Because every child deserves a childhood.

December 2, 2014 in Sweet Hope

In 2004 I sat in front of a computer endlessly searching for information about international adoption. Little did I know what that path would lead to. As I gathered more and more information about the country we would eventually adopt from I also prepared myself for the worst that could possibly happen. In the end my husband and I spent two long years adopting a son from the Russian Far East. This is not a tale of that story, but rather one that followed, eight years later.

On a sunny June morning our car pulled up to a small yard surrounded by a large iron fence. As we drove through the gate fear and anxiety overtook my senses. It is only now that I can look back at photographs to take in the whole picture of the surroundings. Outside of the large carved wooden door laid a small play yard. This yard was the sole outdoor space for the one hundred fifty children that lived within Baby Home #1 in Khabarovsk, Russia. The yard contained a rudimentary swings, a rusty monkey bars and a lopsided slide. A small ‘playhouse’ was in need of a new roof and weeds grew up in the sandbox. There was no grass and the recent late Spring rains created large puddles that would later attract large mosquitoes in the humid Summer heat. The few play structures lacked everything that would be considered joyful to a child.

At the time I walked through the play yard it did not occur to me that this is where my child may spend a portion of his time. After all, the child I was going inside to meet was only nine months old. I had no concern for the small toddlers that called this place home.

Nine months after our foray into the play yard at Baby Home #1 we learned that the child we met there found another home with a Russian family. This news was devastating, but our adoption coordinator assured us she still would help us build our family. We were told that we would not be matched with another child from this same facility. The mental pictures of the play yard vanished as we looked to another Baby Home.

In early April, 2005, we awoke to a fresh blanket of snow. We were once again in what we were now considering a second home, Khabarovsk. This time we were to meet a new child. This time we were traveling to another Baby Home. The sun rose higher in the sky and the snow began to melt. The melting snow flooded the streets and cars looked like small watercraft. We watched from the grimy car windows as pedestrians on the sidewalks shielded themselves from sprays as cars sped by. We turned onto a small side street, drove through a lake of a puddle and then made the final turn onto a pot holed dirt lane. The towering Birch trees had no leaves and through the bare branches we could see the entrance to Baby Home #2.

Our driver stopped in front of the building. This time we did not walk through a play yard to reach the front door. Instead we walked under the sloped roof of the portico and stepped into the entry vestibule. The temperature was stiflingly hot and we quickly shed our coats and gloves. A caregiver ushered us into a tiny room and a short time later a tiny toddler was brought in to meet us. The tow headed child had a look of terror on his face as he was placed into my arms. Slowly he warmed to our presence. We broke the ice with small toys like a little truck and a container of bubbles. Later in our visit we were allowed to take small walks up and down the hall. It was during one such walk that a group of two year olds passed us. I stepped aside to let the little ones pass and as they did each one turned to me and made attempts to grab my pant legs. Each one cried out, “Mama! Mama!” hoping that I was the Mama they were waiting for.

The little faces were abandoned, with no one other than a woman in a white coat to love them. The children rocked themselves to sleep because there were simply not enough arms to hold all of them. No boo-boos were kissed. No bedtime stories were read. They lacked the one basic thing every child needs. A childhood.

Four months later we returned to Baby Home #2 to complete the adoption of our son. On a balmy August afternoon we returned to the shelter and were given the opportunity to play outside with our child. The caregivers ushered us into a small play yard with a small slide, a rusty monkey bars and a bench. Although he as nearly two, our son did not seem to know what to do with structures as simple as a slide. We once again played with bubbles and made attempts to teach him to throw a ball. We quickly realized that there were a number of little eyes paying close attention to our actions.

A group of three year olds were having their outdoor time. The second play yard held a much larger play structure, but it looked as if it could topple over at any moment. Boards were rotten and metal parts were full of rust. The children elected to hit each other with empty plastic bottles or peer through the fence rather than laugh a play chase. The caregiver made attempts to engage the children, but with such a lack of equipment it was difficult. Soon swarms of mosquitoes drove us back inside and I once again quickly forgot about the tiny play yard.

In the six years since my last visit to Khabarovsk my husband and I started a charitable organization. The Sweet Hope Foundation was born out of a need to help families with the large expense of adoption. We quickly realized that it was not only adopting families that needed help, it was the children that needed assistance too. We raised money and sent it to Baby Homes to do things as simple as put on a Christmas party for the children. One year the caregivers held a giant birthday party for everyone. The children’s basic needs of food, housing, and clothing are met, but there are few resources for anything else. Children are placed in these facilities due to abandonment, neglect, abuse or a whole host of other reasons. The children face the most difficult times in their lives and have little to call their own. Their lives are not joyful as a child’s should be. The one solace they may have is in outdoor play, but the structures available to them are bleak and unsafe.

It was not until 2012 that I returned to Russia. My son had been a US citizen for 6 years and my purpose for the return was not adoption related at all. I was a mother, but my connection to the tiny faces that peered through the fence or the hands that grabbed my pant legs would not let go. I was drawn to the children who’s only source of love was a woman in a white coat. I needed to do something.

