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“Nancy, wake up. We’re almost here” my husband Steve shook me. I had just spent a fitful night with little sleep, only to finally doze off before dawn. The train compartment where we slept was hot and oppressive. Between the heat, the doors slamming at each station, and my nervous stomach, I was wide awake most of the night praying, “God, please guide us to the child you have for us!” It was November 2001 and we were on an overnight train from Kiev to Berdyansk, a small seaside city in southern Ukraine. It was a scene right out of Dr. Zhivago, the snow and ice outside, the smell of coal and vinegar in the air and the train compartment with leather seats and lace curtains. As we pulled into the station, I lifted the curtains, wiped the steam off the window and watched the sea of gray faces with furry hats and coats swarming the platform. As I looked out I had an overwhelming thought, “Today I’m going to meet someone who will be part of our lives for the rest of our lives. She will be our daughter, and her children will be our grandchildren. And right now she lives here, on the other side of the world in a strange and foreign place.” We were on our way to adopt a little girl…
We quickly got off the train and made our way through the crowd, trying to keep up with our translator. The ancient PA system cackled Russian announcements and every so often a patriotic anthem played. As we packed our stuff into the tiny taxi, I thought, “I should be excited. Why am I so scared?” How did we get here?
Life had been good the past few years. Steve and I had active lives, busy careers, and a grown son. We were empty nesters, and should have been content to just enjoy life. Yet we were both a little restless. I had spent 20+ years in television, but in recent years I had lost my passion. I just didn’t have the same drive and excitement I once had. When I look back, I think my heart was changing. Steve and I began to pray, “God use us somehow”. We didn’t want to waste our lives.
Over the next few years we felt God leading us to adopt. The whole idea seemed crazy. Adoptions cost a lot of money – money we didn’t have! Did I really want to start over raising a baby? We were probably too old anyway. Yet we had that nagging feeling to keep moving forward. We prayed if it were God’s will for us to adopt, He would provide the means. Amazingly, within months, the money began to come in from all sorts of unexpected sources! I knew why.
After many delays, we flew to Ukraine right after Thanksgiving, 2001, and found ourselves on that overnight train. We met our precious daughter Natalie in an orphanage where there had not been many adoptions. She was nine. When we brought her home many people were captivated by her quirky sense of humor, and began to consider adoption themselves. Within nine months we were headed back to Ukraine to adopt her sweet friend, Angelina, also nine. We were shocked at how tiny and soft-spoken she was! Three months later we were back on that same train again to adopt our oldest daughter Sveta. She was 14 and had been praying for a family for many years! She couldn’t believe her prayers had been answered!
Those first years everyone bonded very quickly and adjusted far better than I ever would have imagined. The fears I had were never realized. We became very close and are still to this day.
The vision for Heart for Orphans was born in the early 2000’s. We began by advocating for the kids we had met in the orphanage, and trying to find homes for them. Later, we brought groups of kids to the U.S., including the entire choir from our girls’ orphanage! They performed in several churches and families fell in love with them. So many kids found their forever families!
But, my heart broke for the kids who would never be adopted, which was most of them. They would age-out of the orphanage system and end up on the streets. In the former Soviet Union, most of the kids leave the orphanage at 16. Officially they are supposed to go to trade school, but sadly, many end up on the streets. They drift… drift into drugs, alcohol, or crime and prison. Many get lured into the sex trafficking industry. They answer an ad for a “glamour job”… maybe to be a model or a nanny overseas. Once they arrive, their passports are taken and they become prisoners. Because they are orphans, no one comes looking for them. No one cares! Our three teen-aged daughters could have been in this very situation.
We began to pray God would provide the means for a transition home for girls and a transition home for boys who have aged-out of the orphanage. How can a child who has only lived in an institution ever make good life choices? It is hard enough to navigate the difficult teen years when a child is in a family. How can an orphan, with no support system, make major decisions about their life… choose a profession… choose a spouse… or stay on the straight and narrow without a role model? How can they meet the living Savior and learn to walk with Him?
We were determined to do something. It took awhile, but eventually we opened our first home in 2007. Within the next several years we opened more homes in other parts of Ukraine. Our transition homes are different in many ways, but they all have something in common: they are small, family-style homes staffed by Christian house parents. Most orphans have grown up in large orphanages with 200-300 kids and don’t understand how a healthy family functions. They don’t understand the difference between a healthy relationship and one that is not. They have not been loved, or had individual attention and they crave it badly. For these reasons we keep our homes small. Our kids learn life-skills like cooking, cleaning, budgeting, canning, home repair, raising livestock, etc. Our house parents teach these kids what it means to walk with the Lord. They learn about forgiveness, mercy, kindness and gratitude and a Savior who died for them.
We are now into our fourth generation of teens who have come through our homes, and have watched in awe as God has done miraculous things in their lives. It has been a joy to watch the dramatic character changes! We have seen kids who come in to our homes with an attitude, distant and disengaged, or complaining and self-centered. A few months later you can hardly believe it is the same person! Now you see a young person who makes eye contact and smiles. Whose first thought is “how can I help”, rather than “what’s in it for me”. You see kindness and gratitude, a soft heart, a willingness to serve others. It is so rewarding to see kids who are now grown up and successful. Some are married with young families of their own. Others are continuing their education, or starting their own business. We even have some who are working in orphan ministry in Ukraine and in other countries!
When I look back on how God led us to adopt three older girls, and how that led to opening transition homes for teenaged orphans, I am amazed. Our girls are grown now and two are married with babies of their own. When I travel to our homes in Ukraine these days I am also blessed to see dozens of my other “sons and daughters” and my other “grandchildren”. Sometimes I think about how close I came to letting my fears stop us… stop us from adopting, and from opening transition homes. How much I would have missed! There is no other way to explain the miraculous way things have come together, except to know the Lord has orchestrated everything!
~ Nancy Hathaway
Founder/Director of Heart for Orphans