Sunday, October 14, 2012

Still Golden

Vasily, without a gift, at his orphanage in
October 2009, the last time I'd seen him
An insistent rain pelts us, and windy blasts imperil my umbrella. Irina, our translator, offered to meet Vasily in the parking lot herself, but years of prayers for him torpedoed my patience, and I adamantly refused to wait for him another second. Russian sidewalks are seldom level, and much of the way I slosh through puddles too big to dodge.

The last time we met was three years ago, as Vasily stood forlornly in his orphanage’s office empty-handed, shrinking as the other boys, all with waiting families, clutched care packages (Solid Gold, 12/1/09). Though I liked him well then, he’s nearly fourteen now, and been languishing longer than any other orphan on our roster. Even securing a host has been impossible, once prospective families hear of his orphanage’s dismal reputation and my not having seen him in ages (Russian Orphanage Life, Scene Two, 3/22/12). Vasily’s only hope is to travel on our trip so I can update my opinion.  Either I’ll drop my caveat, or him.

At the car, a gust grabs my umbrella and whips its metal into the finish of the vehicle. The driver is annoyed, but my chagrin vanishes as the passenger door opens. Vasily is in the back seat, flashing a broad smile of remembrance at me. To the marrow of my bones I sense he knows I am still trying to help him.

Vasily gets a gift after
our group discussion.
Vasily joins us mid-trip; despite a four-hour drive one-way to get here, his orphanage only allows him a few hours with us. Arriving just in time for our group discussion, he tells us he likes his orphanage, especially his friends. It’s poignantly ironic when he dreams of being a “rescue ranger [saving] all the people who need it,” since he himself still awaits rescue. After the session, when I announce swimming time, he laments dejectedly he has no suit.  He brightens and thanks me profusely when he sees I brought him one.

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In the pool, he interacts well with John, a host dad swimming with the kids. While we watch them, a social worker the orphanage sent along says he has difficulty learning, and just finished sixth grade. His biological mother drinks, taking so little interest in him that one year ago, when last she saw him, Vasily didn’t recognize her.  Understandably, he prizes promise-keepers, but gets angry when people lie. Opining she cannot find anything negative to say against him, the social worker labels him shy, a good boy who is “very often hungry.” With grand approval she adds he doesn’t smoke, noting most kids at her orphanage do. She says he once visited America with the Lighthouse Project, and longs to return if he can find a good family (Rolla, 7/11/09).

Vasily was so thankful I'd brought
him a swimsuit.
After swimming, it is already time for him to leave. Though it’s too early for dinner, the cafeteria serves him alone before his long ride.  He’s had nothing since this morning, and the driver won’t stop on the way back. As he inhales his meal, he tells me about a lady he stays with during vacations. She’s widowed and lonely, so wants a child at her house. He exudes his feeling of vicarious ownership as he effuses, “In the house is a shower,” as though it’s a rare amenity. He grins when I commend his effort in his interview.

Before he departs, I decide Vasily would enjoy seeing kids from his orphanage who have new lives in America. After the slide show of beaming ex-orphans, I thank the chaperone for sending these children, and helping to make their families complete. Expecting a reciprocated pleasantry, I am blindsided when she says only, “Awful things are shown on the TV.” Caught off guard, it takes me a moment to respond. Finally I reply that the bad stories she’s heard, while reprehensible, represent a minute fraction of adoptive families, and that Americans are rightly indignant when hearing of such abuse. I tell her I treasure my Russian children, as do our families theirs, and that devotion and sacrifice for children is the overwhelming norm for adoptive parents.

Vasily, nearly 14 now, in July 2012;
still golden after all these years
I walk with Vasily out to the parking lot. I say goodbye to him in Russian, then Irina translates the rest of my well-wishes. He smiles, then hugs me tightly before he climbs into the car. I wave until he is out of sight, then walk back in wonder, incredulous that three extra years in his orphanage have not dimmed his openness and sweet demeanor. He was solid gold the first time I met him.

And he’s still golden now.


