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A chosen family: where love, longing and need meet

May 29, 2008, 0:00 2893 Author: Kim Hone-McMahan www.ohio.com American couple said Tanya they were going to take her to America. They promised to protect and love her.

Through the open window, the stench drifted inside. The smell, a mix of car exhaust and something unidentifiable, hung over the gray, colorless city like a cloak.

A taxi pulled down the little lane. My husband, Chris, reacting to the sound of car doors shutting and the clicking of heels on the broken sidewalk, leaped from his seat. He unbolted the multiple locks on the double layer of doors leading to the dark hallway of the modest apartment in Ukraine.

The translator and Tanya, a pretty young teenager, stepped inside. ''We have a problem. Not with her,'' the woman said, nodding to the girl. ''A caregiver at the orphanage told Tanya the only reason you were adopting her was to kill her so that you could remove her organs and sell them.''

The words, spoken with a slight Russian accent, were clear. Yet I was certain I must have misunderstood. It was the kind of plot that Hollywood makes into movies, not something that happens in real life.

In the summer of 2006, our son, Alex, returned from a two-week mission trip to Ukraine. He and a group from Canton's Malone College had gone there to work with children living in some of the orphanages.

In tears, he vowed never to forget the boys and girls he left behind. Most would have very short lives.

A staggering 70 percent of orphans, according to one report, will die on the streets within five years of aging out of the system at about 16, victims of such things as suicide, violence and drug and alcohol abuse.

He ached for the children. The memories of their giggles made him chuckle. But their eyes, filled with longing, haunted him.

''The poorest of the poor here are rich to those kids,'' he said, dropping his head into the palms of his hands.

Though Alex didn't know what it was like to be orphaned, he understood loss.

Three years earlier, he had unsuccessfully tried to revive his sister, Brooke, who had died during a seizure. The experience will forever be etched in his memory, the love for her forever imprinted on his heart.

''I just don't know what to do for them,'' he said of the orphans, his voice shaking. ''I'll be back there someday. If not before, it will be the day I adopt.''

For months, Chris and I discussed the children Alex had visited. In a country the size of Texas, there are some 100,000 children in institutions.

Though we felt we were too old to adopt an infant, we agreed to bring a 10- to 12-year-old child into our family. Most youngsters that old don't find their forever families.

''We can never replace our sweet Brooke, but we feel we have more love to give,'' I penned in a journal two days before Christmas 2006. ''We are going into it with our eyes wide open. We know there will be many difficult times, but we pray there will be joyous ones as well.

''Retirement is suddenly further off and we won't have as much money for our senior years, but monetary riches alone don't bring happiness.''

Point and select

As if waiting to give birth, it took nine months to do the paperwork and to receive an invitation from the Ukrainian government to come and consider a child for adoption. Our appointment in Kyiv was set for Sept. 13, 2007.

With rare exception, pre-selecting a child for adoption is illegal in Ukraine, unless the prospective adoptive parents have personally met the youngster. Instead, we requested a specific orphanage where Alex and one of his friends, a missionary who had spent a year in Ukraine, had worked.

The skies were threatening rain on the day we arrived at the government building. When summoned, we entered an office where an official gave us three pieces of paper. The information about each child was minimal. Thankfully, someone had warned us before we left home that the photos of the children would be old, with their heads shaven. It's done when they enter the orphanage, presumably to rid them of lice.

Stunned that we were being given only three choices from the orphanage we preferred, and that they were older than we had requested, Chris and I stared at the photos.

''Your time is about up,'' an official interrupted.

In only about 45 minutes, less time than most people would take to shop for groceries, we selected a child.

Her father was out of the picture, she had no siblings, and her mother had died from tuberculosis when she was about 6. That meant there was a good chance she had a loving beginning and was less likely to suffer from an attachment disorder, which prevents youngsters from forming healthy relationships.

Sobbing from the gravity of the event, we left the building, walking past a line of people waiting to make the trip upstairs, where they would sit across the desk from a woman they didn't know, and adopt a child they probably had never met.

Outside, a friend waited. Shaken, I told her about the lack of choices.

''God has just made it easy for you,'' she said, in an attempt to comfort us. ''God has made it easy for you.''

That afternoon, we boarded a 1950s-vintage plane for the town in southern Ukraine. I thought, who in their right mind would adopt a teen they knew virtually nothing about? And those teenage years with raging hormones and the struggle to find independence can be difficult.

Fear began to build.

Meeting Tanya

Much of Ukraine is beautiful. Ornate Ukrainian Orthodox churches with gold domes dot the landscape. But it was obvious that this town, with its dirty, unkempt surroundings, was struggling economically. Decent paying jobs were scarce and petty thieves were common.

The taxi weaved through the traffic. Sometimes the roads were so congested, the driver would pull the cab onto the sidewalks to get away from other cars. Pedestrians scurried out of the way, accustomed to dodging vehicles on the walkways.

Occasionally, when the traffic slowed to a stop, homeless street children ran between the cars begging for grivna, or money. Mostly forgotten, their needs are great. To remove themselves mentally from their miserable existence, they often inhale glue.

Stray dogs scampered across the drive as the cab pulled up in front of the large building. The grass around the orphanage was high. Few people mow their lawns here.

The youngest of the orphans, who were squatting with handle-less brooms to sweep the drive, surrounded the car. With the exception of those on mission trips who come to work on the building or play with children, generally the only other time Americans show up is to adopt.

Still clenching my teeth from the ride, I walked up the steps. The odor inside made my stomach turn. Yet, in contrast to the gray city, the walls were brightly painted. A group of young children dug through a pile of clothing dumped near the entrance.

