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THE BRIDGE THAT BRINGS FAMILIES TOGETHER

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by Kristen J. Gough

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Alexei acts like any other fourth grader. He listens to Jessica Simpson and shoots hoops with his brother after school. In the school orchestra he plays the violin, and he will be one of the townspeople in the school production of "The Music Man”. Ask him any baseball trivia question, he’ll give you the answer. His mother, Terry Naumann of Yorktown Heights, unabashedly describes Alexei as "slender and handsome" with a "wry sense of humor”. Yet a little over three years ago, the boy behind the hazel eyes with long, thick lashes didn’t know a word of English and was headed toward a dismal life as an orphan in Siberia. Today, through the Bridge of Hope program, Alexei is a welcomed part of the Naumann family. The Bridge of Hope (BOH) program brings older orphans, between the ages of 6 and 11, to stay with American families for one month during the summer. Most of the host families are looking to adopt children, but may still be unsure as to how a child might fit into their lives. During the month-long visit, the host family can see how the child melds with their family. The children are required to be in some sort of organized camp during the day, since most are used to a highly structured schedule. At the end of the visit, all of the children go back to Russia. Families can then choose whether they will adopt the child. "Alexei entered our lives and hearts, and after our five weeks together, it was not a matter of ‘adding’ him to our family — the fact was, our family was no longer complete without him," says Naumann, who volunteers as co-director of the Westchester/Mid-Hudson BOH program. For most host families, like the Naumanns, it’s a quick decision to adopt, and many begin the process before the child even returns to the orphanage. BOH has blossomed since its inception in 1997, when just 13 children participated. This summer approximately 60 children will participate in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. Over the last seven years, over 250 children, orphaned in Russia, have found permanent, loving homes in the United States. "Bringing a child into your family is a big adjustment," says Patrice Gancie, national director of BOH, which is headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Many of our parents are older, like myself. The program appeals to them." Gancie and her husband adopted brothers Roman (then 8) and Artyom (then 6) in 1998. Gancie was at an advantage over many of the parents who join the program, since she and her husband spoke Russian. To ease families into hosting a child from abroad, BOH offers seminars not only on parenting but also on basic Russian language skills and issues they may not have considered. Many of the children have never been in cars or airplanes, and most Russian orphanages have different expectations when it comes to hygiene. While prospective parents may wonder about having a new family member, the children coming to America are also nervous. "It’s a very scary thing for the kids," explains Gancie. The children leave their orphanage and fly across several time zones to a strange land with a strange language. Once they arrive in the United States, they meet briefly with a translator, and then go home with people who are, to them, total strangers. "The kids who make it in this kind of a program are not painfully shy," says Gancie. "They don’t have difficulty meeting new people. They tend to be the leaders in the orphanage, the more resilient children. There are no shrinking violets here. These kids are tough — not in the sense of street tough, but mentally strong." The children are nominated by the staff at the Russian orphanage to join the program. Bill Gleeson and his wife Cathy, from Manhattan, had all these things in mind when they went to the airport to pick up their host child in the summer of 2002. After years of trying to adopt an infant in the United States, only to be met with disappointment, the Gleesons looked forward to seeing how an older child would fit into their family. "At first I wanted no part of it," admits Bill Gleeson. "It just didn’t seem like the right time, but my wife convinced me. She said if we’d had a child, this is how old the child would be." Driving to the airport, they prepared themselves for a groggy, scared 8-year-old girl. "I remember that night vividly," Gleeson recalls. "The kids got off the plane — they were skinny little kids with clothes that didn’t fit. At first I didn’t recognize Tatiana from her picture. Her hair was cut short and she was wearing a baseball cap." After the translator introduced Tatiana to her host family, they left the airport together. "We walked outside and went to cross the street,” Gleeson continues. “I put my hand out and she took it. That was it. I knew she was part of our family." Bringing a family together takes effort. The BOH staff keeps in close contact with hosting families and sponsors events throughout the visit where adoptive families get together. These events give prospective parents a chance to share their experiences and for the children to see friends from Russia. Jerry McCarrick and his wife Theresa, from Westbury, Long Island, first found out about the BOH program from a flyer posted at their church. The McCarricks married, in Jerry’s words, "a little later in life." Discovering they were unable to have children of their own, the McCarricks looked into adoption. In the summer of 2001, they hosted a brother and sister in the program. Although they bonded with the boy, the little girl had a difficult time. After several tumultuous days, the McCarricks sought the help of the BOH staff who placed the children with another family, who later adopted them. "They didn’t hit if off with our family," McCarrick says of the siblings. "The Bridge of Hope staff want it to work out, but if it doesn’t, they also want the kids to meet other people." A little heartbroken from the experience, the McCarricks kept in contact with the BOH staff and in 2002, during a downpour at Kennedy Airport, the McCarricks met their future son, Eugene, from Krasnoyarsk. "It’s funny how fate works," McCarrick says. "Eugene was smiling when we met him. To this day, he’s always happy." The adoption process can take anywhere from 4 to 8 months. The process begins with mounds of paperwork submitted to U.S. offices and culminates with the prospective parents formally adopting the child in a Russian courtroom. "We wondered how he would react," recalls McCarrick of picking up Eugene from the orphanage. "We hadn’t seen him since the summer and it was December. But Eugene was standing at the door waiting for us. He jumped into our arms. I’ll always remember that. We brought him home on Christmas Day." Despite the language barrier, most children from Bridge of Hope thrive in school — and life. "Eugene has gained 25 pounds and 7 inches in 13 months," laughs McCarrick. "We take everything for granted. These kids don’t. For them it’s all new — cars, airplanes, even the remote control. It’s amazing to see them discovering things. They just melt your heart." If you are interested in adopting an older child from Russia, or know someone who is, visit www.bridgeofhope.cc or www.cradlehope.org. You can also contact Patrice Gancie, director of Bridge of Hope, at (301) 587-4400, ext. 205. BOH also accepts donations toward the costs of bringing the children to the U.S. each summer.

 


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