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Interested families may visit Vasily as part of our November 9-16, 2012, Lighthouse Project trip to Russia. You'll travel with our fun group of friendly Americans, and let your compassion make a difference for the orphans you'll meet. Interested? It's not too late! Call Becky at (616) 245-3216 to join us! Don't miss your chance to change the world for a Russian orphan in need.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Mustard Seed for Tonya

Karina at home, now 18
A true-blue friend of our program asked recently about Tonya, a girl her daughter Karina recalled from her orphanage days.  In the years since Karina had been home, she’d thought about Tonya many times, dreamed about her even, left behind at an orphanage Karina knew too well.  Karina thought Tonya had been on a previous Lighthouse Project trip to America, though I doubted that, since I could recall no child by the name she offered.

Two days shy of her 15th birthday, official word arrived that Tonya was still orphaned, and waiting.  While I held out little hope of an eleventh-hour match, I wouldn’t say no to our friend.  As Karina and her mom started praying and sharing, imploring fellow church members to cry to the Lord for Tonya, I began to wonder if a family might yet find her.

Having heard the girl’s name only as a nickname for Tatyana, I was surprised to discover when her documents arrived that Tonya’s real name was Antonina.  Nothing at all in her background inspired confidence, but as I shared her story with our friend, she remained unfazed.  Karina was “storming the gates of Heaven,” she assured, as if finding a family was as easy as praying with sufficient faith.
Tonya, 15
A week later I revisited Tonya’s documents, staring at her name and pondering its rarity.  After years of work with Russian kids, my only previous encounter with the name Antonina was when an eight-year-old traveled to Michigan in 2006, back when our program still brought children to America.  Mulling this, I calculated: A girl eight then could be a teenager 15 in late 2012.  Finally a question gripped me.  Could Karina’s friend have languished since the 2006 trip? Tonya’s current photo, grainy and stern, provided few clues, as despite having coordinated that long-ago program, I’d hardly even seen the young Antonina.

Ages ago, our director Hope had asked me to coordinate that Michigan trip.  Desperately committed as I was to the Lighthouse Project, the idea was ridiculous, as we expected any day the call for court in Russia to adopt our own kids.  Hope never takes no easily, though, and she badgered me until I acquiesced just to silence her.  I did my duty, finding host families for the kids, but as I’d feared, the children arrived and departed the U.S. during the 26 days we stayed in Russia.  I might never have seen the Lighthouse children at all but for our last morning in Moscow, while at the airport waiting to fly home we saw the kids returning from America.  Waving to them through the glass, in that scant moment I glimpsed Antonina.
Antonina, 8
During our just-home blur of adjustment, I heard little about the trip which had transpired in my absence, except that Antonina was among those who’d found no family. Never having met her, forgetting her was painless enough; while she crossed my mind occasionally, she never prompted action.  Finally, I moved on.
And on. And on, until six years passed.

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Karina, too, had been home awhile before she felt God’s gentle nudge to tell her mom about the girl she’d met when they were both young enough to be in the baby house together. Karina, three years older, left the baby house first, but their paths kept merging as they were shuffled around to various orphanages.  When Karina returned from her own Lighthouse Project trip in 2008 with a Bible, she pored over its pages, reading its words of life aloud to Tonya, who sometimes asked questions. But once Karina was adopted, thoughts of Tonya ceased for two full years.

Now on the phone Karina was stressing to me the urgency, sensing Tonya’s danger. “The orphanage is not a safe place,” she insisted, adding Tonya has no family with whom to build a relationship, and does not know the Lord. She opined with great certitude that Tonya’s new parents would “love her very much,” as that had been her experience with her own adoptive family.

Love's new photo of Tonya,
 taken in mid-September
Moved by Karina’s entreaties, a couple decided to join our upcoming November trip to meet Tonya. But the next morning bore crushing news that after umpteen years in an orphanage, Tonya had been snatched for foster care the previous day.  Sixteenth birthdays mark the beginning of a downward spiral for most kids in foster care: government checks stop arriving for foster families, the families stop “caring,” and children become ineligible for international adoption. When I called my friend, devastated, she shrugged the news off, since she’d warned Karina numerous times to expect trials throughout the process. Calling this only the first of several obstacles the Lord would eventually remove, she urged me to persevere and expect Tonya’s release from foster care before the trip.

The next few weeks were punctuated with the downs and ups our friend predicted. Tonya’s hosts changed their minds and decided not to travel in November.  Then our Russian coordinator Love visited the region, finding the girl in the orphanage, not foster care.  Better photos secured, Love returned bubbling with the news that Karina’s Tonya was our Antonina from Michigan 2006. Having suffered in a wretched orphanage, courting a sordid future had not our program's dearest friend intervened, Tonya retained hope of a family.  

