From Ukraine With Love
By Diane Schachter
It is a result of coincidence that I am writing this story about a unique family. I met Cathy while chatting at a local dog park this past spring. She spontaneously shared that she and her husband Martin had adopted five children from Ukraine. “Five kids, that’s a lot of kids,” I remember saying. But it was not until the ride home that it dawned on me that their story could possibly be a story for Thrive In Life. Too late, I had no phone number or knowledge as to where she lived. She was not present during any subsequent visits to the park. Now, here is where the coincidence part comes in. In autumn, I was taking the bus to the airport and just before I was about to dismount, I overheard a man saying to the person beside him that he and his wife had adopted five children from Ukraine. My antennae went up and I quickly asked if his wife’s name was Cathy, and could I have their phone number. He looked at me quizzically and provided the information on a small borrowed piece of paper as we exited the bus.
Their story dates back to 1996. At the time, Martin and Cathy were both employed as pediatric nurses, (they met at a local hospital), living the lives of a childless couple – going out for dinner and a play were commonplace. Then the unexpected happened; Cathy was in a serious car accident that left Cathy with debilitating back pain, requiring several surgeries. Her pain was intense and necessitated the use of pain medication. Ultimately, she was no longer able to work, and as the years passed, she continued to experience intense pain. Cathy was clearly in no condition to become pregnant and carry a baby. Lifting a toddler was out of the question. They also had concerns about Cathy’s pain medicine affecting the fetus. Martin and Cathy both concluded that due to health risks, they should not have a biological child.
But they were not ones to give up quickly. They began talking about adopting a pair of siblings. Unlike so many other couples, Martin and Cathy wanted older children who did not need to be carried or lifted – ideally they wanted a sibling pair between the ages of four and nine. The process of finding an adoption agency with relatively short waiting periods was arduous. They began to pursue an international adoption and discovered that adoptions from Ukraine were feasible and could occur within a shorter period of time; (this proved to be wrong in the end). From neighbours, who also wanted to adopt from Ukraine, they heard of a program whereby a couple can host a child for a few weeks during the summer, in order to give the children a holiday and break from orphanage life. They were told that there was only a slim possibility that this could lead to adoption. Cathy and Martin decided to proceed nonetheless.
In the summer of 2006, seven year old Alyona flew with a Ukraine appointed guardian to Canada for a two week stay with the Wards. “There she was, this little waif arriving with only the clothes on her back – not even a backpack or a teddy bear,” Cathy recalls. “She looked terrified but didn’t cry once. I remember exactly what she was wearing – a green jacket, a yellow skirt and flip flops.” They had a wonderful time and proceeded to enquire if they could adopt Alyona. While waiting, they learned that Alyona had a sister named Snezhana.
During the Christmas holidays of 2006, the two sisters came for a visit and things went extremely well. To Martin and Cathy’s surprise, the girls shared that they had two brothers and another sister at the orphanage – Sasha, the youngest brother, an older brother named Sergei, and an older sister, Yuliya. In January 2007, Cathy and Martin flew to Ukraine to meet the rest of the family. At that time, the two oldest were 15 and 16 and Martin and Cathy asked them if they too would like to be adopted and live with them. They emphatically said “Yes!” Cathy and Martin also learned that there was a younger sixth sibling, Tanya, who was in permanent foster care. It was determined that it was in her best interests to stay with her foster mom whom she had lived with since she was very young. Yuliya, the oldest sister, especially misses Tanya and wishes that they could all be together.
So, in the summer of 2007, “We brought the whole gang over for a ten week visit. We had a wonderful time and it was so exciting,” Cathy says. “When we couldn’t understand each other, we acted things out or used a picture dictionary.” Martin adds, “The kids were so polite, helpful and friendly. They were on their best behaviour and everything went smoothly.”
