Saturday, January 28, 2012

Russian Orphanage Life

She lives with guilt. At 14, she’s a recent adoptee relishing new life with a mother and father; meanwhile, kids she holds dear languish in an orphanage she knows better than she’d like to.  In charming, and surprisingly understandable, English, she spills her heart on the phone to me for over 90 minutes. While her former orphanage is the best of several we work with, her depiction of life there is grim and excruciating.

She arrived scared at age nine, wearing a little necklace her mother had made. Overwhelmed and unable to answer when another orphan asked her about it, the pint-sized bully tore it off her. Our girl, who we’ll call Oksana, was devastated, and remembers no one cared.  She didn’t know how she could live in such a place.  All the kids were together, and no mother or father was there to help her. She was confused, a word she uses often in our conversation. “What will happen to me? How will I get out of here?” were questions tormenting her then. Workers apprised her of the most important rules, but the rest she learned by trial and error, or by emulating veteran orphans. 

To her distress, she awoke her first morning and remembered she was an orphan when a teacher flipped on the lights with a barked, “Wake up!” She couldn’t believe she really was in an orphanage, and she certainly did not want to be there. She was positive the day was hopeless; they were planning to send her to school, and her shoes were worn. She looked like an orphan. Other students were sure to giggle.  
Oksana was assigned to a living group of about 12 girls, though that number fluctuated as kids came and went. When there were as many as 15 girls, there weren’t enough beds, so they took turns sleeping with another group. For frigid winter nights, Oksana had two blankets, and slept in two pairs each of pants, sweatshirts, and socks. Bedtime was 9:30 p.m.; once in bed, kids were not to get up, even for the bathroom. During the early days, she didn’t dare talk, or breathe; snoring at night might be rewarded with a smack from the monitor.

Meals were eaten together. Supper consisted of soup, rice, meat, and bread; she could have a drink only if she finished her food. If she was tardy, someone else might already have helped themselves to her food. No second helpings were served, even when she was still hungry. 

Kids took showers once or, sometimes, twice per month; hot water was never guaranteed. When Oksana’s hair got too greasy, she would run water over it in the sink. The group shared a blow dryer; if one wasn’t quick to grab it, she would have to go to school with wet hair. Without boots, Oksana’s feet were chilled throughout winter. Clothes were changed once weekly. Many of the girls had matching jeans and coats, which made things confusing, but being conspicuous at school in their orphan “uniforms” was even worse. 

Inequity at school between kids with families, called “home” kids by another orphan I spoke with, and kids without, was rampant. Home kids ate lunch at school. Orphans had only a snack, like an apple and beverage, and waited to eat lunch until they returned to the orphanage around 3 p.m. Oksana was a conscientious student, but hunger sometimes made concentration challenging. Home kids had textbooks, but there were seldom enough for the orphans. She would look around in class, seeking someone willing to share theirs with her.

After school, an orphanage bus drove kids home. The orphans harassed anyone late for the bus; they were hungry, and clamoring for their belated lunch. Eating was followed by outdoor activity for precisely an hour, then 2.5 hours of homework. One staffer per group assisted with schoolwork, though if several girls had questions, she might not have time to help them all. Kids sat at the table, whether or not they had homework. Evenings included chores, rotated on a weekly basis. Sundays were seldom restful; sometimes, they worked at chores most of the day.

Riding the bus precluded kids from being able to participate in after-school activities. When home kids stayed late to have cake for a holiday, the orphans got nothing, except their ride. When school friends invited her to their homes, she had to decline, though they could visit her. Home kids in home economics supplied their own food ingredients, but the orphanage did not have fancy cooking supplies to donate. Activities requiring money were never an option.

Some students reviled the orphans. A hooligan once pushed Oksana into a snowpile, demanding, “Why are you in the orphanage?” When she wouldn’t tell him, everyone teased her. Even some school teachers participated; one was particularly hard on orphans because a specific child annoyed her. “You don’t have a dad?” she taunted him, lambasting all orphans as troublemakers. “Not all of us are doing bad things!” Oksana thought.

Birthdays were giftless, nearly joyless affairs; she would receive an apple, one chocolate, a cookie, and tea. Kids and the staff wished her happy birthday, but never sang her a song. Being first to say “Happy birthday!” became a competition; in her enthusiasm, Oksana sometimes won by waking the birthday child up. Still, her own birthday almost made her feel worse, since everyone knew home kids really celebrated theirs.

