village. The orphanage, white and red brick, was the most auspicious building in sight, seducing me with sufficient curb appeal to briefly sweat the ethics of past depictions of orphanages as bastions of hopelessness.

Faith sprinted in, with a swelling group of kids shadowing her, and I had to hustle to avoid being lost in labyrinthine stairwells and halls. Young and old welcomed us unprompted with formal hellos as they saw us. Several paired children, each lugging a handled cardboard box holding a meat carcass, greeted us with a pleasant self-confidence that said they had no inkling how squeamish their burdens made us. I wondered if this friendliness was standard for all visitors, or if it was reserved for those from America, who might get them out.

We’d come to see Alexandra, a retiring thirteen, who’d earlier said she wanted a mom and dad from the Lighthouse Project. I’d seen the results of a hundred orphanage interviews before, but mystique surrounded their creation. Since interviews are the deciding factor in a family’s child selection prior to a trip, I always imagined discussions of why we were here, what things we would ask, and what answers would be advantageous, before we rolled.

We invaded Alexandra’s room, a spartan space she shared with one mentally impaired girl, at naptime. Underdressed in pajamas, she self-consciously tugged at them in a futile attempt to cover her knees. Faith greeted her, wordlessly turned on her camera, and started questioning. This minute action evoked a barrage of dissonant emotions: relief at the uncoached purity of the interview mingled with horror at the lack of preparation in her appeal for a life, letdown at the loss of the interview’s mystery alongside hope in sharing nascent steps toward a future, empathy for her losing battle for modesty but delight at her desire, and prayer for her success with a yearn to flee because of her discomfort. Oddly, the interview dredged up a strong and haunting reminder of the first euthanasia I witnessed as a student, prior to being numbed as a veterinarian. I’d anticipated these seemingly disparate events with dread and awe, but found them disturbingly similar, each process lacking the drama to portend the weight of the result.

The interview lobbed a few softballs as I willed Alexandra to excel. We gleaned that she likes red, roses on bushes, cats and dogs, and pictures of foxes. She does not study English, since her school has no teacher. And that was all: these few, unpretentious words encapsulated a petition I worried couldn’t be enough to induce a family to take her. Faith earned a smile when she gave Alexandra a purse, then I awkwardly offered a handful of gum and a hug. Leaving, we popped in to see a boy awaiting his Wisconsin family.

Our whirlwind visit left Elaine and me plenty to ponder on the road to our next stop. In an orphanage with one hundred children, we’d entered two rooms, each housing two children, but focused all effort on one resident. How could the others know that we also cared about them, but that their circumstances would not permit adoption? Did they wonder what heroics garnered Alexandra and the Wisconsin boy American attention? Did Faith’s childish shadows pray she might notice them, and lament our determination to visit just two rooms, with hardly a glance their direction? Did Alexandra puzzle why strangers would bounce in, ask a few questions, and go?

How deflating to realize the humble chance we’d given Alexandra was the only glimmer of hope we’d left at her orphanage. Other souls, equally needy and with futures as bleak, were relegated to barely supporting role status, remembered only for the atmosphere of generalized desperation they helped create.  In one stop, one orphanage, ten minutes at most, my optimism abandoned me.  Our mission would never be fully accomplished.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

At Any Cost

Some days I could shorten my Lighthouse Project phone time by tackling the thorny subject of adoption cost first. International adoption is pricey, and Russia shows the way. While some callers confound me with claims they cannot afford adoption as they bankroll $250,000 annually, others inspire me with adoption plans despite not earning in a year what their process will cost. I’m not unsympathetic: as mom to four children adopted overseas, I still write a check monthly for my adoption loan, though my kids have been home four years.

One friend, mom of three plucked from my trips, believes adoption of older children is very affordable, for all the years before their arrival that she spent nothing on them. Another friend, mom of three Chinese daughters, sells cars, and grits her teeth when her customers lament their inability to afford adoption as they sign for their new wheels.

It’s a matter of priorities.

Struggling with adoption fees hardly makes a family unique; through my eleven Lighthouse trips, four fingers count those who had money in reserve. Eking out existence on a Michigan realtor’s income, I live the difficulties, but grieve at the masses who, hearing a still, small voice, extinguish it, clutching their money when children wait alone, when siblings are separated, and when girls age out and are forced to prostitute themselves. I weary of cost objections as excuses for those who should adopt, but won’t.

Our program works in two regions of Russia, one expensive, the other more. The majority of our work is within our less expensive region; the more expensive region generally requires a third trip and an extra week in-country. Though I have been promoting kids from this region on my last four trips, I have failed to find hosts for any of them. While compiling my list at the outset of each trip, I dutifully include these children, worrying it is hopeless, but believing they deserve a shot. After weeks of failure, when I cull the kids sans families at the end, experience never eases my regret.

I’ve erased eleven-year-old Alena’s name four times.

Seeing her photo once, I asked Randy, “Is this girl cute or funny looking?”

“She’s cute,” he answered, adding, “She looks like you.”

I was unconvinced this was a compliment until I saw her interview. Out of hundreds, Alena’s shines as the second most charming, ever. Calling herself optimistic, her demeanor rendered the comment superfluous, as the longer her translator spoke English, the more smiley Alena became. Playfully confessing laziness when she doesn’t do her homework, she hopes to improve in school, and aspires to college and teaching kindergarten. She loves playing with young children, and dreams of a family with horses; she adores them, though she’s never seen one.

Darling Dmitry, 7, likes green because of the grass. Gone fishing, he was afraid of pike that “bite hands off.” He labels himself brave, while owning his fear of snakes. He likes picking mushrooms and berries, playing with cars and trucks, and having fun. Outdoors, he skis, plays soccer, and skates. When the little soul said he cooks soup, macaroni, pelmini, and fried potatoes, I wondered why he needed to.

Vladimir, 8, Zoya, 7, and Anastasia, 6, are more challenging as a sibling trio. The girls had a difficult start in life; Zoya is more delayed than a typical orphan, though she’d like to be a doctor. Anastasia is curious, wants to read, and hopes to teach. Vladimir likes building snowmen and throwing snowballs. While his mother never visits, he remembered his father washing the floor.

Situations these precious children couldn’t control landed them in orphanages; stumbling blocks dropped in their paths by their country could keep them there. After countless rejections, my promotion of them has become one of apologetic resignation, fretting my efforts will be unrequited, amidst titanic obstacles.

I falter so easily, forgetting God Himself cares for the orphans and hears their cries. All my money is His, and I know firsthand He is in the business of adoption, since He adopted me. When confronted with a caller who fights the high cost of adoption, it’s a reminder of how thankful I should be Jesus didn’t grouse about the higher cost of my adoption, then turn His back and walk away.