Monday, March 29, 2010

Wonderful World

My last day home starts out on an inauspicious note when one of my host families drops the bombshell that they won’t be traveling to host Yana, age seven. Other families would have jumped at the chance to host her, and I turned them away in favor of the defector. Yana’s age and orphanage make her a prime target for Russian foster care; she’ll never last until my June trip. Believing her life might depend on it, I work the phones for five hours I can ill-afford. One family sounds promising; I try to entice them by offering a complementary trip, and derive a short-lived thrill when they consider the offer, ultimately declining due to the short notice. Late afternoon, I get my final “no”; out of time and having exhausted reasonable leads, I concede defeat. In my dejection, I call Elaine, who commiserates patiently with me. While I know the results are in God’s hands, the knowledge things might have ended differently had only I offered Yana to a different family chafes.

Wednesday morning finds me hobbling, having aggravated an old knee injury I sustained during a run-in with a horse in veterinary school. At the airport, I’m offered a wheelchair, but in my vanity refuse, worried I’ll look more lazy than injured. Inching along, I arrive at my gate to await my jaunt from Detroit to Amsterdam. Retreating to a serendipitously appointed phone booth, I score a small desk, seat, pay phone, and plug for my computer. My husband e-mails me a phone card, and I dial with abandon, in the rarified position of seeking activities to fill time. From my phone booth office, I spy a potted Ficus tree sporting the scrawled words “Jesus is Lord” in marker on its trunk, and I’m struck by the incongruity between message and delivery.

My flight to Amsterdam is a non-event. Aeroflot, a Russian airline, operates my connecting flight from Amsterdam to Moscow. They name their aircraft, and I’m charmed when they preface the safety demonstration with an announcement that our “ship” is dubbed Afanasiy Nikitin, after the fifteenth-century Russian explorer. Russians eschew smiling at those they don’t know, branding indiscriminate smilers lunatics, making the country a little chillier. Maria, one of our flight attendants, seeks to change that as she patrols the aisle wearing a perpetual smile.

A British couple with an infant is in my row. The child’s outbursts, timed with 1984-esque distraction prowess, remind me why I like older child adoption. As the baby shrieks rhythmically, the Brits sully their reputation for unfailing composure when the woman has a cow, told there are no vegetarian meals on board. Her withering diatribe finally wipes the smile from Maria’s face. When a meatless meal is conjured up, another attendant presents it with a triumphant look that expects the Brit will be pleased. Alas, two meals were ordered, and the resultant verbal smack down leaves me wincing and praying the attendant’s English is proficient enough to distinguish between their British English, and my American English.

Russians returning from abroad cheer on landing in the motherland, and at touchdown, I join their giddy applause. Entering the terminal, I am pushed along in a stampede toward three open immigration lanes. The line jumping is so brazen and aggressive that the ensuing chaos slows everything. Several immigration officers witness the melee, seemingly powerless to open the other lanes, despite the glaring want. I finally make it to the front of the queue by trebling my width with my carry-ons. Even then, it is with difficulty that I retain position.

Most luggage is out before I get to the baggage claim area; unfortunately, mine is not. After a futile search, I go the lost luggage area. A lady directs me to look again; I have little hope, but don’t possess the Russian skills to argue. Predictably, the luggage is absent, so she directs me to fill out a claim form in three parts. In Russia, inefficiency is a lifestyle; filling a form in triplicate means filling out the same single form three times. I am almost finished when the first worker goes home without explanation. A new worker clocks in, clucks when she sees my paperwork completed improperly, and presents me three clean forms. Russian workers, no matter their station, have a propensity for wordlessly interrupting their service to the polite to assist brassier clientele. During the ordeal, the episode is replayed until I despair of ever leaving the airport. When I am at last dismissed, the command to return to the airport myself to retrieve my bags myself is ringing in my ears.

