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A lesson in charity and orphanages

February 26, 2006, 0:00 3969 Author: BILL STERLING Tasley Eastern Shore News, VA

What better gift could there be than the gift of family? And there is always the gift of hope.

Gifts have taken on a new meaning for three children in the household of Jeff and Linda Harlow of Accomac.

Natalia, 12, Delena 10, and Tatiana, 9, spent the early years of their lives in a Russian orphanage before being adopted by the Harlows three years ago.

They joined Linda's two children, Jared, 20, and Ryan, 16, from a previous marriage to make a blended family they say is hectic at times but full of love and caring.

Natalia, the oldest of the adopted children, recalls Christmas of her youth in an orphanage as "dancing without music with people you really don't know." Now she knows Christmas means being with family and friends.

The children came to this country not knowing any English.

"The adoption happened very quickly," said Jeff Harlow. "It was a bit scary for everybody at first, but we had one of the King children spend some time with us that first week," referring to the family of Meg and Mike King, who adopted 16 Russian children that have immersed themselves in the local culture, including church and school.

"Linda learned a little Russian, but we are both amazed at how well the children have coped and learned the English language," said Harlow.

"All these children need is for someone to make them realize how special they are," she said.

And for those who cannot take the adoption route, there is Children's HopeChest, a program that sponsors children in Russian orphanages and provides them with vital needs.

A sponsorship of $30 a month provides for a person known as a "discipler" to work with a child on a regular basis and help them prepare for a life after the orphanage. Locally, the Franktown United Methodist Church sponsors Children's HopeChest.

To ensure that children don't feel abandoned once more, sponsoring churches are expected to visit their orphanage at least once a year. Through individual child sponsorship, church members provide support for individual orphans, and commit to monthly letter writing and daily prayer.

Through the financial gifts of the sponsoring church, the discipler visits the orphanage on a weekly basis.

The disciplers provide weekly Bible studies and ongoing opportunities for evangelism and discipleship. Many train new Christians for ministry, and allow orphans to minister to their peers. A church's funds also cover monthly financial assistance to the orphanage, providing better food, clothing, medical care, school supplies, and building repairs.

Members of the Franktown United Methodist Church visited Russia last May and are planning another trip this spring. What they see tears at their heart.

"Alcoholism is a huge problem in Russia. Many of the orphans have at least one parent living whose parental rights were terminated," said Linda Harlow. "Often, alcohol is the factor that caused the termination. Also, the culture is different in Russia in that other family members do not take in children who are not their kids. In this country, maybe an aunt or grandparent will take in a child, but it is just not that way there."

"What this program promotes is a relationship," she said. "It's not just about making a donation and not really knowing where the money is going. For $30 a month you will be matched with a specific child and follow that child through his or her development."

There is also a sense of connection through the sponsorship by a church. When a church sponsors an orphanage, all the sponsorships by members will be for children within that one orphanage.

Linda Harlow went to Russia last May to visit the orphanage they sponsor and hopes to return again this year. "It made me understand what my children went through early in their lives. You can be told about it, but until you see it first-hand, you will never feel it."

Linda said there are few healthy male role models for the children to see, and for that reason she hopes the next trip includes some men.

Her husband, pastor of the Accomac charge, which includes Drummondtown United Methodist Church and Woodbury United Methodist Church, hopes to make the trip also.

"It costs $3,000 per person to make the trip, and that's a lot of money for us," she said.

"It's more likely Linda will go," said Harlow, whose churches have supported Franktown in sponsoring Russian orphanages

Donna Nimey is the local Children's HopeChest coordinator for the Franktown Church. She has adopted two children from Russia and two others from the Ukraine.

"Children's HopeChest was a way for me to continue to support Russian children in orphanages without continuing to adopt," said Nimey. Her adopted children, now 16, 15 and two 7-year-olds, came to her as toddlers. Nimey also has three biological children.

"So many of these children come from dysfunctional families, and many of them make poor life choices after leaving the orphanage. The disciples serve as a mentor and minister to the children about their direction once they become 18 and go out on their own. Sponsors get feedback from the disciplers and the orphanage about the children's progress."

Nimey says anyone who is interested in making a trip to Russia should contact her soon at donnaln@verizon.net. The group will start meeting in January to make plans for a possible May trip.

Children's HopeChest is not an adoption agency, but an outreach to orphans, both during their time living in the orphanage and as they transition from the orphanage to independent living. Although the Eastern Shore certainly must have as many adopted Russian children living here per capita as most anywhere, chances of children being adopted are very slim, so the group focuses on their well-being in the orphanage and offer a greater chance for success once they leave the institution.

As young as 15 or 16 years old, orphans find themselves in a crisis situation: They are forced to leave the security of the orphanage. A lifetime of dependence on others creates an inability to make confident decisions and a lack of daily living skills. For most, those problems are aggravated by psychological challenges such as low self-esteem, lack of communication skills, attachment disorder and a high level of mistrust for adults. Yet these children are expected to successfully integrate into society.

Unfortunately, success is statistically rare for orphans. Most fail to successfully continue their education, find jobs, keep jobs, locate and maintain housing or build healthy relationships at work, in family and in community.

A fundraiser will be held at Stella's Restaurant in Onancock on Thursday, Jan. 26 to benefit Hope Chest, an organization that sponsors children in Russian orphanage and provides them with vital needs.

Copyright ©2004 DelmarvaNow. All rights reserved.

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