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A down day, and we needed it. We said goodbye to Craig’s parents last night, and today we had nothing on the schedule and no one to entertain. With Jelena still here, it honestly felt like we were a family relaxing after the crazy busyness of Christmas.

I did some laundry, we ate leftovers, and we snuggled and watched a movie tonight. Like family.

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Thursday was zoo day. I am a zoo geek. I grew up going to Brookfield Zoo, and we went often since we were members. It wasn’t a long drive, so we could decide to go on free afternoons and spend a lot of time in one area. As I got older, I would go just to sit, watch the animals, watch the people, and sometimes sketch.

Visiting Brookfield in the winter is one of my favorite things to do. Not many people choose to spend the day there in the winter, so you feel like you have the whole place to yourself. Another bonus is that many of the animals are much more active. Such was the feeling yesterday. We moved about easily and had some fantastic views of the animals. J was enthralled with all of it. Her open-mouthed staring at the lions, who were right up at the glass window, was just as fantastic to watch as the lions themselves. She was quiet and difficult to read during the dolphin show, but when it was over, she said breathlessly, “Wow!”. She exclaimed over the seals and sea lions, she loved the sheep, the reindeer, the alpacas, and the horses, she was overwhelmed by the bears and the bison….it truly was a wonderful day. I love when someone else geeks out as much as I do over seeing all of these amazing animals.

We went out for dinner and I ordered for her because she was a bit overwhelmed. I chose from the list of specials and got her a dish with steak, pasta, and vegetables. I figured from her eating history, she could handle a big meal. That girl cleaned her plate. Then she ate dessert. Then we went home and she ate an avocado. Oh my word. Where does she put it all??

Today we went to the Harlem Globetrotters game. I haven’t been to one of these spectacles since I was in junior high. It was fantastic. The kids loved it and we were all awestruck at the talent of these players. We laughed and cheered, and enjoyed all of their antics. The game started out with a slam dunk from one of the players, and as he hung on to the hoop, he flipped himself over off of the rim. Both Cole and Caroline had their jaws on the floor. There were many exclamations of “Whoah!”, “Did you see that?”, “That was awesome!!”, and “Bahahahahaha!!”, from the two of them. While I noticed Jelena smiling and laughing, I also noticed a lot of quiet moments with her just watching and showing no expression. It wasn’t until we got outside and back into the car that she heaved a big sigh and said, “Wow! So nice! I like this very much!”.

She again ate a ton of food for dinner, and she is now snuggled in her bed, snoozing blissfully. Sounds good to me, I’m off!

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Being silly with Grandma's wheelchair.

Being silly with Grandma’s wheelchair.

Globetrotters Shenanigans

Globetrotters Shenanigans

Firstly, I am frustrated that our desktop is still “in the shop”, so I cannot post good pictures here. They will come, I promise. **See new photo!! ****

Today was a great day. We all slept in, thank goodness, and were in much better spirits than at the end of the day yesterday. I was interested in checking out the new Cirque du Soleil movie (or Cirque des Olé, as my son called it), since it seemed like there was minimal dialogue and it got a “PG” rating. I double-checked a Christian movie review, just to see what the content was, and that I wasn’t taking this girl to a story with sex or other borderline inappropriate things in it. It got a good review from the site so we went. My two oldest kids joined us so it was a full family outing. There were two lines of dialogue and the rest was pure performance. I love this kind of theatric spectacle so I loved the movie. J loved it too. I was overwhelmed at the strength of the acrobats, the beauty of their movements, and the amazing costumes. My kids loved it too, so we all enjoyed ourselves. And we all understood it. It was nice to have an hour and half where all of us understood what was happening 100% of the time.

For whatever reason, she was more talkative than usual when we got home. We had some great conversations and I can feel the trust continue to grow.

We had our “fancy” Christmas dinner tonight. Rib roast, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. There was plenty of everything, and Jelena ate well. She had seconds of potatoes and meat, and thirds of broccoli. As we cleared the table, she had ore broccoli. Then we ate dessert (fruitcake and ice cream), and she had both offerings. As we cleared that, she decided she wanted to have an avocado. I think she has a hole in her stomach! The most amazing thing, though, was how she ate the avocado. She cut off the top, scraped the meat out of the top with a small spoon. Then she took the same small spoon and began to eat the meat out of the skin like it was a bowl. She ate around the pit, and kept peeling back the skin as she went. It was very entertaining to watch.