Through a relationship with the Slavyanka Women’s Society in Khabarovsk I was introduced to the Khor Village Social and Rehabilitation Center. In 2012 I was fortunate enough to visit the shelter. As I walked through the solid steel gate I opened my eyes to a large play yard with space for children to run and play. However, the scene was much like the previous two Baby Home’s I had visited, dire. I asked the staff of the shelter what they most needed for the children. I expected answers such as clothing or books. Their reply, “A playground.” They had everything to meet the needs of the children, but they could not give them the one thing the children needed most. A childhood.

It was at that moment that I realized that there is one thing Sweet Hope can do. We can blanket the world in playgrounds and ensure every child has a childhood.

I left Khor Village with a promise. I promised them that I would build them that playground, and I did. One year later a brand new playground was installed in their play yard. I could hear the laughter through the photographs they sent. I asked what more they needed. The reply, “The teenagers are jealous. They would like a sports court.”

Now here is where things take a turn. You see, I had the money for the sports court. Sweet Hope was given a small grant by a local church to build the court, or at least a portion of it. We were only waiting on specific details from the shelter before we ordered it. Our plan was to order it in the Fall so that it could be delivered by Spring. Unfortunately, bad things happen.

In October we discovered that our entire bank account was empty. The person we entrusted with our funds felt the need to take them. Nearly every last cent of what we worked so hard to earn was gone. Not only was the money gone, our hope of building the sport court was gone too. The person that took our money did not just take funds, she robbed children, who are facing some of the most difficult moments in life, of a basic human need. This is a person that I trusted. This is a person whom I thought was a friend, but I was wrong. I blame myself everyday for not discovering the loss sooner. I shoulder the fault for not being able to deliver what I promised. At the same time I am hurt. I want the children to know there is someone out there who is more than just the woman in the white coat. I want the children to know someone loves them and cares. I want them to know I see their pain. I cannot take it all away, but I can do one thing. I can help them forget for just a small minute. I can help them remember that they are just children and that laughter is the best medicine.

This Giving Tuesday please consider Sweet Hope. You are giving more than just money. You are helping to give children a childhood.

The Adoptive Mom’s Manifesto

November 24, 2014 in Adoption Awareness, Mommyhood

We are mothers of a different sort. Our children did not come to us easily. For many, we suffered years of heartbreak. We watched as our dreams were crushed. We watched as our friends, family and strangers coddled the small beings growing within them knowing that our bodies were empty, but our hearts were full. We subjected ourselves to needles, tests and medications. We suffered the disappointment of so many failed attempts at getting pregnant. We so badly wanted a child. Someone who would call us mommy. We made a choice. We put down the physical heartbreak and turned to an alternative.

We are adoptive mothers.

Some of us came to this place as a first option. Others of us as a last resort, but it is through the lives that grew in our hearts that we are joined as one. There is no force more powerful than that of an adoptive mother. Our grey hairs were earned through hours of research, mountains of paperwork and the stress of waiting for that one thing that is out of our control.

Children were placed in our arms and we wept. We waited. Some for months, some for many years. But at last, we had a child we could call our own.

Any mother will tell you that she will go to the ends of the Earth for her child. Many adoptive mothers have seen that side of the Earth with their own eyes. I have stood on that river bank and wept with joy.
We are mothers of a different sort. We do not know every last detail of our child’s background. We were not with them from the moment of conception. However, we accept them as they are.

I am an adoptive mother.

My son lived a life of depravity for two years. He was never cuddled when he cried. He was never rocked to sleep. He did not laugh, he did not cry. I stood before a judge and told him that I would do what it takes to meet the needs of this child. My child. We have visited attachment therapists, occupational therapists, vision therapists, adoption medicine specialists, pediatric gastroenterologists and made numerous trips to our own pediatrician.
We live with terms like sensory processing disorder, anxiety, diplopia, proprioceptive deficiency, gross motor dysfunction.

I have gone to the ends of the Earth for this child and I will continue to do so until my dying breath. I will never give up. He is my son.

I am a mother.

I will never give him back, I will never give him up. I knew when I entered the unknown world of adoption that this child may need an extra hand.

This is my child to the end of days. I love every inch of his soul. I laugh at his off remarks. I smile at his sense of style. He is unique. He is remarkable. He is mine.

We are mothers.

Happy National Adoption Month.

On extended family

December 23, 2013 in Elle's World, Family Matters

I come from a very large and complex family. Both of my parents are twice divorced, each with children from their marriages. I am the only child of their marriage to each other. Basically, it is a bunch of step-siblings and half-siblings and confusion. While, in total, I have 6 siblings, most days I am an only child. For one reason or another I do not have much contact with my siblings. Also, for reasons that are very real to me I have not spoken to or seen my dad in nearly 4 years.

A few months ago I got a message from my Aunt (on my Dad’s side) to call her. It isn’t often that a family member from that side reaches out to talk to me. I picked up the phone and we chatted. The real reason for the call was to tell me that one of my uncles has lung cancer. Funny thing about cancer… every single time it gives you the ol’ bitch slap of a reality check. My aunt and I got to talking about my dad and basically she told me I needed to be the bigger person and pick up the phone. Trouble was, I didn’t know where my dad was or what his phone number was.

