Coming to America
12 orphans take first step towards families through Camp Hope
By Nicole McGill
Times-Union staff writer,
Shortly before midnight on June 23, a Continental flight from Newark, N.J., arrived at Jacksonville International Airport. The passengers slowly made their way through the gate and down the long corridor to the baggage claim and sliding doors that would carry them out into the warm night air and their various destinations.
The last souls to emerge from the plane included a group of 12 children, tired little ones who had been traveling more than 36 hours. Their journey had taken them from their homeland of Moldova, a country in southeastern Europe between Romania and Ukraine, and on to Romania, Canada and finally, the United States of America.
Once in the States, they had to stop in New York City before taking a three-hour traffic-congested motion-sickening bus ride to Newark for the flight that would bring them to Jacksonville.
"It was hard," said Irina Korotchenkova, who accompanied the children on their trip. "They were so excited to see America. Nobody complained. Nobody."
The children and their chaperones came for Camp Hope, a new six-week program that brings older orphans from Chisinau, Moldova, to live with host families in Jacksonville for the summer.
Most of the children have never experienced family life, and all of them, ages 6 to 14, are eligible for adoption. The hope is that they will find permanent homes here, said Camp Hope director Paula Roderick.
"Families are in all shapes and sizes," Roderick said, "and I think we're all God's children and God chooses to bring families together in a lot of different ways. And adoption is just one of them. I think our foster families do a wonderful job. Unfortunately, overseas in some of these countries they don't do such a good job. It's not that they don't want to, they just don't have the financial resources that our country is blessed with. Our kids have a chance for a future in America. If you were fortunate enough to be born here you have a chance at life."
The Moldovan children were greeted with hugs and smiles and squeals of laughter before being gathered together for a group photograph behind a Tedi Bear Adoptions welcome banner. Tedi Hedstrom, owner of Tedi Bear Adoptions, is one of the organizers of Camp Hope, and her international adoption agency is one of the sponsors.
"They looked so great when we left Moldova," Korotchenkova said apologetically. "Now they look dirty and tired." A native Russian, Korotchenkova represents Tedi Bear Adoptions in Moldova.
Roderick began talking to the kids, but in her excitement, she talked so fast the interpreter couldn't keep up.
"Tedi and I and Irina have worked so very hard for the last few months for this moment," Roderick said. Through the interpreter, she told the sleepy children they would have a good night's rest and meet their host families the next day.
Each child was given a stuffed animal and juice boxes before beginning the final leg of their trip -- the ride to Ponte Vedra Beach, where they would spend the night with Paul and Tina D'Alessandro and their two sons in a spacious home overlooking a marsh.
While the Moldovan orphans made their journey, their host families -- seven in all -- were preparing for their summer children.
Isabelle Burgess, an empty-nester who reared three kids on her own, was at her new home in Julington Creek preparing to go to the grocery store for fresh fruit and bread for the Rusica kids: Victoria, 14, Petru, 13, and Tamara, 12.
"This is just a real blessing," she said. "I just want to open my house up. I just get a lump in my throat when I think about the difference we're going to make in these children's lives."
In Baymeadows, Bruce and Edwina Hughes also were preparing a grocery list. The Hugheses have no children, but they've been considering adoption. The Camp Hope kids will allow them to experience parenthood for the first time. Friends of theirs brought over games for 12-year-old Dmitrii Chorba and his 8-year-old brother, Slava.
Will Ackland, a divorcee who shares custody of his 12-year-old son, Tyler, had just returned from the store with juice, eggs, grits, oatmeal and bread. Ackland has lived in the Jacksonville area all of his life. He grew up in Jacksonville Beach, but now lives "on the other side of the bridge," as he puts it, not too far from the beach but just far enough inland to qualify as a "townie."
Ackland has been preparing a long time to meet his summer foster son, 10-year-old Roman Malic. The preparation began long before Ackland ever heard of Camp Hope.
"I have one son," he said, "but I've always wanted more children. That's difficult to do when you are a single parent."
In April, Ackland graduated from the University of North Florida with a degree in education. While he works in the accounting department and Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, he wants to be a teacher. After student-teaching at a school where many of the students were poor or came from troubled homes, he said he hopes to be able to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged children.
"You hear all the stories all your life about how unfortunate kids are, but until you see it you just don't understand it," he said. "That was my first time seeing it. Even though I'm not teaching now, being in this program [Camp Hope] makes me feel like I'm still in it."
Camp Hope began with two women, a dream and a personal mission.
"I basically had the dream to do this last summer, and I shared it with Irina [Korotchenkova]," said Tedi Hedstrom, who has run her international adoption agency for four years. She and her husband have 10 children -- three birth children, one domestically adopted child, two Russian and two Chinese children and one Moldovan and one Vietnamese child.
"I didn't know how to go about doing it," she said of her dream to host a camp in Jacksonville. "Five days later, Paula called me with the same idea, and I started laughing. We had lunch, and here we are."
After 36 hours of traveling by plane and bus, the Moldavan children were definitely exhausted when they arrived in Jacksonville shortly before midnight. Here, some of them take a rest in the shoe shine stand at the airport.
-- Reggie Jarrett/Special
For Paula Roderick, 50, Camp Hope was a personal mission. In 1994, while living outside Washington, she and her husband, John, adopted their Russian daughter, Kati, who is 7 years old.
Paula Roderick became a volunteer at the Cradle of Hope international adoption agency and was one of the founders of its Bridge of Hope summer camp in 1997. Camp Hope is modeled after that program.
"This program normally would take about a year to set up, and we've been able to do it in four months. It cost over $3,000 a child to bring them here," Roderick said. Both she and husband John, 55, are retired Air Force officers who moved to Jacksonville last year. Paula Roderick is now a stay-at-home mom and John Roderick owns a business flying advertising banners behind small planes.