Despite the shortage of essentials, almost every orphan over the age of nine possessed a cell phone. Oksana explained orphanage graduates sometimes bought the devices for their younger siblings and kept them replenished with minutes, or teachers might buy for a favorite child. Other kids did odd jobs at summer foster homes to earn money for theirs. At bedtime, phones were surrendered; the head of the orphanage checked them for inappropriate games and music, punishing infractions by keeping the phone several days.
As Oksana aged, the orphanage stayed scary. Once a drunk wandered onto orphanage property and blocked the fire escape until the police chased him away. Another orphan had a mentally unstable mother who visited, spreading a pungent malodor which lingered longer than she did. Eyeing the children as they ate, she would demand their food.

A forest surrounded the orphanage, and kids told tales of nighttime horrors happening there; some may have been true. It terrified Oksana to go out alone after dark to empty the trash. Older, meaner kids threatened the younger with evils better left unspoken, to commandeer more desirable beds, or steal candy, or get their way. Reporting mistreatment to a teacher assured retribution; many times orphans told us their best friends were the kids who protected them. There were few truly safe places for possessions in the orphanage. When Oksana returned from her Lighthouse Project trips, she unpacked her gifts while everyone else was outside. Otherwise, stronger kids would menace, “I want that,” until she relinquished her treasures. 

The orphanage leader was a helpful lady Oksana complimented as “good” and “nice.” Though hamstrung by limited resources, she tried to make the kids as comfortable as possible, once having Oksana’s group’s room repainted. As work progressed, the girls slept on mattresses in the gym a few weeks, snuggling together for warmth. Oksana was mortified when some of the older boys seized the opportunity to leer at them there, when they were not decently dressed. They had a long walk to use the bathroom, and the same boys smirked and made rude remarks each time a girl left the gym. 

But the kids found makeshift pleasures in things like sliding down hills on trash bags. Young children shared several bicycles with perpetually flat or missing tires. Older kids loved riding the single bike designated for their use, though Oksana got only one ride the entire time she lived there. In spring and fall, the orphans swam in a public pool twice monthly, wearing threadbare swimsuits either too big or small. The garments looked “very, very old,” and sometimes fell down. Summers were a relief, wading knee deep in a creek behind the orphanage without the burden of humiliating swimwear.
Oksana’s best memories were of her group spending time with her teachers during holidays.  They played in the snow, had scavenger hunts, held contests making things, or went ice skating.  When an elderly babushka needed help, they might oblige. She enjoyed art classes in the orphanage’s craft room, and tending the orphanage’s houseplants. Ironically, even the deprivation of the orphanage afforded more opportunity to experience things than she could have with her biological family. Orphans went to camp for several weeks in summer, or stayed with foster families. But not all who fostered were kind; those who disliked a child might return her to the orphanage early.

Her animation in sharing the better times made me wonder if she liked the orphanage, or some elements of it. But she said she was never truly happy, explaining, “Almost all kids want a mother and father for a family, but the orphanage doesn’t give you that. And sometimes you want a family.”
Several preschool children idolized Oksana for her kindness; as she left the orphanage on her final day there, her new mom saw one small boy embrace her tightly, before they all parted with teary eyes. And though she is safe with her forever family, Oksana now worries for those left behind.  When she readied a care package for an extra special friend, her mom wanted to send a swimsuit. Oksana refused, judging it better to suffer a saggy suit in company, than sport a new suit alone, inviting ridicule, theft, or a fight to keep it. She desperately wants the orphans to fit in, but doesn’t want her friend courting the abuse she knows accompanies good fortune.

I asked her about orphan dreams. “Everybody in orphanageall of themkids want to have family and they want to be with father and mother. They wait so somebody can adopt them from orphanage. If some family adopt somebody, they were so happy to have father and mother,” she told me.
Oksana’s memories make her sad, but she selflessly shares them anyway. She yearns to help the kids still there, and it’s something she can do. Perhaps, she reasons, if families know the truth, if they know what it’s like to live in an orphanage, they’ll realize they have to help.

