'Something wonderful' happened to them all

Published May 2, 2007

Katya Pawlus didn't win the countywide Tropicana Speech Contest last week.

The fifth-grader took her school's top honor a few weeks earlier. That win, at Academy at the Farm Charter School in Dade City, gave her the opportunity to compete against 40 other elementary school winners for the countywide contest held April 26.

But San Antonio Elementary student Ashton Brooks is the one who will get her name etched on the big trophy. There was little doubt that Ashton deserved it. She pulled out all the stops - great articulation, hand gestures, wit, even a little singing - when she delivered her speech about her mom's "harmless" road rage.

Still, sometimes winning isn't about a trophy.

Just ask Katya. She won a new life and a place in her adoptive parents' hearts long before she donned a pink and lavender dress, got on that stage, took a deep breath and spoke:

"How would you feel if God gave you an opportunity and vision to have an amazing future? Well, that happened to me."

It all started when Katya was 8 years old. She was excited and a little scared about what would be expected from her when she first came to Wesley Chapel in 2003. She was one of 18 Russian orphans brought here for a two-week test visit as part of Adoptions Abroad's Camp Kids-Hope program. She spoke no English.

(The story of Katya's initial arrival was highlighted along with others in "Families Found & Lost, " a St. Petersburg Times story by Lane DeGregory published Aug. 17, 2003.)

These days, Katya talks matter-of-factly about how she and two of her siblings ended up at the orphanage in Kansk. "My parents were drinking all the time and there never was any food, so my grandmother called (the authorities) and they took us to the orphanage, " she said last week in perfect English, with no trace of an accent.

Tom and Gigi Pawlus fell in love with Katya immediately. Not long after their two-week visit they began the process of adopting Katya and her older sister, Selena, and another Russian orphan named Lydia. Including their two adopted American children, they now have five daughters who range in age from 12 to 17.

"Adoption is not for the faint of heart nor the light of wallet" is one of Gigi Pawlus' favorite sayings. She admits that the past three years have come with some struggles.

But then there are the strides.

"Every day when I hear them laughing or playing together I think about how far they've come, " she said.

Gigi Pawlus was ever so proud as she watched her youngest daughter speak of her new life in a new country and "hold her own against kids who were brought up here and grew up with the language."

Katya is not always one to talk about her feelings, Gigi Pawlus said, "though sometimes we see it in her writing."

"Three years ago at this time this child was not even speaking English, and to think now she's doing this - we're very proud of her, " Gigi Pawlus said.

And blessed, too, with the thankful message that came through loud and clear in the 12-year-old's very first try at public speaking.

"The Pawluses have provided me and my sister with a wonderful opportunity to have a new and tremendous life. God has given me the strength to accept all of what has happened to me and live my life the way He planned.

"So don't be surprised if one day something wonderful happens to you."

Fast Facts:

Top finishers

Winners of the countywide elementary-level Tropicana Speech Contest held April 26 at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School:

First: Ashton Brooks, San Antonio Elementary, for "Road Rage."

Second: Stefan Grozlekov, Mary Giella Elementary, for "Why I Hate Cartoons."

Third: Madison Morlan, M.P. Locke Elementary, for "Locks of Love."

Honorable Mention: Madison Schafer, Trinity Elementary, for "Embarrassing With a Capital E!"