A mother's first Christmas
MIDDLEBORO - Twelve-year-old Julie Anne Williams slid a spatula under a sugar-cookie cutout and gently laid it on a cookie sheet.
"Mommy, look how cute my Santa is. Adorable. I make it!" said Julie, smiling.
Her three brothers, Joshua, 12, Jacob, 11, and Michael, 9, worked beside her, sprinkling flour and rolling dough as they shaped their Christmas trees, stars and angels.
The voice of Gene Autry singing "Jingle Bells" filled the rooms of their sunny, Plympton Street home.
For their mother, Anne B. Williams, 54, this holiday season will be like no other - it will be her first Christmas as a mother.
In March, Anne traveled to an orphanage in Ukraine to adopt the two oldest children, Julie and Joshua, and went back again in September for Jacob and Michael.
"I retired in 1993 after working as a staff psychologist at Paul A. Dever School, Taunton State Hospital and Lakeville Hospital," said Anne, a Middleboro native. "I decided I wanted to have children, to give back."
Williams is one of a growing number of single parents seeking to adopt children, both in domestic and intercountry adoptions.
According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 33 percent of children adopted from foster care are by a single parent.
Research in the 1970s found that an estimated .5 percent to 4 percent of persons completing adoption were single, while in the 1980s that number had risen to between 8 percent and 34 percent.
"Our agency deals with many single parents and the numbers appear to be increasing for a number of reasons," said Janice M. Hoffman, general manager at Wide Horizons for Children of Waltham. "Single parents are paving the way for other single parents, showing them it can be successful, and that it is an option. And many international programs are open to single parents, so the opportunity is there."
Single parents are able to provide support for one another, Hoffman said.
"We need all kinds of families because there are so many children in need of homes," Hoffman said.
As in Anne's case, most single adoptive parents are female and most are likely to adopt older children than infants.
"I'm 54," Anne said. "I didn't think it would be fair to adopt infants."
For the four children, their new mother and their new home - situated on a pond and surrounded by gardens and fruit trees - is a dream come true.
"It's awesome here," said Joshua, as he patted their dog, Duke.
Their lives in Kiev, Ukraine, were not happy ones.
Julie, a sixth-grader at John T. Nichols Jr. Middle School, ended up in the orphanage after seeing her mother killed by a train. A year later, her father died of tuberculosis. She was sent to live with her aunt, who eventually gave her to the orphanage.
Joshua , Jacob and Michael, who all attend the Burkland School, are brothers. At 7, Joshua was often left as caretaker for his younger siblings while their alcoholic parents left them home alone, sometimes for months. The children often had to beg for food and money before they were taken away from their parents and placed in the orphanage.
"What these kids had to look forward to if they stayed in the orphanage is becoming hookers and thieves," Anne said. "It's not much of a future."
While researching overseas adoption, Anne ran across the Web site of Cathy Harris of Florida, www.ukrainianangels.org, who adopted five children from Ukraine and has helped 447 families independently adopt children overseas, without going through an agency or an attorney.
"I talked to agencies that deal with overseas adoption and found out they were pretty expensive, about $18,000 per child," Anne said.
Harris was able to walk her through the adoption process, and set her up with a facilitator and a translator in Ukraine, saving her thousands of dollars.
The number of international adoptions are growing.
According to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, between 15,000 and 20,000 children are adopted each year worldwide. The number of children adopted by U.S families has grown from 7,093 in 1990, to 16,396 in 1999.
"It is definitely growing every year," Harris said. "It is so difficult to adopt here in the states. Every agency I contacted said I would be waiting for years before I got a child in America. It might take five or six months in Ukraine. That makes a big difference."
Anne met her children on her first trip to Ukraine a year ago in May, when she accompanied another woman going through the adoption process. She asked the director of the orphanage if there were any sibling groups available.
"They brought me the three brothers as the best behaved," she said. "Then I spotted a little girl hugging the director a long time," she said. She asked the director if she could talk with her and the girl was brought into a room with the three boys.
"Julie asked Anne through the interpreter, 'Why am I here?, Do you want to adopt me?"' Anne recalled. "And I said 'yes - do you want to adopt me?' Julie said 'yes,' and smiled."
For Anne, seeing the hundreds of children in the orphanage was heart-wrenching.
"There were other kids that kept coming through, begging to be adopted," she said. "I would have taken them all if I could have."
Under the adoption regulations, Anne was only able to take two children at a time, and brought Julie and Joshua home on May 1. "They are doing really well," she said.
Anne will never forget the second trip she made to Ukraine and the fear she felt that day she sat outside the Kiev orphanage with Jacob and Michael.
It was Sept. 11, and they were celebrating Michael's birthday.
"A woman came out, hysterical, telling me to go look at the TV," she said. "I saw the planes going into the World Trade Center. I was horrified, especially being alone over there with no one to talk to in English. They stopped all English news and shut down the Ukrainian airport."
With help from the British consulate, she eventually was able to get a flight home, arriving in Boston with Jacob and Michael on Sept. 18.
"They just took it like little troopers," she said. "They complained about nothing."
She may be retired from her previous job, but Anne's life is now filled with the challenges of raising four young children.
On a typical weekday, she gets up at 6:45 a.m. to help the children get ready for school. Julie takes the bus at 7:15, and the boys leave at 8:10.
"Then I cook," Anne said. In the orphanage, the children ate mostly mashed potatoes, Russian soups, bread and watered-down milk. "It was yucky," Joshua said.
Anne usually makes her own version of borscht, a Russian soup made with beets and cabbage.
"It simmers all day," she said.
She takes care of the daily errands and chores while the children are in school, where they each spend time with a tutor who speaks Russian.
"The children love school," Anne said. "Their teachers and the kids have been great."
After school, the children have snacks, do their homework and play outside. All are learning to use a computer - something they never had in Ukraine. Anne has stacks of educational computer programs and games to help the children learn to read and speak English. After supper, they sit together in the living room and watch television.
"We love sharks, dinosaurs and alligators," Anne said. "First I scan the Discovery Channel for sharks, and if there are no sharks, we look for the next most interesting thing."
Anne tries to get them settled in bed by 8, acknowledging, "It doesn't always happen."
Having been a psychologist has helped Anne to deal with issues that arise as the children adapt to their new life, such as fear of abandonment.
"I assure them I'm not going anywhere - that I'll always be there for them," she said.
Other lingering fears also arise.
One day, Anne had a glass of wine with dinner when they went out to eat. Because of their hurtful memories of alcoholic parents, the children became frightened.
"Now I don't drink because I know it bothers them," she said.
Even though she is a single parent, Anne has gotten support from her extended family and the congregation at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Brockton.
"My nephew, Jamie Vigers of Middleboro, helps me a lot," she said. "He comes to church and spend a lot of time with the kids, taking them to the park and shopping."
For the children, Barbie dolls, bunny slippers, Matchbox cars and roller boards are all new and exciting. But on the desk in her bedroom, Julie has a woven placemat brought back from Russia.
"I put it on table for memories," she said.