Have to.
Her friends are waiting.
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Friday, January 20, 2012

Deer in the Headlights

It’s been beaten into my brain through a thousand Lighthouse Project calls that the primary objection to adoption is cost. A few large donors have helped 17 of our families adopt 25 children; some were unusually desperate kids who would never otherwise have found families. But I have long believed only a major donor could help lower the cost for everyone. Many nights I have fallen asleep praying for such a friend, who would enable me to provide a lower figure to first-time callers, leading to more hopeless orphans getting homes.

In late summer I mention to a waiting mom that many of our families pinch every adoption penny, and detail my dream to help kids I’ve met, who without adoption, have futures only of prostitution, crime, drug use, and premature death to anticipate. Her empathy emboldens me, and makes me believe I might succeed. At the end of our conversation, I promise to pursue my plan, thus becoming committed to soliciting funds on a scale which terrifies me.

That night, I begin an outline summarizing our mission, history, goals, and needs. It’s heavy on stories of kids we’ve helped, and those we couldn’t. For the next two months, a focus group of kindred spirits combs every detail with me to ascertain the content is compelling.

When I think I’m done, a veteran fund raiser advises me, “Be good, be brief, be gone,” opining I might have just 10-15 minutes to speak with a potential donor. Brevity has always challenged me, so with sinking heart, I eviscerate the presentation, whittling it from ten pages to four. Afterward, several gracious souls let me practice my delivery on them. I insist on brutal honesty; two are even intrepid enough to point out my annoying mannerisms.

A few in the test audiences see enough potential to suggest the presentation, once polished, be posted on YouTube. I scoff, but mention it anyway to our director Hope, who confesses she’d entertained the same thoughts. Reluctantly, I agree to tape. Several times thereafter she asks how it’s coming. I make excuses, always vowing to work on it during my Christmas vacation from homeschooling.

Vacation comes. Hope is gone, and “work on video” is disconcertingly prominent on my to-do list. Wednesday, a caller inquires about the cost of adoption. After she says it’s too expensive, I note we’re working on a major donor presentation to assist with expenses. She drops the name of a well-known Christian philanthropist she knows personally, and asks if the presentation is available on DVD. I say it will be soon, hoping it doesn’t sound too unbelievable. She says she’ll pray about asking the man to meet with us.

Now there is urgency. I had wanted to finish the video in 2011, but have only four days left. A homemade practice video is proof we need a professional videographer, but I don’t know anyone, and Hope isn’t around to authorize expenditures. Jeff, a recent adoptive dad from Tulsa, does audio recording under the name SongSmith Records. Thinking audio might be close enough to video, on a Wednesday night whim I ask him if he can do it.

I never fathom he’ll say yes.

Providentially, Jeff has been itching to start video recording for the last three years, and just bought the requisite software. He needs a friend to guide him through using it, and a project to practice on. I tell him I need it done Friday or Saturday. He thinks it’s too soon but, hearing my rationale, will ask his friend.

Thursday morning my husband says he’ll drive me from Grand Rapids to Tulsa on Friday if necessary. When evening comes without word from Jeff, I feel more relief than disappointment. But after dinner, there’s a message he can do it Friday, and when can I get there? Foolishly discounting the fifteen-hour drive, I tell him 6 p.m., still doubting he’ll agree. His next message follows at 7:30 p.m. “See you at six Friday night,” it says.

I instantly rue my over-promise. I knew my notes well a month ago, but haven’t practiced since. Driving will require leaving at 3 a.m. Airfare is outrageous, out of the question even if Hope were around to ask. Then I remember the 30,000 bonus miles posted to my Delta account earlier today. says 40,000 miles and $10 covers my flight. Problem solved.

I drop into bed exhausted, but adrenaline won’t even let me doze. Four hours later, I’m up, readying for the airport. My trip is a blessed non-event, and I arrive at my in-laws’ house with several hours to study before the evening’s production meeting.

Six o’clock finds me in Jeff’s basement recording studio. A backdrop, large camera, lights, and several microphones alarm me, but the clapperboard labeled with my name makes things nauseatingly real. After several sound checks, practices of my introduction, and admonitions to slow down, Jeff says three of his friends will be helping Saturday. I should be delighted, but paradoxically, as this becomes more professional, I feel more stressed. As I leave, there is little solace at having survived the production meeting, as it is only prelude to what I truly dread. Jeff’s parting words, “Be here at 9:45 tomorrow morning,” ring like a threat.