A few weeks later my phone rang. It was my dad. It has been at least 5 or 6 years since my father had picked up the phone to call me. No Happy Birthday. No Merry Christmas. It was truly shocking. What’s more, he apologized.

Since then, my dad has called 2 more times. Once to invite me to Thanksgiving dinner and another to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving. With that phone call he said he would like it if our family got together for dinner or such. I would like that too.

I made it happen.

In a round about way (using the hated social media and a telephone) I arranged for my dad, step-mom, sister, littlest brother, little brother and his girlfriend to come to our house for dinner last night. It was the first time all of these people have been in the same house, at the same table, at the same time. It was just us. There was no crazy aunt (different aunt) heckling us. No one was drunk. We sat at a table and ate off of real plates. After dinner, we played a game… like family. We laughed. We smiled. We had a great time.

It was as if we were a real family.

It restored my hope that I could have a relationship with people I had nearly given up on. My dad has been sober for over a year. This is huge. I learned he and my sister have a great relationship. I learned my step-mom works very hard to provide for her family (she always has). I learned my littlest brother isn’t as much of a screw up as I thought. I learned that my little brother has turned into a fine young man and his girlfriend is a true delight.

At the end of the night my son was begging his uncles not to go. He thought these two new guys were the bees knees. That makes me happy.

It was a giant leap for us. I only hope we can continue leaping forward.

Things you should know

November 15, 2013 in Deep Thoughts, Elle's World

I’ve finally gotten to the point in my life where I am admitting I’m an adult. I am closer to 40 than I care to be (and I find it funny that some of my friends make fun of me that I’m not yet 40). I have been married for 17 years. I’ve moved a whole helluva lot. I’ve been around the block a time or two.

You see… I have the problem. It is with (what my husband calls) the P-interest. You know, that time suck of a website that everyone uses to make it appear as if their life is magically more than it really is.

I’ll sit on my couch and say, “oh look! So and So is “gardening” Only because she just posted 40 gagillion photos of garden shit that really won’t work.

Here is my list of things that you really should know when starting out in life. Trust me. These things will make life so much simpler if you start out with low expectations.

1. Open shelving in your kitchen is a BAD idea. Unless you plan to never use your kitchen ever. When you cook grease flies everywhere. Gravity takes hold and the airborne grease settles on every surface. Including your beautiful open shelving. Unless you plan on cleaning off your beautiful vintage canisters and leaded stemware every day just put some damn cupboard doors on those shelves and call it good.

2. A chandelier in the bathroom is also another horrible plan. Basically a chandelier in any room is a recipe for disaster. And by disaster I mean a dust magnet. Of course you could hire yourself a merry maid. Then you’d totally be flaunting all that money you seem to be floating in. Chandeliers and a personal cleaning lady. Oh hello Mrs. Gates.

3. Those giant framed glasses look stupid. Stop being a hipster. We are all judging you behind your back.

4. Your 2 year old does not need a birthday party worthy of Parenting magazine. Just buy the boxed cake mix, serve drinks to you friends and let the toddlers go all Lord of the Flies for a few hours. Little Mackenzieenna doesn’t give a shit if she had an ice cream sundae bar at her party. She won’t remember.

5. Pinterest won’t make you beautiful, it won’t make you thin. Pinterest will not make you a better cook, it will not make you a better parent. It won’t make your home a show place of architectural digest nor will it win friends or influence people.

How exactly do you accomplish all of those things? How do you lose weight? You take the fork out of your mouth and quit spending your time in front of the computer. You become a better cook by burning a whole bunch of food until you get it right. Your home will likely never grace the pages of a magazine. It will only grace the pages of the blog you write that nobody reads (like mine!). You will only be more beautiful if you stop feeling crappy about yourself and realize that you are beautiful no matter what. Grey hair and all. You will only be a better parent by making time for your children. By loving them and setting a good example. By knowing that your child only sees the good in you. The beautiful parts.

These are the things you should know. Tonight a dear friend told me that no problem is too much. Look at your problem. Accept it. And say, “let’s fix this.”

Life: let’s fix this.

Whoa. A year

November 14, 2013 in Elle's World, Mommyhood, Trusty Husband

Holy crackers! A year? Serious… a year. A year ago today I was wrapping up a whirlwind tour on the other side of the world (by myself). I still can’t believe I got on a plane and traveled to Far East Russia by. my. self.

Where have I been? I’ve been here. Our little family has spent the last year trying to figure out where we are and where we want to go. Ok, that’s just me and the husband, but we brought the child along for the ride. Both Derek and I have spent some time trying to discover ourselves and figure out if we are making the most of our lives. We were at the conclusion that we were not. Now we are talking as individuals not as a couple. That’s all good. Don’t fret.

