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The Grams family has adopted three children from Colombia through an Kidsave, an international adoption program. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Gustavo Grams’ foster mom spread out a feast on the kitchen table of their home in Colombia on the day she gave him unexpected, life-changing news: An American couple had traveled from Maryland to adopt him.

Gustavo, then 13, had spent most of his life as an orphan, and he knew his prospect of finding a family worsened with each passing year. But an encounter orchestrated by an international adoption nonprofit in 2012 led him to his parents, Steven and Katie Grams, a Harford County couple with no children.

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Kidsave, the charity that introduced the Grams to Gustavo, is now hosting 50 adolescent boys and girls from Colombia. A dozen are staying in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Kidsave says its Summer Miracles program has found adoptive families for more than 80 percent of the nearly 2,000 children, typically ages 11 to 14, it has hosted in the United States since 1999.

Like Gustavo, the children come under the pretense of summer camp. Kidsave says they learn that the goal of their trip is to match them with forever families only once an adoption is in the works.

“Every child deserves a family and safe place to be and someone who will be there for them always,” said Gustavo, an affable 18-year-old high school senior who is home-schooled.

He said he felt compelled to talk about his experience at a time when international adoptions are at a dramatic low and older youth languish in foster care both in the United States and abroad. Fewer than 5,000 children were adopted from foreign countries last year, down from 24,000 in 2004, according to the State Department. Kids older than 2 are difficult to find adoptive homes for, regardless of country.

Gustavo, a 12-year-old orphan from Colombia, is visiting Maryland this month and enjoying a family reunion of sorts. He and nine other Colombian orphans have traveled thousands of miles on what they believe is a vacation, but in reality, they are on a search for a permanent home.

Gustavo said he wants the same opportunities for the Kidsave children visiting this summer that he was given six years ago.

“If [people] don’t stand up, these kids won’t have a family,” he said. “God gave me this opportunity. I want these kids to have the same opportunity. I want them to live the same life I am living right now.”

Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, said organizations that can find homes for older children, whether from the United States or elsewhere, serve an important role, as long as protections are in place. The children should not be made to feel like they’re on display, he said, and adoption organizations must operate ethically and scrupulously, and facilitate a smooth transition for the children into their new lives.

“If it’s done well, it gives someone a shot who didn’t have one before,” Pertman said. “Children need families wherever they are.”

The number of international adoptions has fallen amid increased scrutiny under measures such as the Hague Convention, which established standards between countries. The convention seeks to protect children from being trafficked, exploited or used for personal enrichment.

At the same time, some countries have reduced the number of children they allow to be adopted in the United States. Russia, for instance, no longer allows Americans to adopt their children. Adoptions from China have fallen since the country abandoned its one-child policy, along with other changes.

Other counties, such as South Korea, have been putting greater emphasis on domestic adoptions.

Boys visiting United States from foster home in Columbia have chance to fish for striped bass

Pertman said children who are available for adoption from foreign nations generally fit the same profile as children available for adoption through U.S. foster care: they are older, have special needs or are part of a sibling group.

Americans adopted 181 Colombian children last year, a similar number to previous years. Americans have adopted more than 4,500 Colombian children since 1999.

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Kidsave President Terry Baugh said kids are identified by officials in their home countries for the Summer Miracles program. They are told they are coming for vacation and might meet a family who could be interested in adopting them. She said the prospect of adoption is not emphasized, to reduce the potential for disappointment.

Children are placed with volunteer host families who take the kids on adventures such as soccer matches or rock climbing and connect them with prospective adoptive parents.

The nonprofit spends about $7,500 per child, raised almost entirely by private donations. Kidsave operates related programs from its offices in Washington, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Kidsave connects families interested in adopting a child to an adoption agency. Then, they can become the child’s legal parents through security clearances, home studies and international travel.

An adoption can cost $30,000 to $40,000. Baugh stresses that grants and fundraising options are available.

Baugh said people interested in meeting the kids available for adoption this year can attend a children’s sporting event and picnic from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Lynnbrook Park, 8008 Newdale Road, Bethesda. Children are featured on the Kidsave online gallery.

“We need people who are interested in adoption to meet them,” Baugh said. “For many of them, it will be their only chance.”

Gustavo and his parents met on the last day of his visit in 2012.

Katie Grams said her sister called after a service at their church, Mount Zion United Methodist Church, to ask if she and her husband could have Gustavo and his host family over for the evening to fish, swim, eat dinner and sit by a campfire. The Grams, who had been open to adoption for years, did not hesitate.

Katie Grams speaks Spanish, Gustavo’s native language, but hadn’t spoken it for a decade.

“We got to know each other over the course of four or six hours,” she said. “The night he left, I remember wondering if I am letting my son walk out the door right now.”

Gustavo boarded a plane the next day to return to Colombia, as all Summer Miracles children do before adoptions are processed.

The Grams started a “Dear Gustavo” journal and immediately took steps to adopt him, a process that took 11 months.

“There was nothing that was more important,” Katie Grams said. “We were eager to bring him home. I was so eager to remove him from foster care and bring him into our family forever. There was urgency to it. I don’t think I have ever done anything with that much urgency.”

Gustavo’s biological father had died and his biological mother was missing when he entered foster care in Colombia around age 5. He was featured in a Baltimore Sun article in 2012, while he was in Maryland for the Summer Miracles program. He came to the Baltimore area after two of his biological sisters were adopted by families in Bel Air and Havre de Grace. He has other siblings who were adopted in Colombia.

Since bringing Gustavo home in 2013, the Grams have adopted two more children — siblings Josef, 17, and Lina, 14 — who also are from Colombia.

Gustavo has taken classes at Harford Community College and hopes to pursue a career in acting.

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“If I hadn’t been here, I don’t know what would have become of me,” he said.

If you want to go

Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program is hosting a children’s sporting event and picnic to introduce Colombia children available for adoption to interested families. The event is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Lynnbrook Park, 8008 Newdale Road, Bethesda.

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