It stuck with me for years, that 1982 version of “Annie,” the story of a poor girl living in an orphanage in the thirties. This adorable little girl had no parents and no home and no prospect for the future. She sat in windowsills and sang her heart out, and while she scrubbed and toiled away, all she dreamed about was having a family to love her.
This is just the story that came to mind when Nancy Hathaway began talking about the nonprofit she began, Heart For Orphans, which aims to place Ukrainian orphans in loving homes. It began with a nine-year-old orphan girl, too. Her name was Natalie.
When Nancy and her husband decided that they wanted to adopt a child from Ukraine in 2001, they had to board a plane, fly to a country they knew little about, and choose one girl out of a group of over 300 kids. It wasn’t an easy choice.
The orphanage was very much like Annie’s had been in the movie – institutional beds, peeling paint, and sometimes no heat in the winter. Once, the water was cut off long enough for an outbreak of Hepatitis A to begin spreading among the kids. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part comes after ninth grade for most of these children, when they’re turned loose from the orphanage.
Within two years of leaving, 60 percent of the girls will become prostitutes and 70 percent of the boys turn to crime, according to the Heart For Orphans website. Only 27 percent will find work. The odds are as bad as any that Annie faced, but these are real children in the real world.
Nancy brought one of the girls home – Natalie. But the girl had a friend whom she missed terribly, and so Nancy and her family flew back in less than a year and picked up the second nine-year-old, Angelina. Three months later they returned for a 14 year-old.
“I remember the day we left with the oldest girl, Elisabeth. She’d never been on a plane before,” Nancy says. “I saw she was crying, and I asked her why, if she was homesick or scared, and she said, ‘No, I’m so happy.’ So were we.”
Why adopt three older kids who you don’t know who don’t even speak your language? “I’ve just been really blessed in my life,” says Nancy. “I wanted to give back. When you see a need, you say, I want to help – and that’s what we did.”
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Not every older orphan is as well-adjusted, happy and healthy as little Annie was. Some face mild to moderate illness or have learning disabilities; some have trouble adjusting to a new life in a new country. Maybe they’ll dislike their new family or resent a sibling. Nancy and her family didn’t know what to expect the first time around.
They knew they wanted to adopt an older child, but they were concerned about what that might mean. “We were worried about health problems, emotional issues,” Nancy remembers. “I was terrified at first. It’s definitely not something to jump into lightly. But the bond of love happened so quickly for us with the girls. They want a family so much. They don’t care who it is. They just want someone to love them.
“We came home and started sharing stories about the orphanage in Berdyansk and the other kids we knew there. One by one, families we talked to started to fly over and adopt kids from the same orphanage. Right now, in Williamsburg, there are about 15 who’ve been adopted. Within about a 50-mile radius, there are probably 50.”
Heart For Orphans officially began about a year and a half ago. One of its main goals is to get older kids from Ukraine adopted, so that they avoid an almost certain “hard knock life.” Since its inception, Nancy’s organization has raised enough money to move toward its second goal, which is to get some of the teenage kids into a group home.
The group home, which will be called “Ruth’s house,” will have house parents who will look after about 12 teens, who will stay for about two years each. House parents will give the kids affection, attention, and moral and spiritual guidance once they leave the orphanage, and they’ll help get the kids ready for adult life.
The organization is in the process of purchasing land, but they’re also trying to raise capital for the home itself. It’s not an easy thing to do in tough economic times, but Nancy is sure that God will find a way to help.
“Institutional life doesn’t give these kids a moral basis to make the right decisions like a family does,” says Nancy. “Once they leave the orphanage, they are naA—ve and they get swindled, they might live on the streets or become prostitutes. This is why our heart is with these older kids.”
To find out more about Heart For Orphans and to see what you can do to help, visit their website.
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