Cheerful and noisy, the children trustingly share their dreams with me as soon as I come through the door of their home. Zhenia wants to be a make-up artist; Bohdan practices hard to be a soccer player like Andriy Shevchenko or Ronaldo, and Daryna wants to learn to heal children. What the smallest children said came as a surprise: Oleh wants to be like Dmytro when he grows up, and Nastia like Daryna — such is the respect and love they have for their older siblings.
Indeed, in the large family of Olena and Serhiy Herasymchuk, it is hard to tell which children are foster children and which are the couple's own. Dmytro, 16, and Nastia, 5, are their biological children, while Bohdan, 12, and three siblings – Zhenia, 7, Daryna, 6, and Oleh, 4 – have been adopted. And there was also Viktoria, the first child the Herasymchuks adopted.
Natalia Maksymenko, Director of the Irpin City Center of Social Services for Family, Children and Youth, says: “Viktoria was put on the social service list. Her mother was given multiple chances to get back on track and we helped her receive social benefits. But at one point, when we as part of a commission came to see this family, we saw a horrible picture: a small child sitting in a corner on the bare floor. She was undressed, dirty and hungry. Hairpins cut into her skin so much that it bled. It was clear that she had to be saved immediately.”
At just that time, the Herasymchuks, a young family in Irpin, passed all the required background checks needed to receive permission to adopt 2-3 children aged 3-10.
“Viktoria was very sick when we got her. She was almost unable to walk and she did not talk. She did not even know how to hold a spoon in her hand. She was neglected in terms of education. She was scared and bruised. I could not even imagine that there were children like that,” Olena says. “Her first words, first smile and first steps – all of these happened when she was with us.” “She lived with our family for one-and-a-half years,” Serhiy adds. “When a cousin of her parents, who had no children, decided to adopt her, she was a cheerful and healthy child. Parting was hard. Everyone was crying: Viktoria, our own children, our new foster children and my wife and I.”
Olena and Serhiy met in a local consumer service center when she was a weaver and he was a cutter. Serhiy is also a good construction worker and car repairman. Both of them are now private entrepreneurs.
The decision to adopt children came almost by accident. First, local TV programs attracted their attention, but the real impetus came from the posters “A child needs a family” which appeared all over Irpin. They went to the service that takes care of underprivileged children and learned what they had to do. Then they collected documents regarding their financial status, living conditions, health and so on. Incidentally, the Herasymchuks were the only couple on a long list of those willing to adopt children who completed all the checks. Then they were sent to Kyiv to attend lectures on educational psychology.
“Coaches – doctors, educators and psychologists – told us what problems we could face,” Olena says. Serhiy adds: “While we were there, we understood that there was no reason, such as illness or disability, that would prevent us from adopting a child. When we decided to become a foster family, we talked with our elder son and our parents. All of them supported the idea then and are now helping us. My mother lives in the house next to ours, so when my wife and I are at work and one of our children gets sick, she babysits. All the children call her grandma and us, mom and dad. They started calling us that from day one, even though we never asked them to.”
ADOPTION BY LOVE
Homeless and neglected children are one of the most critical social issues now faced by Ukraine. According to official statistics, over 250,000 boys and girls are socially unprotected. Unofficial counts point to a figure twice as big. These are children abandoned by their parents and little refugees who left their families because of horrible living conditions: cruel parents, alcoholism or drug addiction. Many of these children are forced to vagrancy and begging, leaving kindergarten and school are out of the question. This way of life not only damages them psychologically, but also pushes them towards crime and the abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Children whose parents have lost the right to care for them are taken away from their families. Homeless children are salvaged from the streets, but their numbers are growing with each passing year. Most are destined for orphanages or boarding schools, because finding parents or guardians for these children is extremely hard. The problem is that most families who have made up their minds to adopt a child prefer babies. Even when those who have the courage to adopt older children can be found, they sometimes face serious problems, primarily of psychological nature, that they are unable to overcome.
The only solution to this situation is family-type orphanages and foster families. Their main goal is to temporarily keep and educate orphans or children deprived of parental care. So called “street children” learn to adapt to life in normal conditions here – they become accustomed to being taking care of by adults and to attending kindergarten, school and so on. Finally, they stop sneaking and hoarding food. Later they become available for adoption nationwide. Foster parents who want to adopt their foster child are given preference.
There is a difference between these two institutions: a family-type orphanage is a family which receives 5-10 children, while a foster family takes up to four children. Housing for family-type orphanages used to be provided free of charge by the state and charity foundations. Now funds are lacking, so they are increasingly set up on private territory.
TO SEE THE SEA
The Herasymchuks have a house with an attic and six rooms, a huge dining room and kitchen and a spacious hall. There is a playground with swings, a sandbox and a large inflatable swimming pool near the house. Children happily take care of the fruit trees and flowers. This is family property which Serhiy and Olena fixed, remodeled and expanded themselves.
After they had Viktoria, they were offered three children from one family. Oleh now goes to kindergarten and Zhena and Daryna are in school. They are good students, but they almost never mention their biological parents. “Not once did they say they wanted to see them. They are traumatized by the memory that their mother abandoned them in hospital when they were very sick and promised only that other parents would come to get them,” Olena says in a hushed voice so that the children would not hear. “They are very sensitive and tender. From the very first minutes they felt like family and did not make a distinction between their siblings and the other children. All three are attending a dancing group and already have diplomas for their performances.”
“We had problems, and serious ones at that, with Bohdan, whom we got this year,” Serhiy says. He performed poorly at school: his math was in a neglected state, and he didn’t know any English letters. He has caught up by now and has good grades both in math and English.”
Care and help are two key foundations of a true family that foster children learn. Serhiy says: “We have four computers: my notebook and three more for the children. We buy educational computer games. One may read better, another one count better, so they help each other. On weekends, we put all of them in the minivan and go to a water park or an amusement park.” Olena adds: “Our children, especially the foster children, enjoy family holidays, birthdays and Easter. We set up a tree for Christmas and decorate it all together.”
Every summer the family drives their minivan to Zatoka, near Odesa. There they set up 5-6 tents by the seaside — one to live in and one for cooking and eating, complete with a stove, gas bottles, a table and chairs.The foster children saw the sea for the first time in their lives.