If anyone wonders why I keep on keeping on writing despite so much discouragement and the collapse of my chosen field of work (whereby the only folks who are getting journalism jobs these days are 20-something bloggers), here is a story that illustrates what keeps me at the keyboard.
Early last spring, I had just published my Metropolitan Jonah piece in the Post and was scouting about for more ideas to pitch when I remembered Andrea Roberts, who runs this incredible site called reecesrainbow.org. It advocates for handicapped orphans overseas and to date, Andrea has gotten 500 families to sign up to adopt kids mainly with Down syndrome but also those with AIDS/HIV, spina bifida and many other problems that lead parents to dump their offspring into Eastern European orphanages. I had done a story on her back in 2009 and had kept in touch, as I’m hoping she can help find a home for a little girl in Kazakhstan who has spina bifida and whose parents dumped her at the same orphanage from where I got Veeka.
Andrea lives about 20 miles from me so I asked folks at the Post about doing an article on her work. They suggested I find a family that had picked out a child’s photo from Andrea’s site and follow them through the adoption process. Andrea gave me a list of names and I picked a family in Germantown that had a child in mind and was starting the three required trips to Russia to adopt little Elizabeth, then 7, whose parents had abandoned her when they learned she had Downs. They then went on to have another child, who didn’t have Downs and to this day, the kid, who’s probably 5 or 6 now, probably doesn’t know she had an older sister.
So, starting in April, I started driving the 60-mile round trip to Germantown to meet the parents, Nina and Jon Clark, and the rest of this family and follow them through the ups and downs of their trips. On Aug. 17, Nina flew back with Elizabeth in tow and I shot the above photo as they gathered at the airport after a two-hour wait at the international arrivals gate. It was a tearful time, let me tell you and I hope I captured the pathos of it all in this story, which went online today on the Post’s web site. I returned to their house several more times after that – am sure they got quite sick of seeing me and answering five zillion questions – but everyone was very patient and it was exciting seeing how Elizabeth was fitting in. At one point, I turned in more than 4,000 words – which was way more than the Post had room for – so I am including below a portion that didn’t make the final draft.
On April 18, the Clarks embarked on the first of three required trips to Russia. When Nina, Jon and Andy arrived in St. Petersburg (the couple involved their sons in the process; Jacob had gone to China to pick up Abby), they found their soon-to-be daughter lived just outside of town in a sterile-looking building surrounded by a dirt playground. The hallway had no carpet; a thin layer of soot was on the concrete walls. After a meeting with a doctor who went over Elizabeth’s medical condition, they were led into another room with sheer white curtains where a handful of children were playing. One of the children was a girl in a red jumper with a pink ribbon in her hair. Although she had on glasses, it was clear she could barely see. When a caregiver introduced Jon to her as “Papa,” she gave him a hug. He melted. So did Andy.
“She is adorable,” he told his parents.
“We met our sweet girl today!” Nina exulted on the family’s blog: saveanorphantoday.blogspot.com.
The next day, Elizabeth clung to Andy, wrapping her little body around his torso. The third day, they kissed her farewell and headed home. While they waited to be summoned back to Russia, Nina posted frequent updates on her blog, while Andy struggled for weeks with an illness he had caught in Russia. The family took one last camping trip as a five-some; compensating for the lack of a fence by placing Abby in a stroller much of the time and Emma – who tends to run away – restrained in a child safety harness.
There were two more trips back to St. Petersburg that summer, a time of white nights and 70-degree temperatures in Russia. For the second trip, Jon and Nina flew back in early July, driving to a summer camp where Elizabeth was living. Their future daughter, who appeared to be taller and thinner, quickly recognized them and called them “Mama” and “Papa.” Once they picked her up, she refused to be put down. They didn’t want to let her go. Returning to St. Petersburg for their court appearance, the parents learned that Elizabeth had been the first child to be adopted from that orphanage in 10 years.
The parents came home. Because Russia mandates about a month’s wait between the court date and what adoptive parents call the “gotcha” day when they get custody, Nina didn’t fly back until July 30. After several days of running about St. Petersburg getting paperwork done, Nina was taken out to Elizabeth’s camp on the afternoon of Aug. 3.
“Elizabeth came up to me from the playground saying ‘Mama’ and had such a huge smile on her face,” Nina wrote on her blog. “She was dancing around and wanted to be picked up.” Nina changed her daughter into clothes she’d brought with her and they said good-bye to all the children they had to leave behind. Nina had posted some of their photos on her blog, hoping viewers would take an interest in adopting one.
“One little boy followed us out like a little dog,” she wrote. “It was so sad. Our facilitator had to tell him to go back.”
Back at the hotel, Nina’s first task was to give her daughter a bath. The child, who had apparently never seen a bathtub before, resisted for 20 minutes until Nina climbed in herself, then pulled the 50-pound child in after her. The girl’s fingernails and toenails were caked with dirt. Elizabeth cuddled up to her new mother, placing her face on Nina’s pillow so as to be as close as possible The mother-daughter pair spent their last week in Moscow on more paperwork and seeing the city. In between, Nina sermonized readers on her blog.
She pleaded with readers to either adopt a special-needs child or help pay the costs for a family interested in doing so. “Dig down deep in your hearts, step out of your comfort zones,” she wrote. “We only have one life and one chance to do the right thing! Trust in God that he will provide and give you strength.”
Alongside her exhortations, she posted a photo of Heidi, a tiny girl at an orphanage near Elizabeth’s. By early fall, Nina triumphantly announced Heidi would no longer appear on her site. A family of five from Papillion, Neb., had agreed to take the little girl as their own.
I am hoping that this story will encourage more people to adopt special-needs kids. In the process of writing it, I learned there are 200 families willing to adopt a Down syndrome child domestically (the National Down Syndrome Adoption Association oversees this list) which is one reason the Clarks went overseas. Which goes to prove there is never a reason to abort one of these children. There are many folks who will consider such a child to be a gift.