How to make an American family

By REBECCA SCHWAB

OBSERVER Staff Writer

Start with two people who love each other. Add more people. Shared DNA is optional. And if your kids speak Russian when you meet them, that’s fine, too.

Several local parents have proved that love is more important than genetic makeup when it comes to creating a family. And when the Turners, the Rodgersons and the Ludwigs decided that adoption was right for them, they cast a wide, far net – one that stretched all the way to Russia.

Eastern Europe is far away. It is cold. Much of Russia isn’t equipped with modern infrastructure or amenities. Traveling there is arduous, expensive, and sometimes, even dangerous. So why Russia?

“We knew people who had adopted from Russia, and we asked them about it, about the process,” Fredonia resident Julie Rodgerson says.

“We had heard so many sad stories about problems with national adoptions,” Kara Christina, wife of Andrew Ludwig, says. “Children had to be given back to their birth parents, or the adoptions falling through at the last minute, birth mothers changing their minds. We didn’t even want the chance of something like that happening to us, so we looked into international adoptions.”

“Our family has a grandmother who was a Russian orphan,” Tom Turner, of Lakewood, explains.

“And we wanted a little girl,” Tom’s wife, Michelle adds. “Our son was 10, and we didn’t want an infant. Russia had girls in the 4-5 age range available.”

THE ADOPTION PROCESS

Each of these families started the adoption process in a similar manner. They researched the country and its laws, assessed the estimated costs of adopting from Russia and their financial standings, and talked to other families who had adopted children from the country.

As much as they could be, they wanted to be prepared for the long road ahead of them. What most of the couples found out sooner or later, though, is that nothing goes “as expected” with international adoptions, and that the experiences of adopting from Russia are as unique as the beautiful children who were born there.

“We began the whole process in January of 2004,” Christina, also of Fredonia, says. “The amount of paperwork is incredible. We filled out hundreds of papers. Then they had to be taken to Mayville, then to Albany, before they were sent on to Russia. And of course you have to pay for all these documents.”

While they were waiting for all of their documents to be reviewed, the Rodgersons got devastating news.

“In the middle of all of this, something happened in Russia where all of the agencies had to get reaccredited,” Julie explains. “And all of our documents expired. So we had to go through all of that again, and pay again.”

The Ludwig family’s paperwork also expired during their wait, so they, too, had to start at the beginning.

“It was very frustrating,” Christina says. “We were trying to start our family, and help the children there, too, and everyone is just waiting.”

The Turners were fortunate in that they had a very different experience with the adoption of their daughter Katya – but only after hitting dead ends with the agencies they first contacted.

“We tried going through some home agencies, but nothing was working out,” Tom says. “Then we talked with a neighbor and his friend, Greg. Greg was from Russia, and he knew someone from Stork Adoption Agency in New Jersey who did Russian adoptions.”

“We contacted that adoption agency, and eight months later we had Katya standing in our kitchen,” Michelle adds. “That agency was just phenomenal.”

However, the entire process for the Turners, from when they decided to adopt to when Katya came home for good, took more than two years.

“The process for us started with Baker Victory Services in Lackawanna,” Christina says. “They had an open house where you could go and learn about other countries, the adoption agencies in other parts of the world. We also considered Colombia. But you had to go there and stay there a very long time. Russia seemed easier, not that it was quick or efficient, but we didn’t want to stay in Colombia for months. Some people do have to stay in Russia – it depends on the region. The region we adopted from was known to be friendly to American couples adopting.”

The Turners, Century 21 real estate brokers in Lakewood, traveled to Russia twice. Andrew Ludwig and his wife Kara Christina, who both work at Fredonia Middle School, went twice. It took the Rodgersons, owners of Lena’s Pizza & Sub Shop in Fredonia, three trips before their daughter, Finley, came home with them in November 2006.

“We travelled to The Republic of Karelia, to the town Sortabala,” Pat Rodgerson explains. “It borders Finland, a hundred miles south of the Arctic circle. The plane ride was 23 hours including all the layovers. It was like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” We did every one of them.”

But the searching and waiting period, frustrating as it was for all of the families, did not pass without its rewarding moments.

“When we saw her picture there was no going back for us,” Pat remembers. “We were at work, and I was upstairs in the office. We got an email of the pictures of kids who were available for adoption. I ran downstairs to get my wife, and I said, ‘Go look at that little girl.'”

