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For Durham family, cultural exchange turns into full house

February 19, 2007, 2:00 4517 Author: Penelope Overton The Hartford Courant Denise and David Funaro began their international adoption adventure in 2005 as hosts of two Ukrainian orphan brothers

DURHAM, Conn. -- Denise and David Funaro began their international adoption adventure in 2005 as hosts of two Ukrainian orphan brothers.

They had told organizers of International Orphans Foundation Inc. of Middletown that they could keep 8-year-old Leonid and 11-year-old Yuri for the summer while the foundation looked for a permanent home for the boys in America.

But what began as a three-week cultural exchange has grown into so much more _ a commitment by the Funaros and their children to become that home.

"We wanted to help them, to do this good thing, but we were a big family with three kids of our own that didn't have the time, the money or even the room to adopt," Denise Funaro said. "Sending our little angels back to Ukraine was absolutely heartbreaking."

But when no one stepped up to adopt, the Funaros started to wonder, "Why not us?"

In November 2005, Denise called a family meeting and everyone, including their three daughters, agreed to find a way to make it work. But as Denise dove into the paperwork, she discovered Yuri and Leonid had two other siblings _ Vitalie, then 10, and Valentyna, then 14.

"I mean, we could barely wrap our arms around the idea of two more, much less four more, which kind of sounds like a cheesy sitcom," Denise said. "Seven kids, with four that don't speak more than a word or two of English, that would be crazy, right?"

As Denise recalled the story of how four Ukrainian children came into her family on a recent afternoon, three children sat at the kitchen table of her two-story home doing origami and school work; two others ate grapes at the kitchen island and two more rolled around on the floor, while the family's dog, Abby, watched.

Denise laughed: "I guess I'm certifiable."

On Nov. 18 at JFK International Airport in New York, the Funaro family was reconstituted as a blend of "originals" and "the new ones," struggling to find a way to survive and even thrive in what Denise calls "our little slice of chaos."

The "originals" are Denise, 44, a day-care center operator; David, 55, a construction manager; Stephanie, 19, a Southern Connecticut State University freshman; Alyssa, 16, a high school junior; and Emma, 10, a fourth-grader.

The "new ones" are Valentyna, 15, a freshman at Mercy High School in Middletown; Yuri, 12, a seventh-grader; Vitalie, 11, a fifth-grader; and Leonid, 9, a third-grader.

They all live in a big house that suggests wealth but that the Funaros bought 14 years ago, before the real estate boom turned Durham into a coveted address.

The Funaros worried they didn't have enough room for four more. When Stephanie is home from college, they can't all fit into their van. Friends helped the Funaros add an extra bedroom to the house for Valentyna.

The house has two showers shared by nine, Denise said. "We shower at night in shifts," Denise said. "It's quite a production."

The kids arrive home from school one by one, dropping their backpacks on the floor and dumping their homework onto every available surface in the kitchen _ the table, the island, the floor. That is when the "Hey, mom!" chorus begins.

Stephanie is packing a bag of food to bring back to the dorm and needs to know what's OK to take, but Denise can't answer because she's making sure Vitalie and Alyssa, who are chasing each other around the kitchen over a mock insult, are just joking.

Valentyna wants Denise to help her find the right words in English to describe her life in Ukraine. When Valentyna realizes she will have to get in line, because Emma and Leonid want a hug from mom when she's done playing referee, she dissolves into quiet tears.

Yuri, who is reading aloud to Dave from an anatomy book, puts an arm over her shoulders and says something to his older sister in Russian. Emma pulls herself away from her clinch with Denise to chide Valentyna for crying while Dave wipes a tear from the teen's face.

"We took turns crying in the first month," Denise said. "Now we laugh more than we cry."

The everyday expense of caring for four extra children, especially three boys who can't seem to eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, can seem astronomical. The boys will eat 30 bananas a week. Denise spent $175 on fruit and vegetables alone one day, which she said was typical.

The Funaros have made 30 trips to the dentist in the 10 weeks since the four children arrived. Every child needed new shoes. Thankfully, friends gave them enough clothes to fill whole closets.

Denise said she doesn't know the true cost of the adoption, nor does it matter to her. What's done is done, and she and David could drive each other crazy thinking about how the adoption might impact their ability to send all their kids to college.

"There are some things in life you can't over-think," Denise said. "This was one of them."

Blending the two families has been the Funaros' biggest challenge. It's tricky, emotional work made harder because the "new ones" arrived knowing just a few words of English. They communicate as much with hand motions as words.

Denise and Dave struggle to give their adopted children the love and attention they need to adjust to life in a new country and family, while reassuring their original children that they have not lost their place in the parents' hearts.

"We brought our kids up to know there's a bigger world out there and people who aren't as fortunate as us, but sharing your home and your parents with strangers, that's a lot different than spending a day at a shelter," Denise said. "I'm very proud of them. I'm proud of us all."


Information from: The Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com

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