My bedtime hugs are getting bigger and longer each night. I love it. I even love the hard stuff, because it brings us even closer after we work through it. I wish this kind of experience for all of you. Ask me abut hosting for the summer. It will change you.

THIS is how you eat an avocado, people!

THIS is how you eat an avocado, people!

I am so exhausted!! I was awoken by three very excited kids, and as much as I love the magic of Christmas morning, I really wasn’t feeling so magical this morning. :-/ Wake up was a bit early for my liking.

Yesterday was a big day. Christmas Eve brought a big emotional breakthrough. This is the second Christmas without my mother so the arrival of Christmas Eve brought on some emotions that I wasn’t totally prepared for. I had to take some time to myself to allow the grief to wash over me again. After I pulled myself together, I sat on J’s bed and thought more about this incredible girl. She came in and sat down with me. We didn’t have any translation tools with us for this, so our communication was basic, but we were able to understand one another. To protect her story and her privacy, I won’t get into specifics, but I will say that this girl has had so much hurt in her life and she has built some very strong walls to protect herself. Friends, children deserve to be part of a family. I know that not everyone is called to adopt, but I want you to take some time right now to think about your family. If you have children, I want you to imagine them growing up without you or any loving family to look after them, to care for them, to protect them. If you don’t have children, surely your were a child once. Imagine your years growing up without those things. If you do not find this unacceptable, I would be terribly and horribly surprised. Kids are growing up without a family to love them and to make them feel safe. It’s happening here and it’s happening across the globe. Kids. Deserve. Families.

As J and I talked, I could not stop my tears. But my vulnerability proved to be a catalyst for connection. It was truly a blessing.

My father arrived yesterday as well and he of course, was excited to meet J. He spent as many years as I have in Latvia so his love for the country and its people is just as strong as mine.

The early start to our Christmas Day was less than ideal but the enthusiasm from the kids was contagious. Gift opening was a delight as usual. There was much squealing and giddiness. Poor J was the typical teenager and would rather have slept a few hours longer. I think she was quite overwhelmed with all of the gifts, but she took it in stride and was so sweet in her gratitude.

The rest of the day was rough as we battled our fatigue and the never-ending energy of the kids, but we made it. J helped me prepare dinner, which was just a simple lasagna, and I am realizing how nice it is to have some help in the kitchen. My brothers called while I was prepping, and she took over everything with a willing heart.

What can I say? She’s amazing.

It's EARLY.

It’s EARLY.

Present wrapping took precedence over blog posting last night. I literally had none of the gifts wrapped and I didn’t want to do it all tonight.

Yesterday was her first visit to our church. When she does attend church, she goes to an Orthodox Church, so ours was very different from what she is used to. Our Christmas program was yesterday also so the experience was a bit more “spectacle” than normal. She seemed to like it though and as tears rolled down my cheeks as I sang “O Holy Night”, she looked at me with concern, but I was able to pantomime that they were happy tears.

We came home and enjoyed some leftovers of pizza and boiled up some pierogi. She ate well that meal, both things she really likes. I started some crockpot chili and had to head out to finish shopping for J, so I was on my own. While I was gone (and miserable with the holiday shopping crowds), she played Wii with the kids and Craig. I returned two hours later, and still not done. Oh well. One less thing.

After we enjoyed some delicious chili, we headed to my in-laws’ hotel for some swimming. We had a great time. Like most Latvians I know, J loved to swim. She was so sweet playing with the kids, catching them as they jumped into the pool, and tossing our Perry the Platypus ball around. But I think the hot tub was the big hit with her. She loves hot water and I’ve caught her just standing at the sink letting the hot water run over her hands as she smiled blissfully saying, “Hooooooot!!”. The things we take for granted.

The kids all fell into bed after their swim time and I sent out our required weekly report and started wrapping gifts while watching, “Christmas Vacation”. It may have been nearly midnight when I quit, but I was definitely in the Christmas spirit!

Thank you, Lord, for this incredible opportunity to serve you by serving this amazing girl.

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Craig’s parents arrived today for Christmas. They welcomed J with open and loving arms. Again, as she was with us at first, she was quiet and subdued. I think it worried my in-laws a bit, but we assured them that she would warm up.

