Sunday, January 19, 2014

Summer Hosting Experience

I started writing this with much detail, and that was my plan to do throughout the summer in multiple posts. We were just so busy during hosting and after with continuing to move in and fix up the house that I just didn't have the energy to write anymore. I will attempt to sum up this post and our experience, although despite my many paragraph deletions, it goes kind of long.


Tuesday night, we loaded up for Atlanta, which is a 6 1/2 hour drive for us. Unfortunately, there weren't enough Floridians hosting from our particular country, and it was cheaper to drive to Atlanta and stay the night than to pay for the connecting flight and additional money for chaperones, etc. We made it about half way before bunking down in our hotel for the night. The next day, after stops at Mellow Mushroom for lunch and Target for a few necessities, we were parking at Atlanta's international terminal to await S's arrival. I had that swirly stomach feeling like I used to get on days I'd have to give a speech in a college class. My 8 year old said he felt the same way (because he's just like me in that way, among others). I wondered how badly I had botched the words on our Welcome Sign. We joked that his friends would be making fun of him for having to go with THAT family with the lame language abilities.

We joined the other families with their balloons and welcome signs. We chatted with several of them, some who were new to hosting and some who were first-timers like us. It was exciting! We knew that some families were in the process of adopting a child they had hosted before. And some families already knew they planned to proceed with adoption after hosting. After the kids' plane landed, I think it took about an hour for them to get through customs, the restroom, and the airport.

Finally, we saw a sea of lime green t-shirts approaching. The families scurried into place with their welcome signs, everyone squinting and leaning to spot their kid. We did NOT see S. Not anywhere. We just could not locate him. As we watched them call one family's name at a time, the greetings, the photos being snapped, we wondered if he had even made it. We noticed one boy looking a little shy and dazed, and we wondered, "Is THAT him?" He looked nothing like I'd pictured, nothing like the image I'd formulated from the one picture we'd seen. I will admit that, for a little while, I was a bit disappointed. If I had never seen a picture of this boy in front of us and was going into it blindly, I would have seen him and thought, "He's SO CUTE!" Because he was. He is a handsome young man. He just didn't match the image in my head that I had gotten to know, and it kind of freaked me out.

He walked up to us and let us hug him. He was so small, much younger looking than I believed he would look at 14. He looked as small as Tornado. I wondered if the few t-shirts, gym shorts, and swim trunks I'd bought at Savers for him to wear until we could go shopping would swallow him. He could just wear my son's clothes. These are the thoughts that were going through my head. He looked very tired and disoriented.

I was trying to also take in the families around me who were experiencing their own moments. I particularly wanted to witness the moment one family met the 15 year old girl they were rushing to adopt before she turned 16. She didn't even know yet they wanted to adopt her. She had no idea how her life was getting ready to change. My heart also warmed watching the mom and dad with their 6(maybe?) kids who were reuniting with the 16 year old boy they had hosted over Christmas and were also in the process of adopting. They stood there hugging for so long.

Two girls were crying. One was a scared very young girl (who I know ended up having lots of fun with her host family). Another older teen from a very rural area of Eastern Europe was crying from feeling very overwhelmed and scared of the entire experience. She was even scared to go on the escalator and into a restaurant later that night. (She is now in the process of being adopted!)

I was so awkward. All of the affection and ease that I assumed I could muster went out the window. I looked at Ryan wide-eyed, shrugging in my awkwardness. He looked at me like, "This was YOUR idea."

We asked him a few things through one of the chaperone translators. We found out he speaks and reads Russian, not his country's language like we were told. Could he even read our poster?! Phooey. We smiled at him a lot, and he had that polite, hands in his front pockets kind of smile as we walked toward the elevator and our car. We did a lot of pointing. We stressed different English words and talked in varying volumes, like that was going to make him understand us better. Throughout this process, I always try to stop for a moment and really consider how I would be feeling in this moment - a teen far away from home for the first time, not knowing any of the people or the language.

