It was with mounting excitement that I waited for the arrival of my family. The welcoming banners, decorations, streamers, and balloons had been strung up. The table had been set with brightly multicolored plates, cups, and napkins. There was a wide selection of cookies, candies, and chocolates waiting for my new granddaughter.

My daughter, Lynn, her husband, Eran, and my grandson, Travis, had traveled to Ukraine from Israel to adopt a sister for Travis. Travis was five years old at this time and extremely excited at the prospect of having a younger sister to love, share his toys with, and play with.

At last the intercom rang and I dashed out to open the gate and met the new addition to the family unit for the first time. There she was, this little two-year-old girl who looked the size of a nine-month-old baby. She had hardly any hair. Her tummy was distended. She was clinging to her new “Papa,” as she called him. That was the pattern of behavior for the first two days at home. She hardly left her papa’s side. If she ventured off to play, she would stay within eyesight of Eran. We noticed that she, Sasha, would often fall and that when she fell, she would pick herself up and continue on her way. She never cried when she fell or hurt herself.

At mealtimes Sasha ate all the food that she was able to consume at one sitting. Then she would stuff food into her mouth and store food in her cheeks. This was obviously a survival technique acquired when she was living with limited food. While eating, she would pick up every crumb dropped on the floor and consume it.

Gradually, however, change took place. Sasha discovered whom to trust and love. She cried when she fell and went to be comforted by a family member. She stopped looking for a hat to cover her head. Sasha started to speak. She grew six inches within the first year and gained weight. At last she could walk without falling. She formed a bond with the two pets in the house. Sasha no longer ate food off the floor or stored food in her mouth. She learned about sharing and the meaning of “yours” and “mine.”

The Sasha of today is a well-adjusted, happy 3-year-old who speaks three languages: Hebrew, English, and Russian. Sasha has a great sense of humor. She is musical and sings many songs. She is strong-willed, extremely independent, and has retained her sense of curiosity.

As a grandmother, I found that Sasha opened my eyes to the wonders of the world all over again. I started appreciating and discovering all the marvelous creations around me that I had taken for granted or had forgotten existed. What a pleasure it was for me to watch her very first venture out into the hot, Israeli sun. She stripped off all of her clothes and ran around, laughing, falling, and enjoying the feel of the warmth on her skin. She ran to look at a butterfly or ants crawling. Sasha loved the birds and was excited at any new discovery, whether it was a flower or a leaf.

Through Sasha, life has not only been a new voyage of discovery, but an adventure. Just watching my granddaughter enjoy the daily acts we adults take for granted has been one of my greatest thrills.

When my daughter invited me to accompany her and Travis on their trip to Ukraine in August, I jumped at the chance. To actually see the orphanage, Antoshka, where my granddaughter had spent the first two years of her life would be a wonderful experience. I hadn’t realized that it would be so emotional.

The Antoshka orphanage is located in the city of Kramatorsk, Ukraine, and is run by a very charming, old-fashioned gentleman by the name of Anatoly. His very capable and friendly wife assists Anatoly, the director, in his duties.

The orphanage—a large, rambling, old building—is situated on expansive grounds. Upon entering, it felt as if we were in another world. It was like we had stepped into a Charles Dickens novel. The interior was shabby and dark, but very neat and scrupulously clean. After our warm welcome, we were invited to tea and cake in the office cum lounge.

Finally, the moment I had been waiting for came. We were taken to see the room where Sasha slept and the adjoining section where she played and ate her meals. We walked into the bedroom. It was badly lit and crammed with cots that were standing side by side with not an inch of space between them. We asked them to identify Sasha’s cot and we stood looking at the bare mattress. Now we understood why, at first, Sasha did not know how to use a blanket or other covering when she went to sleep, or why she would not stay in her room alone but would slip into her parents’ or brother’s room during the night so as not to be alone. We stood, in silence, each with our own thoughts and feelings. My heart ached at the thought of Sasha being an orphan from birth.

We proceeded to the play area where about 10 children, ages one to two years old, were in a large playpen. Lynn had sent boxes of toys to the orphanage and it was so strange, but comforting, to see some of my grandson’s toys being used so constructively and enjoyably. Once again, we stood, deep in thought. Travis kept saying how much he loved the babies, and he spent time happily playing with the group. Soon he had a “favorite,” and of course he wanted to take him home to join the family unit. We saw the table where Sasha ate her meals. The photograph we have of her sitting there took on new meaning. One of the most touching moments was when we saw Travis’ baby bottles filled and ready for feeding the babies. How many times had we used those bottles, washed them, filled them? It was wonderful to see how much all the donations were being utilized and appreciated.

I returned home with a new appreciation of the desperate needs of the orphanages and an immense appreciation for the directors and staff. We all have belongings that we take for granted, yet these articles mean so much to the children who are denied even necessary basics due to their plight. I admire and thank all those people who are contributing to the needs of these orphans, but most of all, I thank all the men and women who have adopted an orphan and have given them a new life.

Yes, my granddaughter is a very lucky little girl to have a mother, father, and brother who want her so much and have given her a loving, caring home. But they are also lucky to have her for their daughter and sister.

Esme is a coordinator for Life2Orphans, a USA-based non-profit that aims to improve
the quality of life for Ukrainian orphans.