It was disappointing for Cathy and Martin when they learned that there would be a waiting period of 14 months before any child from the orphanage could be adopted. Alyona and Snezhana were almost at the end of the 14 month waiting period, but the others were not. Time was of the essence; adoptions were not allowed for children over the age of 19. In November 2007, the couple was able to adopt the two younger girls and, with a huge sigh of relief, returned to Canada with them. Meanwhile, they had to wait for the others. “It was a long and nerve-racking process,” explains Cathy, “the Ukrainian government had changed and there was a temporary freeze on adoptions.” Finally, in November of 2008, the freeze lifted and the waiting period ended, allowing Sasha, Sergei and Yuliya to fly home with their new parents.
Shortly after the last of the children arrived, the family convened and collaboratively put together a chart entitled: “How We Respect Each Other and Things We Want to Change.” Cathy and Martin use what Martin refers to as a team model in parenting. It is all about working together and doing what is in the best interests of the team, or in this case family. The captains are Cathy and Martin. It was decided that anybody could call a family meeting if an issue came up. The children were accustomed to doing chores, so that was easy to implement. This was especially good given Cathy’s limitations. “They are thoughtful and loving children. When the children misbehave, they apologize and give us a hug. Other times,” Cathy smiles, “they tell us to go on a date.”
The children are all from an orphanage in Gorodnya, a small northern Ukrainian village. Cathy describes the building as mouldy, run-down and old, (from Stalin times), where the children slept on cots, and “where the staff tries really hard.” Martin sums it up. “It was a very poor orphanage full of love.” At the orphanage, older brothers and sisters kept a watchful eye on their young siblings. Snezhana, at the young age of 6, chewed up food and fed her younger siblings. Martin recollects how sad it was to see “these little scrawny kids” at the orphanage hauling away huge bags of leaves as part of their chores. “We were on the verge of tears,” remembers Cathy, “when children we did not know came up to us to give us hugs and ask to be adopted.”
I asked Cathy and Martin what it was like being parents of five. “I must admit that it was a bit of a shock,” Cathy says. “We were looking for two children and ended up with five. But once we saw them all together, we knew that we had made the right decision.” Still, there have been sacrifices for Martin and Cathy. They had to give up their beautiful heritage home in downtown Vancouver and move to a large home in a nearby city within commuting distance. The Wards now live in close proximity to Cathy’s family consisting of 38 members – grandparents, aunts, uncles and numerous cousins. Cathy’s family have enveloped the five children with love and acceptance and are actively involved.
Martin’s grandmother, parents, sisters and their children live in the UK, but the distance has not been a deterrent to forming close relationships. They have welcomed the children to the family with open arms. Sergei and Yuliya have each gone independently to visit Martin’s family, and plans are underway this summer for the three younger children, accompanied by their parents, to visit the UK. The cousins also stay in touch through Facebook.
Fortunately, the neighbourhood where they live is also extremely family oriented, and there are always activities to attend. Besides that, moving to a smaller city has given their children an opportunity to have more one-on-one EAL (English as an additional language) tutoring, than what they would have received in a downtown school where there are far more EAL students. “Being accepted by extended family, the school, and the community at large,” Martin observes, “played a pivotal role in each child feeling a sense of belonging.”
Adopting their children and providing for them has been a very costly adventure. When they first arrived, because they were nutritionally deficient, the children consumed enormous amounts of food – it was not uncommon for each child to eat 10 to 15 servings of fruit a day, in addition to an abundance of vegetables and other food. Alyona, at age 8, weighed only 34 pounds, and Sergei measured 4’4” at the age of 16. Cathy and Martin, concerned about a hormonal growth disorder, had him tested. In the end, his stunted growth was attributed to nutritional and psychological factors. “At the orphanage, the children don’t go hungry, but are fed filling rather than nutritional foods,” says Cathy. Sergei is now about 5’2”and is very muscular.
To better provide for his family, Martin does contract work as a pediatric nurse up north where salaries are higher. Typically, he is away about a month, but is then back for two or three weeks when he doesn’t work at all. Both Cathy and Martin feel that in some ways this is a good arrangement in that when Martin is home, he can spend quality time with the children. Still, it is difficult for Cathy when Martin is away. Martin is the breadwinner and he describes Cathy as “the pulse” of the family. He elaborates. “From my perspective, I hold true the value that behind every good man is an even better woman. I strive to shape my kids to fly as high as they want, but never lose sight of the value that others in and around their lives can contribute; to this end I cannot emphasize too much the recognition that Cathy and the kids deserve in pulling together to make their lives better. Cathy is a natural born leader, teacher and coach; without her commitment to the kids, I am sure the kids’ survival would have been somewhat more challenging to all of the Ward team.”
