Shortages in Russia providing perspective

January 07, 2001|By Michael Olesker

IN AMERICA, THE stock market slips a few points, and everybody gets chest pains. In Russia, 44 million people live below the poverty line, which is now $37 a month.

In America, the kids feel cheated if they turn 16 and have to settle for a secondhand car. In Russia, thousands give up their babies because they can't feed them.

More than two years ago, at an orphanage in Perm, at the base of the Ural Mountains about a thousand miles east of Moscow, Amy and Paul Sponseller of Cockeysville found Nina, a 6-year-old pixie given up at birth by her destitute Russian mother. The moment the girl saw them, she cried, "Mama, Papa."

Last year, at the same orphanage, they found Matthew, also 6, given up by parents who could not support him. He ran to them and hugged them, crying, "Mama, Papa."

"They both had that same reaction," Amy Sponseller was saying last week. "They so much want to be loved and be a part of a family. There are orphanages like this all over Russia now. In Perm, they told us there were 1,700 children in the city waiting for adoption. The Russians love their children, but they have no money to support them."

The newspapers are filled with the bad news.

Seven years since abandoning communism for a free-market economy, Russia is broke and hungry.

The government has allotted $600 million for the purchase of emergency food supplies.

The Russian Red Cross has launched an appeal for $15 million in emergency aid.

When the Sponsellers arrived, they stayed at the home of two Russian doctors who earn, combined, about $200 a week.

Dr. Paul Sponseller, 44, heads Johns Hopkins Hospital's pediatric orthopedic division; Amy Sponseller, 48, worked in communications there for 15 years.

They married three years ago. One of Dr. Sponseller's patients was a child from Perm who needed hip surgery when he arrived here. The child's family mentioned a Rockville agency, Adoptions Forever, run by Judy Williams.

The Sponsellers met with Williams in April 1998, filed adoption papers in May and flew to Russia at the end of August.

"When we first met with Judy," said Amy Sponseller, "she showed us videos from the orphanage. And they grabbed our hearts right away. All these kids needing families, how could you not be moved? And there were three boys and a little girl sitting on a couch, and Paul says to me, `That's you. She looks like your baby pictures.' I felt like I was looking at myself. And then I looked at her face for months."

From America, the Sponsellers flew to Switzerland, then to Moscow, then to Perm. Nina had been told they were coming.

When the Sponsellers reached the orphanage, Amy was still taking off her coat when Nina spotted the two of them and raced across the room.

"A wonderful moment," said Paul Sponseller. "Wonderful, right away."

"You know, nothing throws me," said Amy Sponseller. "But I see her coming, and I just fell to my knees, I'm touching her face, it's just magic. She started chattering in Russian. She starts showing us around, showing us her friends. And she's got this bow in her hair that's bigger than her head. And Paul bent down, and she looked up at him with these big eyes on this tiny face, and he kissed her. She'd never been kissed by a man before. And, all of a sudden, we had instant family."

In America, Nina ate ravenously, ate as though she'd never tasted food before. In less than a year, she grew four inches.

"We gave her a doll," said Amy Sponseller. "She'd never seen a doll. The day she left, we had chicken breasts, apples, cookies, and a box of Wheat Thins. She asked, `Do you have these in America?' I said, `Yes, and you can have as many as you want.' She did a little dance around the room and ate the whole box. The people at the orphanage said all the children do this when they leave."

Six months ago, the Sponsellers decided to go back for another child.

By the time Matthew had been here five weeks, he stopped speaking Russian.

He was hungry to adapt, to become an American. On New Year's Eve, the family watched television and saw the fireworks from Moscow.

"Look," Amy Sponseller told the children. "Russia."

"I don't want to talk about it," said Matthew.

"Why not?" said his new mother. "It's a wonderful place."

"There's little food there," said Matthew.

"In Russia," said Dr. Sponseller, "they had the barest kind of nourishment. The orphanage took care of them, but it was bread and some kind of vegetable, and very little meat. And they had their own personalities there, but they've adapted to a whole set of different life circumstances here. They've learned to understand our country and our traditions in a short time, to understand what a brother and sister means, to see what a family is like."

"They're each other's best champions," said Amy Sponseller.

Also, they followed the last U.S. presidential campaign.

The Sponsellers are Democrats. As they watched the electoral chaos, they vented a few emotions.

The kids latched onto them. When the election was decided, for George W. Bush, Nina declared, tongue in cheek, "That's it, I'm going back to Russia."

"You can't go back," said Matthew. "There's little food there. There's nothing there."

In America, our kids think they're deprived if their summer camp doesn't have air-conditioned bunkhouses.

Their parents think they're deprived if they miss a second round of dessert.

Everybody could gain a sense of perspective from the children of Russia.

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