Back at my in-laws’, I swallow nine Tums in a few hours; I haven’t taken nine the rest of my life. The next morning, I rise early since I’m not sleeping, and my nerves won’t tolerate a last minute rush anyway. I curl my hair, using a generous amount of hairspray from a travel bottle. I haven’t been anywhere since Russia last August, and I’ve forgotten how good it smells. A few minutes later, my hair looks oddly limp and lacks any hairsprayed crispiness, so I spray on more. When I smell the fragrance again, my confidence crumbles as I recall having refilled the bottle with body spray for Russia. Too late, I know why my hair is flat. There is no time to curl again. I can only put on my makeup, and go.

I am leaving when my mother-in-law asks an innocuous question; I start breathing hard and can’t answer. Next, I have a prickly head, and tears are welling in my eyes. “I can’t cry! I’m not going to cry!” I implore myself, as there is no time to clean mascara streaks if tears fall. I threaten to faint while she tries to shepherd me outside into Oklahoma’s omnipresent wind. I am coherent enough to resist, as I intend to salvage the little remaining wave in my hair. Finally, she pushes me into the car, and I calm down in the seat. “Just remember it’s not a matter of life or death,” she encourages me as I depart.

“It’s not, for me,” I agree, hoping she realizes this is life and death for the orphans I’ve met.

Jeff’s friends Brad and Doug arrive shortly after I do. Armed with microphones and cameras of their own, they eventually disassemble most of what we’d checked last night. As they decide where each gadget belongs, I strive to block out thoughts that this is all for me, and that I must deliver to make this worth their efforts. They rearrange the backdrop, overturn a couch, swap chairs, argue about placement of four cameras offering different angles, and call for props. As they work, they refer to me as “the talent.” I understand the lingo, and I am the authority here on my topic, but my inexperience makes the phrase feel hideously satirical.

Doug has a golden voice, and a new NPR show, Wind and Rhythm, to go along. He offers patient pointers on how to modulate my voice for best effect, but my weary, cortisol-addled mind renders me a slow study. I incorporate the hints I can, though most would take me years of practice to perform naturally. I have a large-print outline on a music stand just below the camera’s lens, acting as a primitive teleprompter. As I practice, Doug dislikes my reliance on the outline, so I end up taping short notecards to the stand, and they’re usually sufficient to jog my memory. He reminds me repeatedly that I’m only speaking to one person. I try to speak to the camera, but find it nearly impossible to project emotion to its black hole. Finally, he stands behind it at my eye level, and responds with exaggerated facial expressions to my words.

At 1 p.m., we’re ready to start filming. I am to be looking down when the camera rolls, then look up pensively before beginning. None of it comes naturally, except the mistakes; some elements need five or six takes before I get them right. It isn’t that I don’t know my material; in one sense, I have delivered this speech literally one thousand times, with the call notes to prove it. It’s just the medium is so foreign, and I’m so self-conscious, that the thought of having kids’ lives resting on my performance seems wickedly farcical. Tim, Jeff’s intern, sports enough piercings to look tribal, and an impressive array of tattoos darkens his arms, but he announces each take and scene with a fatherly patience and gentle clap of the clapperboard.

Rare parts of the presentation go almost well, and midway through, I accomplish a few segments where we don’t have to stop at all. But usually, even when I do a section multiple times, we have to settle for the best of several takes as “good enough.” Mercifully, just short of an hour, we’re done filming.

For the next several hours, Jeff and Brad download video from all four cameras. When Brad goes home to care for his dogs, Jeff and I start adding photographs. Timing them properly is maddening, and I wonder if any viewers will appreciate the photos enough to recompense our work. When Brad returns and we start editing, I learn the only thing worse than watching myself on video is watching myself make mistakes on video, while others focus on the miscues to decide which of the takes are least marred. But Jeff and Brad are unfailingly kind, and I never hear them laugh, except when I mess up my ending thank you by proclaiming, “Thank YOU for helping the Russians!”

Our progress is sloth-like, though. It’s New Year’s Eve, my favorite holiday, and I traditionally host a party. It grieves me to miss this; worse, I’m in the Central Time Zone, so I’ll have to delay my first Coca-Cola in a year for an additional hour (The Real Thing, 1/29/11). I’ve been in a 365-day countdown to toast my husband with a Coke-filled goblet at the stroke of midnight.

