DAYTON, Ohio - Emily rode her plastic pony as Hannah, her younger, shyer sister, tested the patience of Annie, the family dog. Brandon needed a ride to work.
An average day for the Bulldis family, though not an average family.
Maryann, known on the Internet as "Maxed out Mom," and John Bulldis, both 40, are parents to four biological children, including Brandon, 14, and two adopted sisters, Emily and Hannah. The family - John is a major in the Air Force - recently moved from Germany to his new assignment at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
On a muggy August day in their new military-issue house without furniture, Emily, 5, and Hannah, 3, gather round a laptop to look at pictures of their birth mother, sisters and the speck of land in the Pacific - Ebeye, in the Marshall Islands - where their relatives live.
The scene reminds Maryann Bulldis of the day Emily got a videotaped message from her biological father, Alley Kinere.
"I love you, Emily," he said.
"She was so excited. 'Alley talked to me!' She was bouncing off the walls for three days. She was chained to the television. That made a huge difference. It was very emotional," Maryann Bulldis said.
Through pictures, videos, care packages and letters, the Bulldises are one of dozens of American families trying to maintain a link between the children they've adopted and the Pacific island that is their native land.
"We want to be part of that culture," John Bulldis said.
Contact and care
The Bulldis family, like many others who have adopted from the Marshall Islands, is constantly trying to bridge a gap far wider than the distance of nearly 7,000 miles that now separates them. Those who have studied Marshallese adoptions call it the "culture gap."
The experience and the growing popularity of Marshallese adoptions have left Maryann Bulldis with conflicting emotions.
"I think a lot of the time the adopting parents don't know what is happening," she said. "Just because someone is poor, you can't take their baby away. That's illegal. We're putting our judgment in place of theirs."
While the Bulldis family was fortunate in adopting two children without experiencing any legal complications, the Marshallese woman they dealt with as an intermediary, Joanne Pedro, played a key role in another adoption that became the subject of lawsuits in the United States and the Marshall Islands.
The islands' former clerk of courts accused Pedro of altering a document to make it appear that a birth mother had consented to giving up her child. Judges in both countries ultimately concluded that Pedro was involved in a "black market" for babies.
Pedro, who lives on Ebeye and says she is taking a break from arranging adoptions, denies the allegations.
Because of the prevalence of such problems, Bulldis said she would not recommend a Marshallese adoption to others. But she is committed to helping other adoptive parents learn all there is to know about the islands and their culture.
Adoptive parents are under no legal obligation to maintain contact with their child's birth parents or native land. But it is not unusual.
Families with adopted Marshallese children regularly communicate on the Internet and trade everything from pictures of their children to tips on health problems. RMI-kids, a Yahoo chat group, serves as a central meeting place.
Sue George of Dallas adopted her daughter Andrea six years ago. She said the chat group is a lifeline between adoptive parents of Marshall Islands children.
Gregg Geeslin, an American who lives in the Marshalls and adopted a child there, acts as an unofficial liaison between birth families and adoptive families in the United States. He regularly ferrets out the latest information on visas and other immigration issues that confront adopting parents.
Geeslin, who works for a government contractor at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, shot the video of Alley Kinere that glued Emily to a television for three days.
Nancy, 36, and David Huskins, 38, of Wadsworth, Ohio, regularly post news and cultural information about the Marshall Islands. Every year, groups of adoptive families arrange reunions around the country.
David Huskins, a sociologist and computer expert, has a Web site that includes links to cultural and historical information on the Marshall Islands.
The Huskins, who have two other adopted children, from Samoa and Guatemala, adopted a son, Benjamin, from the Marshalls in 1999.
The Huskins distribute Marshallese crafts at cost to adoptive families. More important, they said, are their efforts on behalf of children in the islands.
When the Huskins learned that an Ohio school district had purchased new English and math textbooks, leaving the old ones to a local organization with no use for them, they arranged to have them shipped to the islands. Eventually, they saw pictures of the books in the hands of Marshallese children.
"That was just kind of neat," David Huskins said. "We outfitted three schools with textbooks."
He and his wife decided some time ago that directing their charitable efforts toward the Marshall Islands would be more meaningful and effective than making contributions to large, nameless charities.
"That's like sweeping the ocean with a broom," he said.
The Huskins also ship care packages and disposable cameras to the islands. Nancy Huskins said that when the cameras are sent back and they have the film developed, some of the shots are carefully posed family pictures and others bring surprises.
"The kids get the cameras and shoot pictures of their friends," she said. "We don't know who they are, but it gives us a view of island life."
She said they send a set of prints to the birth family.
Patty Schreiber, 55, and her husband Edward, 51, who live near Chicago, have adopted two Marshallese children. She has made two trips to the islands because she considered it important to meet the birth mothers and "make sure they felt good about it."
On one trip, they were guests of the Geeslins. On the second, the Schreibers' elder Marshallese daughter, then 11, met her family and old friends.
"She was happy to see her friends, but she wasn't unhappy to leave," Schreiber said.