In the early afternoon, J and I headed to the mall. On the Saturday before Christmas. There were approximately 8 gazillion people there. We were there to find her a swimsuit, since we have access to the pool at the hotel where my in-laws are staying. Normally, I detest the mall at Christmas, but today was different. I found a fantastic shopping partner. My mom and I used to shop together, and we’d get distracted by many things, and today that happened with us. We ended up buying some new pants, and three tops before we found the bathing suits. I tried on some things too and made her laugh with my ridiculous model poses. As we combed through the limited selection of bathing suits, I grabbed some options, trying to guess her size. As I contemplated, I said aloud, “Hmmm, well, you have big boobs..”, and out of all the things she understood me say in English, THAT was one. She busted a gut laughing and there we were standing in amongst the bathing suits laughing our heads off. And did I mention that soon after, I accidentally grabbed a female mannequin by the chest? More hysterical laughter. The rest of our trip was so sweet, as we strolled through the mall fighting the crowds and enjoying each other.

When we got home, my father-in-law had us laughing at his Latvian pronunciation. He was a great sport, and I’m sure it was his strategy to break down some walls. When they left to return to their hotel, he said, “Stand up! I’m going to give you a hug!”. Good job, Dad.

But the best part of the day, was getting our first official “I love you”. I think I need to frame it.

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Overall, we had a great a day. I have learned that like many teenagers, J is not much of a morning person. She is very quiet and I wonder about the strides made the days before, and if I had only imagined them. But as the day progresses, she becomes much more talkative and willing to try things.

Today we had a thrilling adventure to the kids’ elementary school. I volunteer with both of their classes every Friday, and today, J accompanied me. Cole and Caroline were both stoked to be able to show her off to their friends. As Caroline’s class filed into the classroom while we were waiting in the hallway, one of her friends “whispered”, “I didn’t know you had a sister!”. Caroline was so proud. Before we left, Jelena received a huge, squeeze-the-life-out-of-you hug. Both the principal and assistant principal made a point to come and meet her, and shared that they had heard from both Cole and Caroline how awesome she is.

After our school adventure, we headed to the optometrist. We realized that this whole experience would be interesting with the language barrier, and the doctor told us that one of the women that works there speaks Russian. It was definitely one of those “Are you kidding me?” moments. I guess at this point, I shouldn’t be surprised by the amazing ways that God has been working in all of this. At the same time, I DON’T want to stop being surprised, because it’s totally awesome!

We discovered she has a slight astigmatism, and needs glasses for reading. She hates glasses. “No no no no no no”, she kept whining with a pout, and I finally put a hand on her hand, looked her in the eyes, and said, “They’re only for reading, you don’t need them all the time, so stop complaining.” She looked at me, cocked her head, sighed, and said, “Okay”.

We were starving by the time we were done, so we went next door to Noodles and Company. Thanks to the suggestion of a fellow host mother, I went to the front and asked for a picture menu. Success! No more desperate attempts to translate and do sign language. She looked and pointed. Hooray! Have I mentioned that she is completely in love with ice? She loves putting it into her drink, she loves shaking the cup and hearing it clink around, she loves eating it….I feel like if it were summer, she would bathe in it.

After we got home, she helped me put garland on the stairway banister. It wasn’t a very glamorous activity, but she was smiling and seemed to really love helping. After the kids got home, they jumped into playtime with her. As they giggled and shrieked, out of her mouth came English! My favorites were:
* “Come here, small boy!”
* “Where you think you are going?”
* “Please get off my leg! Oooff!”
The kids were right on the ball and yelled, “J, you’re speaking English!”. Indeed she was. There was something about the affirmation of children, that boosted her confidence.

Our love is growing. This girl is amazing.

Today was Dentist Day. We had an 8:30 appointment and I hardly slept for fear I wouldn't hear my alarm. I was worried that she would be scared. She was completely unaffected. She said she liked the dentist. It was right then that I was lost. Who likes the dentist??? J does, that’s who.

She was a total rock star. I helped translate (thanks to my limited Latvian and my Latvian-English dictionary), and she sailed through the exam and cleaning. They found three cavities and the only time we could get them filled, due to a jam-packed schedule, was 20 minutes from the time we finished the exam. I asked if she was okay with that and she shrugged, and said, “yeah, it’s okay”. Wow. So impressed. She toughed out the cavity filling, thanks to an amazing dentist and his gentle demeanor. He asked her what certain words were in Latvian, and when he repeated her, totally butchering the language, she giggled. As I was settling the bill at the desk (all services generously donated), she laid her head on my shoulder and snuggled in. This precious girl cannot get enough love.