The realization that we are fully seated in adulthood, but aren’t where we thought we would be at this point in life kind of threw us for loops. Derek was at a job that he liked well enough, but had no upward movement without movement of his entire family.. to Minnesota. I’ve spend the past 4 years researching what life would be like in the Twin Cities, but always came to the same conclusion. I would hate it. He knew that. I knew that. It wouldn’t work. Something had to give. Sometimes life intervenes when you least expect it. At the end of August Derek was recruited away from the company he had worked for for 13 years. In a whirlwind of interviews, travel and back and forth he accepted a new job. He now works from home, makes more money, has upward mobility in the company without relocation and if he did need to relocate it would be to San Diego. San Diego wouldn’t suck. We no longer have to worry about childcare. It is a good thing. Granted, adjustment to having him home all the time is taking some getting used to. It’s all good.

And how am I doing? At the moment I’m hanging in there. I’m still trying to discover who I am and where I want to go. I had a super awesome opportunity earlier this year. It was in the wholesale perennial growing business. I was confident that this is what I wanted. It would have been more work, a commute, tons of stress, but it would have been mine. I turned it down. At the root of it all I was not confident that it was what I truly wanted. Then came another idea. I wanted to take a totally different career path (but still within the horticulture industry). It is long hours, lots of stress, starting at the bottom, no true experience in the field, but I would be able to flex my creative muscle to my heart’s content. I still want that opportunity, but I don’t know how to make it happen. In a nutshell, I still don’t know what I’m doing and who’s driving the bus.

The child? Oh the child. It has been a challenging year in the life of the 9 year old. I suppose you could say that is where I’ve been. I’ve been dealing with him or trying to avoid him so I don’t get screamed at. Because the boy is now a true “big kid” my sharing of his life will be limited. I know there are so many people who deal with many of the same issues we face (Sensory Integration Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Post Institutionalization and the gamut of problems that come from being a Russian orphan), but my poor son has been talked about in front of other people and he is now aware it is happening. He is receiving help for all of his issues and we are on a track that is very good for him. We have not had a “seeing red” screaming fit since September. I have not heard “I have to go to the bathroom” while I am at the opposite end of the store in months. And on a regular basis my child looks at me and says, “You’re the best mommy in the whole wide world.” **heart melts** My child? My child is awesome!

So why pick up a blog that I had abandoned a year ago? Why delve into my life now? Because it’s ME time baby. I’m ready to be the sassy nut job you’ve all grown to love. Besides, I’ve got some chocolate to pimp and y’all are my bitchez. Put your seatbelt on and pass me a drink. We’re headed into the Life of Elle.

Visiting friends

November 14, 2012 in Elle's World, Sweet Hope

I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful this trip has been. There is a bit of a fear factor of being so far away from home is a seemingly treacherous place alone, but underneath it all it is very safe and welcoming. You just have to get past the fact that it is not customary for Russian people to smile. Although, I’ll write about that more later.

I am not sure how much or where I have spoken about how I came to know the woman I am working with. So let me start from the beginning and by beginning I’m going to go to her beginning of the story. It may end up being on the long side, but it is well worth the read.

Galina Potopova is the woman I am spending my time with. During the Soviet Union Galina worked with the Russian Peace Foundation. In fact she was the president of the branch for the Khabarovsk Territory. She did this job for 40 years. In that time she had the opportunity to travel all over the world and work with various governments to further the mission of the foundation. The Soviet Union was not all that bad. However, after perestroika and after the fall of the Soviet Union the Peace Foundation closed and Galina and her colleagues found themselves in a whole new world. Prior to that, Galina visited the United States in the late 1980s. While she was here she met a number of people and one such person was named Bobbi.

Bobbi was a business woman in the Olympia, WA area and the two of them developed a friendship. After the fall of communism and travel between the new Russian Federation and the United States was permitted, Bobbi visited Galina in Khabarovsk. Bobbi saw firsthand what life was like for the people undergoing a change unlike anything the world had ever seen. She came back to the United States and began telling everyone she could about her journey. She was invited to speak at a luncheon and this is where I come in.

My late mother-in-law, Bev, was very good friends with Bobbi. Bev asked me if I would like to attend this luncheon with her. I agreed and I sat there captivated by the stories of what life was like in a place I had only ever heard about on the news. Those who remember the Cold War know that Russia was the enemy and they were not to be trusted. Bobbi showed photos of the grocery store, Galina’s flat, Galina’s dacha and other bits of day-to-day post-soviet life. I was hooked, but I was only 16 years old at the time.

Bev began working with Bobbi in a new non-profit organization called To Russia With Love. While Bobbi and Bev were creating To Russia With Love, Galina was in Khabarovsk creating the Slavyanka Women’s Society. To Russia With Love and Slavyanka arranged exchanges between the two cities. Business women from Olympia traveled to Khabarovsk to teach their counterparts things as simple as advertising. During the Soviet Union there was no such thing. Russian business women came to the US to see their new skills in action.

Soon thereafter the two organizations arranged for a group of doctors to visit hospitals in the Seattle area. One such doctor was named Evelina. Evelina was a founding member of Slavyanka and the head doctor of the Children’s Hospital in Khabarovsk. She also happened to stay in Bev’s home while she visited the US. I had the opportunity to meet the Russian doctors while Derek and I came home from college over a weekend. My time with them was brief, but it is one that I will always remember.

