Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mouths of Babes

Victoria’s smile revealed she was missing her two front teeth, and she spoke with a lisp as she answered her questioner without a hint of shyness. For a young seven-year-old, she was unusually open, sang without cajoling, and was a most engaging interview subject. The first grader likes her teacher and loves school. Russian schools value memorization of poetry, and most interviews of young children feature at least one recitation; praised by the interviewer after her first poem, Victoria clapped for herself, and launched headlong into a second. Asked about a new friend, Victoria puzzled a moment, and then confessed she didn’t remember her name. Ironically, she wore a shirt emblazoned with a drawing of an elephant and the cryptic English words, “Don’t want to forget me am an elephant.” As the interview was ending, she neatened her pigtails in preparation for photos the interviewer would take.

After Victoria’s turn, her sister Alexandra, nine, arrived back at the orphanage from school, where she’s in second grade. Asked what subjects she liked, she rattled off painting, reading, math, and Russian language without an instant’s hesitation. At her orphanage’s library, she checks out books of fairy tales. She likes watching Chip and Dale cartoons and playing. Several of the orphanages where we work have animals; Alexandra enjoys feeding the dogs and kittens at hers. She easily remembered her best friend, sister Victoria. During free time at school or the orphanage, they visit together. Alexandra added it’s her pleasure to help Victoria when she needs it. As her interviewer translated this, Alexandra smiled sweetly.

The girls arrived at the orphanage a few months ago, after their biological mother’s rights were terminated. At the court hearing which effected this deprival, their mother did not show up to contest allegations of neglect, nor did she trouble herself to inform the court that she would be absent.

As is too frequently the situation with the kids we serve, the one who should have cared most for the girls did not care enough to fight to keep them. So in an orphanage without their mother, little Alexandra does what she can to help her littler sister, only too pleased she has the chance.

Alexandra and Victoria are able to travel on our November 9-15 Lighthouse Project trip to Moscow, provided they have a host family within the next few days.   For more information on the trip, these girls, or other children, please call Becky at (616) 245-3216 this week.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

They Have to Love Children

A wet snow descended at the close of our three days visiting orphanages. During the drive, Faith briefed me on a sibling trio she’d promised to help find a family for ages ago. We were coming to visit them, to do a picture retake of another sibling group, and to collect three kids for our first reverse Lighthouse Project trip to Moscow. School was history for the week, and as Faith opened the orphanage door, music pounding in celebration slapped us in the face. Kids spilled out into the hallway from several rooms to see us; several I recognized from old interviews I’d watched.

There was more protocol to suffer here than at some places we visited, as the staff graciously insisted on feeding us first. We had sated our appetites on the way, though a bulging stomach was least of my objections when tepid chicken soup awash in fat was set before me. I scarcely had time to resign myself to the greasy atrocity when an ante-upping plate appeared: a pickle and tomato, both steaming, paired with chilled mashed potatoes and still-scaled herring. It felt immoral to discard meat, lest an animal perish in vain, but the fish’s odor, aesthetics, and temperature worked wonders for my powers of rationalization. When our server briefly excused herself, Faith, eyeing the fish banished to the side of my plate, swapped her scales for my herring, salving my conscience in one deft exchange.

Formalities mercifully over, a parade of children entered. Those awaiting their families’ arrival appeared with confident smiles, lavishing hugs of recognition upon us. Others, not yet slated for a trip, made more circumspect entrances. One girl, leaving with us this afternoon, was Larisa, ten. The elfin brunette piqued my interest during an earlier interview, allowing of school only that she liked it “better than being in the hospital” while paradoxically aspiring to a nursing career. She defied anyone to dislike her, and finding a host for her on our trip was a cinch.

Now in Russia, waiting to meet her in person, we learned she had a sibling, of whom we’d been unaware.

Larisa bounced carefree into the room, leaving sister Maria, 13, her pensive shadow. As we spoke with her, Maria warmed up, but remained decorous. Interview basics were addressed: favorite subjects, music and physical education; preferred seasons, summer and winter; hobbies, crocheting and reading; and career hope, medicine. Her dream was a good family, thoughtfully defined as one where parents love children. She “certainly” believed in God, and affirmed God loves her, editorializing, “He loves everyone.” Larisa’s characterization of Maria as strict elicited a chuckle from Maria, and a swift addendum from Larisa that it helped her. My friend Elaine asked how long they’d been here. “One year,” Maria answered, alluding to how momentous their arrival was by giving its exact date.

After our meeting, Larisa left to collect her things for Moscow. While I liked Maria’s dignified charm, I knew her existence would shock the host, who was leaving the States in a few hours, oblivious that a second child would also need to be adopted. With Maria unable to travel with us, it would reduce the girls’ chance of being adopted this trip. Watching Larisa through the window as she returned with her bag, it was devastating to know we’d unintentionally failed to give either girl her best opportunity.

Several interviews later, we departed the orphanage, three kids in tow. With five of us wedged in the backseat, we sought respite from our boredom by playing tic-tac-toe in the window’s fog. As he glared at us in his rearview mirror, I suspected our entertainment choice displeased our chauffeur. But as his reckless driving risked seven lives, our window game seemed minimal recompense. One last orphanage stop killed time and dished up a few more interviews. As she waited for us to finish, Larisa mixed effortlessly with the kids she met there. When we left, four children richer, an orphanage van whisked us to the train station in a joyously forgettable ride.

We reached our Moscow hotel before the families. When they arrived from the airport in early afternoon, I spoke with Larisa’s host. While her magnanimous understanding of our discovery of Maria was a boon to my stress level, she doubted any second child, particularly one she couldn’t meet, would fit her family.

As our visit unfolded, Larisa smiled generously. She knew some English, with a hearty appetite for more. She shepherded the trip’s two youngest children, and accepted guidance from an older child who criticized minor shortcomings in her behavior. Asking a host parent if she was adopting two other children on the trip, the affirmative answer brought Larisa genuine happiness. Still, she retained her own painfully obvious desire to be adopted, as she shooed away kids who wanted to hold her host mom’s hand. The day we departed Moscow, another child gave Larisa’s host a heart-shaped "I love you" pin, complete with blinking red lights. Larisa’s efforts to convey that the garish pin was from her, too, were heart-rending in their desperation.

When we left Moscow, every family had chosen a child for adoption; Larisa, twinkle in her eye, was not among those picked. Twice since, she and Maria have been selected by families, only to have both families back out before even meeting the girls. The last few weeks, whenever Lighthouse Project director Hope and I discuss kids for future trips, she tells me Larisa and Maria still very much want a family.

I appreciate the reminder, but don’t need it. I remember the request.

They have to love children.