She jumped in at dinner and took over peeling and chopping, and then happily helped wash dishes, taking time to hug me, kiss my cheek, or stand close enough to touch me.

Later, we watched America’s Funniest Home Videos and she laughed along with us, excitedly pointed out that Tom Bergeron looks like the dentist we had spent so much time with this morning, and helped the kids with their gingerbread house. I can’t help but be totally in love with this girl and how she is fitting into our family.

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I have known this girl for three days. Three. She has already made a permanent home in my heart. Yesterday was my day to reach out and initiate touch and physical affection. She was hesitant at first, but soon she leaned in for more. Today, she showed her desire for more almost immediately this morning.

We took her to the mall, to get a new ornament from the seasonal stand. You can find ornaments that reflect the number of people in your family and can get them personalized. Jelena chose a family of polar bears, with a mom, dad, and four little cubs. We had our names put on it and when she saw her name with all of us…..She was so happy.

We took her to a few fun stores, and as we walked the mall, she took both my hand and Craig’s hand. When was the last time you saw a 17 year old girl holding hands with someone other than a boyfriend or girlfriend at the mall? She relished it, and wouldn’t let go. So I won’t let go either.

A few months ago, I was presented with an opportunity. Like, a HUGE opportunity. Because of our involvement in many different adoption advocate groups on Facebook, I found out about a group called New Horizons for Children. This amazing group brings children from Latvia, Ukraine, and now China to the States to be hosted by families for 4-5 weeks over Christmas and during the summer. Because of this program, siblings who may be in different orphanages will be reunited to enjoy each other as part of a family unit. The ultimate goal of the program is to find adoptive families for these kids.

Craig and I chose a 17 year old girl, who was posted as “host only”, because she is too old to be adopted. I won’t go into too much detail with the statistics for kids who age out of orphanages in Eastern European countries, but approximately 80% will fall victim to poverty, crime, prostitution, trafficking, drugs, and suicide. I don’t know about you, but I find this unacceptable. We hope to bring light and hope to the girl we are hosting and make that horrid statistic, “one less”. We may not be able to officially adopt her, but we are willing to be a support and encouragement to her.

Sunday evening, J arrived from Latvia. We had one picture of her prior to meeting her in person, and let me say, the picture did not do her justice. She is gorgeous.

It’s only been two days but it’s been a full two days. We have struggled through the language barrier, gotten frustrated, completely exhausted, laughed, made discoveries, and finally a breakthrough. While we’ve had a few translation tools, there’s really nothing quite like being able to communicate freely. Today, we took her to buy a good winter coat, and afterwards, we went to Whole Foods to allow her to pick out some foods and hopefully find something she liked at the buffet they have. We were not five steps into the store before I heard what sounded like Russian being spoken by a woman to her young son. I asked J, “Is she speaking Russian”? She was. I debated for a few seconds, then approached her. I asked if she spoke Russian and she said, yes. It turns out she is Lithuanian and is also fluent in Russian. To me, she was an angel. She was willing to translate for us, and even offered her number and said she was more than happy to help if we needed it in the future. We were able to find out that J was feeling awkward and embarrassed to tell us what she wanted. We we were able to communicate that we loved her, and wanted to give her what she wanted and needed. The woman even added that Americans were nice and that if we were willing to ask a total stranger for help in communicating, then we really do care. A wall was broken down then and the rest of the day was so wonderful.

But tonight after she went to sleep, I came down and thought about her, and I wept. I am scared I am not equipped to give her what she needs. I have struggled to find the courage to reach out and initiate physical affection. This afternoon I just tried. I sat next to her on the couch. Like, RIGHT next to her. I leaned against her and smiled. She responded well. Tonight after I tucked in my daughter, I sat on her bed and stroked her hair and cheek. I told her I loved her and that I hoped she sleeps well. She had a smile that was halfway between “what is happening?”, and complete bliss that I was sharing love and affection with her as well. Thank you, Lord, for pushing me to do that. I don’t feel like I should share her story, because it’s her story to tell, but I will tell you that she has not had the privilege of feeling loved unconditionally. So this is my goal. To prove to her that WE will love her unconditionally. To prove to her that she is worthy of that love.

My tears tonight were for her lost years. She should have grown up in a family, surrounded by love and acceptance, but she didn’t, and that breaks my heart. What an amazing responsibility, but what an amazing blessing. I am so humbled to know that our family was chosen for this.