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MAZON – There has been a wonderful coming and going of international children into the area the past couple of years, as six families in the local towns of Mazon, Verona, Seneca and Dwight have been hosting orphan children from Ukraine for Christmas and summer breaks.
A couple of the families are going through the adoption process with children they have hosted.
Bringing the children over is costly, however, and a shopping fundraiser is being offered Oct. 28 in Morris to help defray costs. The opportunity is just in time for early Christmas gift buying, organizers say.
The families have been going through the organization Host Ukraine to bring the children into their homes.
Sam and Stephanie Cato of Seneca hosted three Ukrainian sisters last Christmas and again over the summer. They plan on being hosts to other orphans from the country soon.
It was on a trip to Missouri last year for a family Thanksgiving celebration when Stephanie saw an online ad for Host Ukraine.
It was the contrast of the holiday of plenty, where we celebrate family and food and thankfulness, compared to the situation of the European orphans that struck the Catos. They had previously been on a mission trip to Bolivia and knew what effects poverty and need had on children.
“After Bolivia, we asked God what else he wanted us to do,” Stephanie said. “To Sam and me, (hosting the Ukrainian orphans) was bringing a mission into our home.”
The orphanage closes down for a winter holiday, Cato explained, and many of the children have no family to go home to. Sam and Stephanie were able to learn about the children who were approved and to ask for specific ones.
For a while, each of their requests was assigned to other families before their requests were processed, until one day, when they learned that three sisters were available to visit.
The Catos have six children of their own – one was in New York, two were in college, and three were at home – but they were all going to be home for Christmas. For that holiday, they added Samandar, Khiala and Sashsa, ages 9-15, to their family. It would make a pretty big crew altogether, but the Catos felt it was something God was giving to them.
“We were all excited and completely nervous,” Stephanie said. “They were really shy, and at first, they just spoke Russian.”
The Catos and the children they hosted used Google Translate to communicate, as well as gestures and body language. It worked pretty well, Stephanie said.
“They told us it was the best Christmas they ever had,” she said. “They didn’t want to go back.”
It wasn’t perfect, Stephanie said. The orphans are children of trauma, and there were some struggles.
“But there was also bonding and love,” she said.
The Catos brought the girls back for the 11-week summer break. They took them to Sam’s parents’ Missouri home, where they played on the beach, went horseback riding and learned how to fish. They also went to Six Flags and rode a roller coaster for the first time.
Back in Illinois, the girls played with the Cato family, made cookies and just became part of a safe, secure, happy family.
“They could let their guard down for a while and be themselves and not be scared,” Stephanie said. “We also enjoyed taking them to church to show them the love of Jesus.”
She said she would recommend hosting to other families.
“It’s not easy all the time,” she said. “I don’t want to sugar coat it, but to know that you made a difference is definitely worth it ... You love them because Jesus loves them. Ultimately, they’re his kids, and you’re just stepping in to make a difference.”
Bryan and Deb Baker, of Mazon, hosted two Ukrainian orphans last summer — an 11- and 12-year-old brother and sister — who joined their own four children for an American summertime family experience.
“I had heard about Host Ukraine from Stephanie Cato,” Deb said, “and we just felt it was something God was calling us to do, so we stepped out in faith and did it.”
Baker said they felt like family to them.
“Most of the kids who come are desperately seeking a family,” she said. “By the second day, they were calling us mom and dad ... Within the first two weeks, we got attached to them.”
By the end of the summer, Baker said it was difficult to imagine what their lives were like before they were there. The same children will come stay with them this Christmas.
“We just really feel like they’re a part of our family,” she said, “even though they are 5,400 miles away.”
Baker said it’s hard thinking of the lives the children have lived.
“So many of them have come from trauma,” she said. “They may have a mom or a dad or both, but nobody wants them or they can’t have them ... You can see the calmness that comes to them living in a stable environment.”
The orphans also gave the Bakers quite an experience.
“I think our kids appreciate things more,” Baker said. “We all take so many things for granted.”
The mission of Host Ukraine is “giving Ukrainian orphans a loving family experience.” The children, ages 6 to 16, come to the United States to spend either a Christmas break (four weeks) or a summer (11 weeks) with their host families.
Colleen Holt Thompson is executive director of the not-for-profit organization and said she began Host Ukraine in 2015 after several “amazing” experiences she and her family had hosting the orphans in their own home. The first was a young girl they hosted in 2005. From there, her family hosted many more, year after year, and even adopted six of the children.
The first time she visited the Ukrainian orphanage, she could tell the children had a big need for adults.
“They wanted to touch me and talk to me and play with me,” she said.
Her family loved hosting.
“It’s at least a break from the lives they have to live,” Thompson said. “These families who host feel compelled to share their good fortune with these children.”
Thompson said all kinds of Americans host Ukrainian orphans, including those who are single, married, young couples, empty nesters and people with and without children.
More information about Host Ukraine, Inc., can be obtained at www.hostukraine.org.
“Shop to Bring Them Home”
What: A craft and vendor fair fundraiser to benefit area families hosting or adopting Ukrainian orphans. New and gently-worn shoes also being collected.
When: Saturday, October 28, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: First Christian Church, 455 W. Southmor Road, Morris
Details: A variety of vendors, including home-based businesses, crafters and bakers, are participating in this fundraiser that will give proceeds to six area families to bring Ukrainian orphans into their homes. Bring your new or gently-worn shoes for donations, as well, any size, adult and children’s.