Karina, exulting in her new life, heart brimming with compassion, wrestles mightily in prayer for Tonya’s welfare and soul.  “God wants her here for a reason,” she told me earnestly. “Other people are praying about her. I think it will go well.” Thus believing, Karina shamed me with her grand vision of Tonya yet reveling in the love of new parents.
Tonya, Antonina that is, has been alone forever. Time dwindles dangerously, but an erstwhile orphan clinging to faith the size of a mustard seed prays in steadfast expectation that this mountain will move a smidgeon.
Move just enough to let her oldest friend be as blessed as she has been.
He [Jesus] said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20, English Standard Version)

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You can visit Tonya in Russia November 9-16, 2012, with our welcoming group of American travelers. She would love a chance at a family! Is God calling you? Call Becky! You can reach her at (616) 245-3216. Time is of the essence.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Evil into Good

Sasha found pleasure in little things.

The 14-year-old bully thought no one was looking, so he punched Sasha hard in the side of the head unprovoked.  The smaller boy, just 11, was surprised and dazed, but never retaliated. The rest of the evening, clearly rattled, Sasha shadowed any available adult; as the two oldest boys on the trip, he and the bully roomed alone.  I told chaperone Tatiana, whereupon she pulled Sasha into her room to stay with the younger children, much relieving the poor boy.  The next afternoon the bully would return to his own orphanage, but until then, we watched him like hawks.

Sasha was irresistible, the kid everyone liked. Kind, earnest, intelligent, curious, positive, and persistent, he was mesmerized by plastic birds which balanced perfectly on their hooked beaks, and he carried them everywhere.   At first, content just to balance them on his finger, he later solemnly demonstrated how they balanced as effectively on his nose or a Pixy Stix. 

Sasha balances his birds on Pixy Stix
I gave him after he spoke with me.
He got his birds the day we gave out gifts, after he’d answered our questions about his four younger siblings.  He proclaimed how he loved his brothers and sisters; then Tatiana mentioned he’d beseeched Father Frost for gifts for them last New Year’s. For Luba, 5, whose name is Russian for “love,” Sasha requested a dress worthy of a princess; for his brother Dima, 8, he asked candy.  Most noteworthy of all, he asked nothing for himself.  Father Frost rewarded the boy’s kind heart with two model cars, one of which Sasha slipped into Dima’s hands.  Inspired by this anecdote, host dad John piped up, extolling the sweetness he’d seen Sasha lavish on Petr, 5, the most trying member of our band.  Tatiana’s teenage daughter, who’d spent much time with her mother’s orphans, was with us, and heard the praise. Though she spoke at no other time, she bubbled now, judging Sasha a “remarkable person” who “differs from other children.”  

One afternoon while the kids swam, Tatiana sat down with me to talk.  She beamed when she spoke of Sasha, a very good and caring boy. His biological parents never enrolled him in school at seven as required, so when he arrived at the orphanage just over a year ago, he’d had no education beyond what he’d garnered living virtually alone with his siblings.  As the eldest, Sasha assumed responsibility for cooking, cleaning, laundering clothes, and caring for the younger children.  When a social worker discovered the little family in a wretched state, all were taken to an orphanage, where at last Sasha learned to read and write. 

Sasha back at the orphanage with three of his four siblings:
(L to R) Elena, 7; Luba, 5; Sasha, 11; and Dima, 8
Alexei, 2, is in a baby house in another town.

Tatiana called Dima active and physically on-target, a boy who likes loud games.  Industrious Elena, 7, much resembles Sasha, liking to care for younger children and play house.  Little Luba, 5, likes singing, dancing, and drawing.  Though delayed when she entered the orphanage, she has flourished there, which made me shudder to think what “home” must have been like.  Baby Alexei, 2, lives apart in the baby house, far from his siblings.

Sasha told me he sees his siblings often, though a year has passed since he’s visited Alexei.  Not answering when I asked if he knew why he lived in an orphanage, he just shook his head no. While he likes it there, he really wants a “good and kind” family. His dreams are incremental: to serve in the army, then to attend university, then to get married to someone he has not yet chosen.  When I wondered what he would change about the world, a question which stumped some older children, he reckoned he’d turn evil into good.  Knowing his sad past, and witnessing the thoughtfulness he so willingly displayed, I thought he was changing the world already.