When we got into the car, we handed him a bottle of water and a Clif bar. He said, "Thank you." (This sounded more like "Senk you.")  This was one of the many thank-you's we would hear. We soon found out what a POLITE, SWEET, GRATEFUL child we had gotten. He took what was probably an obligatory sip from the water and held the bar for about a half hour or so, and then he finally ate it.

We told him he was welcome to curl up with the pillow we'd brought along for him. He stayed wide awake and wide eyed, looking around at traffic, etc. as we drove about an hour and a half back to Mellow Mushroom, which was on the way home. That probably wasn't the best move, in hindsight, but we had wanted him to have a good meal after his long journey. We must have caught it at a bad time of night because the wait was long and really delayed our arrival home. He was still very dazed and tired. Toward the end of the meal, he just stood up and was very antsy. He was touching everything in a sensory way that Tornado often does. (We haven't noticed him doing it since that night.) He also only ate one piece of pizza. I think he just really needed to be settled into bed.

He did not sleep much on the way home, despite Ryan's many offers to him by motioning head to the pillow. I think he just wanted to look at everything, even when it got dark. He did get a little sleep, but then he was wide awake by the time we reached home around 2 a.m. That was good so that we could give him a brief tour of the house and let him shower and put on fresh clothes. (He probably had been wearing his t-shirt and jeans for at least 48 hours.) He also wanted to look through his gift bag that was sitting on the bed. It was met with many smiles of approval. It included such things as candy, a Captain American cup, a beach towel, a mask and snorkel set, a journal, pen, colored pencils, and a squirt gun. I had a little American flag sticking out of the top.

I finally got him tucked into bed. We had no idea what to expect with jet lag. He could have slept until the next afternoon; we didn't know what he would do. He only slept until about 9:30, though, much later than I got to sleep thanks to my 18 month old. (And later than my poor hubby got to sleep since he had to be back to work that morning.) I had pancakes and blackberry sauce ready for S when he got up. He once again immediately said, "Senk you," as he put his dishes in the sink. I noticed the first morning that he made his bed and freshened up before coming in to greet us. After a day or so of him doing this, I quietly hissed to my kids, "Go make your bed." By the last week, S wasn't making his bed anymore, either...parenting fail.

Could he swim, we had wondered? On the first day at our community pool and the first day at the ocean, he dove right in headfirst. He was a great swimmer, and this was probably his favorite way to spend his time.

We were able to take two trips to
different beaches during his stay.

He said he had never visited the zoo. He actually said he had never been further than a few hours from home before. He lives in a rural area in Eastern Europe. I'm not naming his country (or showing his face) for his own privacy, as well as his country's rules. We think he had a lot of firsts during his trip including riding a boat, going to an aquarium, etc. We also threw him a surprise superhero-themed birthday party complete with all of the decorations, cake, icecream, and gifts because he had told me that he doesn't have birthday parties. He also really enjoyed days at Adventure Island water park and Busch Gardens. (I, however, will never ride a wooden roller coaster again for the rest of my life. I'm pretty sure I suffered some sort of brain damage because it was so jarring. His smile and excitement, though, were immeasurable.) A lot of these places we took him were new to us, as well, since we had only moved to Tampa the previous month. It was a privilege to experience these things through HIS eyes, though.
I had taken the kids berry picking the week before S arrived. I asked the woman who lived there about her beautiful accent. We were thrilled to find out she was from S's country. We loved talking to her. So we all took S berry picking the first week of his visit, and they were able to converse with one another. This is when we actually found out the most about him. That was nice because there were bits of information about his life and history we were getting from him through google translate that weren't adding up. This helped getting to know him better and realize where he was coming from. Some of it broke my heart. 

