A big miracle for a little girl

Orphan: An international summer program introduces a youth from Kazakstan to a family who wants to adopt her.

March 14, 2004|By Amanda Ponko | Amanda Ponko,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST - Just like most 8-year-old girls, Julia loves baking brownies, talking on the phone and singing along with Britney Spears' latest CD. But Julia is not an average 8-year-old. She experienced these small pleasures last summer with an enthusiasm and appreciation most American children do not.

This is because Julia was one of several orphans brought from Kazakstan to the United States to live in an American home for six weeks - her only family experience.

"She came with just the clothes on her back," said Janet Nelson, the girl's host-mother. "At first she was very shy and hesitant. Everything was new. But she became more confident, happy, curious. ... It was like she became part of our family."

Janet and her husband, Keefer Nelson, of North East participated in the Summer Miracles program run by Kidsave International, an organization dedicated to aiding abandoned children. But after Julia returned to her native country in August, the couple decided they wanted to adopt her.

"We just absolutely fell in love with her," Janet Nelson said. "It showed us how much we wanted to be parents. There's a huge void with her gone."

Julia is in an orphanage in Kazakstan, where the Nelsons can call her once a week and write to her frequently, Janet Nelson said. Though they struggle with Russian, she says she and Julia have few problems communicating.

Bel Air resident Nancy Spence, Maryland coordinator for Summer Miracles, said the language barrier tends to bother adults far more than children, who are thrilled to experience the luxuries of American family life.

"Once you meet these kids and see that they are just kids, you're really taken with them," Spence said. "To imagine them in a bad orphanage or out on the street is unthinkable."

Because Summer Miracles is run entirely by volunteers, with half of the money required coming from donations and fund raising, only seven to nine children can visit Maryland each summer, said Spence, who must come up with thousands of dollars to fund each orphan's trip.

"On average, we need $6,000 per child," she said. "Three thousand of that comes from the national Kidsave program, but we have to come up with the other [$3,000]. So, I have to have $21,000 in my hand before I can even begin to get the [seven] kids."

Spence, who adopted a Russian child through a different program, said she works with a small committee that helps her raise funding through events such as yard sales or through direct solicitation to businesses.

While in the United States, the Summer Miracles children, who range from 7 to 15 years old, receive donated medical and eye care and attend day camp at the Harford YMCA, where they make arts and crafts, play sports, swim and study English.

Diane Lane of Churchville, co-coordinator of the program and dean of students and institutional effectiveness at Cecil Community College, said that, while all interested families are welcome, there is a screening process to ensure that the child will be placed with a suitable family.

If a problem should arise once the child is living with a family, Lane said, "Summer Miracles will talk to the child and to the family. Often a social worker will be brought in or, as a last resort, we'll find another family for the child. We do recruit back-up families." But that situation is rare, she said.

The family gains as much as the child, Lane said.

"There is no better way to enrich your life than through the eyes of a child," she said. "These are terrific kids. ... When you find a home for children, that makes a lifelong impact."

Janet Nelson said that in order to adopt Julia, she and her husband will have to travel to Kazakstan for two weeks and deal with mountains of paperwork. But it will be worth it if Julia can come home, she said - this time, as their daughter.

"We're so excited about bringing her back and to be a family of three," she said. "She's just a blessing. It was a life-changing experience that has made us better people."

An information session about Summer Miracles will be held from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the YMCA Child Care Center at Harford Community College, 309 Thomas Run Road, entrance 4.

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