My mother-in-law knows I am disappointed, so she thoughtfully plans a little shindig for me. But as editing drags on, it’s clear I won’t even make that. I welcome 2012, not with the Times Square ball drop, but by watching the time change on my computer screen. Jeff has a refrigerator outside the studio stocked with Coke, but I can’t bring myself to imbibe without my husband. The moment I’ve ached for is here, and I’m in a basement control room. I almost start crying, but compose myself since Jeff and Brad are giving up their New Year’s Eve, too, and Lighthouse is not even their mission. I fret that by the time I leave, drunks will be out, and I’ll never get to see my family, drink my Coca-Cola, or help my orphans. About 1 a.m., Jeff’s wife delivers pizza, which cheers me as I hear myself intone about the orphan prostitutes of Russia for the umpteenth time.

For the end of the video, I’ve envisioned a quick photo progression of kids our work has helped, accompanied by the sound of cards shuffling. But for the thousands of sound effects on the software, cards aren’t one of them, so Jeff tries valiantly to create it himself. Brad hears the result and frowns. “You can’t use that! It sounds like farting!” he chides, suggesting a xylophone instead. Jeff searches online, and eventually finds an ascending chromatic scale. It’s perfect.

At 4 a.m., the parts needing my input are completed. Brad has fussy touches to finish, and thinks it will go faster if he is alone. I lay down on a couch in the recording studio, bemoaning the hour, yet solacing myself that the drunks will be home before I leave. I never really sleep; I just listen to my spiel ad infinitum as he works.

At 6:30 a.m., dear Brad is done. As he gives me a hug before leaving, I could almost cry that he gave up so much time to help our orphans, when he doesn’t know them, or me, or the Lighthouse Project. I thank him profusely; he’ll never know how much I’ve appreciated his help and expertise. While I didn’t give him much to work with, he has done a technically masterful job.

Jeff still has to copy the discs. When the first is done, he asks me to watch it. How many things I wish I would have worded differently, or could have written rather than spoken! I am not satisfied with my performance, but thankfully, it isn’t terrible with the most egregious errors edited out. After the second copy is made, I finally stumble to the car. The clock on the dash says 8:00 a.m.; we have worked on a 19-minute production for just over 22 hours straight.

I’m in a fog, but I drive slowly and meet only churchgoers on the road. Arriving at my in-laws’ house, my father-in-law comes out to greet me. I see him, and start to sob hysterically. I have been waiting all night to break down; the pressure of orphans needing me succeed at something so stressful is too much to resist longer.

Three hours later, smeared mascara washed from my face, I board the plane in Tulsa to return home. I can scarcely believe this video ever got made, especially under such crazy circumstances. Furthermore, the quality is far superior to anything I dared plan when Hope first asked me to do it. My heart might explode waiting for her return, so anxious am I to let her know not only did we work on the video as promised, we also finished it.
Arriving home Sunday night, I’m too spent to do anything besides collapse into bed. The next day, January 2, I cook my favorite dinner. With my family gathered round the table, I pop the top on my first Coke in a year and a day. I close my eyes and relish the fizzy assault on my nose. I could attack the Coke, but I delight instead in my deliberate control, knowing I am crossing my Rubicon. When I’m ready, I take one sip, and then another. It is thick, cloyingly sweet, and artificial. I don’t like it, not at all.

I pour a glass of cold water and drink deeply.

                         Somehow, I’ve survived.

See the video here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Angels Will Watch Over You

Arrival in Moscow has heretofore meant navigating Sheremetyevo Airport’s dingy, tired, and cramped international terminal, but this trip our plane halts outside a building I’ve never been in. It is immaculate, modern, innovative, and expansive. If signs weren’t in Cyrillic, or if the flight attendant hadn’t welcomed us to Russia, I’d think I’d deplaned at a new airport in the United States.

The next day, I return to the airport to pick up my families. Ten are traveling, by far a record. They come on two flights, about an hour apart, so I chat with the first group as we await the second. Kate, a young girl whose parents adopted through our director Hope years ago, has read much of my blog. She reminds me of details I’ve revealed about myself in posts past, and wonders if I find it creepy she knows so much about me.

