The Town of Second Chances
Over the past few years, families from one community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, have adopted dozens of Russian orphans. Local residents say the community has benefited as much as the children have.
By Eric Baum
This is Mennonite country – 90 minutes due west of Philadelphia into the heart of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – where Amish farmers traverse picturesque roads in horse-drawn carriages and hundreds of small churches dot the rolling countryside.
This is Americana at its finest – a tight-knit religious community where families sometimes leave their doors unlocked at night. But it is also home to a fast-growing community of children adopted from Russian orphanages who are finding a second chance at life in America.
In July two families from Lancaster County made trips to Russia to bring home children from state-run orphanages. A third couple from Lancaster – Wolfram and Arlene Andrews – are making final preparations to adopt 14- year-old Valya from a Russian orphanage in September.
To an outside observer the bridge between Lancaster and Russian orphanages might seem like an odd phenomenon, a quirk in the gears of globalization. But to these families, nothing could be more natural. To this community in an Eastern corner of the Bible Belt, the old American axiom “neighbors helping neighbors” easily translates into “neighbors helping underprivileged children from Russia.”
Last year the U.S. State Department issued 5,209 visas to Russian children adopted by American families. Emigration experts agree that the adoption business in post-Soviet Russia is booming, but the stereotypical profile of wealthy young families snapping up babies born in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg is being rewritten here. In Western Pennsylvania, working-class parents of all ages are coming to the aid of school-age children and adolescents languishing in Russian orphanages.
Lisa Troncale is arguably the catalyst for the flurry of Lancaster County Russian adoptions. Lisa and her husband adopted two girls after their youngest daughter returned from a trip volunteering in Russian orphanages in 1998.
The Troncales’ oldest daughter, Maria, and her husband Gary Buck came to Moscow this July to adopt an adorable Russian toddler with brown eyes and an affecting smile whom they named Jeremiah. Gary’s parents have also adopted a Russian child, now 9, which makes Jeremiah a sort of second-generation Russian adoptee.
"We both have families who have adopted from Russia," says Gary. "Hearing from Maria’s parents was kind of what catapulted my parents into going through with it. They love being parents and wanted to help someone out."
For Gary, 27, who is the director of a neighborhood youth center, and Maria, 25, who teaches part-time at a private school, there was never a question of whether they would adopt a child. It was only a matter of when. The financial burden of bootstrapping adoption agency fees, costly government background checks and transportation expenses – which typically exceed $20,000 – went beyond their budget. So the couple turned to their community for help. Neighbors and members of their church came together in January to throw fundraising events like bingo games and dinners where friends joined one another to eat barbecued chicken outdoors in freezing temperatures.
Bringing Olga Home
Linda and Nate Hershey, another family from Lancaster County, also returned to the U.S. in late July with a child from Russia. Nine-year-old Olga faces the difficult hurdles of learning English and catching up with her new peers in an American elementary school. Her new brother and sister were justifiably skeptical at first about the process of adopting Olga.
Maria Buck playing with Jeremiah in Moscow shortly before their departure.
In 2000 the Hersheys met another young Russian girl, Natasha, through an exchange program and decided to bring her into their family. After months of foot-dragging by the Russian court system Natasha’s biological father claimed her from the state orphanage and she disappeared from their lives. Linda and Nate were heartbroken and initially backed away from the adoption process. But the local community and involvement with humanitarian outreach programs rekindled their interest in reaching out to another disadvantaged Russian child.
In February 2003 the Linda Hershey participated in an outreach program for Russian orphans. It was during this trip that she first met Olga and contemplated finding the courage to begin the adoption process again. "We made a promise to [Natasha] that we never fulfilled, but she lit the fires for some people at home."
Caring for older Russian orphans involves a special commitment to uncover and hopefully heal the psychological wounds of a traumatized youth. In the course of her short life, Olga has lost both of her parents and younger brother and has been shuttled between private homes and at least two orphanages.
In the final days before making the trip to the Hersheys’ home in Pennsylvania, Linda and Olga spent dozens of hours together in a Moscow apartment. They had no common language, but communicated through playful gestures and sweet smiles. "Olga grew up fast," Linda said. "She’s a very complicated person with many layers that will eventually peel away down to who she is. At some point some grieving has to happen."
Even with the adoption paperwork and Olga’s visa application behind them, Linda did not relax until they reached home. "Because of our past experience you try hard not to get attached," Linda said. "As Lisa Troncale says, ’It’s not done until you’re on the plane going home with that kid.’ Sooner or later the flood gates will open and I’ll cry – because until then you’re always on high alert."
Maria and Gary Buck sit for their first family portrait with their new son, Jeremiah.
This month Wolfram and Arlene Andrews will make their trip from Lancaster to adopt Valya, a teenager who is living at an orphanage in Podolsk. Slightly more than 18 months ago the Andrews’ 18-year-old daughter met Valya on a relief mission organized in the U.S. She brought home a picture of Valya, and asked her parents to adopt the girl. Wolfram and Arlene, who are already raising four teenage children, did not say yes immediately. Wolfram kept Valya’s picture tucked in the corner of a mirror where her face stared back at his for months.
During that time Wolfram thought about friends and neighbors throughout Lancaster who made room in their families for older Russian orphans, until he decided to do the same. "I realize how blessed we are in the U.S. Sometimes we scrape more food off a plate at the end of dinner than what it would cost to feed another person,” he said. “We feel our children have turned out well, but we know that it’s going to be different raising another teenager. We don’t know what’s inside her and what her needs are."
Beating the Odds
Without outside help, Russian orphans’ chances at succeeding in life are slim. According to the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, or ROOF, 40% of all Russian orphans become drug users after leaving orphanages; over 50% spend time in prison and 10% commit suicide. A huge percentage of girls become prostitutes. Only 4% are admitted to universities.
The plight of older Russian orphans is particularly grim because they are so much less likely to be adopted than newborns. Residents of Lancaster County are taking steps to address the problem. Last month 11 children from Russian orphanages attended an exchange program in Pennsylvania organized by Lisa Troncale. Named after one of her adopted daughters, Masha’s Camp, as the program is known, provides a forum for local families to meet Russian orphans.
Masha Troncale, 16, was a pioneer when she came to Lancaster nearly five years ago, but other Russian children who will soon follow in her footsteps will find a community with dozens of children from Russia. "It was scary because I didn’t know the language. At first I didn’t even want to leave the house," she said. "It will be easier for them now because when they come here they will find a lot of friends."
The Hersheys celebrate the arrival of Olga, seated next to her new mother.
Wolfram Andrews said several friends have expressed interest in adopting children after participating in the program. "People live in this community and get exposed to the concept and the process starts all over again – now it’s mushrooming," he said.
Olga starts her first semester this month in an American school where she will rely on special programs in which English is taught as a second language. The Andrews may enroll Valya in the same school later this year if she is able to make the adjustment without too much difficulty. Her background is more of a mystery than Olga’s and the family is prepared for the unexpected. "The Russian authorities will share some things, but they don’t know everything that’s happened," Wolfram said. "We’re going in with no expectations."
Both Wolfram and Linda Hershey say the experience of welcoming underprivileged Russian children into Lancaster-area families brings the entire community closer together. Linda said a community runs the risk of becoming fallow and desensitized to the ways in which they can help in the world around them. "It has tested our faith, and I think it’s going to keep on being tested,” Linda said. "It’s too easy to be complacent and lose focus on what’s important in life."