Every foot of space in Tom and Julie Hild's apartment gives evidence that a baby lives there. In just a month, a bright-eyed 7-month-old little girl has taken over the couple's home and their hearts.
From their residence in south Carroll, the Hilds traveled halfway around the world to meet little Anna Natalija in an orphanage in Novosibirsk, Siberia, the only home the child had ever known.
"They handed Anna to me," said the 25-year-old new mother. "She was smiling and cooing. My heart melted, and I was in tears."
"In a matter of minutes, everything was OK," said Mr. Hild, 29. "The people at the orphanage didn't understand why Julie was crying. I said, 'Tell them you like her and would be happy to have her for our daughter.' "
Mr. Hild snapped a picture of his wife cradling Anna at that first meeting. He points proudly to the photo of mother and child looking lovingly at each other.
"Does that look like two strangers meeting each other for the first time?" he asks. "There was instant bonding."
Anna's birth mother had legally abandoned her baby, a procedure that must precede adoption in Russia. The child was born with a bilateral cleft palate, a congenital opening in the roof of the mouth between the mouth and the nasal cavities.
"We had done research," he said. "We knew what Anna would look like." They had even packed bottles, especially designed for babies with the disability.
The condition is surgically correctable, but that procedure and the medical costs of caring for the child are impossible for the average Russian family, Mr. Hild said. The financial difficulties also would deter other Russian couples from adopting Anna. She probably would have spent her childhood at the orphanage.
Within a few days of the Hilds' arrival there, the local officials conducted a civil ceremony, which was translated into English, and made Anna the Hilds' child.
"Even if I couldn't understand all the words, I knew how important this ceremony was and the immense pride these people had that they were giving us a wonderful little girl," Mr. Hild said. "The one drawback was I had used up all our film."
Within a few days, the family was en route to Moscow and the U.S. Embassy, the final stop on their journey home.
"It finally all hit me at the airport," Ms. Hild said. "She was ours. We were really taking her home."
At journey's end, about a dozen relatives waited at Dulles International Airport to greet their family's newest addition. Anna, dressed in the fuchsia romper her new parents bought the day they learned she would become their child, went happily from one welcoming set of arms to another, said her father.
"She was really sociable and happy even after that long flight," he said.
Months of planning, mounds of paperwork, interviews, applications and home inspections preceded that first meeting in Siberia. The Hilds worked through Adoptions Together, a private, nonprofit child placement agency with offices in Pikesville. Costs for the service and travel are about $13,000, said Janice Pearse, who opened the agency after she adopted a child from Ukraine a year ago.
"There are so many adoptable children in Russia," said Ms. Pearse. "The situation with orphanages there is severe."
Shortly after they attended an informational meeting and met parents who had adopted children from Russia, the Hilds decided to apply for one.
"We had been trying unsuccessfully to have children for nearly six years," said Mrs. Hild. "At our first meeting, they told us once RTC we were on a plane to Russia, we would be coming home with a baby."
"We knew right away it was the right thing for us," said Mr. Hild. "Infertility can be a dark, long tunnel with no light at the end. This is a solution."
The Hilds met Ms. Pearse several times and filed immigration forms with the Russian government. All the paperwork was completed within two months.
"Once we decided, we really pushed to speed up the procedure," Mr. Hild said. "We asked for a child as young as we could get and one who was healthy except for any correctable problems."
Travel to the child's home is often a hardship, said Ms. Pearse. Mr. Hild laughs and wonders how many people venture into Siberia in February, where noon temperatures seldom climb above zero.
Russian law says that only children with medical problems can be adopted, Ms. Pearse said.
"What they consider problems often are not for us. When we get the children here, we find they are totally healthy," she said. "Still, our adopting parents are taking these children with faith and promising to raise them to their full potential."
The Hilds hope to schedule corrective surgery for Anna within a few months.
Their health insurance, through Mr. Hild's job with the Catholic Archdiocese in Washington, will not cover the procedure. They have asked for help from Operation Smile International, a volunteer medical organization which provides reconstructive surgery for needy children.