Julie did as her husband asked, and was back downstairs in minutes. “The one in the red dress?” she asked her husband. He nodded. Their hearts were gone, having flown thousands of miles away to rest in the pocket of a 5 year-old girl with pigtails and sad eyes. The Rodgersons had found their daughter, Finley.

TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

For Michelle and her husband, setting eyes on their daughter-to-be proved more complex.

“We were sent photos of little girls available for adoption,” Michelle recalls. “And I saw a photo of a blonde girl. With all the pictures, there were identification numbers and little paragraphs about the children. Well, we asked about the blonde, and they said she was spoken for. That was the summer of 2003.”

But Michelle and Tom were not ready to give up on their family. They saw another picture of a little girl, a brunette, with Shirley Temple curls and brown eyes. She had a sweet face and looked healthy, and after inquiring about her, the adoption agency said she was available.

“I carried her picture around in my pocket that entire fall, showing people,” Michelle remembers. “I kept it in my wallet.”

Then, in December of 2003, the Turners traveled to Petrozavodsk, which is close to the Baltic Sea, to meet their daughter. Expectantly, nervous and filled with hope, they waited for the orphanage workers to bring their daughter to them. A healthy little girl came through the doorway, smiling and excited to meet the people who had traveled so far just for her. But it wasn’t the brunette with corkscrew curls.

“And it was the blonde! It was Katya,” Michelle laughs. “Somehow I had mixed them up – it was the girl with brown hair who had already been spoken for!”

Katya, 5 years old when she met her parents, remembers how happy she was.

“I remember being really happy and excited to have a family,” Katya says.

That first whirlwind meeting only kept the Turners in Russia for one day. From there, they had to tell the adoption agency they wanted to move forward, and they returned to Russia three weeks later.

“They kept us there for three weeks that time,” Michelle says. “Tom stayed for 10 days, through all of the court decisions, but I stayed three weeks, for the waiting period.”

This “waiting period” was common practice in Russia. After the potential adopters made their case to the courts for why they should be allowed to adopt Russian children, the judge gave his decisions. If the judge granted the adoption requests, the adoptions were still not final. The families had to then wait for a period of time to make sure that no Russian adopters wanted to adopt the children – especially biological relatives of the children. Then, if no one came forward, the new families were allowed to take their children home to the United States.

“Being in court was so nerve-wracking,” Christina says. “We had a translator, and everything was in Russian. All the proceedings. So there we were trying to prove that we should be able to adopt, but we didn’t know anything that was being said to us or about us.”

Ludwig and Christina were able to bring their two children, Owen and Diana, home in May 2005. Their son Owen was only 9 months old. Their daughter, Diana, was almost 4. Both children came from the same orphanage in the city of Yaroslavl, which is about four hours north of Moscow by car.

NEW FAMIILIES

For all of the newly-made families, there was an adjustment period for the children after they arrived in their new homes. Katya, Diana and Finley spoke and understood Russian, to varying degrees. So not only were they in a new place with people they had just met, but these new people spoke a strange language. It was a lot for little girls to process.

“Diana was shy at first,” Christina remembers. “She didn’t speak a whole lot – my husband played with her while we were at the orphanage, and she warmed up to us. At first, when she called me ‘Mama’ we were excited. But then we found out that Russian children call all older women ‘Mama.’ It’s a cultural thing.”

Julie Braun, the spouse of a co-worker, is from Russia, and she agreed to work with Diana. However, Diana was still so young that she didn’t actually speak a whole lot of Russian, so she began picking up English quickly.

“We read and sang to her,” Christina says. “One of her first English words was ‘strawberry,’ since her birthday’s in June.”

And though Diana made the journey to America with a new little brother in tow, things were different for Katya. She came home to a 10 year-old brother, Michael, waiting for her. He hadn’t made the trip to Russia with his parents.

“I was so happy to have a brother!” Katya remembers.

And how long did it take for good old-fashioned sibling rivalry to set in?

“Not long,” Michelle says. “About two weeks went by, and they got into a big fight. He said, ‘Mom, did she come with a receipt?’ It was one of his favorite things to say. After their next fight, she said to him, ‘And I didn’t come with a receipt!’ But they’re close now.”

Katya’s father remembers that the transition was relatively easy for her.

“She was just so happy,” he says. “She came home and started playing with the kids in the neighborhood right away. She didn’t speak English and it didn’t seem to matter. It was like she understood everything anyway.”

