I adopted my daughter Rachel Zhanna from Kostanai, Kazakhstan, in 2004 when she was a year old.
I didn’t know anything about Kazakhstan before I started pursuing international adoption but quickly learned a great deal about it. It is in Central Asia, was previously part of the Soviet Union, is the ninth largest country in the world, is the largest land-locked country in the world, and is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. It is steeped in tradition, rich in natural resources, and diverse in its beauty.
Rachel is the absolute light and joy of my life. I can’t imagine my life without her. She is sweet, caring, funny, smart, and creative. While I could write volumes about her and what she has brought to my life and my parents’ lives, I have chosen to write about a unique, unexpected, and wonderful aspect of our adoption story—our Kaz connections.
When I traveled to Kazakhstan to adopt Rachel, my mother went with me. We spent a month in Kostanai, spending time with Rachel every day at the Delphin Baby House. Traveling with us through Adoptions From The Heart (AFTH) was another single mother and a married couple, and I also met other Americans who were there through other agencies. We spent all our time together, visiting our children, exploring the town, and enjoying the long summer days. I’ve kept in touch with many of them, but especially the other single mother, Linda, and her son, Eric. Rachel and Eric are the same age, and we live less than two hours from each other, so we get together regularly. Linda’s friendship is very special to me since our connection began in the Heathrow Airport en route to Kazakhstan, and I joke that our kids knew each other even before we knew them.
Not long after I brought Rachel home, AFTH asked if I would talk to two couples who were adopting from Kostanai the following year. I was thrilled to share my amazing experience. These couples have become very good friends, and when they traveled to Kazakhstan, they met another woman who they later introduced me to who has also become a very good friend of mine. They all live in Pennsylvania, and we have a pool party with them and their children Nicholas, Grace (from Guatemala), Mollie, Aiden, Alex, and Lana every summer. My widening circle is often included in this party, so through my connections they have continued to make new connections.
In 2014, I heard about an event known as Kazapalooza. This is an annual gathering of Kazakh adoptees and their families, started in 2008 by two terrific and dedicated women who wanted to create a community for their Kazakh children. Kazapalooza is held in a different location every year, and Rachel and I have attended in NY, AL, CO, MI, and NM. It draws almost 400 attendees, and through this event, we have met people from all over the U.S. and Canada with children from all over Kazakhstan. At the first Kazapalooza we attended in 2014, Rachel made a lasting friendship with Jillian from Kansas and Kayla from Pennsylvania. Although she only sees them every year or two, they are always in touch and pick right back up every time they are together. In subsequent years, she became great friends with Anelle, also from Pennsylvania. In addition, I have met many wonderful parents. It is amazing to be in a room with 400 people and to immediately have such a personal and intimate connection. While our adoption stories differ, there are also many similarities—some sweet, some sad, and some funny.
Through Kazapalooza, we met two fantastic women, Victoria and Beth, Americans who started Caring Hearts / J127 Ranch in 2012. They provide a community for children, orphans, single mothers, and those with disabilities in the city of Taraz, Kazakhstan. They also provide food, clothing, and shelter, and address emotional, medical, and educational needs. Rachel planned to visit the ranch to work with the children and mothers last summer and this summer, but events beyond our control canceled these plans. She is still hoping to visit next summer. In the meantime, she reads stories to the children via Skype twice a week, building connections halfway around the world.
In 2015, Rachel and I took a heritage journey to Kazakhstan with the Adoptive Family Travel TIES Program. This program was started in 1994 by a woman who knew internationally adopted children would be curious about the places where their lives began. There were twelve families in our group from all over the U.S., with children aged 10-17. Our group also included three facilitators—two Americans (each with their own amazing adoption stories) and a wonderful Kazakh woman. As a group, we visited the two largest cities in Kazakhstan, seeing natural and man-made sights, dining with host families, visiting a children’s camp, and much more. Each family also traveled to their child’s hometown. While we made many friends, Rachel made an especially strong friendship and lasting bond with Echo from Washington State. Happily, Echo and her mother have attended a few Kazapaloozas since. The heritage journey was so special and life-changing that we will always have deep connections with our fellow travelers.
While on our journey with the TIES Program, Rachel and I traveled to her hometown of Kostanai. We visited the Delphin Baby House, even seeing one of the women who cared for her 11 years earlier. We also had lunch with Dr. Irina, who was the head doctor at the baby house when Rachel was there. Everybody was so happy to see Rachel and see her thriving. Although we may never see these women again, they cared for my daughter before she became mine, so they will always have a place in my heart. I will always feel a connection with them.
And finally, while on our journey, we met and spent two days with Rachel’s birth mother, two half-sisters, and extended family. While this was not an open adoption, I got Rachel’s permission to search for her birth mother prior to our trip. I was thrilled to find her, and we were all overcome with emotion when we met. She was overjoyed to see Rachel as a young lady and to know she is truly loved and cared for. We had a traditional Kazakh meal in their home, visited many sights in Kostanai, and spent an afternoon at their summer house. Although the family doesn’t speak English, we keep in touch thanks to Google Translate and photos. When we are finally able to travel back to Kazakhstan again, we will visit with them. This has been by far the most personal connection we have made.
What started out as a journey halfway around the world to find my daughter has provided me not only with Rachel Zhanna, but also with so many friends and family. Some of the people live an hour away, some live across the country, and some live halfway around the world. But they each hold a special place in my heart and Rachel’s heart…they are our Kaz connections.