Later, the two organizations arranged an exchange of a different sort. Galina knew a woman named Tamara. Tamara was the director of a musical group called Mlada. The Mlada choir traveled to the US and performed all over the South Sound area, and even at the top of the Space Needle. Tamara and her son Anatoly stayed in Bev’s home. I was fortunate enough that I was deemed the group’s videographer and I traveled around to various performances and recorded the concerts. The intoxicating music is something that I will never forget.

The exchanges eventually stopped, but my memories of those events never faded. Bev kept in occasional contact with Galina and when Derek and I began the process to adopt Oleg it was almost as fate had stepped in when we learned our agency worked primarily in Khabarovsk. It was almost a dream come true that I would be traveling to a place I had only dreamed about. In fact, the whole time we were in Khabarovsk the first time we were in a daze. It may have been the reason we were there, but I know there was something bigger.

Derek and I visited with Galina, Tamara and Evelina on that first trip. We saw Galina and Evelina on our second trip. As the focus of Sweet Hope shifted to assisting the orphanages directly, I again contacted Galina for her assistance. She was more than happy to help us. In 2008 Sweet Hope picked up where To Russia With Love left off. Only this time a younger generation was at the helm (on the American side) and our focus was slightly different.

Now we come to the present day. I am once again in Russia. This time my purpose is so very different than the last. I am not preoccupied with the rigors of an international adoption. I am here to see these women, to further the mission of the organization I’ve created and to meet new friends.

On Tuesday I was able to visit with Evelina. Galina told her all about our encounters in Khor. We sat around our lunch table and toasted to our wonderful, amazing, dearly beloved Bev. We know that she was right there with us.

Today, I visited with Tamara. I saw photos of the now grown Anatoly. We talked again about my travels to Khor. Tamara came up with a brilliant idea. However, I’m not going to share that one with you quite yet. It’s big. But as we ate our lunch we once again toasted Bev and honored such a fine woman.

My last stop of the day was to the building where Mlada practices. I was toured around the building (which is a cultural center for this part of the territory). I learned about the former Amur Navy. I learned about the artwork that is taught in the building and given wonderful little gifts. And last, but certainly not least I was able to watch a little bit of a Mlada rehearsal. Right before we were supposed to leave I asked the girls to each say their name and help me with something a little special. I hope you like it.

I hope you will take a moment to help Sweet Hope this season.

Adventures in shopping

November 11, 2012 in Elle's World

Now I can’t fly all the way to Russia and not do a little souvenir shopping. Although I’ve been here 3 times before there are things I still would like to have. However, Derek did tell me he didn’t think a samovar would fit into my suitcase. I’m pretty sure he’s right, but if there had been one for me to purchase this afternoon I certainly would have weighed my options. True to form I did manage to purchase at least one breakable item.

This morning Galina collected me at 11:00. She had hired her friend, Sergei, to be our driver for the day. Sergei was such a good sport. We often wandered off and Galina had to call him to find us. At one point we wandered about 6 cars away from his and she called him. Sergei stood outside of the car and waved to us. We felt silly. Did I mention that my companion on this trip is a 73 year old woman who grew up in the Soviet Union? This isn’t to say she is anything less than a complete blessing in my life. She is getting old and she even says, “I’m tired.” This woman will not stop. She may not be as spry as she was 20 years ago when I first met her, but she is still Galina.

I asked her if she would take me to the Central Market. While traveling there are two things I like to do. One is to visit churches and the other is to visit grocery stores. I know it sounds strange, but you can tell a lot about people and a culture by visiting where they buy their food. Also, I’m a snooty foodie. We wandered through the central market and Galina pointed out things that she likes and tells me, “this is too expensive.” In a nutshell there wasn’t much to purchase there because she felt it was all too expensive.

I think the most fascinating part about the Central Market are the butcher counters. Each morning the butchers bring in their haul and the meat has been butchered that morning. The inspector comes and stamps the meat so you know it is fresh. Galina tells me you would never buy meat from a vendor without the stamp. The butcher counters are unlike anything you would ever see in the US. The vendors lay out their cuts of meat directly on a tiled counter. They are not in a cold case. They are not wrapped in cellophane. They are cuts of meat on the counter. The ladies sell the meat and if you look behind them you’ll see racks with sides of pork and beef hanging there. Next to the rack is a man with a giant stump and a massive axe that he butchers the meat with. In the first photo you can see the racks and the man standing next to them. I couldn’t get a very good photo because Russians really don’t like their photo being taken. I wanted to be respectful. Oh, and sorry if you’re squeemish.

We wandered through the stalls outside in search of a particular type of children’s shoes. They are called Nanai shoes and are a type worn by the indigenous people here. I wanted to find a pair for my nephew, but sadly Nanai shoes are very hard to come by anymore. We found one pair, but they were not well made and too expensive. We headed off for more shopping.

Galina took me to a small shop across the street from the “blue” church. They had a small counter with your traditional Russian souvenirs. I picked up things for the children and a few friends as well as a few things for myself. This is where my breakable item came from. I have a thing for tea pots. I splurged on a little authentic porcelain Russian teapot. I have one already, but this one is a little bigger and actually of a useful size. Russian porcelain is one thing that I could buy on every trip here if I had my choice. I have matroyskas, laquerware, a kitchen talisman, scarfs, weavings, birch pieces. They are all very similar no matter when you go. However with the porcelain, there are so many different pieces you can purchase.

