October 1, 2001
'Mamitchka' and 'Papitchka' have Ludmila in their hearts
by Jeanette Knutson
It was July and it was stifling, probably over 100 degrees with 80 percent humidity. Sgt. Kent Baxter of the Woodinville Police Department and his wife Rhonda trundled along in a sweltering unair-conditioned utility van. The couple was headed on a two-and-a-half-hour journey, the culmination of which would change the course of their lives.
Their destination was an orphanage in the Krasnodar region of Russia, a farming community northeast of the Black Sea. They were traveling there to meet ‹ for the first time ‹ Ludmila, age 12, their daughter-to-be through adoption. With them in the van were their Russian attorney and an official from Russia's Board of Education, along to oversee the formalities of the state-sanctioned adoption. En route, the official briefed the couple on the child they were adopting, filling them in on the hardships that befell Ludmila causing her to be in an orphanage in the first place. The Baxters had heard none of this information before. And it, one imagines, along with the weather, added to the weight of the situation.
The van pulled up to the orphanage grounds where 100 children milled around a dirt and concrete yard. There was no grass ‹ no balls, no jump ropes, no playground equipment. And from the moment the Baxters alighted the van, children, on their best behavior and no doubt sporting their best (albeit tattered) outfits, ran to the couple, trying to catch their attention as if to say, "Take me too; adopt me."
"It was the hardest thing I had to do in my life" said Rhonda. "It was so heartbreaking. They all want families so badly."
"I figure I had 150 yards to walk to the room where I'd meet my daughter. I was excited and nervous. I'd practiced three Russian phrases that I wanted to tell her, 'You are my daughter. I love you. You're a pretty girl.' I didn't want anyone else to say these things to her ‹ it was something I wanted to do by myself. But by the time we got to the director's office, I was all choked up. All these kids wanting to make eye contact, wanting to be adopted. It was so hard," said Kent.
"Our hearts were in our throats," said Rhonda. "We were so excited that we lost everything we wanted to say. In a way, we were so arrogant. We thought we'd be so composed, but everything we wanted to say was gone. In the end, the director helped us [make our comments]."
The idea to adopt came to the couple ‹ child-free and already married 18 years ‹ when a longtime friend's daughter adopted five Russian girls. Svetlana, one of them, playing on the Internet, saw a photo of a dear friend, a roommate from her former orphanage: Ludmila. Kent's friend mentioned Ludmila to him, and the seed was planted.
"I thought to myself, that's it. That's our kid. I don't want any other," said Kent.
And the machinations began that would lead to the adoption of little "Luda." The couple took Russian lessons, had Russian tapes on the stereo at home, studied the country, took a Foster-to-Adoption class offered through the New Hope Christian Church in Seattle, spent hours researching adoption on the Internet. They made Russian contacts in and around their community, found a Russian store, a Russian doctor, sat through an ESL (English as a Second Language) class in their Edmonds School District and made plenty of calls to Svetlana and her new family to see how things were going for them.
The Baxters had long since discarded the notion of an in-country adoption. Research taught them that frequently foster children in the U.S. are labeled as having ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder. And with the label comes medication, Prozac, Ridalin, Lithium. They even heard that medicated children must go through "detox" shortly after the adoption takes place. The Baxters wanted no part of this.
Besides, the plight of the Russian orphans tugged at their hearts.
"Fifteen-year-olds have little hope of being adopted," said Rhonda. "By 16, they're out [of the orphanage]. Boys might go to work camps or trade schools. Girls, at best, can be maids for the wealthy. Their outlook on life is pretty bleak. Oftentimes, the older kids commit suicide.
"At Ludmila's orphanage, there were six caretakers for 186 kids, and hers was a good orphanage, the best in the region. The kids are fed regularly. The kids do the farming, the actual growing of food. They also prepare the food. Older kids take care of the younger ones. There is very little meat. Once in a while the local butcher donates bones for soup," said Rhonda.
Today Luda, a beautiful, petite 12-and-a half-year-old who loves to ride her bike ‹ not to mention her pony! ‹ has been in the United States nine weeks.
"She's a little tomboy who is quick to laugh, who is seeing our own world from brand new eyes and making us appreciate everything we have," said Rhonda.
Luda is doing well in her ESL class, excelled in her summer swimming classes, and is surrounded by so many people who really love her.
"For the first time in 18 years, I finally get a chance to see and feel what it's like to be a parent. I love it," said Kent. "As a police officer, I've been called on to deal with family problems, and I always gave advice based on training and life experience. [Sgt. Baxter was a School Resource Officer in the Northshore School District for over six years.] My wife and I chose not to have kids but the story of our friends' [adopting the Russian girls] touched our hearts. I felt the Lord wanted us to do this. We had a choice to react or not. We chose to react. I think it is a blessing," he said.
"If anyone wants to get in contact with me, I'd be happy to talk [about the adoption process], show pictures, explain anything. There are a bunch of good kids ready to be adopted [in Russia]. If I could find the money, I'd be real tempted to go back and get one of [Luda's] friends. Good friends in an orphanage are like sisters anyway. ... To tell you the truth, that we only took one child home still bothers me," said Kent.
Sgt. Kent Baxter can be reached at (425) 877-2278.