Nonprofit matches children to homes in hopes that they return some day


Elaine and Kevan Shelly of Elkridge said they were pleasantly surprised by their summer visitors, 11-year-old Liana and her 10-year-old brother, Duvan.

"They make their beds in the morning. They clean their plates and dishes," said Elaine Shelly, her eyes widening in disbelief.

For the siblings - whose home is an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia - it is just part of the background of family life during their six-week stay with the Shellys under the auspices of Kidsave International, a nonprofit based in Washington that brings orphans from nations such as Columbia and Peru to the U.S. for six-week visits.

The idea behind Kidsave is to find homes for older children, who tend to be overlooked by couples eager to adopt infants or toddlers, said Lynn Erger, coordinator for Kidsave's Summer Miracles program. (Kidsave does not release the orphans' last names. )

The organization, however, is not an adoption agency, and it strongly cautions host families not to discuss adoption around the children, who range in age from 7 to 14. Legal tangles or financial problems can cause adoptions to fall through, she said.

Since the inception of the Summer Miracles program in 1999, about 1,100 of the 1,300 children who have traveled from Russia, Kazakhstan and Colombia have been adopted. There are 157 adoptions pending as of April 11, according to the Kidsave Web site.

This year, Kidsave discontinued the program with the Eastern European countries because of changes in licensing laws for adoption agencies. Now Kidsave is expanding its programs with Colombia and Peru. This year, nine children from Colombia and five from Peru came to the Washington area.

The children bring only a backpack with one change of clothes and pajamas. Host families can pick out clothes for the children that were donated to the program. While they are in the U.S., each child visits a doctor and a dentist to make sure they are in good health.

The Shellys said they signed up for the program after reading a newspaper article about it. They were considering adoption, so they decided to try it.

Shelly, 48, a piano teacher, said she prefers older children because she can travel with them and enjoy places, such as Port Discovery. There are no midnight feedings or diaper changes. Still, they have not made a decision. The program has been a tiring, delightful experience, they said.

"They're a lot of fun," Kevan Shelly said. "Boy, we laugh a lot."

Once they learned that their visitors were eager to pitch in around the house, the Shellys even set up a bilingual chore chart. Liana and Duvan get stickers for everything from cleaning their rooms to taking care of the couple's rat terrier, Eddie.

The couple joked about the kids' quirks. Used to taking showers at the orphanage, the kids loved taking their own baths. For the first week, Duvan bathed twice a day and insisted on having his photo taken in the bathroom.

In fact, the children want to be photographed doing nearly everything. The couple has posted 130 pictures on a personal Web site. The photos show them navigating a dragon-shaped paddleboat around the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, inspecting a turtle at the National Zoo and swimming at the pool.

"I can't believe how fast it's gone," said Kevan Shelly, 45.

The visits can require some adjustment.

Laura Touhey hates malls, but the Annapolis resident made an exception last month for 13-year-old Johana, of Bogota.

The trip to Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis was Johana's first to any mall, and she reveled in the variety of stores, the funky styles at Limited Too, and the mass of other preteens congregating around the food court.

Johana has lived for the past three years in an orphanage in Bogota, where she sleeps in a dormitory room with 40 other girls and shares everything she owns. In fact, anything she buys on this visit will become communal property when she returns to the orphanage Aug. 18.

Touhey and her husband, John Skogus, found out about Kidsave through an article in AARP magazine. Skogus is 61, and Touhey is 43. They work together at Agency Insurance, an auto insurance company in Linthicum. The two had been involved in charity work, but they wanted to do more than "just write a check," Touhey said.

So they filed a $200 application fee, submitted to a $400 background check and interview with a social worker, and paid the $800 airfare for Johana to visit.

Touhey and Skogus described their Spanish-language skills as "awful," but they have gotten by without calling the translators that Kidsave makes available to host families. To explain itineraries, Touhey relies on Google translator on the Internet.

Two of Touhey's co-workers speak Spanish fluently. It was through them that Touhey and Skogus learned Johana did not like her outdoor summer camp at Sandy Point State Park. No one else there spoke Spanish, Skogus said.

Johana tried one-on-one English tutoring as a summer camp alternative, but she stopped after seven sessions. Johana was too afraid of making a mistake in English so she wouldn't speak with the tutors, Skogus said.

Although Touhey does not plan to adopt, she is dreading the day when Johana will fly back to Bogota. Touhey said the two have bonded and she expects it will be "heart-wrenching."

Johana's future is uncertain. At the age of 18, she will be asked to leave the orphanage and make her own way. Some find jobs cleaning houses, but many find they have to turn to prostitution or crime to survive.

Touhey wants to stay in touch with Johana through letters and possibly visit her in Colombia. Touhey is willing to support her Financially, too.

"I don't foresee just walking away," Touhey said.

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