We had a small lunch and great conversation. We talked about our families, life and even a little about politics. It was interesting to hear stories about the economy in Russia. Americans think their economic and employment problems are unique to them. I assure you, they are not. Russians have the same problems, or rather the same mindset.

We continued our journey out to the “gold” church. I was on the hunt for a special gift for my sister-in-laws. The scale of this church simply amazes me. I’ve been to St. Basil’s in Moscow and The church of St. John the Divine in Harlem, but this place is a whole new level of amazing. All of the buildings are finally finished. The seminary was not complete when we were here last. While I was inside God and I had a few words. I think we are coming to an understanding.

Church of the Transfiguration

Seminary

We went on a few other errands and stopped by another church. It is the oldest in Khabarovsk and the only one not destroyed in the revolution. Galina tells me that during the Soviet Union attending church was not permitted, but she and a group of her friends still met at this church. There were very few people in that time who defied the system, but now there are many who attend church.

Our last stop of the day was another grocery. This place is a stark contrast to photos I saw 20 years ago. I remember sitting at a luncheon with my mother-in-law listening to her friend, Bobbi’s stories of her first trip to Khabarovsk. She showed photos of the grocery that had many barren shelves and if there was food it would be an 8′ section of pickles… all one brand. Today we went into a grocery that was much larger than many groceries in the US. It was very crowded and the prices were very reasonable. It had the most random things. It reminded me slightly of a Russian Fred Meyer (you have to be from the Northwest to get that reference). However, the non-foodstuffs area was much smaller. It had sections for housewares, gardening, automotive and sporting goods. The sporting good section was full of ice skates. Pick up your hamburger and while you’re at it grab a pair of hockey skates and stick while you’re at it.

I wanted a specific kind of chocolate that I absolutely love and can only get in Russia (the don’t have it at our Russian market). While we were in the chocolate section (oh yes, there’s a whole aisle) Galina showed me a package of chocolate that had individually wrapped squares. She was trying to slyly open a package to show me and I told her not to do it. We joked that we’d get arrested and for the rest of the week everyone would be wondering why we didn’t show up. We’d be sitting in prison.

Of course no shopping trip in Russia is complete without copious amounts of vodka. No. We didn’t drink any. In fact I’m remarkably sober on this trip. I was required to purchase some for certain members of my family and my organization. I counted the number of bottles I needed and Galina looked at me in shock. Yes that many. A .25L bottle was $2.50 and a .5L bottle was $7.50. Galina kept telling me to buy the smaller bottles because they were less expensive. I had to explain to her that that same .5L bottle in the US would run us $20. In the end I did go with smaller bottles only because of weight. I don’t have extra money to pay for overweight luggage.

All in all I had a good day shopping. I was able to relax and enjoy myself. My stomach settled a bit and my head cleared. I’m less anxious about the days ahead and the journey home. I have a very clear picture of why I came here and the work that needs to be done. I am thankful to everyone who has supported this trip. While I may have spent the day shopping and having fun I still had the work of Sweet Hope on my mind.

Tomorrow it is back to work. We are going to visit the KSIL company and in the afternoon meet with our friend Evelina.

My experience at Khor Village

November 10, 2012 in Elle's World, Sweet Hope, Uncategorized

There are very few things in life that compare to the emotional journey of international adoption. I am sure everyone has something in their lives that has effected them so profoundly that it is truly life changing. It just happens to be that spending time in a Russian orphanage during the process to become a parent was mine. I distinctly remember walking up and down the hall with Oleg and a little group of children walked by and they all started calling out, “Mama! Mama!” as they saw me. How can that not change you?

Many people asked me if the reason I was coming to Russia was for another adoption. It is not. I would love the opportunity to adopt again, but Russia is not the country for us the second time around. Just as I knew in my heart that my first child was in Russia, I know that my second child (if he or she is out there) is not here. It made it only slightly easier to walk into a shelter full of orphaned children. It still was not easy.

We started our journey at about 10:00 a.m. Galina arrived to pick me up at the hotel and with her was another Galina (the president of the Slavyanka Women’s Society) and Irina, a local journalist and my Galina’s best friend. I needed to exchange money first so we headed to a bank. The first bank was closed so we found another. The second bank was open and I gave them my passport and the cash I wanted to exchange. it was taking forever and Galina came back into the booth (in Russia the banks have little booths you do your transactions in). The teller explained to her that she could not find my country in her computer system. I knew the Republicans were pissed about the election, but I didn’t know they set out to wipe out the whole country. I didn’t need a receipt so she exchanged my money and we were on our way.

It is about an hour and 30 minute drive to Khor. Galina explained that Khor is not really a village, but it is not really a city either. She could not think of the exact word in English. Also, I should mention that the true letter for translation for the town is Hor (in Russian it is written Xop). The X in Russian makes a Kh (a hard h) sound and on google earth it is spelled Khor.

