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.

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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.

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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.

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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