Click to tweet below, and help Sasha and his siblings find their way home.

I promised Luba, Elena, and Dima a kiss to
 get them to smile for this adorable photo!

At the end of the week when we dropped the kids off at their orphanage, Sasha stayed only a few minutes before he was whisked back to his summer camp.  His younger siblings remained behind, so Sasha entrusted several trinkets from his bag of gifts to them.  I interviewed Dima, Elena, and Luba individually in a room depressingly crammed with 14 little beds.  My gentlest queries brought Luba close to tears, so I called Dima and Elena in to sit beside her.

Luba, 5, took this photo of Dima, Elena, and me.

Asking them to show me their beds finally broke the ice with Luba.  The three leapt to their feet, proudly showing something that felt like theirs, as Dima boasted his was most comfortable.  Teaming up to hide behind a headboard, they bounced up with a roar when I pretended not to see them.   Luba jumped on her bed, then skipped for me.  I taught them “bye-bye” before quizzing them on their English knowledge, which they found hilarious. I asked them to smile together for a photo, but they were laughing too hard.  Only when I promised each a kiss did I get my smiles; I was charmed by how grand a reward they thought the offer.  When I volunteered the use of my camera in exchange for their kiss on my cheek, the non-photographers rushed to pose next to me.  Reviewing the resultant photos later, I chuckled to find the five-year-old had taken the most respectable photo. 

When the clock demanded we catch our train to Moscow, it pained me to leave such a joyful group. As I waved goodbye, the kids merrily charged at me for one last hug and kiss. I never saw baby Alexei, and I departed wishing he could grow up with his siblings.

Being a fivesome will handicap the children in our quest to find them adoptive parents. So for now, this darling quintet is headed by a big-hearted eleven-year-old. And when he returns from camp, he’ll surely show Dima, Elena, and Luba how to balance the birds he got from American friends. Then he’ll wait in hope for a good and kind family to share with them all.

Sasha relaxing in the van on our
way back to his orphanage.
If you would like to meet Sasha and his siblings, travel with us to Russia this November 9-16! And now, when you travel to Russia with the Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project, you can bring a friend along with you for free! You and your friend will explore the sights of Moscow, encourage adoptable orphans, and visit an orphanage to deliver donated humanitarian aid like bikes and toys. As always, you'll also enjoy a scenic trek by train through the Russian countryside, experience Russian-style hospitality at a retreat set up perfectly for our visits, and ponder the fascinating mysteries of post-Soviet culture. And if the jaunt’s not already sweet enough, now you’ll make a difference, times two! For more information call Becky at (616) 245-3216, or e-mail

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Orphanage Visits: Let Me Sow Hope

Children outside an orphanage we work at
There are two questions every single Lighthouse Project adoptive family asks me before traveling to Russia: When will we get our child, and will we be allowed to see the orphanage? Almost as primal as the ache to hold their new son or daughter in their arms is the desire to understand where that child has come from.

Next to meeting my own two kids, the highlight of my first-ever trip to Russia was visiting the orphanage where they lived. Words, even photos, are powerless to convey the frigid hopelessness that pervaded that warehouse of children's souls. Seeing the kids swarm around our car when we arrived, the rows of toddler beds filled with tiny figures sleeping as a caretaker stood watch, my daughter's tear-stained face as she sat at her desk in the orphanage school, and the kids who watched out a cafeteria window as we departed were haunting. The need there defied description, so seeing it personally was life-changing, and intensely motivational.

My son-to-be dejectedly shows us his bed
in the orphanage right before we left him at
the end of our first trip to Russia.

Since our group trips to Russia began nearly three years ago, I've prayed we could use orphanage visits to show our American travelers where our kids are from, and the bleakness of their existence. I dreamed of the joy every participant would experience as they brightened those sad lives with humanitarian aid like bikes, books, and toys. I knew our visiting families could make a difference, and that they'd want to, if only they could see what I'd seen.

Kids standing at attention in an orphanage

Finally, we have that precious opportunity. This July 9-16, in addition to spending time visiting with and comforting adoptable children as in all trips past, we'll take some time to tour the orphanages they've come from, and to leave behind a little cheer. My heart leaps as I imagine what we can do together, and how even a little of our abundance and blessing could transform the lives of orphans.

        Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
        Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
        Where there is injury, pardon.
        Where there is doubt, faith.
        Where there is despair, hope.
        Where there is darkness, light.
        Where there is sadness, joy.

        O Divine Master,
        grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
        to be understood, as to understand;
        to be loved, as to love.
        For it is in giving that we receive,
        It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
        and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


        (Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)

You shouldn't miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience; there's still time to sign up! For more information, call me at (616) 245-3216. I'd be tickled to hear from you, and thrilled to have you join the rest of the group and me!

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Liza and Nikita

Nikita and Liza

Love, our Russian coordinator, was on the other end of the phone, imploring me for my opinion of Liza and Nikita, siblings she’d taken a shine to the first time she’d seen them.  She was giddy as she waited for me to know and love them, and then find them their family.

But nine-year-old Liza was coughing with a vengeance, miserable when we met. After a lengthy nap the first afternoon she awoke with a fever, so chaperone Svetlana was delighted to find I’d brought a suitcase crammed with acetaminophen bottles to donate to the orphanages. Though Liza declared swimming her favorite pastime, she was subdued even in the pool, and the rest of the week Svetlana kept her out. 

Nikita, 7, was a thankful little boy, lisping heartfelt spaciba’s whenever I gave him anything, the only child who never needed reminders. The first evening, when I played Bingo with the kids, he stood watching beside me until I lifted him onto my lap to play my card. As he found the numbers, I praised him; he reciprocated with a tight hug, kiss, and proclamation of his love.

Liza plays checkers while humming a song.
The next morning, as Liza played checkers alone on the floor, she hummed a little song, something Svetlana explained she did frequently during activities. After a music teacher evaluated her abilities, her musical talent was recognized. But aside from the humming and hacking, Liza remained silent on the trip, making herself a challenging interviewee, which I attributed to her illness. Despite asking many questions, I gleaned only that she liked school, reading, and painting; that she saw Nikita often, enjoyed playing with him, and thought him “naughty”; and that she dreamed of having a cat. 

Nikita was less hesitant to speak, confiding that while they sometimes fought, he knew Liza loved him, and he appreciated her kindness and frequent visits. He liked soccer, puzzles, cartoons, and kittens, and said he aspired to be a pilot someday. But he hadn’t forgotten the hard times, foraging at a garden for corn when the cupboards were empty at home. Having endured substantial neglect, a year ago the kids arrived at the orphanage, where the caretakers had devoted much time to teaching them skills they hadn’t learned.  

Nikita enjoying his glow "bracelets"
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For her part, Liza liked her new home and its kind caretakers. As the caretaker for Liza’s group, Svetlana knew her well, describing her as shy but affectionate, and a “very good girl” esteemed for her tenderness. At New Year’s, children penned letters to Father Frost, a Russian Santa figure. While some children disbelieved and refused to write, with Svetlana’s encouragement Liza petitioned him for a beautiful dress. Through the generosity of orphanage sponsors, her wish was granted, and she swelled with pride in her new finery. Svetlana smiled as she savored the memory.

Nikita was also well-liked at the orphanage for his thoughtfulness, Svetlana added. He was a typical boy, “emotional, playful, energetic, and curious.” While still managing to listen and obey, on group nature walks he’d make time for everything, caring for a dog or noticing a car entering the grounds in between the required observations of sundry bugs or leaves.

As the week closed, Nikita showed glimpses of that winsome personality, but poor Liza never felt well enough. And after all of Love's hope, I was left with little beyond a recollection of Liza's misery, and a lament they hadn't had a real chance to shine.

Click to Tweet here, and help Liza and Nikita find their family.

Don't miss your chance to meet Liza and Nikita and other older Russian orphans as our welcoming group of American families travels together to their region of Russia July 9-16.  This trip could change your life, and theirs!  Call (616) 245-3216.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"In The Orphanage You Have None"

Kristina loved to pose, and even
saw the potential in this bedspread
she wrapped around herself.
Kristina, 9, collapsed onto her bed in my room, crossed her arms, and pouted like a pro.  Because kids far outnumbered adults on our trip, I’d invited two girls to stay with me.  As our translator Irina explained this to them, Kristina made her disappointment manifest, having hoped to room with Yuliana, not the delayed girl now smiling sheepishly next to her.  But Yuliana already had a family, and sharing a room with waiting kids offered me an opportunity to get to know them better. 

