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Adopting 2 girls from Russia a labor of love

After tons of paperwork and stress, a couple adopts two girls. Today they mark their first Mother's Day.

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Regina, left, and Walter Van Peteghem, both 40, adopted daughters Hannah Olga, 7, left center, and Elizabeth Marina, 8, from a Russian orphanage last year.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002


NEW PORT RICHEY -- A little more than a year ago, Marina and Olga were two tiny, pale, cherubic girls living in an orphanage in Nevel, Russia, just east of the Belarusian border. They had one toy to share with the rest of the orphanage, and a piece of chocolate was a birthday present.

Some 5,000 miles away, Regina and Walter Van Peteghem, both 40, were a couple living in Gulf Harbors who wanted to adopt, and growing more frustrated with their search in the United States.

That Regina Van Peteghem will hear Marina, 8, and Olga, 7, wish her a happy Mother's Day for the first time today -- and in English -- is no small feat.

This time last year, the couple were in a bureaucratic maze, surrounded by people they couldn't understand without a translator, in a system that kept changing on them at a bureaucrat's whim.

"We got to the point where we thought they (Russian adoption agents) were testing us," Walter Van Peteghem said. "We thought how much more can they do? How much more could they want from us?"

Even with the advantage of wanting a child between the ages of 3 and 10, adoption in the United States is a long, difficult process. When the couple looked overseas, "suddenly it became a matter of choice," Walter Van Peteghem said. "It was just overwhelming."

Through another couple and an agency, the Van Peteghems found two little girls, both blond, both round faced. Just with the information the agency could provide, the Van Peteghems thought Marina and Olga might be the children they wanted.

After a blizzard of paperwork going back and forth across the globe, the Van Peteghems were told they could come visit the girls in March 2001. They returned in mid May to complete the adoption process.

From Tampa to the orphanage, there is 34 hours of nonstop travel -- a long plane flight into Moscow, a short hop to St. Petersburg and six hours of driving to Nevel. The nearest hotel to the orphanage is in Pskov, three hours away.

The Van Peteghems arrived, exhausted from the travel, at 3:30 p.m. The orphanage told them they had an hour and a half with the girls and then the couple had to leave.

An hour and a half to decide if they wanted to raise the girls as their own.

They knew. "This is going to be it," Walter Van Peteghem said.

As if to confirm it, little Marina said in Russian to her future parents: "We will wait for you."

For every step forward in the process, there were days of paperwork that went with it. Bureaucracies in two countries, forms in triplicate, notaries public for everything, and half of it was in a language Van Peteghem could neither read nor understand without a translator earning $100 a day.

By the end of the ordeal, they'd have a 3-inch binder of paperwork, stuffed beyond what it should hold, full of all the documents they had to fill out.

The paperwork wasn't the only headache. They were in Russia before they were told their adoption hearing was delayed. That meant their visas would expire before they were parents, their flights home had to be changed, and their hotel accommodations would run out. They lived in a hostel for nearly two weeks before their hearing.

Everyone had paperwork they wanted. The adoption agency, the court. Russian immigration had some, the American Immigration and Naturalization Service has more. Everything had to be notarized, signed, reviewed and approved.

And after months of paperwork, there was no guarantee the judge would grant the adoption.

The couple tearfully pleaded with the judge when the hearing came. Walter Van Peteghem said through tears, "The reason why we had to wait so long was that these children weren't available."

The judge didn't deliberate long. Whatever was said, they didn't catch it going from the Russian-speaking judge through a translator. But they got the one message they needed to.

"They're ours?" they asked.

"Da."

The agencies want American parents to give the children American names to help them fit in. On the paperwork, the girls are Elizabeth Marina and Hannah Olga Van Peteghem. But their middle names -- original names -- stuck.

One of the first things the Van Peteghems learned about their daughters was neither had ever been in a car. Shortly after learning that, they learned Olga gets car sick.

"Very, very car sick," Walter Van Peteghem said. Still does, but she's getting better. No longer does she turn green on the ride to school.

"I don't like the cars," Olga said recently.

Communicating was part pantomime, part reading a phrase book given to them by the agency, part repeating Da and Nyet as a question.

"It's amazing how well you can communicate when you need to," Regina Van Peteghem said.

Trying to get home, they found few flights out. Regina Van Peteghem runs the Fundamental Preschool on Grand Boulevard, and their state license was coming up for renewal. So was payroll. So when they found one seat out of Russia, Regina was on it.

Three days later, Walter Van Peteghem and the girls would follow.

During those days, Walter Van Peteghem took care of more paperwork and also had a ball, playing with his daughters, seeing parts of Moscow.

His wife, back home, was a wreck.

"It was horrible," Regina Van Peteghem said. She was worried constantly, wondering if she was ever going to see her children. "Bring my babies home," she'd plead with her husband on the phone.

"What a way to start out as a mommy," she said.

The highlights from the girls' trip home:

Olga's first plane ride went as well as her first car ride; the airline toilets scared Olga so bad she sprinted away from it; and during a layover in New York, Olga took one bite of her first slice of pizza and spit it out. Marina wouldn't even try it.

When their plane touched down in Tampa (40 minutes late because of a thunderstorm) on June 4, the long trip had ended, and the longer process of becoming a family started.

The Van Peteghems hired a tutor before they left to help the girls learn English. And the girls would play with other children at the preschool, learning some English from their playmates, their playmates picking up some Russian to impress their parents.

By Christmas, there wasn't much of a language barrier.

They've learned that Olga is the daredevil, the one who will try something without thinking about it first. Marina is the cautious one, the thinker. Both want to be everyone's friend and are polite to a fault.

The children attend Marlowe Elementary School. If it weren't for the faintest hint of an accent, the girls don't speak much differently from others their age. They're much tanner than they were when they were little Russian girls. And they like pizza now.

At night, Regina Van Peteghem looks in on her girls as they sleep. They're a family.

Her husband was the lucky one last year, because he got home on his birthday with the girls and was home in time for Father's Day, Regina Van Peteghem said. But her plans for her first Mother's Day are pretty simple.

"Enjoy our children."

-- Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com

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