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This was 5-year-old Max's first time in America, first time living outside an orphanage, and first time with a mom and dad.
Max, and his siblings Beau, 7, Archer, 9, and Lera, 11, were adopted by Newark native Caity Blacet and her husband, Brett. The two now live in eastern Franklin County.
Annie Haefs, Caity's sister and a freshman at Purdue University, said it amazing someone so young would completely upend their life to help children from across the globe.
"Caity's such an ambitious person, that it never surprised anyone she would go to such a length to do something she wanted to do," Haefs said. "She felt a calling to help kids."
Caity, 25, was adopted herself as an infant after being born at Ohio State University hospital. She said adopting was always something she wanted to do, but said she never thought she would do it so early in life.
Before the two were even married, they sponsored a child in Peru, paying for the girl's education.
While researching trips to visit her sponsor child, Caity stumbled across orphan hosting.
Children who live in Ukrainian orphanages come to America with a chaperone and either stay three months over a summer, or one month over the winter.
"It also kind of gives them...the family experience and then...hope that for when they leave the orphanage, they don't have to continue the way their life has been in Ukraine, they could try to go to trade school and get a student visa and come to America again," Caity said.
In summer 2015, they hosted a boy named Ruslan. Although the couple loved Ruslan and wanted to adopt him, they couldn't, because Ruslan had an older teenage brother who was too old to be adopted by the couple.
A family in Florida hosted Ruslan's brother and ended up adopting both boys.
Ultimately, Brett and Caity decided to host again and had Lera and Beau for one month during winter 2015.
They decided over summer 2016 to host all four kids, although Max couldn't come because he was too young. This time Lera, Beau and Archer, joined them in Ohio.
Over the summer, Lera did gymnastics, Beau and Archer played baseball, and they all went on a family vacation with Brett's family to Tennessee.
"We just did a lot of things and realized 'hey, we can handle this, and we love them,' so when they went back in August, that's when we actively started pursuing their adoption of all four of them," Caity said.
A TROUBLED CHILDHOOD
Caity and Brett said they know their children went to an orphanage right around when Max was born. Their birth parents had lost all custodial rights.
"We know that the parents were abusive to them, and possibly (had) drug and alcohol issues going on," Caity said.
Since they were in an orphanage for about five years, Lera is the only one who remembers life at home.
"She'll say things like 'mama, papa, Ukraine bad,' like her parents in Ukraine were bad," Caity said.
The children lived in an orphanage in Mariupol in the Donetsk region, where a war is being raged with Russia.
Before traveling to Ukraine, the couple had a document as part of their dossier stating that they knew they were entering a war region and the U.S. Embassy had no responsibility for anything that might happen to them.
Caity said when walking through Mariupol, one could see how the war has affected the city.
Max makes a face realizing how cold the water is after begging his new parents to take him and his sibling swimming on a chilly morning. Brett, his new father, just laughs as he holds him close in the pool. (Photo: Jessica Phelps/Newark Advocate)
"For every building that was open, was a building next to it that was closed, boarded up, rundown," Caity said.
If the children were not adopted, Caity said the four of them would probably just age out of the system at 16 and most likely end up separated from each other.
She said many female orphans turn to prostitution and sex trafficking, and many males end up involved with crime or drug trafficking.
Many also commit suicide before they are out of their teens.
THE LONG ROAD HOME
Brett and Caity flew to Ukraine earlier this year for their July 3 court date.
After arriving, the new anti-corruption committee noticed their listed income was two years outdated.
To comply, Caity's father had to go to her workplace, get her contract, find the couple's tax documents, get them notarized, and send them to Ukraine.
Their court date was pushed back to July 20, and then the couple had a 10-day waiting period.
Before the kids arrived in Ohio, Caity got each of them backpacks with their names monogrammed on the front. It was a bit of an extravagance Caity admitted, but worth it to make them feel at home. (Photo: Jessica Phelps/Newark Advocate)
Caity had to fly back to Ohio for her job, but after the 10 days, Brett went to pick up their children on their "gotcha day."
En route to the capital, Kiev, the group was in a car accident.
After finally arriving in Kiev, Brett had to wait for the children's passports. Then, Ukrainian Independence Day came and all government offices shut down for about a week for celebrations.
