28 ROMANIAN ORPHANS, 26 AMERICAN FAMILIES
Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
AND EACH YEAR THE 'SZEGED 28' COME TOGETHER AGAIN
Author: LAUREN GOLD Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Dateline: DELRAY BEACH
Gathered in a farewell circle in the Garbers' Delray Beach living room, 13 kids are getting ready to share their feelings about their families.
It was Melinda's idea. But she doesn't want to contribute.
"Natasha will start," she says, her blue eyes sparkling. Natasha gives her a withering look.
Finally, after lots of giggling, Melinda accepts the floor. "My mom is nice to me sometimes," she admits a little grudgingly.
Across the room, her brother Daniel agrees. But he has a complaint.
"My life is really annoyed," he adds. "By a certain little girl."
The conversation disintegrates a little. Staying on topic is difficult.
This is a room full of kids, after all. And they're as different as a group of 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds can be.
There's Julie Merkle's quiet serenity. Alex Henn's impish charm. Michael Gilles' disarming honesty.
Together they bring a full spectrum of personalities to their reunions. This year, they celebrated their 10th year as a family.
The kids and their parents aren't related, though. Not biologically.
The bond they share is one created by history. And every year, when they come together during the sacred weekend after the Fourth of July, they pick up their relationship as if they had never separated.
They are nine of 28 Romanian kids adopted from Szeged, Hungary, by American parents in 1993 (plus four adopted siblings from other parts of the world). The controversy that surrounded their adoption kept them in limbo in a locked orphanage for months as the governments of Romania, Hungary and the United States wrangled over their futures.
Now they live in California and Florida and Illinois and Missouri. They play violin and chess and basketball. Their parents are constantly embarrassing them in front of their friends.
This year, they had a sleepover in the Delray Beach Marriott. They took Atlantic Avenue and Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex by storm.
And while the kids pushed each other into the swimming pool and caught up after a year of being apart, their parents watched and thought about how far they've all traveled.
"All the kids are American kids now," says Denny Garber, whose daughter Lexi is one of the 28. "You come to each other through the love of a child. The love is the glue that keeps us all together."
In 1992, 26 women traveled from Romania's Transylvanian mountain region to Hungary to give birth to babies they would give up for adoption. By giving them up to Western families, the women hoped they were giving their children a better life.
Stephen and Denny (Denise) Garber planned to adopt a baby girl named Maria, born in a Hungarian border town on Oct. 22. They knew the name of the baby's birth mother, and the fact that she and Denny Garber were both born on April 7 20 years apart.
Their adoption agency told them they would be able to pick up the baby between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Late that year, however, allegations of baby-selling were made against one of the American adoption agencies involved with Romanian adoptions. The Romanian government demanded that the adoptions be called off and the babies returned from Hungary to Romanian orphanages.
The Garbers, along with the 25 other American families promised custody of a baby, refused to let go without a fight. Romanian orphanages were crowded, disease-ridden, dirty and understaffed. Fifty percent of children were infected with AIDS.
The Hungarian government placed the babies in a locked orphanage in Szeged while the dispute reached the highest levels of the governments of Romania, Hungary and the United States.
The Garbers traveled to Hungary three times, meeting with officials in Budapest and taking the three-hour train ride to Szeged to visit their daughter. They moved temporarily to the corporate headquarters of their stress-management business in London.
In the months between December 1992 and July 1993 the Garbers crossed paths with the other prospective parents. When they visited Szeged, they got to know the other babies. And the 26 families grew close.
"It was like being in a movie," said Denny Garber. There were tapped phones. Meetings at the bank of a river. Weeks, stretching into months, of no apparent progress.
And then, one day in July, the parents got the word: They could pick up their babies.
Brenda Henn, whose son Alex was one of the 28, will never forget that phone call.
"I just sobbed," she said. "There were two other women in the room with me, and we just sobbed and hugged."
After her experience with Alex's adoption, Henn joined Russian physicians living in St. Louis to form Small World Adoption Foundation of Missouri Inc. Since 1993, the agency has finalized 1,060 international adoptions.
The Garbers caught the first train to Szeged when they got the news. With Maria - whom the Garbers renamed Maria Alexandra and call Lexi - in their arms, they took a taxi back to Budapest. From there they flew to London, where a crowd of friends was waiting with champagne and a "Welcome, Lexi" banner.