When we arrived we found the director’s office and set down our things. The facility is laid out exactly like Oleg’s baby home. I flood of memories came rushing back. The facility is well taken care of and many of the rooms and areas have brand new energy efficient windows. They told me they spend a good deal of the money they receive from the government on the upkeep of the building.

We were shown around every nook and cranny of the facility. There is a sewing room where the older children are taught how to tailor and make clothing. They take great pride in the work they do. We visited the music room where they have a room full of costumes they use for holidays and such. Of course they made me play dress up and took photos of me.

At the end of a hall was the large lunch room. We happened to be there during lunch time. We walked into the room and all of the children were seated having their lunches. I was introduced as a friend from America and in unison all of the children said, “Zdrast-veets-yah!” It was utterly heart melting. I could have stayed in there and interacted with the children for hours. I wanted to photograph each and every one of them so no one felt left out. I wanted to talk to the older ones and ask them about their hopes and dreams. I wanted to hug each and every one and tell them that things may suck with their parents, but there was someone in the world who loved them and cared about them. It breaks my heart. No child should be put in the situation they are in.

The Khor facility is quite unique. They are a temporary shelter for the children. There are 76 children between 2 facilities. There are 52 in the main facility and 24 in another. The children all live here for a short period of time. Sometimes it is as little as 3 months. Typically the children return home when conditions improve. Over the course of a year the facility will care for roughly 300 children. There are lawyers, social workers, psychologists, and doctors all working to not only improve the lives of the children, but to help the families through whatever situations put them in the path of the facility.

Many of the children are in Khor because they have been removed by the government due to alcoholism in the home. The staff at Khor will care for the child during their stay, but they will also seek rehabilitation help for the parents. They work with the parents to get sober and to teach them what it takes to be a good parent. Many times this works, but occasionally a child will return to Khor and they start the process all over again.

I am the child of an alcoholic parent. I know first hand what this disease does to a child. I experienced it. I’ve watched my brothers and sisters struggle through it. It is not something I wish for any child. Ever. The staff at Khor genuinely care for the children here. They make the money they receive from the government go very far. However, there is one very important piece of the puzzle missing. The piece is play.

    There is artwork everywhere in this facility. Artwork by the staff, by the children, everyone. What is missing are toys. There are empty shelves. There is a large play yard with very little to play with. There is very little joy here. I asked the vice-director what they needed most. A play structure. Over and over again, a play structure. It is a very large piece of the puzzle that will greatly improve the lives of the children who pass through the doors of Khor.

In years past we have given children Christmas. We have given them birthdays. As we move into the season of giving I’m asking you to look deep inside of your heart and to please consider giving to Sweet Hope. This year you will be helping to give a childhood to nearly 300 children who need nothing more than for one moment to be a child.

Good news! Today you have heat and hot water!

November 9, 2012 in Elle's World

Those who have been to Russia know two things: 1) it’s damn hot inside in the Winter and 2) hot water is a maybe 50/50… no maybe 70/30. Today I get both! Lucky me.

I survived the flight from Beijing to Khabarovsk. Once off the flight we were herded onto the meat locker bus to drive the 50 yards to the terminal. Having been to Khabarovsk before, I knew how the routine of passport control worked and filled out my immigration form, got into yet another queue and waited my turn. I was the very last person to exit passport control. Why? Because they had never seen a multi-entry visa here before. It took 5 duty officers to sort it out with one of them taking my passport and walking away. Then he brings it back, sets it on the counter and smiles and says, “No problem.” 10 minutes later. For a moment there I thought they were going to tell me they had good news and that there was a flight to take me back to China waiting for me.

I exited passport control and found my dear friend Galina. I was so happy to see her. It has been since April 2006 since I saw her last. This woman is very important to the work of Sweet Hope.

We made our way to the hotel, which is right down the street from the train station. It is in a part of town I’ve not been to before, but I know where I am. The hotel is nice and there is a little cafe here. We found my room and it is certainly cozy. Cozy meaning… well, just plain tiny. We walked in the door and Galina said, “Oh, it’s tiny.” It doesn’t matter to me. I have a bed a toilet and a shower. It’s quiet and the bed isn’t too uncomfortable.

I took a short nap to ward off too terrible of a case of jet lag and got up and went for a brisk walk. By brisk I mean it’s cold here. And windy. Galina had told me there was a grocery on the first floor of the train station. I made my way there to find a building with the word “Supermarket” on it (in Russian of course). I say, the best thing I ever did was learn the Russian alphabet. I went into this “Supermarket” and it was not what I was looking for. Finally, I found a store that said, “Produce.” Ah-Ha!

If you’ll recall two years ago I changed my eating habits when we came to the conclusion that I likely have celiac disease. This is my first trip abroad since that time. Most of the food I know in Russia is some form of wheat based thing. I know there are non-wheat foods out there, but the language barrier is one that is difficult to get over when I’m alone, don’t really speak the language and while I know the alphabet, I can’t read everything. Therefore I’m throwing caution to the wind and my diet out the window. Luckily Derek found me a pill form of an enzyme that seems to be helping.

