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[whitespace] West Valley residents open their hearts and their homes to Russian orphans

Los Gatos--Although they probably have never seen the movie or stage musical Annie, the 12 Russian orphans who made the Bay Area their home this month experienced a similar tale of rags-to-riches. Their tale is told through the Russian Children Folk Festival.

While Annie carried a torch for her "real parents" and had no expectations of being adopted, these children, who range in age from 7 to 11, did harbor that hope. They came to the United States from Arkhangelsk, Russia, from July 7 to 19, to entertain others, raise funds for their orphanage, learn about another culture and have a grand old time in the process.

They also knew they had a chance of being adopted. However, their sponsor, Happy Families International Center Inc., made it clear this was not a given, according to Los Gatan Elena Mosko, who coordinated the event locally.

HFIC is a nonprofit licensed adoption agency in New York. It has held other such festivals, but never before on the West Coast. Mosko is a native Russian who worked for months before the orphans' arrival, securing donations, recruiting host families and arranging performance venues.

Festival venues were the South Valley Carden School in San Jose on July 9; the Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos on July 11; and St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Saratoga on July 16. The children also attended a July 14 picnic in Vasona Lake County Park. A small admission fee for the concerts helped defray costs and raise funds for the orphanage. Other donations came from private parties, as well as fundraisers organized by St. Nicholas.

"People have been thanking me for the opportunity to be involved, and I've been saying, 'no, thank you!' " Mosko says of the generosity she encountered.

One such benefactor was the Wooden Horse toy store in Los Gatos, which donated toys to the children. Another was St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, which provided a hospitality room with refreshments for the orphans and host families on July 7.

For their performances, the children donned Russian garb and performed folk songs and dances they had rehearsed at the orphanage. It was these performance skills that enabled the Arkhangelsk group to win a competition whose prize was this trip. In between planned events, the children lived with their host families and host siblings, going to museums and amusement parks, shopping in supermarkets, playing video games, swimming and doing other activities.

One host family was the Rogersons of Los Gatos--Peter, Andrea and their two young daughters. They welcomed 7-year-old Ilia into their family for just 10 days, but the experience will remain with them forever.

"I don't think we ever imagined the magnitude of what a life-changing experience it would be," Andrea says. "It was very humbling. I took Ilia to the supermarket and he started to cry when he saw all the fresh fruit. He tried to eat a banana without even peeling it. Every day now, my husband and I say, 'Thank God for what we've got!'

"My daughters loved having him. Academically, he was like my 6-year-old, but emotionally he was like my 3-year-old," she adds. "He was desperate for love. If I didn't meet his eyes immediately after he called me, he would go inside himself and start to sulk."

Andrea is sulking a bit herself, since her family matched so well with Ilia that they decided to adopt him. However, the Rogersons are United Kingdom citizens living in the United States on a temporary work permit. This has caused even more red tape than already exists with Russian adoptions, so at this time they don't think they'll be able to adopt him. The good news is that, according to Mosko, several other host families are planning to adopt the children who stole their hearts.

Andrea says she was initially worried about the "now what?" factor the orphans will experience upon arriving back in the orphanage, but her fears are now assuaged.

"It's so much better for them to at least have hope. Also, I've researched what happens with other kids who've gone back. They become the leaders of the orphanage; the other kids treat them like heroes. Most of these kids couldn't wait to show what they'd gotten here," she says.

Mosko agrees.

"Everybody goes on vacations; everybody likes having happy memories. When things are tough, we remember the good times. If these kids didn't get to experience this trip, they wouldn't have anything positive to look back on," explains Mosko, who has two young boys of her own. "This way, they can know 'there was a time when I wasn't just part of 'the system.' There was a time when people really cared about me.'
Shari Kaplan

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Web extra to the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro.

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