Kidsave introduces orphans to families, in hopes they will bring the children back

Kids get a taste of U.S.

August 09, 2006|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Laura Touhey hates malls, but she made an exception last month for 13-year-old Johana.

The trip to Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis was Johana's first to any mall, and she reveled in the variety of stores, the funky styles at Limited Too, and the mass of other preteens congregating around the food court.

For Johana, it was a view into another world. The teenager has lived for the past three years in an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia.

She arrived in the U.S. on July 7 and has been staying in Annapolis with Touhey and her husband under the auspices of Kidsave International. The nonprofit, based in Washington, brings orphans for six-week summer camps in the hopes that host families or some of their friends eventually will bring the children back to stay for good.

Kidsave does not release the orphans' last names.

In the Colombia orphanage, Johana shares a dormitory room with 40 other girls, and everything is shared property, including whatever she takes back from this trip, which ends Aug. 18.

The idea behind Kidsave is to find homes for older children who tend to be overlooked by couples eager to adopt infants or toddlers, said Lynn Erger, coordinator for Kidsave's Summer Miracles program. The organization, however, is not an adoption agency, and it strongly cautions host families not to use the "A-word" around the children, who range in age from 7 to 14. Legal tangles or financial problems can cause adoptions to fall through, she said.

Erger should know. Her first try at adopting a Colombian orphan failed despite a successful custody dispute because the girl had behavioral problems. Four months ago, Erger adopted 11-year-old Emily from Bogota. The two live with Erger's biological son, Sam, in Alexandria, Va.

Emily had lived at the orphanage for two years before her adoption. Before that, she had been living on the streets, stealing food to stay alive, Erger said. Emily has had little schooling and is struggling to learn English.

"These are kids who have needs," Erger said. "It's a huge assimilation process."

Touhey and her husband, John Skogus, found out about Kidsave through an article in AARP magazine. Skogus is 61, and Touhey is 43. They work together at Agency Insurance, an auto insurance company in Linthicum. The two had been involved in charity work before, but they wanted to do more than "just write a check," Touhey said.

So they filed a $200 application fee, submitted to a $400 background check and interview with a social worker, and paid the $800 airfare for Johana to visit.

Touhey and Skogus described their Spanish-language skills as "awful," but they have gotten by without calling the translators whom Kidsave makes available to host families. To explain itineraries, Touhey relies on Google translator on the Internet.

Two of Touhey's co-workers speak Spanish fluently. It was through them that Touhey and Skogus learned Johana didn't like her outdoor summer camp at Sandy Point State Park. No one else there spoke Spanish, Skogus said.

Johana tried one-on-one English tutoring as a summer camp alternative, but she stopped after seven sessions. Johana was too afraid of making a mistake in English so she wouldn't speak with the tutors, Skogus said.

The children must attend some type of summer camp, so Johana started going to the Boys and Girls Club in Silver Spring.

Foreign adoption

Most orphans emigrating to the U.S. come from China and Russia, according to the U.S. Department of State. In fiscal 2005, more than 12,500 orphans from China and Russia were adopted in the U.S., compared with 291 orphans from Colombia. The statistics have remained relatively consistent for the past five years.

Since the inception of the Summer Miracles program in 1999, about 1,100 of 1,300 children who have traveled from Russia, Kazakhstan and Colombia have been adopted. There were 157 adoptions pending as of April 11, according to the Kidsave Web site.

This year, Kidsave discontinued the program with the Eastern European countries because of changes in licensing laws for adoption agencies.

Now Kidsave is expanding its programs with Colombia and Peru. This year, nine children from Colombia and five from Peru came to the Washington area.

The children bring only a backpack with one change of clothes and pajamas. Host families can pick out clothes for the children that were donated to the program. While they are in the U.S., the children visit a doctor and a dentist to make sure they are in good health.

Host parents usually are surprised by how well-behaved the children are, Erger said. The orphanages keep children to a rigid schedule of classes and chores.

Elaine and Kevan Shelly of Elkridge said they were pleasantly surprised by 11-year-old Liana and her 10-year-old brother, Duvan.

"They make their beds in the morning. They clean their plates and dishes," said Elaine Shelly, her eyes widening in disbelief.

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