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.