In 2009 I moved to Kazakhstan to work with a non-profit whom I had traveled with on short-term trips beginning in 2000. The organization went into the local orphanages doing monthly Birthday Parties, weekly activities and a week-long summer camp.
I met 5-year-old Saule for the first time on one of those visits. I noticed her spark and zeal for life right away. At first, she watched with interested, evaluating the new people who entered her room. Once she decided she wanted to be part of what was going on she boldly came forward giving direct eye contact and reaching out to grab my hand.
Saule’s was born with amniotic banding syndrome causing a cleft lip, lower eyelid deformities as well as a club foot but none of those seemed to slow her down. From what the caregivers told me, her birth family did care about her but weren’t sure what to do about her birth defects. They were afraid and upon advice from doctors placed her in the orphanage.
It may be hard for us from the West to understand this thinking in 2015. Doctors haven’t encouraged parents to put children with disabilities in orphanages since the 50’s. But it did used to be a common practice in the USA before parents started to advocate for their children. I have a friend here in Kazakhstan whose brother went blind in one eye as a boy due to an eye infection. My friend’s mother is a very loving caring mother as well as a strong independent thinking woman. I can’t imagine anyone convince her of anything she didn’t agree with. But the doctors did convince this mother that she should place her 10 or so year old son in the orphanage just because he was blind in one eye. She visited him often and after a couple of years of hearing about the mistreatment he was enduring she finally took him back home against the doctor’s advice. He is now grown and doing well but has deep hurt due to this period of his life. It wasn’t done as uncaring thing but rather out of a lack of knowledge. Things are changing now and parents are advocating for their children. They are seeking expert advice on how to help their children be the best they can be despite their birth defects of disabilities. I have met over a dozen of these families and been so moved by the dedication, love and commitment to their families and children.
In 2009 Saule quickly captured my heart and a close bond was formed between the two of us. Oh, how I wanted this one particular girl. I believed Saule deserved a mother and a father and I couldn’t offer her that, but I longed for this child to have a good future.
One morning while I was visiting Saule jumped up into my arms. She is one of the few young children in the orphanage that enjoyed being picked up. Since it isn’t common most children don’t enjoy it. She took my face into her little hands looking directly into my eyes and asked; “When are you going to find me my mom and my dad and when are you going to get my foot and face fixed?” Wow, those were big request. Out of all the children I have worked with, no child has ever asked me specifically to find them their own mom and dad. All of the children are desperate for families, need families and love. But this child captured a great deal of my heart. I had no idea how to accomplish these request in a county where I had no control over anything.
A couple of years later in 2011 dear friends in Virginia felt like they were to adopt Saule into their family and I was thrilled. They jumped through all the hoops, paid all the money only to have Kazakhstan close adoptions to Americans right before they could adopt her. Oh how my heart broke. About the same time I resigned from the previous organization to pursue the vision to provide a safe place for the children that age out of the orphanages, single mothers, disabled children and marginalized to grow and heal. I thought about all the children I loved and cared about. Making this moved would keep me away from them for a while. I was gone from Kazakhstan for about a year and a half. I often thought of all the children, especially Saule. I keep track of her as best I could. She got moved to a boarding school for disabled children and in Feb 2012 I was able to visit her on a short visit back to Kazakhstan. It was an emotional visit for us both. She told the caregivers I was her mother. This broke my heart. A “good” mother wouldn’t leave her beloved daughter in an orphanage but I had to leave her.
Oct 2012 I finally returned to Kazakhstan for this next chapter of life. It took time but finally I got to see Saule. She had grown. A local family and friends who Beth Turnock and I have known for many years talked about their heart to foster children. They asked if we would help with Saule’s medical needs if they fostered her and my answer was a resounding “yes,” not knowing what doors would open exactly I knew I would knock on as many as I could. I could be her “Grandma” and be part of her life. I was thrilled!