Our driver Dima knows I’m tired, and he is thoughtful enough to let me lie down on the trip from the airport to the hotel, covering me with a blanket and giving me a furry Russian hat for a pillow. When the radio comes on, Louis Armstrong is crooning “It’s a Wonderful World.” It’s a timely reminder that, minor inconveniences in my journey notwithstanding, I am blessed to see the world again with a program I love, striving to make the future wonderful for our Lighthouse Project kids.

Friday, March 19, 2010


I field scads of adoption-related calls; most want preschool children, younger than we typically have available to travel on our trips. But ten days ago, three little treasures were added, ages five and under, all available to travel last minute on our March Moscow trip. Two of them were born of HIV-positive mothers, and had tested positive themselves. Without much hope, I called a fussy family who’d been entreating me for a young girl for months. Even with my low expectations, their response floored me in its heartlessness.

“Why in the world would you put a child like that on the trip?” the speaker on the other end of the line interrupted, demanding caustically. It wasn’t a polite or genuine question; it was accusatory, implying some children were beneath our efforts. My chiding that I believe all children deserve families was countered by a snorted retort, “Well, I never heard of it before. They’re under a death sentence anyway.” I hung up, hackles raised not because of their disinterest, but because they’d deemed a little child unworthy not just of their family, but of any family at all.

Thankfully, the voice was as wrong as it was rude. Dr. Larry Gray, of the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital International Adoption Clinic, says HIV in America has become just a chronic condition, something he deems more manageable than diabetes. He opines HIV patients nowadays should expect to get married, bear uninfected children, grow old, and see their grandchildren.

Yuliana and Artem, both five, are promisingly characterized by a teacher as “well developed”, a rare description for orphans so subject to institutional delays. Yuliana, especially, ought to have been snatched up; young girls are, by far, the most coveted children. Requests for them grossly outpace those for all other kids put together. Both children are adorable, but HIV-positive; even with a reduction in adoption fees, no family intends to visit them.

Project Hopeful (, a volunteer organization run by parents who have adopted children infected with HIV, is on a mission to find families for others like them. Traci, adoptive mother of five and awaiting the homecoming of a young girl with the virus, this afternoon filled me in about the risk of adopting HIV-positive children, and their long-term prognosis.

HIV is transmitted from mother to child during childbirth, through breastfeeding, through sexual intercourse, and through blood contact. Since the virus cannot survive air exposure, parents tending to wounds need take only the same precautions they’d take in dealing with any child’s wounds. Dr. Gray sites studies showing that even 5 cc of infected blood injected directly into a recipient’s veins still confer just a 5% chance of contracting the virus. A typical child patient, once assessed and stabilized, could expect quarterly doctor’s visits for monitoring, and would likely take medication to contain viral count. But properly monitored and medicated, infected kids have virtually no probability of developing full-blown AIDS. Disclosure of the condition is not legally required in most cases, not even to dentists, schools, or daycare providers.

Not understanding the disease, I worried about holding the kids’ hands next week, but was reassured as I found Traci’s optimism far more contagious than the virus. She has a friend with several children; while two are HIV-positive, Traci claims they are impossible to differentiate from the others. Other friends of hers, newly home with their children, blog about the adjustments; HIV is relegated to moot afterthought. Kids first, now sons and daughters, the HIV infections they hardly notice are minor details in the bigger picture of becoming a family, of giving a child with a need the home every child longs for.

I’ve puzzled at the injustice of life, how a child’s special need consigns him to an orphanage, and then conspires to keep him there. Right now, Yuliana and Artem need more Tracis, Dr. Grays, and Project Hopefuls; friends who act on their beliefs that being born with a special need can’t make you unworthy.
Yuliana and Artem need host families for the Moscow Lighthouse Project trip March 25-31.   Interested families need a valid passport in hand, and would need to apply for a visa by Saturday, March 20.  If you have even slight interest in going to Moscow to meet these children and sightsee with them, please call Becky at (616) 245-3216 as soon as possible.