Kristina forgot her grievance as she set to work unpacking the meager contents of her bag. As she held up each item ceremoniously before refolding it and lowering it meticulously into her drawer, I was struck anew at the inverse relationship between number of possessions and the care bestowed on each demonstrated  so commonly by orphans.

This picture of my children helped to break the ice
between the girls and me.

When she was finished, Kristina noticed my computer.  “Note-boohk!” she exclaimed as she charged toward it, caressing its worn patina longingly.  The first day’s meeting is the most awkward part of any trip, but the computer broke the ice splendidly as I showed the girls my screen saver photo of my kids.  As I slowly intoned their names and birth countries, each girl echoed the information in her cute accent.  The unwanted child even gushed over Julia’s beauty when she heard she was Russian.  

Kristina wakes up slowly after laughing late last night.
The first night, the girls kept me awake with incessant giggling and whispering.  Breaking out the glow bracelets the second night, I promised two each when they were lying down and quiet.  Kristina dove for her bed in her clothes, silent.  Once she had bracelets in hand, she slipped under her covers and began to chatter.  I got up, confiscating the bracelets with a weary “Shhh.”  Surprised, Kristina hushed immediately, whereupon I returned the treasures; I did not need to impound them again.

Kristina longs for something the
orphanage can't provide.
Smart and self-confident, Kristina was an actress, posing effortlessly whenever I pointed my camera her direction. She laughed readily, but whined equally easily if she perceived even a minor slight.  So little about her aura seemed orphanesque that the day I interviewed her, I expected her to shine.   Instead, I found her confidence masked a profound yearning.    Shifting uncomfortably as I introduced her, she gazed at Irina for reassurance.  With doleful eyes and a little voice, Kristina confessed she disliked her orphanage, adding she’d been there so long she could not even remember how many years it’d been.  Calling its children “naughty,” she named a boy who was particularly mean.  Her best friend was her classmate Ksusha, a kind and beautiful home child who would frequent the orphanage, though Kristina had visited Ksusha’s home.

Help Kristina find her family by clicking to Tweet below.

I loved the creativity and resourcefulness Kristina
demonstrated in constucting this tent in our room.

Often during the week Kristina counted and chanted the names of various animals in English, as if to announce she could.  But during the interview, the only English she mustered was “pig” and “cat.” She smiled when she admitted she wanted to be President of Russia, but had a nearly impossible time stating why, finally telling me the President had lots of money.  When I asked what she would do with such a sum, she wanted to share it with her friends, her papa, and the girls at school.  I asked if her papa ever visited her.  “Nyet,” came the reply in a voice so melancholy I felt ashamed at having asked.  She wanted a family, explaining, “In the family you have a mother and a father, and maybe siblings, and in the orphanage you have none.”  I hoped she could have a family. “Da,” she agreed soulfully.

Playing Bingo by herself, Kristina is sure to win.
At trip's end, we stopped at McDonald’s, a treat the kids had been anticipating because of reports returned by previous Lighthouse Project participants.  Everyone was still eating when Kristina's orphanage caretaker phoned Irina, saying she would get the kids in an hour.  Five minutes later she stood beside my table, playing the martyr’s role as her orphans tried feverishly to finish their ice cream.  A minute passed, and annoyed by the wait, she decided to take the children then. 

Kristina, second from left, on the way back to the orphanage
So with barely a goodbye, Kristina and the others from her orphanage were whisked away.  As they crossed the busy street outside the restaurant, it disgusted me that the caretaker did not even hold the hands of the littlest ones.  They’d all walk to the trolleybus, then ride back to their orphanage home.  And at the end of their journey, no mother or father or siblings would meet them, or mark their homecoming with a welcoming hug or kiss or a question about their trip, because in the orphanage, they had none. Watching them disappear, my heart hoped that somewhere in America, a mom and dad were longing for Kristina as much as she was longing for them.

Click here to Tweet, and help Kristina find the mom and dad waiting for her.

Meet Kristina and other older Russian orphans as our welcoming group of American families travels together to her region of Russia July 9-16, 2012. This trip could change your life, and you shouldn't miss it!