Inside the attorney's office, we were told about Tanya, a smart 131/2-year-old beauty with long blonde hair and a spunky personality. To us, looks didn't matter, but we liked the idea that she was spirited.

''Would you like to meet her?'' our translator asked.

Chris nodded. One of the women in the room left to find the girl.

I realized at that moment there was no turning back. How could a couple introduce themselves to a child and then reject her? That would be heartless.

The door eased open. Tanya was, as they described, gorgeous. Someone in the room instructed her to sit down. She hung her head, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

One look at Chris and I knew she would be our daughter. If it's possible to see the moment someone falls in love, I had watched it happen.

Through an interpreter, we inquired about her interests. One of the handful of people in the room asked her about her dreams for the future.

''I want a family,'' she answered, barely above a whisper.

I tried to imagine what it must be like for her. In that moment she must have been carefully weighing her answers, thinking if she were to answer incorrectly, it could mean the end of any hope for a future.

After she was dismissed, we told the officials that we would like to adopt Tanya. We would return later in the day to tell her ourselves.

But when we stepped into the hallway, a group of giggling girls and a caregiver came running down the hall. It was obvious — she already knew.

In the rear of the taxi, I said out loud what I was struggling with in my head.

''What have we done?''

Chris paused before answering.

''We've saved a child's life.''

Generally, the music blaring from Ukrainian taxi radios is hip-hop or rap, sung in Russian. But this time, the music was a different genre. And it was in English.

''Do you hear that?'' I asked. ''It's from the movie Titanic.''

Chris leaned his head closer to the speaker.

''It's confirmation that we've done the right thing,'' he said, rubbing the back of my neck.

Here we were halfway across the world, having made one of the most important decisions in our lives, and Brooke's favorite song was comforting us like a sweet lullaby.

Love and lies

Before we left our home in Green, I set up an Internet blog so we could keep in contact with our friends and family. Their messages, filled with love and concern, helped us get through the difficult times.

''Think about all the things in your life that have prepared you for this moment. This is no accident. The experiences you've had, the lessons you've learned, both during Brooke's life and after — you and Chris have been groomed for this,'' wrote my friend and colleague Paula Schleis. ''To take a child . . . and, with unconditional love and unwavering determination, bring her through the fire, you know this is your life's mission. You know how to do it. You know you have the strength.''

Though we could not speak the same language, we spent as much time as the orphanage would allow with Tanya in hope of forming bonds.

On the third day after we met, a caregiver told her that we were adopting her for the purpose of harvesting her organs. Or if we decided to spare her life, perhaps she would be a slave instead.

We wondered, how could anyone be so inhumane, particularly to a child?

The interpreter explained that perhaps the caregiver was impoverished and didn't know where she would get the money to feed her children that evening. And just as she was feeling guilty about not being able to provide, along comes an American family with some means, and scoops up an orphan to take to ''the Fairyland.'' Now she would never go to bed hungry, would receive a good education and would have an opportunity for a fine life.

Others we knew who had adopted from the same orphanage had wonderful experiences, but when we visited, the director was on an extended medical leave. That may have been why the brazen cruelty was allowed to happen.

To offer a distraction from the ruthlessness, the interpreter asked Tanya whether she wanted to keep her name. She announced that she would like to be called Jennifer — ''Like Jennifer Lopez.'' Her middle name would be Rose, following a growing tradition in my family.

Two days after the first incident, the same orphanage employee repeated the lies.

With the translator nearby, I held Jennifer close, raised her chin, and looked directly into her eyes.

''We are going to take you to America. I promise that no one will hurt you like that again. We will protect and love you.''

A new life

Though we were nervous, the court hearing was a pleasant experience.

Soon, Chris and I would go back to the States while the paperwork and our daughter's passport were being prepared. He would return to bring her home.

For Jennifer, it was a long, frightening trip to Ohio on Oct. 21, 2007. She still wasn't convinced that Chris wasn't leading her to her death. Even so, she wanted a family so badly that the brave teen was willing to take the risk and board a plane bound for America.

For the first few months, she grieved terribly for her Ukrainian friends, who were like siblings to her. While we understood the grief process, we lacked the language to help. Time has healed some of the hurt. In March, when Chris walked into her room, Jennifer was sorrowfully packing away the pictures of her old friends. It was affirmation that she accepted her new life.

She has turned 14 since arriving and had a party with her peers to celebrate.

At Green schools, she is one of about 150 students in the district whose native language is not English, and one of 50 receiving ESL services (English as a second language). While adolescents usually take longer than younger children to learn English, Jennifer is something of a star in her linguistic abilities.

It seems the folks at the orphanage were correct: She is very smart, and funny. And troubles like reactive attachment disorder, commonly found in orphaned and abandoned children, are nonexistent.

She's busy perfecting her English while learning about the Italian Renaissance and deep-ocean trenches. She's struggling to make sense of middle school social dramas. And, like many other young teens, she takes dance lessons, goes to movies and text-messages her pals.

In a word, she is a joy.

''I am . . . so grateful to have Jennifer here as part of this school, this community, and our lives,'' Lori McCartney, counselor at Green Middle School wrote in an e-mail to me a couple of weeks ago. ''Thank you for bringing her to us. She is truly a gift.''

Some people instantly reject adopting older children. But had we believed all of the discouraging stories we heard about the subject, our home would be devoid of a child's contagious laughter.

Over our bed hangs a piece of art that reads, ''Trust me child, I have it all under control. Love God.''

I used to look at the sign when I was troubled. Now, on this, my first Mother's Day with my daughter of six months, I view it with thankfulness.

Though we took the leap of faith, God made it easy. Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or kmcmahan@thebeaconjournal.com.

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