Heidi Hungerford, 42, of Lake Oswego, Ore., adopted a Marshallese girl in 1999, traveling to the islands to complete the adoption through their courts.
She has attended reunions with other families who have adopted children from the islands. She also met once with the family that adopted her daughter's brother. Hungerford said she stays in touch with the birth mother through letters.
The Kinere home
On Ebeye, Susana Kinere, the birth mother of Hannah and Emily Bulldis, brought out envelopes bursting with snapshots sent by Maryann Bulldis.
Kinere lives down an alley in a tin-roofed shack with six of her children. She said she is happy to get the pictures and letters.
As she spoke shyly, two children were watching a children's show on videotape - one of dozens that line a wall of the one-room home.
Kinere's husband, Alley - Hannah and Emily's father - is one of the hundreds of Ebeye residents who ride daily on an Army ferry that takes day workers to the missile test site on nearby Kwajalein.
While tiny Ebeye is crowded with wooden shacks, Kwajalein glistens with swimming pools, tennis courts and neat buildings that house American military personnel and their families. A cable channel keeps them apprised of barbecues, tennis matches and religious services.
'Do you want it?'
The way in which the Bulldis family ended up adopting from the Marshall Islands is telling.
They originally wanted to adopt a needy American child. They took in a foster child, only to have him wrenched away six months later when the birth mother wanted him back.
"It was heartbreaking," said Maryann Bulldis, adding that they had hoped to adopt the child.
The couple, then living in Washington state, began to consider a foreign adoption and found references to Marshallese adoptions on the Internet. From there, the story illustrates the haphazard way that adoptions proceeded in the Marshalls before island legislators sought to regulate them by passing a law last year.
When Bulldis called an international operator in 1998, trying to find the social service agency in the islands that handled adoptions, she was connected to an operator who told her there was no such agency.
"You have to talk to Joanne [Pedro]," Bulldis said the operator told her. After a moment's consideration - Washington was weathering a blizzard at the time - she called.
"She said, 'I have a baby girl born today. Do you want it?'" Bulldis said. "I said yes, never imagining that it would ever happen."
Bulldis said she called the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and was told that the adoption could be done legally. She also contacted state officials.
"I was still thinking, 'This just isn't going to happen,'" she said.
But within three weeks the Bulldises were on a plane to Hawaii. Bulldis said she wanted to go to the Marshall Islands, but Susana Kinere preferred to meet them in Honolulu.
They formally adopted Hannah through the courts in Washington state and then began sending pictures and care packages to Kinere.
A few years later, Kinere contacted them to ask if they wanted to adopt Emily. Through frequent contact, she had come to consider the Bulldises part of her extended family. And in the Marshall Islands, adoption by a relative is part of the culture.
By then, John Bulldis had been transferred and the family had moved to England. But they quickly agreed to adopt Emily.
Somewhere along the way, Maryann Bulldis said she learned that the packages she had been sending to Kinere in care of Pedro never got to their final destination. So, she contacted the Ebeye postmaster and arranged for the packages to go directly to the Kineres.
"For me, it was really, really important to keep that communication open," Bulldis said. Equally important, she added, is keeping the link alive for Emily and Hannah.
"We want them to know that's where they come from," she said.
Like the Huskins, they regularly send disposable cameras to the birth family so they can exchange photos.
Bulldis didn't stop there. She began sending monthly packages to the health care center on Ebeye for distribution to mothers.
Through the RMI-kids Web link, she enlisted other adoptive parents. She also organized a group sending packages with disposable diapers and baby food to Ebeye from Germany after her husband was transferred there.
Rose Bobo, who receives those packages at the Ebeye Health Center and sees to their distribution, said she is grateful. "These things come in handy," she said.
Officials at the health center say there is a birth nearly every day on the tiny island. Bulldis doesn't worry that her care packages will go unused; she just wonders if she can keep up with demand. She says she has no doubt that some Marshallese children would have died had they not been adopted.
Sue George's child, for instance, weighed only 13 pounds when she was taken back to Texas at age 15 months. George said Andrea could not walk or talk and suffered from skin and kidney ailments. Now 7, she is healthy and doing well in school.
"She's been a blessing to our family," George said.
Nonetheless, Bulldis said she is concerned about the growing numbers of Marshallese adoptions and the effort, by some, to circumvent island laws. She said she had been contacted two or three times by adoption agents or facilitators seeking her assistance in locating birth mothers and babies.
Bulldis has refused to help. She doesn't think solicitation of birth mothers should be allowed, in part because promises are often made that can't or won't be kept.
"Adopting parents want to believe the birth mothers were not pressured. And birth mothers are told story after story that their children will come back," she said.
"I think there is a need for adoption," she concluded. "But at the level it's going on, it couldn't happen here in the United States. It wouldn't be tolerated."
Nancy Huskins said she thinks adoptive parents ought to heed island laws.
"They are a sovereign nation," she said. "As Americans, we should respect their laws."