At the hotel, everyone unloads their bags. After their all-night flight, they good-naturedly vote to sightsee. Travel is my favorite hobby, and they delight me with their gameness to see a place that, despite its grittiness, has become my third-favorite city, after Grand Rapids and Venice.

The metro is the most sensible mode of transportation for us in Moscow. Before the trip I work hard to apprise the hosts of what to expect, but the metro deftly defies description. While I loathe pushiness, I warn families that boarding the metro is no time to be selfless. Still, I know that, early on, some chivalrous soul will step aside to let everyone else board ahead of them. It would be a nightmare to reconnect were we to be separated, even though we distribute Russian phones to all travelers, to be safe.

Sure enough, our first foray onto the metro, a few hold back to permit the rest of the group to meander in. When the alarm sounds to warn the door is closing, I physically stuff the person in front of me onto the train, and not a moment too soon, as the doors slam shut behind me. Beside me, an elderly lady also makes it. She smiles at us, very rare for Russians, as they believe to smile at strangers is to announce the smiler is crazy. She speaks to me in Russian, as I smile and nod. When she continues, I answer “Da!” though I haven’t any idea what she is saying. If the country is enjoying a nascent movement toward friendliness, I’d hate to squelch it. As she persists, I counter with da’s at each pause, until she finally realizes I’m not Russian. While speaking English is becoming more prevalent among the younger generation, the older the person or more menial their job, the less likely they are to know English. So the lady flabbergasts me when she abandons Russian and switches to first-rate English. “Angels will watch over you!” she declares. She asks a few questions, which I answer until the train grinds to another stop. The car is already standing-room only, and as more Muscovites shove their way aboard, the lady is swallowed by the crowd. “Angels will watch over you!” she calls as her parting benediction, slipping away.

We emerge from the metro’s tunnels just outside the Kremlin, which the group has chosen to see this trip. The world’s largest cannon, a 200-ton bell, and the official residence of the president of Russia lie within its red brick walls. While atheism was the state religion for over seventy years, this seat of Russian government also harbors five fifteenth-century cathedrals. A Russian Orthodox lady traveling with us to meet sisters finds the churches especially meaningful; watching her appreciate them blesses me, too.

After the Kremlin, we walk next door to Red Square. Two babushkas pose outside the Kremlin bell tower as a man takes their photo with a digital camera. When he shows them the result, they are so overcome with laughter they cry. I yearn to know if this is their first visit here, or their first digital photo, or if they’re just overwhelmed in this glorious place now that their land is free. It is the sweetest thing I’ve seen in Russia, and Kate snaps a few photos for the blog. How I wish I could see them laugh, to know their moment of joy is savored by others a world away!

Tomorrow morning our arms will open to the children now on their way to us. Today, though, it was our turn to be embraced, by this giant of a country. New friends from America are here, and I’ve been privileged to share with them just a few places I love in Moscow: this day embodies all that’s best about travel. Along the way, Russians we don’t know, and will likely not meet again, have shown their goodwill, and opened their hearts and the heart of their country to us.

Angels are watching over us.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Accidental Tourist

Our summer trip is scheduled for Moscow, but a few weeks before departure, we experience the Lighthouse Project’s version of an upgrade when we decide to visit the kids in their home region instead.  Nine hours after the families arrive in Russia, we board our train for the 13-hour overnight ride.  Our car, called a “vagon,” is auspiciously near empty, which I gratefully note works wonders for the sanitation of the restroom.  Our group has three private sleeping compartments for the trip; during dinner, which I’ve brought for everyone, we speculate incessantly about what is to come.  The doors to our rooms are open, and as new friends circulate, the camaraderie engendered reminds me of an impossibly wholesome college dorm.  After dinner, our excited chatter grudgingly gives way to somnolence.   Closing my door, I stretch out on my bunk, waiting for sleep.  It’s my first summer train excursion, so I relish the extended daylight to study the Russia I’d not previously seen.    Darkness curbs my sightseeing as it gradually shrouds countryside nearly devoid of manmade lights, and I’m lulled into dreamland by the sideways rocking of the train. Waking during the night, I break out my Pimsleur Russian CD in an attempt to resuscitate my language skills before arrival.  It bores me sufficiently that I sleep again before the lesson ends.
In the morning, our group raves delightedly about the adventure.  Resting on their bunks, two sip tea at a tiny table as a Russia very unlike Moscow floats by their window.  An hour outside our destination, signs bearing the names of hamlets our orphanages occupy begin to appear.  I’m thrilled to share with families their first glimpse of their host kids’ towns.  In one orphanage village, the train creeps to halt long enough for us to watch an elderly man shuffle down a dirt road, balanced by a metal bucket in each hand.  Stopping at a communal spigot near the train, we’re entranced as he fills the buckets with water, then starts back toward home.  I wonder how many people in the area lack running water, that this spectacle should play out during our short wait.