Friday, May 4, 2012


Daniil celebrates his Uno victory.
Daniil, 8, trotted ahead of our group to open the door for us; an older boy had done it the first day, and Daniil wanted to help, too.  He was anxious to please, and took a sweet delight at being acknowledged.

While several kids had to be pried from the TV during the trip, Daniil joined willingly in hands of Uno with Derek, a host dad, reacting with jubilation when he won.   His favorite pastime was playing games, he said.  Svetlana, his orphanage chaperone, echoed this, mentioning he excelled at logic puzzles and learning game rules.  She noted that rather than watching television at the orphanage, Daniil would frequently toil at organizing games and goading all the kids into participating.   

At interview time, I prefaced my questions to him with, “We have a nice little boy to talk to.”  It was evident the moment he understood my compliment because a shy, but pleased, smile brightened his face.   Introducing himself in a whisper, he spoke louder when encouraged.  Though I knew he had been institutionalized at seven months when, because of neglect, his biological mother was deprived of her rights, Daniil knew nothing of how long, or why, he’d languished there.  He wanted a family, while having no guess as to what it such a life would offer. Paradoxically, he liked his orphanage, everything about it.  I probed further, confident there was something he didn’t like; I was wrong.  “I like everything!” he insisted.

Daniil at his orphanage, taken by
one of our adoptive families
during their recent visit
Svetlana labeled him “a mathematician,” ahead of his peers in both math and reading.  Daniil outlined his school day as five or six lessons, all enjoyed, with math favored for the opportunity it presented to draw straight lines with rulers.  After class, he returned hungry to the orphanage for lunch.  Children with families, not orphans, ate at school he said, explaining matter-of-factly, “If we do, we must pay.”  He didn’t seem aggrieved by the inequity as he related an anecdote about Sasha, an orphan I knew from two previous trips, who once had the audacity to enter the lunchroom with the home kids.  The workers gave him a pastry and shooed him out. 

I wondered how Daniil would describe himself, and was surprised when he chose “weak.”  Then he clarified Sasha would beat him up, and he couldn’t “overcome” him. 

Visiting Daniil’s orphanage shortly before our Lighthouse Project trip, a recent adoptive family noticed that, unlike Sasha and the other boys who bounced around hyperactively, Daniil paid exquisite attention to the proceedings between the adults.  Invited to throw a football with the new father, he jumped in, playing respectfully and not emulating Sasha, who threw with vengeance. After departing, our family wrote me promptly with their impression of Daniil as an unusually well-mannered boy.

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Daniil likely shared his bracelet with this precious boy.
Svetlana praised Daniil’s affection and big-heartedness, citing how at New Year’s, when children receive candy from Father Frost, he would share his sweets unsolicited until nothing was left. One morning I presented the two girls staying with me glow bracelets as they woke up.  When Daniil stopped by to say good morning, he saw the girls’ bracelets.  He didn’t ask, but I gave him a red bracelet, which brought a broad smile of appreciation.  That evening, reviewing photos I’d taken throughout the day, I noticed another boy wearing the red bracelet, though the only children I’d yet given bracelets to were the two girls, and Daniil. Initially upset at the other boy for stealing Daniil’s bracelet, I suddenly remembered Svetlana’s accolades, and realized the red band around another’s wrist was more likely a reflection of Daniil’s kindness than the other boy’s treachery.

Daniil nearly always had a smile during our trip.
Noting Daniil’s persistence in seeking help until his needs were met, Svetlana said he needed and liked individual attention immensely, and remembered how as a young boy, he’d “tortured” caretakers with questions.  I esteem Svetlana as an exceptionally attentive caretaker, but her words encapsulated why kids need families, not orphanages.  While most parents would foster such a little boy’s curiosity, to those only paid to care the natural questions young Daniil vocalized were a nuisance to be borne.   And his desire for individual attention was recognized not as a universal need in childhood, but a quirky oddity, warranting comment.

Daniil couldn't stop smiling
at the pool.
At the end of our visit Daniil returned to his orphanage, to Sasha and the other boys who sit entranced before the television.  There he waits, persistently organizing his games, inquiring about his world, and craving acknowledgment. 

Most likely, he’s smiling.  After all, he likes everything.