Eventually, the passports came, and two days later they were flying home.
While in Ukraine, Brett took an unpaid leave of absence and they were living off one paycheck, with expenses both in Ukraine and Ohio.
The cost of hosting alone for the four months they had the kids was more than $10,000.
In total, Caity said she thinks the adoptions costed about $56,000.
Brett and Caity each worked extra jobs to help raise money, but she said they were lucky to also receive help from the community.
They started a YouCaring page asking for donations, which got more than $12,000.
They organized fundraisers, auctions, and received donations from family members and even an old Newark Catholic High School classmate.
They also received a $15,000 adoption grant.
"There's just no possible way that we could have done this without the support from everybody," Caity said.
WORRIES FOR THE FUTURE
Although the children are now in America, the couple said there are concerns moving forward.
Beau has a crossed eye and will probably need surgery.
"I've heard that it's because the caretakers will leave the kids in their cribs and they have no stimulation, so they just stare at the ceiling for hours and it just naturally happens," Caity said.
Caity said she thinks Beau has some learning disabilities and said all of the children are delayed emotionally, socially, and physically.
Caity and Lera spend an afternoon cleaning and putting clothes away. The amount of laundry Caity and her husband now have to do has increased substantially after adopting Lera and her three younger brothers from the Ukraine. (Photo: Jessica Phelps/Newark Advocate)
"I just worry about what's their future when they're done with school," Caity said. "Like is college something that they can do, are they going to be able to acquire enough English and enough knowledge to go to college, and if they don't go to college, what about a trade, what kind of trade could they do, what kind of skills do they have," Caity said.
Caity said she is only 14 years older than Lera.
"I do worry about that, but she's never hesitated to come to me or call me mama," Caity said.
PUSHING THROUGH LANGUAGE BARRIERS
Caity and Brett don't speak much Russian and the kids don't speak much English.
But, the family has been able to work around these difficulties.
"Communication really hasn't been difficult with them, we're very good at just kind of figuring it out, either pointing at things, or making up our own version of sign language of things," Caity said.
The kids will also help each other out and translate for each other.
"I was packing Max's lunch and he was trying to tell me something and Lera found a book that had a picture of nuts in it and came up and showed me and said 'Max does not like nuts,' by showing me the picture in the book," Caity said.
Caity said connecting with the two youngest has been easier because they can still connect more physically.
While the family was all together, Beau sat on his mother's lap and gave her a kiss.
"Both Beau and Max are still very like cuddly and kissy and lovey-dovey," Caity said. "It's harder with Lera and Archer, for sure, I mean, 'cause they are older."
Beau leans in to give Caity a kiss. (Photo: Jessica Phelps/Newark Advocate)
A NEW NORMAL
The children have only been in America for 2.5 weeks and started school Sept. 5.
The oldest three are in fifth, fourth, and first grades at New Albany schools, and Max is in preschool.
"It's been going pretty well so far, I mean, the school system has been awesome, all of the teachers have reached out," Caity said.
As Brett has started back at work, he said someone asked him how he was feeling.
"Tired, but really excited," Brett said. "I'm tired right now, but the future is just endless at this point."
The kids have jumped right back into the couple's extended family.
"My dad, they call dyadya, which is like a term of endearment for an older Ukrainian man," Caity said.
The new family spend part of Monday evening playing video games in the basement.
Lera snuggled with the dog on a bean bag chair.
The kids took turns with the game controllers and would yell out "papa" when they wanted Brett's attention.
Caity helps the two youngest, Max and Beau, brush their teeth before putting them to bed on a Sunday night. The boys have only been in Ohio for a couple of weeks, but are already beginning to settle into their new routines, which include going to bed early on school nights. (Photo: Jessica Phelps/Newark Advocate)
Brett said he loves seeing the expressions on their faces, even for the little things, such as when they went to the pool, even when it was cold out.
"Just like those little moments, of like just their astonishment and their awe about things that we take for granted, it's been really humbling," Caity said.
The family is now getting used to having six people and a dog in their small town home, where the four children share a bedroom.
"Whatever we can provide for them here is still 10 times better than what their life was there."