We also called Ryan's sister-in-law, who speaks Russian, one day, and she was able to translate a conversation for us. Other than the three conversations we had with him using translators, we relied on charades, the limited English he knew (probably equivalent to how much Spanish I know), and google translate on our phones. Halfway through, we found out about the itranslate app, and this was a huge improvement. It felt more personal speaking our voices into the phone to hear the translation back, rather than just sitting there and typing back and forth. I think this also gave him more confidence speaking in front of us. I tried to speak Russian to him sometimes, and I think the amusement he had for my accent also gave him more confidence to attempt English. A bonus is that the kids learned a few Russian words and phrases.

His story and life are his business, but I will say that he told me he was very happy at his "school." (Internats are orphanage boarding schools - they live and attend school at the same place. There are also orphanages that kids live in, but they attend school at the local school.) He said he felt it was a privilege to attend the school that he attends, and he was happy with his life. I do know that he has a great orphanage director, and overall their facility is clean and well kept.

S was a tough nut to crack. We hear stories of families with children who immediately latch on to their host families, those who beg to be adopted. Then there are those who have walls and defense mechanisms in place. We don't really know if S's lack of vulnerability was from his past experiences - or if it was just that he is a teenage boy living with people he doesn't know. I would guess it was a combination. He never expressed much emotion other than telling me "thank you" during appropriate times. (And his happy, pleasant face told us much, as well.)  He never initiated hugs, but he accepted them.

However, the night before he was leaving, I said, "Are you excited about going home?" The translation came back as something I couldn't decipher except the word "poor" or "bad." I asked him something further about his feelings of returning, and he expressed that he wished he could stay. We had grown very fond of this kid the past several weeks, and we were sorry to see him go, too.

We were able to take S through several states on a visit to Arkansas. Ryan had to fly on a  business trip in Little Rock, so the kids and I drove there and stayed a few days. We were able to celebrate Tornado's birthday with family and friends. I think S enjoyed his day with all of the kids in my parents' new pool. I was pleased to see the way my parents embraced their house guest - my mom by giving him hugs and feeding him and my dad by doing things like showing him how to use a bow and arrow and the weed eater. I think coming face to face with a child without a family was a profound experience for my eldest niece and nephew. They were ready to bring him home with them and were being very sweet about it.
One interesting moment was when we took the kids to their old beloved AWANA church for Wednesday night children's service. I was hesitant to leave S in the room feeling scared without his language, etc. As he was working on a Bible craft, I whispered to the woman I knew who was leading the activity that S doesn't speak much English - only Russian. She immediately turns to him and starts brightly rattling off Russian. I couldn't believe how well that worked out. She had lived in Russia for awhile. She ended up giving him Russian Bibles (one adult, one children's) before we left Arkansas, and we were so touched and appreciative of this.

