(Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series on Hanover families who have adopted internationally)
Sergey’s a pretty easygoing, if shy, 15-year-old. He likes sports; soccer’s his favorite, but he wants to pick up tennis.
This attracted Jen Dowda, a tennis instructor, who first saw Sergey in a thumbnail picture on the New Horizons for Children website.
“In his description, he said he wanted to learn how to play tennis, and that’s what I do for living, is teach tennis, so that kind of jumped out at me,” she said.
New Horizons for Children is a Christian-based organization that pairs host families with children from Ukraine, Latvia and The Philippines. Some children can be adopted; others are only eligible for hosting.
Dowda said she and her husband had talked about adoption, but didn’t necessarily have firm intentions of adopting Sergey when they hosted him 18 months ago. But something clicked. Dowda said Sergey immediately became part of the family and even looks the part.
“It’s funny, because he looks exactly like my daughter. They’re almost the same age and could easily be twins. I’m sure everybody will think they’re twins walking around,” she said.
Adding to the decision to adopt Sergey was the chemistry between Dowda’s three biological children and the Ukrainian boy.
“They’ve felt like he’s their brother every time he’s been here,” Dowda said.
Sergey is expected to come to the U.S. Friday as the newest member of the Dowda family after a lengthy adoption process in his home country.
Sergey’s father died when he was an infant and his mother’s parenting rights were revoked. For a time, Sergey lived with his grandmother, until she could no longer care for him.
The orphanage he has called home is located in a remote village about two hours outside of Odessa – a city near the Black Sea in southern Ukraine – and a seven-hour bus ride from Kiev. Though it’s probably not that far, geographically, Dowda said poor road conditions make the trip longer. Dowda also described long stretches of vast, far-reaching open land – miles of nothing – as most villages are tucked away, back from the main road.
Upon arrival in the remote village during a visit several weeks ago, Dowda visited the orphanage and met with the director, whom she said had grown close to Sergey and ended up offering advice on how to raise him.
Dowda said that in order to adopt a child from Ukraine, a family must first file with the country’s State Department on Adoption (SDA). Sergey also had to sign paperwork confirming he wanted to be adopted, which was filed in Kiev.
The Dowdas then had to make a return trip to Ukraine to appear before a judge to sign off on all of the paperwork. Following that hearing, there was a 10-day waiting period before Sergey could officially become a member of the Dowda family and come to America.
Dowda’s husband, Clint, has been in Ukraine for the past week to finalize the adoption process. According to Dowda’s latest post on social media, Clint and Sergey were awaiting a passport, followed by a series of medical appointments before they are allowed to board a plane. She confirmed Wednesday they will arrive stateside Friday.
Though they knew they wanted to adopt Sergey almost from the get-go, when he first went into the orphanage, a piece of paper that needed to get from the local office to the national office didn’t make it there. He was never on the list, and to be eligible for adoption, a child must be on an international list for a full year.
The Dowdas first hosted Sergey in the winter of 2012. While he was on the yearlong waitlist, Sergey visited the United States two more times, each time staying for one month.
“We would host him and send him back, and host him and send him back,” Dowda said.
In Ukraine, Sergey’s currently in 10th grade. Once adopted, Dowda said she’ll probably homeschool Sergey at first; he doesn’t speak much English and is shy and not very talkative by nature. Once adopted, he will hold dual citizenship in both the U.S. and Ukraine.
Unrest in the former member of the Soviet Union has loomed behind the scenes of the Dowdas’ adoption efforts.
Things were peaceful in the Ukrainian capitol during Dowda’s last visit several weeks ago, though she didn’t quite know what to expect going in. She had never traveled anywhere in Eastern Europe and worried that rumors of anti-American fervor might hold firm.
“I had very low expectations going in, I thought it was going to be dark and scary, but people were amazing,” she said.
Dowda stayed in a hotel on Independence Square in Kiev, the site of recent massive, often violent protests. While she was there, the square remained filled with tents. A huge television screen broadcasted news of the ongoing struggle in Ukraine, a country torn between allegiance to European allies and its Soviet past.
Though things remained peaceful while she was there, Dowda recognizes the political situation there is tense.
“It seems like the last day or two, at least in parts of Ukraine it’s definitely stepped up a notch or two we’re just hoping and praying that it doesn’t keep us away,” she said.
Though the violence in Ukraine has escalated in recent weeks, it doesn’t appear that the unrest will affect the adoption.
That hasn’t been the case in some regions of the country, which have been aligning with Russia. During the weeks leading up to the Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, Dowda said adoptions continued. As soon as Russia took power, though, adoptions there ended as part of the ban instituted by the Kremlin.
Dowda knows of another family participating in the New Horizons for Children program that was the last one allowed to adopt out of Crimea.
“They were actually not out of the country yet. They were on a train and the train was stopped and they asked ‘Are you American?’ And they just said, ‘Yes, we’re American.’ And the kid was sitting there and he really was legally theirs they just hadn’t gotten him out of the country yet,” Dowda said.
But, Dowda and many others in her tight-knit Mechanicsville community have been hoping that it wouldn’t come down to the wire. During his visits, neighbors and church members got to meet Sergey and have helped Dowda raise money to help cover the adoption costs.
“It’s amazing. It really truly feels like our community here – this is his family. It’s not just us, it’s hundreds and hundreds of people,” Dowda said.