One Family's Experience

I'd like to blame it all on Irma Bombeck. It is her fault that my children are giddy with anticipation as my husband and I wait nervously for the arrival of a child at a San Francisco Airport terminal. In her poem "If I Had My Life to Live Over," Bombeck wrote: "I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded." In my family's case, the carpet is stained and the sofa faded, but we have invited a child we have never met and know nothing about to become a member of our family for six weeks. She speaks no English and comes from a country on the other side of the world. She is Belarusian, a child in a country deeply affected by the way the wind blew the radioactive clouds on the day of the Chernobyl nuclear accident 22 years ago. A child from a poor socioeconomic background who has been selected as deserving of an opportunity for a health respite through the Chernobyl Children's Project, an opportunity her family could never dream of paying for on its own. The only things that have been asked of us are to feed her healthy food, give her a bed to sleep in, and arrange a visit to a dentist and to an eye doctor. 

At the airport, we watch the monitors for evidence that the plane has landed. I desperately peruse my Russian phrase book, trying to remember how I wanted to greet her. Despite my best intentions, I have only managed to learn about three phrases and 20 words of her native language. The monitor confirms the Belarusian group's arrival and shortly thereafter, on the screen, we see the children themselves moving down the hallway. We don't know what our child looks like. I try to guess, looking for the smallest among them. My host daughter is seven years old. As the chaperones introduce the new families to their host children, I suddenly notice a small green-eyed girl, with ash-blond hair down to her waist, standing quietly. She has a small backpack -- the sum total of her luggage -- and a ready smile. A chaperone introduces us to Diana, and Diana speaks to the chaperone excitedly in Russian. I ask what she's saying and the chaperone, laughing, says, "She says she is very happy!" My family of five apparently meets with her approval. 

Diana's first dental appointment leaves me in tears in a strip mall parking lot. Diana needs numerous root canals, her baby teeth pulled and her cavities filled. The estimate for the work is $5,000 and the dentist is not offering to treat her pro bono. After a few quick calls to CCP board members, I have the name and number of a dentist willing to treat her without charge. I am relieved and grateful. Our next stop is the eye doctor and I learn that Diana has astigmatism. The optometrist becomes my next hero as he provides the exam, frames and lenses for free. 

Our family owns an RV, and our first camping trip with Diana is to Bodega Bay. She has never seen the ocean or flown a kite, and she delights in both. My daughters teach her the joy of s'mores and she burns half of the marshmallows she roasts beyond recognition. At home, she never misses a trip to the store. Whole Foods is her favorite, as its ample fruit samples allow her to taste nearly everything she sees. Romaine lettuce, cherries, raspberries and watermelon are at the top of her list. She demonstrates a strong love for McDonald's hamburgers, Pizzicato pizza, bagels, chips and ice cream. She and my daughters become like sisters and all that entails. Diana proves to be warm and friendly -- and stubborn. On her first day of swimming lessons, she stands in the middle of the pool with her arms crossed, as she is offended that she is the oldest child in her swimming group. With the help of one of the chaperones, we manage to strike a deal and she happily attends swim lessons thereafter. She sometimes objects to my many rules, all designed to keep her safe. After she storms into a patch of poison oak and strips the leaves from the bushes in a fit of anger on one camping trip, I carefully wash her down with cold water and soap, and hope neither one of us gets a rash. Later, we share a private joke when she sees poison oak, and giggle about it together. We both manage to escape without a case of the "itchies." 

I am awed by her bravery in traveling halfway around the world to live with a family she doesn't know, and humbled by her mother's faith that my family and our program will take good care of her daughter. Her flight back to Belarus was delayed after one child fails to show up. My family has Diana telephone her mother to assure her all is well. Her mother speaks no English but insists upon speaking to me: Instead of berating me, she has prepared a speech for me in English. "My home open to you forever, I love you," she says, and suddenly I am glad I didn't worry about the faded sofa, the dirty carpet or grass stains.
by Ruth Hansen (CCP Host Family) 
This story also appeared in the Press Democrat, August 17, 2008