"I dream of a mom and dad and grandparents," wrote 10-year-old Shuska. "I dream of a mom that kisses me goodnight and reads a fairy tale to me."
Her 9-year-old brother Vladik dreams of blowing out candles on his birthday cake. Instead, their reality has been an orphanage in Kazakhstan lined with beds stacked 5 bunks high. Sometimes, rats bite the children at night.
Igor Taranov, head adoption official for northern Kazakhstan, limits his visits to such orphanages because the children's dreams haunt him.
"I always try not to see into the orphans' eyes because every pair of eyes you look into, you can read the question: 'Are you my father? Are you here to save me?'"
Roy and Carol Kolar of Brenham, Texas, also had a dream. They dreamed of vacations to Europe. The 40-somethings had emptied their nest of 3, and were looking forward to the carefree days ahead.
Several dreams converged when the Kolars' church, First Baptist of Brenham, agreed to host orphans for a month with the intent to find them permanent homes.
Hope for Orphans, a new initiative of FamilyLife -- Campus Crusade for Christ's ministry dedicated to building godly families -- linked the church to Orphans Overseas, an international adoption agency that knew about Shuska, Vladik and 27 other Kazakh kids.
Suzanne Faske, head of a newly formed orphan ministry in the church, wanted to find congregation members who would take children into their homes for a month and consider adopting them.
The children would spend a month in America, then return to the orphanage. Those parents that choose to adopt will later fly to Kazakhstan to bring them back as American citizens.
Suzanne prepared to present the needs from the pulpit -- for hosts and for parents, so no child would leave without a matched adoptive parent. However, she literally broke into hives thinking about public speaking. So she begged Carol and Roy to talk on her behalf. They agreed. Two days earlier Carol expressed to Suzanne that they'd be willing to host an orphan, but that they knew they were not called to adopt.
"Some may not be called to adopt," says Doug Martin, vice president of Hope for Orphans. "Some are called to be advocates or supporters, though all Christians are called to be involved in orphan ministry somehow. James 1:27 commands us to care for them."
After speaking in all 3 church services Sunday, Carol and Roy began to question their original plans.
"What do you think?" Carol asked her husband.
"I don't know," replied Roy. "I think God may be calling us to be involved with orphans in a deeper way than we've been."
"When we were saying we weren't called to adopt, we never asked God first," says Roy. "I never asked because it wasn't something I thought I ever wanted to do. And we were enjoying the empty nest."
They finally sought the Lord about adopting.
"I thought, Yeah, we could continue to pay off the house and travel, and there'd be no eternal consequences. Or we could adopt and invest in their lives and have an eternal impact, " says Roy.
They agreed to take 2 siblings, so Carol sat at her desk and calculated how they would afford the additions to the family.
"Adopting 2 children is the price of a brand-new SUV," she says.
In order to raise an additional two kids on Roy's income -- a modest hourly wage -- the couple would have to make a few changes, like refinancing their mortgage and eating out less often.
They also filled out heaps of legal papers, as thick as an encyclopedia when piled all together. The Kolars agreed to an investigation of their home and personal lives (called a home study) and wrote mini-autobiographies about themselves.
Finally, the orphans arrived. Roy and Carol anxiously waited to spot the brother and sister they would host -- Shuska and her younger brother, Vladik. As the orphans ranging in age from 8 to 12 deplaned, one little boy was wheeled off the aircraft in a stretcher. He'd been vomiting for most of the flight, so his body was dehydrated. Not only had the children flown for the first time, but their teachers also told them that the Americans would use them as organ donors.
It seems a likely conclusion for the Kazakh people; the country's per capita gross national product is $5,000, 7 times less than that of the United States.
Kazakh parents can barely afford to feed their 1 or 2 children, so they can't comprehend how Americans could add orphans to their families. And so they assume that the Americans are harvesting organs.
Once the children saw that they were headed to houses and not hospitals to surrender body parts, they warmed up to America.
It didn't take long for Shuska and Vladik to begin calling Carol and Roy "Mama" and "Papa" either.
Carol, formerly an accountant, stayed home with the 2 children, and plans to when they return permanently. And she started home-schooling them, which she'll continue until she's confident they know enough English.
If Carol needs to explain something important to the children, she goes to the machine labeled "computer" on a 3" x 5" card and types in a phrase. An Internet program translates it into Russian for them.
But the Internet translator didn't serve its purpose well one night after Carol and Roy had put the kids to bed. Vladik dashed into the living room with a flashlight. His lips were a light purple and he was motioning toward his room and speaking quick Russian.
The 9-year-old typed something in the computer, but he misspelled the two most important words, so Roy and Carol remained baffled. Vladik acted out that he'd heard a tap on his window, and when a thorough investigation did not calm him down, they let the little boy sleep in their bed.
Roy made other concessions, like extending his lunch break an extra, unpaid half-hour to jump on the trampoline with the kids. Roy would ring the doorbell every time he came home because Vladik is so entertained by it.
"Papa! Papa!" The boy scrambles to the door and catapults himself into Roy's arms.
One lunch hour, though, Roy joined Carol on the glider to chat, rather than bouncing with the kids right away. Shuska marched over and motioned for him to join them.
"Later," he answered slowly, adding gestures. "I want to talk to Mama first."
Shuska stormed off to her bedroom. When Roy went after her, the 10-year-old had changed back into her Kazakh clothes, complete with her jacket, ready to return. Roy picked her up, but Shuska stiffened her body in protest.
Roy noticed a faint grin as he carried her through the sliding glass doors and back to the trampoline. The dark-haired girl then placed a tender kiss on his cheek.
"That's when I was a goner," he says.
However, Shalana Varon, the Kolars' 28-year-old daughter, is concerned that not every problem will be resolved so sweetly.
"I feel like they don't know what they are getting themselves into," she says of her parents.
Shalana worked with Child Protective Services for 4 years as a social worker.
"Sometimes people think, We're a Christian family so we're going to provide a solid, stable environment. That's not always enough."
The Kolars know that adoption is not a fairy tale.
"It's emotionally hard," says Carol. "But prayer is the most important thing. That's where you get your strength."
At the end of the day, both Roy and Carol tuck the 2 children into bed. As the couple intently prays on their knees over the girl, Shuska opens her eyes to peek. After the "amen" both Mama and Papa gently smack a kiss on her face. Her dream is coming true.
The same is true for Carol and Roy.
They will still get to travel, not to the cathedrals in Rome, or palaces in England, but to an Eastern European orphanage to redeem 2 children they love, Vladik and Shuska.