Adopted children find love

Date: 1994-12-11

Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Author: DAWN BRAZELL; The Post and Courier

It's truly the gift that keeps on giving - at Christmas and all the year through. It's the gift of love, and for many international orphans, the gift of life.

That's what Robert and Tomilee Harding, who run the Christian World Adoption agency in Mount Pleasant, have to focus on to keep from being overwhelmed.

Their nonprofit organization handles more than 150 adoptions a year, placing children from Russia, China, Vietnam, Paraguay, Guatamala, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and El Salvador in the homes of single parents and couples across the nation.

"People say why don't we help our own children, and we should in every way, and we are. But I don't think they understand the scope of these other countries and how little they have. It surprises me, and I see so much of it."

The stories of need are incredible, says Mrs. Harding, who set up an orphanage in Vietnam in order to be able to work in that country. There are mothers so poor they are living in packing cartons and begging for someone to take their children. One child they came to pick up was found floating in the river. They suspect the child was killed to keep it from starving.

Children in orphanages in many countries are piled two to three in a crib because of unheated buildings. The babies develop slowly because they have to stay swaddled. In Russia, children suffer nutritional deficiencies because they are fed tea instead of formula.

Mrs. Harding shakes her head at the images.

They recently visited a South American orphanage that was home to more than 100 babies and children, many of whom had been found on the streets. Not a single toy could be found, so the Hardings brought one for each child.

"Orphans are often severely deprived of affection, and one of the little boys I had held for just a few moments cried hysterically when we left."

Harding, who glances over a bulletin board full of the smiling faces of children, says they don't tell these stories to make people feel bad.

"It's just the more we travel, and the more we see, the more we feel driven to help those children we can. You can't go out and help a country. You can only do this one at a time - if you can reach out and touch just one more child."

Miracle on Coleman Boulevard

Most international adoption agencies are located in major cities. If the Hardings had mapped out a business plan, they probably would have as well. But the birth of Christian World Adoption happened almost in spite of themselves.

The Hardings were married 14 years ago. Mrs. Harding says they wanted children and after unsuccessfully undergoing infertility treatment, they decided to look into local adoption.

"But my husband was in his mid-40s with two kids from another marriage, and I was in my mid-30s. They just laughed."

Mrs. Harding says she didn't push it, knowing in her heart that she was interested in an international adoption. She has a degree in economics and had owned the Academy of Hair Design where she was school director. She sold the business to take time off to adopt a child.

Bringing home an 8-month-old baby girl from Paraguay in 1989, Mrs. Harding found out how much was involved in international adoptions. She also found out how interested other people were in finding out about international adoptions.

"I never meant to do this, but people kept calling me and asking, `how do you do this?' and I'd be on the phone all night."

Mrs. Harding eventually set up a little space in the corner of her husband's office. It began growing to the point that she realized she needed her own office.

"I said, `Lord, I'll do whatever you want me to do, and if this is what you want me to do, then I'll go for it."

Her husband, who owned a brokerage firm but was spending much of his time helping her, decided to quit his job.

"I said, `The Lord's pulling me to do this. We have to make this work," he says. "She couldn't do it alone, and you could see where it was growing. People were calling and this country was available and that country was available. There was so much happening."

Mrs. Harding says it wasn't easy at first. They had to sell their large home on the Stono River and their boat. They threw everything they had into the business, incorporating in 1990 and obtaining a non-profit status last year.

Some of their friends have changed. They don't take fancy skiing trips anymore. But they have grown so much spiritually, she says.

"I can hardly look at people driving the big cars now. I think, `You could be driving a smaller car and buying formula! What is wrong with you?' I don't want to become hysterical about it because no one wants to be around someone like that. But with moderation, you can do so much."

The Hardings travel constantly. They've been around the world four times this year. It's not as glamorous as people think, she says, especially since they are visiting poor areas. She has gotten sick from picking up parasites.

But that's what it takes to run Christian World Adoption, which has a seven-member board overseeing a $1.3 million budget. There's a local staff of 10, and 19 people working in its orphanage in Vietnam.

Just their phone bill is $50,000 a year, says Mrs. Harding. They spent $4,600 last month sending packages.

Mrs. Hardings says some people get angry when they find out the typical adoption costs between $13,000 and $20,000. Some people think it shouldn't cost anything to adopt, and she understands that.

"Unfortunately, the kids are going to sit in these countries unless someone pays the people who get them out of the system. You have to pay the attorney to process the adoption. You have to pay a translator to translate."

It can be expensive, but it compares to buying a car, she says. Mrs. Harding says she's never regretted the sacrifices they have made to be able to have Rachelle, who's now a rambunctious 5-year-old who loves bows and "do-das."

"She's the real reason we do this," says Harding. "You see all these children overseas that have such a tremendous need. There are children who are hungry and there are a lot who don't make it through the first year. And they are beautiful kids."

Right place, right time

The Hardings are firm believers in miracles. They have good reason.

Harding says they believe the Lord puts the right child in the right family's life. On one of his wife's last trips to China, there was a child at an orphanage who wouldn't release her leg. She asked to adopt him, but they warned she wouldn't want him because of a serious heart problem. It was so serious, the child was turning blue and passing out.

Information about the child was faxed to an interested caller, but nobody expected any response.

"The man called back shortly afterwards and says, `Oh, by the way, I'm a heart surgeon. He's mine, and I'm going to fix him," says Harding, his eyes, beaming. His wife laughs delightedly as he tells the story. "You get me over there. I need him in the next six months."

The child, who now has been adopted, is healthy and thriving.