The Turners took a ski trip soon after Katya came home. Nervous that she wouldn’t feel comfortable or understand enough on the trip, they were able to secure a ski instructor in Colorado who spoke Russian.

“After the first day he came to us and said, ‘I don’t mind teaching your daughter to ski, but she really has no interest in speaking Russian. She wants to be with you guys,'” Tom says.

Another new thing for Katya and Finley was that their families came with furry bonuses: dogs.

“Oh my goodness, the squeals that came out of her when she met Maggie!” Pat remembers. “(Maggie) was a Yorkie, thirteen years old. When Finley came in and saw her she started jumping up and down, doing this funny little dance. We couldn’t understand what she was yelling. It was high-pitched, and all in Russian.”

Katya recalls a similar feeling when she found out she had not only one, but two dogs.

“I was so excited!” she says. “I had never had a dog before.”

Like Katya and Diana, Finley picked up English fast, and within a few months Pat and Julie went from one-word phrases and hand signals to having conversations with Finley in English. They also knew Julie Braun, who worked with Finley for about two months.

“It was like playing charades at first,” Pat says. “But we got her right into school, and it was a great experience. The teachers at Fredonia were wonderful. (My wife) had learned a little bit of Russian before we met Finley, but only a few basic words.”

Finley started kindergarten halfway through the year, and her parents thought she’d have to repeat it. They were wrong.

“She wanted to communicate so badly,” Pat says. “They said she could move on to first grade, and by January that school year, she was completely caught up with the other kids.”

“Now she’s making honor and merit rolls,” Julie says. “She’s a great student. A great kid.”

For the Turners, the concern was less that Katya learn English, and more that she didn’t forget Russian.

“For the first seven years she was here, we got her Russian lessons!” Michelle says. “She spoke English just fine. She really doesn’t speak Russian anymore. She takes Spanish now, and she likes that. She’s very good at school – the transition was so fast.”

Diana and Owen, being young at the time they were adopted, had no trouble with language barriers. Owen, with the love of a supportive family, started developing his language and motor skills quickly. Diana made friends easily, and both children settled into their Fredonia home.

All four of these children are happy, well-adjusted, and very, very loved. They’re regular kids by society’s standards and special one-of-a-kind treasures to their parents.

Finley loves swimming and spending time with her friends. She goes bowling and fishing with her dad, and wants to run track this coming spring. Katya just turned 15. Her hobbies include skiing and sailing, and she was a member of the junior program at the Chautauqua Lake Yacht Club. Diana likes to swim and be outdoors. She just started horseback riding lessons. She and her brother love hearing the story of how their parents came all the way to Russia to get them. Owen also likes sports, baseball especially. He was a member of the Clinton Street Carwash team during Little League season. The family goes for bike rides together and attends Bisons games. For spring break, they go to the beach.

GOOD FORTUNE

All of the parents are grateful for their children.

“People hear about where Katya was born, where she came from, and they say she’s lucky,” Tom says. “But we know that we’re the lucky ones.”

Christina’s advice to people thinking of adopting children is straightforward: Don’t wait.

“We wish we had done it sooner,” she says. “We talked about it for a long time. Be prepared for speedbumps, though, for setbacks, as much as you can be. It took us longer than we anticipated, but of course it was all worth it.”

Adoption, especially international adoption, is not something the average person can do because of the high costs. The paperwork costs, travel expenses, lawyer fees and more add up, often totaling tens of thousands of dollars before the parents land safely with their children on U.S. soil.

“We had to take out a second mortgage on our house,” Pat says, not sounding at all regretful. “It’s the best money we ever spent.”

In January of this year, Russia placed a ban on American adoptions, even stopping adoptions that were almost complete. Hundreds of couples across the U.S. carry pictures in their wallets of children they thought would be theirs, the promises they made to these orphans echoing in their minds. The ban was implemented because of resentment over complicated political policy between the former Cold War enemies – something these lonely children have no way of understanding.

Surely, the Turners, the Rodgersons and Kara Christina and Andrew Ludwig hug their kids a little tighter knowing that other hopeful adopters will not get to bring their children home. These three families, at least, have a happy ending – or perhaps a happy beginning.

“We couldn’t have asked for better kids,” Christina says, emotion keeping her from saying anything more.

Send comments on this story to rschwab@observertoday.com