Donations were raised through word-of-mouth, and one of the major sponsors was Kidsave International, a Washington-based organization that promotes overseas adoption. Target stores donated items for the children, as did several organizations and individuals. All of the children were awarded day camp scholarships from the Winston Family YMCA.
In 1997, the first year of the Bridge of Hope camp, all 13 Russian children who came to the United States for the summer found permanent homes. In 1998, 33 of 36 kids found homes, and 38 of 43 found permanent homes in 1999. The agency is still in the process of finding homes for the remaining children.
But the children of Camp Hope in Jacksonville have not been promised anything. They have not been told they might find permanent homes. However, if a host family or someone else in the community should decide to adopt any of the children, the process would take anywhere from three to six months. In the meantime, the children would return to Moldova at the end of the summer and come back to America when the adoption process is completed.
Roderick said she's often asked why she works so hard to bring foreign orphans to America when there are children in Jacksonville who need loving families.
"I get asked that a lot," she said. "For me personally, I made a commitment when we adopted our daughter, a personal commitment that I wouldn't forget, that I would take good care of my daughter and I wouldn't forget the children who were left behind."
Roderick said she and her husband found it difficult to adopt in the United States because of their ages. Hedstrom said that's not unusual.
"Because there are so many parents looking to adopt in the States, birth mothers can be very selective," Hedstrom said of private adoptions. They may eliminate single parents, people of a certain age or race or income. They may prefer couples who have no other children or request a couple with a stay-at-home mother.
The foster care system, on the other hand, involves a frustrating bureaucracy, Hedstrom said.
But in many countries, these aren't concerns.
"They didn't care how old we were," Roderick said. "They just cared about whether we were going to love and take care of their children. The need for children to find families is great all over the world."
The kids awakened early on the Saturday they were to meet their host families. It had been an interesting night, laughed Tina D'Alessandro, the children's host. Shortly after most of the kids had fallen asleep, she caught some of the boys giggling and sneaking up the stairs to their room. When she confronted the mischievous lot, they looked innocent enough, but a quick check under their bed covers revealed a pile of bananas they'd "borrowed" from the kitchen.
"I call my house Ellis Island," Paul D'Alessandro said as he made his way through the large kitchen overflowing with kids playing and snacking. The kids had spent the morning swimming in the D'Alessandros' pool and had taken turns learning to ride bikes in the driveway. Ten-year-old Tanya Ciumas had a bloody, scraped knee to prove it. There was food everywhere -- cold cuts, cake, fruits and vegetables -- on every counter and on the kitchen table.
Shortly after noon, Roderick, Hedstrom, Korotchenkova and Lilia Cojocaru, a Moldovan social worker who was serving as a Camp Hope counselor, rounded up the kids for an orientation. They talked about safety -- everything from seatbelts to sunscreen -- and how to communicate in spite of the language barrier that would exist between the children and their host families.
Using role play and games, the women showed the children how to communicate their feelings with body language and simple signs.
About an hour later, the host families began arriving.
The families arrived in intervals about 30 minutes apart. Korotchenkova introduced each family to their particular child, and Tina D'Alessandro, a nurse practitioner, told them what she had observed in the short time she'd spent with them.
"Every child has a different story," said Korotchenkova, who was often teary-eyed as she talked about the kids. When Greg and Cathy Brooks and their three sons came for Tanya Ciumas, Korotchenkova put her face in her hands and sobbed.
"I've known her for a long time. I learned her more when we took this long, long trip over the ocean," she said. In her thick Russian accent, Korotchenkova explained that she wished she could adopt Tanya. "This girl is something special. She never complains. She helped me take care of the smaller children on the trip."
Will Ackland arrived about 3:30 in the afternoon with his mother and son to pick up Roman Malic. The group gathered in a small sitting room off from the kitchen.
When Roman entered the room, he embraced Ackland and Tyler, and then Ackland introduced his mother, Sandy Ackland, as "Grandma." Roman walked over to her, put his hands on her shoulders and gave her a soft kiss on each cheek.
Korotchenkova explained that Roman probably belonged to a gypsy family. He was found begging on the streets when he was 5 years old. That was five years ago. He apparently had been abused or frightened in some way because for a long time he wouldn't speak. "Nobody knows his background. He's so gentle and so strong. Very good people took very good care of him. He's lived in love. He's a boy, but he's a man at the same time."
"Are you excited about being in the States?" Ackland asked. "What kind of things to you want to do?"
"I want to do some sports," Roman replied as Korotchenkova interpreted. "I love to ride the bicycle, but I cannot do it."
"We'll teach you," Ackland said. "We'll teach you to ride the bicycle."
He asked Korotchenkova if Roman liked animals. "We have two loving dogs."
No problem, she said after asking Roman.
"Is there anything you know from spending time with him that I can do to make him more comfortable?" Ackland asked.
"He needs to be touched; he needs to be kissed all the time," Korotchenkova said of the affectionate little boy. Roman whispered in Korotchenkova's ear and then ran upstairs.
He came back into the room and gave a disposable camera to Korotchenkova before wiggling to sit between Ackland and Tyler. His arm went up around Ackland's neck, and he kissed him on the cheek as the flash went off.
"These people will give you more love than I ever could," Korotchenkova said to Roman, "because I was busy with many, many children."
Ackland's eyes filled with tears and someone brought him a box of tissue. Sniffles could be heard throughout the small room.
"There's not a dry eye in the place," whispered Roderick, choking back tears. She had been crying off-and-on all afternoon, as the children left with their families.
"I've been waiting for this day for so long," she said as Hedstrom embraced her, "and now that it's here I just can't quite get my hands around it."
The Times-Union will follow up on the orphans' story later this summer.
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