There was another couple who wanted to adopt a child from Chile. The Hardings found an infant who had a cleft palate. Harding called the couple and the woman started weeping. He apologized, telling them they didn't have to take the child.

The woman told him he didn't understand. They were tears of joy because her sister was on a hospital ship not far from there and that was her speciality.

"When you see the people put in the right places at the right time, you have to understand that the Lord is behind what is going on, and we see it. We know it."

Cathy Blalock, an adoptive parent who now works for Christian World Adoption as an adoption counselor, says they worked a miracle for her.

There hasn't been a girl born in the Blalock family for 65 years. The Blalocks had two boys, but she wanted a girl. Everyone, including her husband Marshall, pastor of Sullivan's Island Baptist Church, told her she should be happy with their two boys,

"He used to say in the pulpit, `I'm praying that Cathy sees we can't afford it, and she's praying that God will show me we can, and guess who won?' He wasn't really against it. It's just a lot of money for a one-income family."

They worked with different agencies with no luck. Some frowned on the fact that they already had biological children. When they hooked up with Christian World Adoption, they found an infant girl was available in Peru. Blalock, who went to Peru to pick up her daughter, says it was worth all the sacrifices and loans they had to get.

"We walked into this really dark room and there was this woman with a baby, and she was crying. She brought this baby over to me and put her in my arms and said, `Please take care of her. I can't do it.' I looked down at her and it was the same as when they put my biological sons in my arms."

The family bonded with 6-1/2-month old Cathryn right away. She's a daddy's girl, she says, glancing at a picture of her husband holding her daughter with their two sons hugging his legs. Her husband won't even let her hire a baby-sitter to keep their daughter so he can have some free time on his one day off, she says.

Blalock says her daughter blesses the family in so many ways. The horror stories she hears about multiple burials of Peruvian children at the orphanage where she was only makes her happier that she persevered.

The Blalocks are trying to go into foreign missions in Peru now.

"Everything has changed for us. Our world has opened up. Our little boys no longer say, `I need this.' They say, `I really don't need it, but I'd like to have it.' They've learned the difference."

If it doesn't work out for them to go into foreign missions, they plan to go to Peru for three months to work and give their children a chance to see what life is like in other parts of the world.

"In America, no one has to starve. Babies don't have to die here. In other countries, they die if we don't bring them home."

Making an impact

The Hardings don't think they're solving any of the world's problems, but they are making an impact. Their minister at East Cooper Baptist Church recently joked that their congregation was starting to look like the United Nations, says Mrs. Harding.

She smiles.

"One of the things I really like about international adoptions is that people start to have a real world focus. They go over there, and they see the kids and are surprised by the conditions, and their heart just gets stolen by it."

There is not a typical profile of the adoptive parents, except that they tend to be in their late 30s and early 40s. Many couples suffer from infertility problems. Both single parents and couples adopt, as well as people from all religions and no religion, although most are Christians. Financially, adoptive families range from upper-class couples to those who have to get a loan to afford the adoption costs.

Adoptive parents have to undergo a home study by a certified adoption investigator and, of course, have no criminal record. How long an adoption takes depends on the country selected and the age of the child. The typical wait is six to 10 months.

Most of the parents the Harding's work with are strong Christians who may have children, even grown children, and are just doing this to help a child.

"I just had a lady who wanted an infant from Vietnam, but she heard about this little kid who was an orphan and was trying to feed himself by raising three or four ducks. She took him, and he's 10 years old. She'll wait for the baby, but she just couldn't stand the fact that he was homeless."

Some people worry about how international children will adapt to America.

"It's not like you're going to adopt someone blond and blue-eyed who is going to look like you. You have to be able to deal with the fact that everyone is going to know the child is adopted and may have questions about that."

That's not the problem it used to be since adoptions aren't the secretive affairs they used to be. Today's adoptive families believe in telling a child from the beginning, she says.

"A birth parent gave you up because they love you. They can't take care of you, and want a better future for you."

Children seem to accept their adoptive families very well. The Hardings try to keep their daughter's culture alive. The agency sponsors culture camps that celebrate the food and dance of the various cultures.

"We're not just yanking the kids out of their culture, we're saying we love you because of where you're from and what you are."

It gives adoptive parents a broader view of the world. Mrs. Harding speaks Spanish with Rachelle, although her daughter tells her to speak English, reminding her that she's American. Some parents adopting older children worry about the language barrier. It only takes about 90 days for a child to pick up a good working vocabulary of English, says Harding.

"What the children really understand is the language of love and that doesn't matter what language it's spoken in," he says. "To have a child not have to share his pair of shoes or to know that that's going to be his bed tomorrow or that that's his very own sweater."

They have a video of two adopted girls from Vietnam dancing with their clothes and singing. Mrs. Harding asked an interpreter tell her what the girls were chanting. "They were saying, `They're all mine! They're all mine! They're all mine!' They're just in heaven."

Adoptive parents always take care packages to the orphanages they visit when they go to adopt. The agency solicits donations, ranging from medications from corporations to private donations for items on their wish list. Mrs. Harding says the agency serves as a mission platform to bring in aid.

"It's nice because it doesn't get stolen or lost. We go here and we put it on the kid's back. When we were in Russia, we bought 12 cribs so the kids wouldn't be sleeping on the floor. It's really exciting because not only can we do the adoption work, but we can get in and affect children's lives who are still there and will never get out."

Mrs. Harding says it can be hard not to get burned out.

"You do the best you can, and then you put it in the Lord's hands," she says. "I have gone through times when I've gotten really depressed. I have learned you do the best you can, and each life is a life."

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