At the grocery I picked up a round of bread, a noodle bowl, some butter, a bar of chocolate, apple juice and water. I also grabbed a bar of soap since the hotel provided soap is tiny (just like my room). All of it came to 237 RUB (about $7.25). While I was at the market I also priced out bottles of vodka. The price has gone up a bit. Roughly $6 for a bottle a little smaller than a 5th.

Tomorrow we are going out to Khor Village. Galina tells me that Tatiana (the director) is on holiday, but Irina (the vice-director) will meet us there to show us around and talk to us. She says it’s about an hour and a half drive to the village. I’m terribly nervous, but excited too. I do hope she will take the time to show us around. Galina tells me this a good place.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to do what I can to force myself to stay awake until at least 8:00. It’s 5:30 at the moment.

Oh hey! Before I forget. Did you buy candy yet. Nope you didn’t. How do I know? Because we’ve only gotten 2 orders all week long. You can do better than that.

The first leg of the journey

November 9, 2012 in Elle's World

You know how you get super nervous about something, but you know if you let your guard down you are going to totally lose your shit and never get it back? Yeah, this trip is like that. On our way to the airport on Wednesday I expressed this concern to Derek. He told me I’d have a good time and forget all about it once I got going.

Up until the 2nd hour of my first flight, which was 11 hours by the way, I was having a great time. I was going to watch one of my favoite movies, have my dinner and drift off into a medically induced sleep to slumber away the duration of the flight.

I’ve made the trans-Pacific flight 7 times. I know it sucks. I hate it and it’s my least favorite part about going to Asia. Ok, maybe not being able to read anything may be more difficult and make my brain hurt more in the end, but an 11-14 hour flight is no walk in the park.

So sleep. That was my plan. My body had other plans. I took my sleeping aid (which I’ve taken before) and within about 30 minutes something was not going right. I got up to use the bathroom and before I could really get all the way inside I projectile vomited all over the wall in the lavatory. Not a shining moment in my adulthood. I then proceeded to vomit up the wonderful airline food that was left.

What occurred after that was a bit of a blur. I remember coming out of the bathroom and telling the other people they don’t want to go in there. I then had to tell the flight attendant what happened. I must not have looked good because they swarmed me, had me sit down on the floor near the rear galley and gave me blankets. They had set me by the rear emergency exit door and it was fricken freezing. All I can remember are people in my face asking what is wrong, what do I need, then asking if there was a doctor or nurse on the plane. A man was taking my pulse, a nurse was taking my blood pressure, a flight attendant was giving me oxygen, it was chaos. I was just asking them if I could lay down. It would be fine if I could lay down.

I shivered on the floor of the galley for at least 6 hours. I must have slept off and on because it didn’t’ seem like that long. I just remember it being so. damn. cold. Eventually I asked for another blanket (I think I had 5 all together with one wrapped around my head). One of the flight attendants gave me a large bottle of Evian that she had heated up. I cuddled my hot water bottle. I must have slept for another hour.

When I finally woke up and was able to sit up the flight attendant asked me if I wanted a banana to eat. I had just thrown up all of my food and only had a bowl of fruity pebbles and a piece of peanut butter toast that day. I ate the banana then finally returned to my seat. I tried to go back to sleep, but that banana had other ideas. Back to the bathroom with me.

I’ve thrown up on an airplane before. I was alone that time too. There is nothing worse than throwing up on the airplane. Needless to say I was feeling a little crappy. Somehow I managed to get myself through security in Tokyo and found my gate. I tried to call Derek, but it was 12:30 in the morning at home and of course he had the sound turned off on all of the devices in the house. Luckily my wonderful friend Camille had a fussy baby so she was up and I chatted with her on Facebook. I needed someone to talk to.

If throwing up on the airplane wasn’t bad enough, I wasn’t done traveling. I was only 1/2 way through the journey. I had an hour and 45 minute layover in Tokyo, a 3 hour flight to Beijing, a 4 hour layover in Beijing and as I write this I’m currently on yet another airplane (2 1/2 hours) to Khabarovsk. I’m almost there.

I endured a very smelly Chinese guy for 3 hours. When I got to China I had to go through passport control, but I don’t have a valid Chinese Visa. Mine expired May 2011. I was in a panic that they wouldn’t let me transfer to the other terminal without a visa. Fortunately you stand in a queue for immigration and they stamp your passport with a ‘transfer visa.’ I then had to collect my bag, find my way to the terminal 3 shuttle, take the shuttle, find the ticketing counter, stand in a queue to re-check in with the Russian airline, stand in a queue to check my boarding pass, stand in a queue for immigration control again, then proceed to yet another queue for x-ray and security, where they were patting down every last passenger and making you take out not only your laptop, but your camera too (of which mine was at the bottom of my bag).

By this point I was nearly in tears. I was hungry, exhausted and felt like complete hammered dog shit. But I did it. I found my gate, laid down and took a 40 minute power nap. It’s amazing how just a little bit of sleep can make you feel better.

So here I am on the airplane. It’s cramped and the chick next to me is laying down taking up 2 seats and I really want to say NYET sister, I’ve been traveling for over 24 hours just let me lay the hell down, but I had tea with dinner and I’m wide awake now.

I’m going to make it. This trip is going to be great. I’m very proud of myself for not totally losing my shit.