Arriving at the train station in the capital of our region, I try hard to conjure up old feelings I experienced six years ago, the first time I’d come, brimming with a pins-and-needles anxiety to finally meet my future children.  I yearn to share my memories with the others, but they’re so busy living their own first-time moments it seems selfish to infringe upon theirs, with mine. 

A nondescript bus ride whisks us to a sanatorium, our lodging for the week.   This Russian-style country retreat is off a serpentine road surrounded by wooden dachas.  With typical Russian architecture, the building’s three-floor plan is hopelessly labyrinthine, probably cobbled together bit by bit, over time.   Much about it reminds me of the orphanages, except the kids here are better dressed and have parents fawning over them.

I’m desperate to get organized before our kids arrive, but as soon as I drop my bags, I’m summoned to the sanatorium director’s office for an orientation and to pay.  Everything in Russia is inefficient; hoping this process will be different assures disappointment.  The director is an affable sort who takes the ringing of his mobile phone very seriously. Sandwiched between several calls I learn we’ll be given breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, and “dairy,” a mystery served up without explanation.  When the families hear about dairy later, they are simultaneously amused and perplexed.

Thirteen children from four orphanages are spending the week with us.  We’re still chuckling over dairy when they began arriving, orphanage by orphanage.  Love, our Russian coordinator, comes with kids from our main orphanage, and I meet her in the hallway.  As the kids file by, I size them up, trying to figure out who’s who, having only seen poorly-shot referral photos until now.  To my horror, Angelina, not scheduled to travel, comes running with a hug (Crushed Little Blossom, 7/3/11). I’d promised myself after our last trip never to bring her again without a definite host.  I can’t bear to have her on a fifth trip, without any chance of a family.  Love mirrors my dismay, exclaiming, “I don’t know why director send her!  What we must do?”  As we discuss our options, Angelina, oblivious to the consternation her presence is causing, settles in. We weigh the merits of sending her back to spare her further disappointment against the risk of offending her high-strung orphanage director.  That Angelina herself seems pleased to be here eventually ends the matter.
After a fascinating lunch featuring abundant quantity and scant quality, we rent the indoor pool for an hour.  Several of the young boys are overjoyed by the swimsuits we’ve brought, though the chaperone insists they swim in their underwear instead.  Thankfully, enough families brought extra suits that we have one fitting Angelina.  The first time I’d met her, two years ago, she wanted to learn to swim.  Now in the pool, she laboriously dog-paddles its width with a persistence earning the approbation of all poolside.
The management is quite solicitous of our group. They have an activities director; at dinner, he extends a personal invitation to us for a clown performance tonight.  When we get there, it’s obvious something was lost in translation, as we’re actually at a kids’ comedy show, requiring mastery of Russian to appreciate.  As people around us guffaw at the jokes, we sit poker-faced.  After thirty minutes, a worker beckons us to dairy.  Our relief at being rescued from the performance is short-lived, as we find nothing but glasses of tepid kefir on a tray in the cafeteria. 

