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Orange Slices: Foreign bonds (hosting orphans from Ukraine)

January 8, 2007, 0:00 3221 Author: Ana Venegas The Orange County Register

An Orange County family forges ties with Ukrainian orphans.

Seven-year-old Olga came into the McCormacks' lives before Christmas and quickly won the hearts of her hosts.

The Ukrainian Orphan Project brought Olga and 24 other orphans to the U.S. to join host families for the holidays.

Olga touched everything, pressed every button, buzzed from one thing to another. " Nyet(no) was the Russian word I used the most," laughs host mother Marta McCormack.

Olga was fascinated by the telephone. She wouldn't let it go and even slept with it under her pillow.

Outgoing, affectionate and playful, Olga spread excitement and laughter wherever she went.

She spoke Russian with Marta's adopted daughter, Sofia, who came from a Ukrainian orphanage herself.

Olga took to Marta immediately, wanting regular hugs and kisses.

"I kind of like it" says 7-year-old Jack McCormack, of the visit. Sofia enjoys the sisterlike experience, while Marta says, "I like everything about her."

Six years ago, Marta and Jim traveled to an orphanage in Ukraine to adopt then 5-year-old Sofia. Her memories of the vast numbers of orphans there haunted her.

Ukraine is the home of about 100,000 orphans and one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe. Marta knew that older kids seldom get adopted. "You are condemning a soul to not reach their full potential," she says.

The orphan project gives older children and host families a cultural-exchange experience. The kids are handpicked for their emotional maturity and flexibility to make the visit.

The children must weather more than 24 hours of travel. They are told they are going on a vacation. There is absolutely no mention of adoption. The host families often commit to more visits and future contact. And yes, there have been adoptions.

Marta and Jim hosted Olga to give her a larger sense of the world and to teach their own children selflessness. Marta's life philosophy draws from challenges including the death of their 2-year-old biological daughter, Elena, and the diagnosis of her older son, James, with autism.

Yet Marta feels fortunate. "I had a wonderful childhood. My parents' love gave me the strength to deal with my life's challenges. I can't imagine not having a happy childhood. My parents gave me love, so my cup is full. Now I want to share that with others."

As for Olga's impending departure, Marta says, "I don't know how I will react, but I will bring her back for the summer."

Olga swoops into Marta's arms, signaling that she wants to be rocked. For an instant this 7-year-old resembles a beaming, swaddled baby.

Marta lovingly rocks her, knowing that she craves this.

Then Marta smiles. "It's joyful to see a child so happy."

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