How far would you travel for love? Gary and Lisa Donalson traveled over 5,000 miles.
Not for each other, but to adopt their children, Andre and Alex, from Ukraine.
“First Baptist Church in Russell hosted 12 orphans for a three-week orphan camp in August of 2008. Someone had backed out of hosting two boys,” said Gary.
Gary said that he got a call from his friend, Jim McKnight, who had stepped up to host the two boys with his wife Diane.
“He called me the next day and said, ‘Look, I’ve got two kids coming from Ukraine to stay with me and I could use some help. You wanna go with me and take them fishing and swimming and stuff like that?’”
Gary, 51, and Lisa, 49, helped to host 9-year-old Andre and his best friend Kolya.
“We had no intentions of adopting,” said Gary.
Gary and Lisa, who own Studio 21 in Ashland, didn’t have any children of their own.
“During the three weeks they were here, about half way through the second week, they came out to spend the day with Lisa and I and we took them fishing one day, and by the beginning of the third week they were calling us mama and papa.”
And so the process began.
A few days after Andre and Kolya left to go back to Ukraine, Gary and Lisa started the process to adopt them.
“You had to put together what’s called a dossier,” said Gary. “When the dossier is completed, it’s turned into the INS, they give you a certificate to adopt. When you go before the Ministry of Adoption in Ukraine, they are presented your dossier.”
The dossier contained paperwork such as a background clearance from every state they had lived in the past 20 years, copies of their marriage license, birth certificates and copies of passports. Caseworkers went to their house to approve it and make sure there was no alcohol or firearms. They also had to go to a social worker three times for physiological background testing.
Gary said that they were told the adoption process was going to take at least six to nine months.
“We had it done in less than 90 days,” said Gary.
Andre, then nine years old, said he had no other brothers or sisters. Kolya had said the same.
“Half way through the adoption process we got a call from the adoption coordinator over in Ukraine and he said, ‘I’ve got some news for you that I need to let you know. Both of these boys have siblings’” Gary said.
The Ukrainian adoption process requires siblings to be adopted together.
Kolya had a brother and sister in another orphanage that were being adopted by another family, so that family took him too.
Andre had a 13-year-old brother in another orphanage.
Andre had only seen his brother twice in five years. They had been separated because his brother, Alex, had eyesight problems.
“He needed glasses so they sent him to another orphanage with a medical facility. They were never put back together,” Gary said.
“We wanted Andre and so they said we could come over and meet his brother and see if he’ll fit with the family,” Gary said.
Gary and Lisa made the journey to Ukraine.
Once there, they had to meet before the Ministry of Adoption in Kiev, the capital, to get permission to visit Andre and Alex.
“Kiev was very metropolitan, stuff going on, concerts. They had a very good train system, the farther away from Kiev, it’s like rolling back time. Horse drawn carts, ox carts,” Gary said.
From Kiev, they took a five-hour train ride to Alexandria. From Alexandria, they traveled about 20 miles to a small town called Pontikyva.
“We met Andre there,” said Gary. “The director of the orphanage arranged an apartment directly across from the orphanage. Her driver rented us out his apartment for $9 a day. We would spend one day there and we went over and we met Andre’s brother. And the first time we met him it just clicked, it was just right.”
“We were kind of scared at first, because we‘d never met Alex. It was just a blessing. He’s a wonderful child, a great kid,” said Lisa.
The next day, Gary and Lisa reunited Andre and Alex.
“The first day they got to see each other, they brought Alex in and Andre was there with us, Gary explained. “They hugged each other so tight. They were both crying, and they stood back and looked at each other and felt each other’s facial features. Their principals were there, their teachers, me and Lisa, the adoption coordinator, the social worker. We were all just bawling, to see these two kids like that.”
Gary and Lisa returned to the U.S. Gary returned to Ukraine weeks later to get Andre and Alex. Lisa stayed behind to get everything ready for them.
“I had to get everything organized, contacting the schools, making sure we had all that in order. I was nervous, you know? I tried to get groceries in, things that I thought they might like to eat,” Lisa said.
After seven years in the adoption system, Andre and Alex had a home in Ashland, Ky.
“They just walked right in like it was home,” Lisa said. “They always felt comfortable, which made me feel good.”
Lisa also said, “I asked Alex, ‘weren’t you scared at all? You’re leaving you country, your friends, everything you’ve ever known. Weren’t you afraid at all?’ And he said, ‘No.’ He said we’re good people.”
“I felt good,” Andre said about being adopted. He said he wasn’t nervous.
Today, Andre is 10 years old and Alex is 14 years old.
“Since they’ve been here they’ve adjusted very well,” said Gary.
“I like it here. I like dad and mom,” said Alex.
“I like my mom and dad,” said Andre. “I like my brother.” To which Andre replied, laughing, “You better!”
And the language barrier?
“We thought the language barrier would be the hardest thing. That’s the easiest thing,” said Gary.
“We found an interpreter, Lisa said. “Who ever thought that in Ashland, Ky. you’d find someone that spoke Russian and had a degree in English?
“The school system here in Ashland, I really can��t say enough about it, because I was expecting the worst,” said Gary. “Lisa and I took Russian before we went over there, and they hired our Russian instructor from ACTC to be their full-time tutor at school. That was really unexpected. They go to the regular classes and the tutor sits in for half the day and helps translate if they need it.”
Alex goes to Verity Middle School and is on the soccer team. Andre goes to Charles Russell Elementary and says he wants to start playing soccer too.
“I like reading,” said Andre. He said he likes reading stories.
Alex said his favorite subject is art. He will take art lessons this fall. He also said he wants to design cars when he grows up.
“I like school, but it’s different than Ukrainian school,” said Alex.
Until the fall school semester begins again, Andre and Alex are spending the summer enjoying childhood, American style.
They spent two weeks in Florida and visited Disney World.
“I loved the Magic Kingdom and the water park too,” said Andre.
“I loved the train, not the slow one, the little one,” Alex said.
Although they have all the advantages of an American child, they are still connected with their life in Ukraine. They said they keep in touch with friends and teachers through Skype.
“We want the boys to keep their heritage,” Gary said. “We want them to keep their language. We try at least every couple of weeks to fix a Ukrainian meal.”
Borscht, a traditional meal in Ukraine, consists of beets, cabbage, a little meat and carrots.
They also help out with the chores around the house.
“Alex wants to wash cars and mow lawns,” said Gary. “He wants to work. He’s a hard worker.”
Alex also helps to mow the yard at Studio 21.
Alex and Andre have more now than they have ever had in their life, but Gary and Lisa said they are very appreciative.
“Alex told Lisa a couple of weeks ago, ‘I can’t believe a year and a half ago I had nothing. Now I have everything,’” said Gary.
Gary said, however, “We’ve tried to keep the spoil factor down to a minimum.”
“I just want them to be happy, and they appear to be happy. I hope it continues that way,” said Lisa.
A family was brought together despite distance and language barriers. And two brothers were reunited by the determination of two people committing to adopt children who needed them.
“I really believe it was divine intervention. They were meant to be our children. I love my kids,” Lisa said. “I feel like they’ve always been my kids, you know?”