What is our future with S? We did look into the possibility of adoption before he arrived, but he is not officially available through their government. This could be because of several reasons. We have heard of others who have spent a year or two or three working toward getting a child an available status. We don't feel like that was going to be our role in his life. Adopting an older child, we've heard, is more like dating/marriage than giving birth. You can't go into it thinking the person is going to change, etc, and we were unsure how the addition would affect our family dynamic. These were issues that had to do more with our own children than with him. My middle son thoroughly enjoyed having a playmate who enjoyed doing the same things he did. Their interaction together sometimes drove me crazy - they became very rambunctious together especially in stores. My 8 year old picked on him until S gave it back, and then my son would end up getting hurt because S is bigger and stronger. That was the exhausting part of the experience. The only other exhausting part was the way S wandered off from us. He did NOT understand my pleas that a family has to stay together. I mean, I couldn't exactly page him if I couldn't find him in a store. I'm only writing about the minor negative issues because I have had friends interested in hosting, and I want to give a full, honest assessment. We were also a little unsure about the dynamic between him and our oldest son. My son has the sweetest, most open heart. He was 100% supportive of bringing a new child into our summer - and even into our family. He shares and will cuddle (and it did make me happy whenever I saw him sitting right up against S on the couch, watching tv - I'm sure Tornado was the one who sat there, and S allowed it). Some adoption experts advise against disrupting birth order - that it doesn't always work to take away the oldest child's position in the family. I can see this, and also I know plenty of people who did it anyway, and it ended up working out fine. We feel our situation is a little different as Tornado isn't the typical "oldest child," and there are ways that his youngest siblings take the lead and take care of him. Still...there was something about their dynamic that was unsettling to us. Again, not S's fault necessarily - but we couldn't add another family member to ours unless it was not a detriment to our other four children.
Our airport farewell was muddled by the fact that we were running late. This is because we were coming straight from Arkansas, and we very irresponsibly forgot about the time change going into Atlanta. Because Ryan was in the moving van, there wasn't going to be enough time to find a place to park it before going into the airport. So Ryan and Sis had to say good-bye to him literally on the side of the road while I took the others to meet the New Horizons group. We ended up making it on time, and the international terminal wasn't crowded or busy. We had time to get him an airplane snack and hang out with him for a few minutes. I tried squeezing in as much parenting as I could in those minutes - reminding him how important it was to study hard and do well in school and he could do anything he wanted and to always make good choices in life and if he ever needed anything, we were here for him, etc...he just smiled and nodded, like any teenage boy would, as if to say, "Okaaay, Mom." When it was time for him to go, and he walked away, he kept turning around and looking back at us, which I thought was sweet. There were so many tears from other families. I didn't cry, but I don't know why. I wondered if I was a little dead inside as I listened to other host moms on facebook talk about the distress they felt the following week without their host children.

We have sent him a couple of packages and letters since he left. I corresponded with his good friend on social media, and he would relay messages to S for us. Finally, S got his own account, and I was so thrilled the day I received a friend request from him. I got my hopes up that communicating with him would now be a breeze. However, I get little words out of him other than "senkou." The one time he did write an entire paragraph was after my question of, "What do you want for Christmas?" We were more than happy to fulfill his requests. One day I told him I want him to write me more words, so he did tell me two anecdotes from his week.
We have heard criticisms from people who wonder if it is cruel to bring these kids over here, only to return them. I get this point, especially for a child who wants to be adopted and then isn' heart ACHES over this. However, we have been told that people who visit the orphanages later can tell which kids have been hosted before - they generally seem more confident and hopeful. They love showing off their photo albums of the fun activities they would have never gotten to participate in, if it weren't for these programs. A huge percentage (I can't remember - maybe 60%?) of these kids get adopted or at least offered adoption (Some kids actually turn it down because remaining in their native country is understandably more important to them than having a family. Some kids turn it down because they are kids who do not always know what is best for them. Some regret it, and then it is too late.). A lot of these kids are adopted by a family who considered themselves "host only" but changed their minds after they became attached. It is my opinion that the benefits of the hosting programs far outweigh any possible negative.
Most importantly, these kids get to spend time in Christian homes in the midst of loving families. They are given an example of something they might want one day when they get married and have children. Seeds are planted, and some of these kids would not have an example otherwise and, therefore, continue the chain of abuse, addiction, or neglect.
This isn't a perfect illustration, but most people only go to Disney World once (if ever), and then they return to their normal lives. You don't expect to live at Disney World, and there is always a bit of relief about returning home to your own bed and your own routine (and for these kids, their own language and friends). We could have hosted him again this winter, but we felt drawn to go a different route. We did advocate for him to be hosted. Unfortunately, he wasn't chosen, but the good news is that several other boys from his orphanage were. There are some amazing outcomes (adoption, salvation, etc.) because of this, and we have loved getting to hear about all of their stories, as well. We would love to see someone else host S before he ages out of care when he turns 16. We may even invite him back again for a hosting session if the time is ever right.
For more information on orphan hosting, visit any of these websites:
You can also like their pages on Facebook for news and updates.

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