During the first year, many hours at home were designated to doing homework. Because English isn’t their first language, everything took longer – sometimes as much as 4 or 5 hours per day. “It was painstaking,” says Cathy. “I already went to school,” she chuckled, “I didn’t want to attend again.” Now that the children know English, it takes much less time to do homework and they work quite independently. Cathy applauds the school where the children attend, and is grateful that it is composed of children from a variety of races and nationalities. Their crew share openly that they are from Ukraine and are proud of their heritage. The children really like school and participate in many school sports, as they are all very athletic. Cathy and Martin reminisce about Yuliya’s and Snezhana’s reaction when they showed the girls their future school which, during summer vacation, had metal bars on the windows. This reminded the girls of the metal boarded up windows of the orphanage. “Is that where we are going to live?” they asked. At that time, they didn’t understand the concept of school being separate from home.
I asked Cathy and Martin if it was more difficult to bond with the older two children. Cathy reveals that the older children came with more baggage. “Because they are adults, we speak to them differently. It comes from a different place, more like mentoring, but it is still love.” For Martin, parenting the two oldest was the easiest and also the hardest. “We had to treat them as children and adults simultaneously. They did not have much opportunity to play in the orphanage or be children.” Unsurprisingly, there were some developmental delays. Initially, some of the children needed to be rocked and cradled to make up for what they had missed while growing up. “On the other hand,” says Martin, “we needed to teach our children, especially Sergei and Yuliya, age-appropriate behaviours and how to make sound decisions.” Cathy adds, “For this reason, we gave them the freedom to come and go on non-school nights, albeit with a curfew.” Cathy and Martin both agree that Sergai and Yuliya adjusted and matured relatively quickly.
For the younger three children, Alyona, Snezhana and Sasha, the transition was easier. Some of the children had trust and abandonment issues. They gradually learned to trust that Cathy and Martin will always be there for them. Cathy has re-enforced that it is okay to talk about their other mother – explaining that they have a Ukrainian mother and a Canadian mother. At the orphanage, Martin says, “the children often become either totally self-reliant and are afraid to ask for help. Others become institutionalized and unable to make even the simplest decisions, as was the case with Sasha.” Cathy notes, “In the orphanage there was a huge focus on perfectionism in academics and sports. Now they are able to think for themselves and have learned that if they try hard, and put work into something, they will be successful – and that they don’t need to be perfect. They are now willing to take chances.”
As a family they enjoy skiing, (Cathy snowshoes), biking, going to movies at budget theatres, and eating meals together. Martin and Cathy have offered them Ukrainian dancing lessons, but the children have no interest. They also are not interested in cooking or eating traditional Ukrainian foods. Their favourite foods are sushi, Indian food, and pizza. They celebrate Ukrainian Christmas with a nice dinner. They are also learning to paint eggs.
As sweet as all five children are, they sometimes misbehave. That makes things normal. Early on, Cathy was given the finger by one of the kids. Some have experimented with smoking – typical teenage stuff. Sometimes Cathy is told, “You’re not my real mother” or “I want to go back to my old family.” This is very difficult for her to hear, but when she reflects on her own life, she remembers how she pushed her parents’ buttons. In the early days, the siblings tried to problem-solve with violence as they didn’t know any other way. Snezhana, Yuliya and Sasha had a different biological father who was physically abusive to all of the children and their mother. “We have intentionally educated them about the cycle of violence and anger management,” says Martin. He feels that one of the best ways to teach non-violence and respect is through example.
Martin comments further, “We felt that it was, and still is, important to teach the children Canadian and family values.” For example, the children needed to learn how to behave in a restaurant and not to interrupt people in mid-conversation. “We wanted to teach our children the importance of volunteerism and helping out others without getting paid. In our family, there is a cardinal rule that you never charge family or friends for doing favours.” Martin also mentions how important it is “the boys respect the girls, and the girls recognize that the world not only is, but should be, their oyster.”