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Visit Daniil and other adoptable Russian orphans in Russia with our welcoming group of American travelers July 9-16, 2012.  For more information, contact Becky at (616) 245-3216 or

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sasha's Dream, My Dream

Sasha, 4, in September 2011
Sasha barely mustered a smile the first time I saw her, even with Love’s gentle urging.  The four-year-old’s mother recently died, and she was struggling with her new orphanage life.  But as she stoically answered our Russian adoption coordinator’s questions, the poise of a tyke so little and lonely was equal parts unexpected and unmistakable.

Young girls are highly prized by adoptive families, yet seven months after meeting Love, Sasha still waits to be chosen.  Diagnosed with hepatitis C, a chronic and currently incurable illness of variable course and prognosis, the risks and the unknowns have been sufficient to leave this precious girl languishing motherless in an orphanage far longer than her age suggests would be necessary.

So she joined our Lighthouse Project trip to her region in April.  The chaperone, Svetlana, a soft-spoken caretaker from Sasha’s orphanage, kept the small girls close.  Sasha didn’t know me, and maintained a healthy distance as I watched her settle into the room she and Svetlana shared.  While the chaperone tended another child, Sasha shed her coat and hat, and began combing her hair. Tongue outside her mouth in focused concentration, every task was dispatched as an urgent mission. 
Sasha in her thinking pose

Our second day with the kids, I spoke to those without waiting families.  Never having interviewed orphans before, I fretted about balancing my need to glean compelling writing material with the kids’ need for sensitivity regarding the traumas of their pasts.  Sasha was an early interviewee, and my inexperience paired with her reserve squeezed a prayer from me as she shuffled into my room clad only in shirt, tights, and sandals.  She sat where I pointed, and nodded solemnly when I explained my hope of knowing her better.  Promising her a Pixy Stix afterward, I asked her to answer my questions as best she could.

Sasha in the young orphan's "uniform"
she wore for her interview with me
Sasha’s definite responses reflected her determined approach to everything.  She liked the orphanage which once had grieved her, extolling their toys, cars, and a dog named Susha.  As she praised the kindness of caretakers like Svetlana, I was gratified to know she felt at peace there now.  Near the end of our session, I kicked myself when I let slip a query about what she wanted to be when she grew up, an idiotic question for one so young.  But she had an answer, one requiring no translation: “Mama.”   She would be a good mother she said, walking and playing with her children. Delving into the crannies of her mind to recall what her own mother had done for her before she died, Sasha added she would wipe dust from the shelves.  I was deeply touched that one so prematurely bereft of her mother would already aspire to nurture children herself one day.

I asked Svetlana’s opinion later.  She laughed as she described Sasha as “serious and responsible,” remembering that whenever instructed to commit a poem to memory, she fully engaged the assignment.  When it was her turn to set the table for her group, she would don the required uniform as if her job were a weighty matter. Eyewitness to those traits all week, I was smitten with the little girl. 

Sasha swimming with the help of kind Denis, who along
with his three siblings now has a family of his own
Once during our daily swim, an older boy thoughtfully assisted Sasha in the pool; watching them interact without any direction from Svetlana was heartwarming.  After swimming, Sasha could easily dress herself, but I hated that she needed to, so I started helping her.  She cooperated with every request, though my technique was decidedly American.  As I dried her hair with a blow dryer, running my fingers through the strands, she melted at being cared for.  The dichotomy between her necessity-birthed ability to fend for herself and her God-given desire to be mothered was striking, and most moving.

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Sasha's smile for me
The last day of our visit, I still needed photos of Sasha for our program, so I asked her to come with me.  She thrust her hand in mine, a five-fingered gift of trust, and we walked together to my photo “studio.” There, she smiled for me.

While Sasha dreams of being a mother someday, at four she needs a mother herself, one whose mission is to face with her the unknowns of a difficult diagnosis, and to shepherd her through life's other trials and triumphs.   It would be a tragedy if Sasha’s gauzy understanding of “mama” ended at the dusting of shelves or playing and walking. 

So my dream is that she’ll learn soon of the comfort of a mother there to guide her and treasure her always.

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If you would like to make a 100% tax-deductible contribution to a fund designated to benefit Sasha's adoption, it could help her find a family, and then get home sooner.  Please note that if Sasha's future adoptive family does not need assistance, or if Sasha enters foster care in Russia or elsewhere, any donations to this fund will benefit the adoption of another needy Lighthouse Project child.  If you have questions, please call (616) 245-3216, or e-mail me a  Thank you for your compassion and generosity!