Janesville family opens home to Ukrainian orphans
JANESVILLE—Gretchen and Aaron Kingsley dread the thought of saying goodbye to the Ukrainian sisters in their Janesville home.
“The house is going to feel awfully empty after they leave,” Gretchen said. “They have a lot of love to give.”
The Kingsleys have hosted Nataliia, 13, and Polina, 14, since mid-December through the international program Open Hearts and Homes.
The Christian nonprofit program allows U.S. families to invite older Ukrainian and Latvian orphans to spend time in their homes.
The visits give orphans new experiences and raise awareness about their plight.
Ukraine has thousands of orphans.
Those older than 5 years old have only a 20 percent chance of ever being adopted.
If they are part of a sibling group, the likelihood plunges even more.
“Every year they grow older, their chances slip farther and farther away,” Gretchen said.
As these children “age out” of orphanages at age 16, they face dismal futures.
Eighty percent of boys disappear and end up living on the streets or in jail. Sixty percent of girls ages 16 and older disappear and are drawn into sex trafficking.
Tragically, 50 percent of all Eastern European orphans do not live to see their 20th birthdays, Gretchen said.
She and her husband want Nataliia and Polina to beat the odds.
In fact, they hope to adopt the girls but have no guarantee that will happen.
“We can't pre-select children,” Gretchen explained. “But making a relationship with a child is part of the process.”
She and Aaron said the month-long visit allows the children and family to get to know one another and to learn about their respective cultures.
The Kingsleys couldn't be more pleased.
“We've completely fallen in love with the girls,” Gretchen said. “They are affectionate. They are wonderful helpers. They are so appreciative of the smallest things.”
Aaron shares his wife's feelings.
“As a father, I care for these girls more than I ever anticipated that I would,” he said. “At the end of every day, we are building bonds. They are stronger than I ever could imagine.”
The Kingsleys have two children, Natalie, 8, and Nolan, 7.
“My husband and I tried to have more children and realized God had different plans,” Gretchen said. “Our family feels complete with the girls.”
She learned about Open Hearts and Homes while doing research on adoption.
The program requires host families to pick up all travel costs.
So far, the Kingsleys have paid $6,000 in airfare to bring the girls to Wisconsin. The amount includes round-trip airfare for them to meet Nataliia and Polina on the East Coast and return them there for departure.
A fundraiser featuring a Christian rock band is planned at the end of June to help the Kingsleys raise $35,000 for adoption costs. They also want to bring the girls back to Janesville this summer, which will cost another $6,000.
The family is not rich.
“We just keep praying for some larger businesses to help sponsor the children,” Gretchen said.
She is a fifth-grade teacher at Milton's Northside Intermediate School, and Aaron is an electric-metering specialist with Alliant Energy.
At Christmas, the Kingsleys hosted three gatherings at their home so the girls would be in familiar surroundings.
In addition, Polina and Nataliia selected a Christmas tree and decorated it, saw the Madison ballet perform “The Nutcracker” and went hiking at Yellowstone Lake.
“Your heart goes out to them,” Aaron said. “You want to give them everything, but you have to set boundaries like they are your own kids.”
Just being there for the girls is what they want most, he added.
Polina and Nataliia speak little English.
A lot of communication occurred at first using Google translator, a phone app that translates English into Russian and vice versa.
“After a couple of days, we developed our own way of communicating,” Aaron said. “It is surprising to me how quickly they pick up our language. These girls want to be here. They want to be involved in our lives.”
The Kingsleys said too many people dismiss the idea of adopting older children.
“People are afraid that they had troubled pasts,” Gretchen said. “They think they don't have time to instill values because the children are already too old. But these children just want to be loved.”
She said the girls give her hugs and kisses on the cheek every morning.
They return to Ukraine on Jan. 13.
“I'm heavy in heart knowing they have to go back,” Aaron said. “There is no doubt we want to proceed with adoption. Things have gone better than we ever expected.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.