Adopting a new way of life

Orphans: A Harford family's taking two children from Russia has led to a push to help the others left behind.

December 21, 2003|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For Judy and Barry Williams of Bel Air, the Christmas season is more than a holiday; it is also the time that they remember and celebrate the adoption of their son, Donald.

On Dec. 2, 1993, the couple, in their late 40s, boarded a plane to Russia to adopt a little boy from the region of Perm, about 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow, toward Siberia.

The child was in poor health, suffering from severe hip dysplasia that nearly fused the tops of his legs to his hips. He also shared Judy Williams' birthday.

A decade has passed since that initial trip, when the couple, who married in midlife and relocated to Bel Air from an Army base in Fort Rucker, Ala., first laid eyes on the little boy who would inspire them to adopt again. It was an experience that would change their lives, and Judy Williams' life's work.

For the region of Perm, Donald "Sasha" Williams became only the second child in the region's history to be adopted outside of the country. So, on Dec. 2, to celebrate the 10-year mark, Perm's education ministry and the orphanage known simply as Orphanage No. 1, where Sasha spent his first five years, held a reunion that brought the two vastly different worlds of his life together again.

Perm, a port along the Kama River, in the Ural Mountains. Situated on the border of Europe and Asia, Perm's evening temperatures often fall to 35 degrees below zero - a far cry from the comforts of a warm and well-appointed home in Harford County.

"When we married, my husband was a 42-year-old bachelor who had never had kids. He'd never had a family. So, I said nobody should get out of life without kids," Judy Williams said.

She had two sons, now 28 and 33 years old, from a previous marriage; but the newlyweds, who met while he was working in the Army's Chemical Corps and she was on active duty in the Army Nurse Corps, wanted to adopt a child of their own.

Finding a family

The couple was shown photos of children - a since defunct method of selection. "We were literally looking through a little booklet of children," Judy Williams recalled. "I said, `he [Sasha] has my birthday.'"

At that time, the only children allowed out of Russia for adoption were those with medical problems. And information about the children was limited.

Other than his birthday, the couple was told Sasha suffered from bilateral hip dysplasia, hydrocephalous in remission and delay of speech - "which all the kids have," she added - but did well in small groups.

Thousands of miles away, Sasha, a disabled, 4-year-old Russian boy, lay in the orphanage that had served as his home since birth.

Undeterred and hopeful, the couple boarded a plane headed for Russia. The next day, they were introduced to their son.

"They introduced us to him and showed us that the heads of his femurs were up into his buttocks. He was truly well displaced, and they wanted to be certain that we knew that," Judy Williams said.

"But I'm a nurse, and it didn't look like a big problem to me. In America, it just means orthopedic surgery. So when we got back, we took him into surgery for eight hours, and the kid's doing fine," she added.

In fact, he's doing better than fine. Two summers ago, Sasha and his father went on a 110-mile bike hike along the Potomac River on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal with fellow Boy Scouts from Troop 313, of Bel Air.

"If left in Russia he would have been bed-bound, because he would have been too heavy to support the weight," his mother explained, thinking of what Sasha's life could have become. "He literally had no socket there. And they wouldn't have had wheelchairs for him, and they wouldn't have done any surgery, and he wouldn't have gone to school. He just would have been in bed."

Today, Sasha is a ninth-grader at Bel Air High School, who, his parents proudly point out, received all A's and B's on his first high-school report card. His favorite subjects are math and science, and he hopes one day to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In 1996, the Williamses returned to Russia to adopt 7-year-old Anna - six months Sasha's junior - from an orphanage in a small industrial town neighboring Perm. She now is a thriving 14-year-old eighth-grader.

In the last decade, the Russian economy has undergone enormous stress as it has moved from a centrally planned economy toward a free-market system and support for institutions and orphanages has diminished considerably. Conversely, the number of orphans in them has grown.

A 1998 study by the Human Rights Watch estimated that there were 200,000 young children living in Russian orphanages. Of those, 95 percent had at least one living parent. Since then, officials report, that number has increased along with abandonment of infants and children with health ailments.

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