The end of December 2013 Saule came home. In February I went to America for the birth of my first grandson. Tucked in my backpack were x-rays of Saule and Natasha (a young woman with severe scoliosis who needed surgery too). Once in America I knocked on every door I could think of in my city but wasn’t getting very far. I had to admit to myself maybe it wasn’t possible for either of these girls I loved so much to get the surgeries that would greatly improve their lives. I turned to a friend of mine with a big heart. He and his wife have 17 children – 6 biological and the rest from Kazakhstan and China. He said bring the x-rays to him and he would see what he could do. He is a radiologists in my home town. After dropping off the x-rays and pictures I went on with my visit with my new grandson and friends but never the thought of these two girls left my heart and mind.
Two weeks later I received a call from my friend saying it was a go. I was literally jumping up and down with joy in the parking lot where I was. What joy! It was such amazing news. All the doctors, medical supply companies, and hospital had agreed to donate their services for the surgeries. It was a miracle. Only God could orchestrate such a thing.
The official letter from HCH Chippenham Hospital came the end of May. That began the process of raising the funds to get visas for Saule, her foster-father, Natasha and her six-year-old son. We weren’t sure if visas would be granted. There were many reasons the US may not grant visas even with the letter from the hospital and from me taking responsibility for them. But again a miracle happened and all 4 received visas.
Then the task of raising the funds to fly 5 of us to the US and finding host families for Saule and her foster-father and one for Natasha and Max began. Saule’s host family was a quick find. It took a bit longer to find one for Natasha and Maxim, but before we flew to the states July 12th, we had one.
When arrived in Richmond, Virginia we were warmly welcomed by a large group of friends and then the whirlwind of doctors appointments and testings began. Saule was scheduled to have surgery July 29th and the doctors performed three surgeries in one day. Dr. Hubert, a top plastic surgeon in Richmond, Virginia repaired Saule’s cleft lip and did reconstructive surgery on her lower eyelid making it so it could close. Dr. Kim amputated Saule’s severely deformed club foot making room for a new prosthetic which was donated by Hanger Prosthetic. The surgeries went very well and the next day Saule was able to leave the hospital. Her strong spirit shone bright through all of the surgeries and recovery.
There were so many people in the Richmond area and across the country who came together to care for Saule, her foster-father, Natasha and Maxim. Gifts of clothing and toys came from all over as well as financial support for doing some fun things like a trip to the ocean, horseback riding, trips to museums, parks and more. The doctors, nurses and staff cared for Saule with such great compassion and kindness. Saule’s host family welcomed her and her foster-father as members of their family. The stories of their time in Virginia could fill a book of their adventure and new friends. Saule’s spunk and spirit shown through. Growing up in the orphanage has left it’s effect on her heart but she desires to rise above and build a good future for herself.
Natasha and Maxim are still in America as Natasha’s surgery was a bit more complicated and she still needs surgery to repair her cleft palate. Maxim is in kindergarten in New Kent County and doing extremely well. Their story will be another blog post.
I was in the Virginia for Saule’s surgery then left to return to Kazakhstan Aug 7th with 2 professionals who met with 12 families with disabled children in August. Oct 1st I returned to Virginia to be with Natasha for her surgery.
In December Saule, her foster-father and I returned to Kazakhstan. It has been a bit of a transition, but Saule is settling in. She still needs physical therapy daily in order to build strength and learn to walk with a regular gate after 9.5 years of walking with a limp on a foot and lower leg that didn’t function normally. She has several of us around that help make sure this is done but at some point she is going to have to desire this herself. She also has much catching up in her studies so she can study in regular school and again at some point she will have to desire to reach beyond her current level. There are many challenges that lay ahead for sweet Saule but her strength and courage will help her obtain her goals. She has been given the gift of family and friends to encourage and support her as she works towards her goals.
Saule is a sweet gift to me. I love this child beyond what words can describe. Loving a child for the time they are in your life without focusing on the uncertainty of the future can be a challenge at times. It is natural to think about how my heart will hurt if our paths go different direction. But I can’t imagine not having this opportunity to love this precious child no matter how long I have with her. She captured my heart in 2009 and will always have a piece of my heart.
My own children, Marc and Sarah, were influential in the person I am today. Because of them I desired to be a better person. Saule has influenced my life greatly too. The gift of her in my life has expanded my horizons, given me strength and courage beyond what I had. I will always be grateful for this sweet child’s influence on my life and heart. I dream of being part of her wedding and holding her children but no matter how many days I have with her is a gift. I love you sweet Saule forever and always no matter what.