They brought Lexi back to their home in New Mexico, then moved to Palm Beach County in 1995. Next year, Lexi - a talented pianist, Irish dancer and four-card poker player - will be a fifth-grader at the Unity School in Delray Beach.
Cathy and David Gilles brought Michael to their home near Chicago from Szeged in 1993, too. But their family's journey has been a world apart.
Michael was one of the oldest of the Szeged 28; he spent 31 months in the orphanage before the Gilleses found him.
He was severely malnourished and traumatized. After months of neglect, he suffered developmental delays. He couldn't speak or relate to other people, and he still struggles.
Now the 12-year-old is the group's inspiration.
As the kids sit in the Garbers' living room Sunday before the group disperses and discusses how much they mean to each other, Julie Merkle's mother, Mary, starts to cry.
Michael, quiet in his father's lap, sits upright. "Look, Dad," he says with alarm. "She's sad. She's sad, Dad."
Mary Merkle cries harder, laughing between sobs. "No, buddy. She's happy," says retired homicide detective David Gilles. "It's OK."
A family spirit
The 26 families have stuck by one another through brushes with cancer and heart disease. They consider one another aunts and uncles and cousins, and they are always together in spirit. Although they live all over the country (two families are even living abroad), they reconnect instantly each year.
"It tickles me the way we're apart for a year, and then the kids are right here together. Within 30 seconds, it's like they play together every day," says John Merkle.
"For my two, the highlight of their summer is seeing their cousins," adds Jeny Evensen. She and her husband live with their adopted twins, Rachael and Robyn, and their four other daughters in Yorba Linda, Calif.
This year's eight-family gathering is one of the smaller reunions. Next year they'll meet in St. Louis, and the parents are already planning a 2006 trip to Hungary.
Romania closed its international adoptions again in 2001, pending investigations into new accusations of baby-selling.
For all the heartache they went through 10 years ago, none of the parents harbors bitterness today. "It was a mistake - a mistake that could be corrected," says Denny Garber. "The intention was good."
"So many people came to our rescue," adds Brenda Henn. "I've seen so much good from countries coming together. Our situation was really exceptional."
Like the other families, the Garbers keep boxes of paperwork, photographs and memorabilia from that time. "So much paperwork - it was endless," says Denny.
In one of the boxes is the banner from Lexi's arrival at Heathrow airport. The Garbers traveled through London, because Lexi's U.S. citizenship took a few weeks to come through. In the meantime, she had to wait for a visa in order to enter the States.
As Denny Garber explains this glitch, Lexi's dark brown eyes widen behind her narrow glasses.
"I had a visa?" she asks.
"Yes," says Denny.
"I had a credit card?"
Denny throws her head back and laughs.
A bond that distance can't break
The 10th reunion of the 'Szeged 28' brought together this original group from a Hungarian orphanage:
Abby Scott, 11, Wentzville, Mo.
Natasha Tavares, 10, Peoria, Ill.
Julie Merkle, 10, Glencoe, Mo.
Michael Gilles, 12, Frankfort, Ill.
Robyn and Rachael Evensen, 10, Yorba Linda, Calif.
Melinda Ehlinger, 10, Houston
Alex Henn, 10, Chesterfield, Mo.
Lexi Garber, 10, Delray Beach
1. (C) Maria Alexandra 'Lexi' Garber gets acquainted with her adoptive father, Stephen Garber of Delray Beach, in this 1993 photograph.
Photos by TAYLOR JONES/Staff Photographer
2. (C) CLOSE AS CLOSE CAN BE: The gathering included (from top) Abby Scott, 11, Julie Merkle, 10, Karli-Ann Evensen, 11, and twins Rachael and Robyn Evensen, 10. All except Karli-Ann were adopted from an orphanage in Hungary.
3. (B&W) Brenda Henn of St. Louis gives young Melinda Ehlinger of Houston a hug during dinner at the Marriott in Delray Beach. Melinda came to America from a Hungarian orphanage.
4. Adopted daughters (from left) Robyn Evensen, Rachael Evensen, Abby Scott and Julie Merkle have fun on the hammock outside the Garber home in Delray Beach. The Evensen twins live in California. Abby and Julie live in Missouri. Their visit included a sleepover in the Delray Beach Marriott.
5. (C) Map of location of Szeged, HUNGARY.
PHOTO (2 C & 2 B&W) & MAP (C)