Each night is capped by a “disco” attracting a mainly tween crowd.  Our families, all of whom have rooms on the second floor, are spared the brunt of the pulsating music unless they choose to attend. My room, on the third floor, is an excessively-convenient two doors down, so my heart beats in sync with every ear-splitting note.  Disco lasts about 90 minutes and ends at 9:30 nightly.  I like watching the kids, and even get dragged to the dance floor by Ekaterina who, blinded by the strobe light, doesn’t notice the clumsiness of my gyrations.  Our last night, Tim, an Alaska host dad, doles out glow bands to our dancing kids.  A near-riot ensues as, for once, the kids with families want what the orphans have.  As Tim is slammed to the wall by a pre-teen mob clamoring for the bands, he throws them out onto the middle of the floor.  In a twisted sort of way, disco is a nightly highlight.
One afternoon, we give the kids gifts we’ve brought.  While it has been an occasional matter of contention on trips, I always say the gifts are from all the families, then I personally hand each child the gifts brought for them.  While I willingly bring children without host families on our trips, I am adamant those without should not learn this in front of a crowd.  But after eight visits, I’ve realized unhosted kids are still having their hopes dashed publicly when their gifts are presented in the green Menards bags I use, rather than unique bags hosted kids get from their families.  This time I’ve brought Menards bags for every child, hosted or not, in hope of making it less obvious which kids get gifts from me.  My pre-planning goes awry, though, with Angelina there, and we have to scramble to come up with an alternate bag and gifts for her.  After the gift presentation, HIV-positive Artem, seven, who so gladly received his gifts his first trip, whispers in the translator’s ear.  As she nods at him, he marches onto a low stage in the room and chirps, “Thank you very much for doing this for me.  I love being with you, and I love the pool.”  His words bring me to tears; surely on his trips I have been entertaining an angel unaware (Angelic, 9/26/10).  That such a young child, and one without upbringing, would on his own think to thank our entire group is most touching.

I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Cheryl, from Maine, knocks on my door late that same evening, loudly, as she is competing with the disco.  Somehow, I hear and let her in.  Hearing Artem’s thank you speech, she realizes she wants him as her son; her husband agrees.  I start crying when I hear. After 18 months and four trips, the perfect child has the perfect family.

During daily Uno games, Angelina shows a surprising amount of spunk, peeking at her American opponents’ cards and directing them which to lay if they move too slowly.  She plays “Wild Draw Four” cards on Tim with impish glee.  I am mesmerized as I watch her blossom.

The day we leave the sanatorium, our drivers drop us off on the banks of the Volga, at 2,293 miles Europe’s longest river.  The river does more than just snake through the country; it flows through the consciousness of Russians themselves, who consider it their national river and refer to it as Volga-Matushka (Volga-mother).  Today as we wander alongside it, Angelina hand-in-hand with Tim’s wife Julie, I tell Julie they look good together. She confides they are seriously considering Angelina, and my heart leaps with such rapture I worry others can see, and that I’ve spoiled their secret.
Before the kids leave, we share a treat at McDonald’s.  After several days of sanatorium dining, my enthusiasm for the Golden Arches borders giddiness, and I savor a cheeseburger I would normally disdain.  Before we’re done, vehicles hired by the orphanages begin arriving to pick the kids up.  Seeing them off in the din of a fast food parking lot is completely unceremonious; it seems disrespectful, as if we believe dodging cars during the transfer is acceptable because they’re only orphans.  One orphanage driver is annoyed at having had to wait a few minutes for the kids to finish.  He pollutes the van with his cloud of cigarette smoke, and wastes no effort at concealing his feelings that the children, and our trip, have inconvenienced him.  I feel sorry for the kids, and pray they aren’t always treated so callously.

On the train ride back to Moscow, we’ve more to ponder, and less to anticipate, than before. The clackety-clack fosters no new epiphanies, and I leave Russia not knowing if Angelina will require a sixth trip.  I have wanted to adopt her myself since the middle of her fourth visit, but my husband, more practical and not having met her, is adamant a fifth adoption is not on the horizon for our family.  I wonder if no one chooses her this time, if he might rethink his position.  When I get home, he is sympathetic over her surprising appearance, but his belief that we’re done at four kids ourselves remains maddeningly resolute.

A few weeks later, Tim and Julie call me in the evening. They tell me it’s official, that Angelina is meant to be their daughter.  While the tiniest twinge of selfish regret briefly beflutters my heart, my joy for her is so total that my congratulations can scarcely convey it.  This trumps everything before it, and is easily my most satisfying Lighthouse Project moment, ever.

The irony is, for all my effort and creativity invested daily in this program, this most glorious match is one for which I’ve orchestrated nothing.  Angelina was not supposed to be here without an interested family to meet her.  While she didn’t know it, I promised her that much silently last trip.  And when she came again anyway, I felt as if I’d unwittingly betrayed her.

But God knew Angelina’s family would be there, even when I didn’t.  This “accidental” tourist was part of His perfect plan, a plan stretching from Alaska to Maine, encompassing two children who have deeply touched my heart.  I didn’t orchestrate this, but I don’t mind one bit.