I asked Martin and Cathy what their children’s lives would have been like had they stayed in the orphanage and not been adopted. “For one thing,” says Cathy, “their level of education at the orphanage would have been compromised compared to Canada. When Sergai and Yuliya first arrived, they didn’t even know their time tables.” Martin continues. “Upon leaving the orphanage it is likely that all of the children would have survived – they would have likely gotten menial labour type jobs, but their education would have likely fallen between the cracks. “It would have been a crapshoot,” adds Cathy. “Some end up on the street and others go on to pursue a vocation.” Because the orphanage is in a small village, it is less likely that their children would have become criminals and prostitutes in that the community often takes adult orphans under its wings. However, Martin and Cathy were informed that in the bigger cities of Ukraine, 60% to 70% of adult orphans end up on the street.
Martin and Cathy agree that all of their children are not only surviving, they are thriving. They are doing well at home, at school, and socially. Each of them is thriving in unique ways. Sergei, the oldest, initially took on somewhat of a parental role, making sure the others listened and co-operated. For example, when his siblings didn’t want to eat some of the new Canadian foods, he basically told them “to shut up and eat” and they listened. Sergei was nominated for the Rotary Club’s award for overcoming obstacles. He now lives with friends, and is employed in the construction industry while attending college to upgrade his Mathematics and English (in order to get his grade 12 diploma). Yuliya is very ambitious. Within less than a year of arriving in Canada, she had an after- school job at a fast food restaurant. She now works and lives in Vancouver and also goes to college for Maths and English. She has aspirations to become a police officer.
The younger three children are doing well in school and are very athletic. Their confidence has skyrocketed and they are happy and blossoming. They have many friends. They have overcome the challenge of not knowing English and are fluent. Both Cathy and Martin concur that all of their children now have a greater sense of self-esteem, and have learned to accept and feel proud of their accomplishments within the community.
When I had the privilege of meeting all of the Ward children: Sergei age 21, Yuliya age 20, Snezhana age 14, Alyona age 13, and Sasha age 10, it became apparent to me that Cathy and Martin have done a stellar job in raising their family, despite the fact that they were novice parents. I found them all to be polite, outgoing, confident and talkative children who spoke English amazingly well. Each of them had memories of Ukraine. Together, they weaved for me a tapestry of life at the orphanage, a life that was so different from their lives in Canada. I heard about a “school with bedrooms”, 24 hours a day friends, never going out alone, hard beds, delicious sweet rice pudding for supper, running track in the orphanage halls, doing lots of chores, playing in the leaves before bagging them, 6 to 8 children per room, polluted air, going to a fun summer camp in Italy almost every year–and pining to be adopted.
On the day I visited, the older children were home and they were all going out for dinner with their grandfather and Mom; (Martin was working out of town). There was excitement in the air as the clan prepared to go to one of their favourite dining places called “The Cactus Club”, a trendy Vancouver restaurant. Yes, over the past five years, life has dramatically changed for the Ward children and for Cathy and Martin.
I asked Cathy and Martin to reflect on the events of the past which led them to this current moment. Both expressed gratitude for having such a lovely family, a family larger than their wildest dreams. Martin now helps to arrange hosting opportunities for Canadians who hope to adopt children from Ukraine. I drew to their attention that if it weren’t for Cathy’s accident and back problems, they wouldn’t have this unique family. I also shared with them my feeling that their family was brought together by divine destiny. Cathy ponders for a moment. “I have never really thought of that before, but it is true; sometimes good things come out of bad things.” Martin nods. “Yes, it does feel like it was meant to be.”
Note from author: Adoption is a serious commitment. For Cathy, Martin and family the transition went smoothly. Based on my experience as a social worker, this is not always the case.
Diane Schachter Bio:
Diane Schachter is a retired social worker and freelance writer who lives in Surrey, British Columbia with her husband Yale and three rescue dogs.
She has a special interest in pet bereavement and provides counselling through “Forever Loved Pet Bereavement”. She can be reached at email@example.com
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