A year and a half ago, when Debbie McFadden walked through the door carrying a large shipping box, Jed Castelbaum, the owner of Parcel Plus, the mail and business services store in Dorsey's Search Village Center, greeted the new customer with his usual friendly smile.
The package was one of many that Mr. Castelbaum would ship for her in the ensuing months, and a cordial business relationship developed quickly. But Mr. Castelbaum had no idea that his new customer soon would be instrumental in helping him and his wife, Susan, adopt a child from overseas.
During his casual chats with Ms. McFadden, an Ellicott City resident, Mr. Castelbaum learned that she was the director of an organization called International Children's Alliance. The shipments were boxes of food, clothing and other goods being sent to orphanages in Russia.
Mr. Castelbaum and his wife, both of Russian descent, discovered that the International Children's Alliance also arranged for the adoption of orphaned Russian children.
Although the Castelbaums already had two sons, Joshua, 5, and Adam, 2, they wanted another child -- a girl -- to fill out their family. Mrs. Castelbaum had been adopted, and the idea of adopting a daughter was appealing.
"Susan and I both agreed that adoption was the only way to guarantee we would get the daughter we wanted," Mr. Castelbaum said. "And, because of our backgrounds, it seemed adoption would somehow complete a circle."
The Castelbaums invited Ms. McFadden to their home for a meeting. She arrived with a bundle of files with details on available Russian children.
It was the beginning of a long, emotionally intense and sometimes tearful journey for the Castelbaums, who discovered the many difficulties associated with foreign adoptions.
That process included the frustration of completing the paperwork and travel arrangements in the United States for the adoption, only to have the girl's mother refuse to give up custody.
"Susan and I were heartbroken," Mr. Castelbaum said. "But Debbie convinced us not to give up."
The Castelbaums' disappointment was short-lived.
Almost four months later, in mid-February, Ms. McFadden called from Russia to say she had found them a daughter. The girl, age 4 and living in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, already was being processed for adoption.
Mrs. Castelbaum, a guidance counselor at Longfellow Elementary School, made arrangements for a leave of absence from her job, and began fixing up the extra bedroom.
"We were really excited," she said. "This was a dream come true. We just couldn't wait."
On May 11, the Castelbaums stepped on a plane for the long trip to Russia. Things went smoothly upon their arrival in St. Petersburg.
"When we saw Mara, she was everything Debbie had promised," said Mr. McFadden. "She could easily pass as the natural sister of either of our sons. The resemblance was incredible."
The final paperwork took three days and gave the Mrs. Castelbaums and Mara time to get to know each other.
"Mara had already been told she was going to live in America, and she had seen pictures of us and her new brothers," Mr. Castelbaum said.
Mara, who had never been on a plane before, clutched a teddy bear the entire flight home.
"Mara has adjusted quite well," Mrs. Castelbaum said. "I think it was easier for her because of Joshua and Adam. She was used to being around other children."
Mara already is picking up some English and is receiving private English lessons. She has been to preschool for a couple of half-day sessions, and Mrs. Castelbaum said she did very well.
Mr. Castelbaum said Mara has brought some changes to the Castelbaum household.
"It's a little more hectic around the house, and it takes a little longer to get things done," he said. "And, there's a lot more noise than there used to be.
"Mara loves to laugh," he added. "And that's the sound that makes it all worth while."
Since the Castelbaums began their quest over a year ago, their friends and neighbors in the Dorsey's Search and Ellicott City areas have joined together to collect donations of food, clothing and toys for orphaned children in Russia. So far, more than 40 cases of donations have been collected and shipped.
The two say they have made a life-long commitment to help Ms. McFadden and the International Children's Alliance place other orphaned children. In fact, Mr. Castelbaum plans to take an active position with the organization.
Those seeking more information can contact the International Children's Alliance, 2001 L St. N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036, or call Ms. McFadden, at (301) 596-3756.
Dell Hufford, a student at Running Brook Elementary School, was selected to the 1994 All-County Elementary Band. He is the first Running Brook student ever selected to the all-county group.
His feat is even more notable because this is the first year of band instruction at Running Brook, and Dell, a percussionist with the school band, is in his first year of instruction.