Press Herald Online

Tuesday, October 14, 1997

Chebeague couple unites three Russian siblings

Adoption links


Staff photos by Gordon Chibroski

Beverly Johnson waits for her husband on the Chebeague Island wharf with their three adopted Russian children. From the left are Vika, Dasha, Johnson and Denis. ''I feel that they were meant to be ours,'' Johnson said.

Vika Johnson, who until last month lived in a Russian orphanage, enjoys a bike ride around her new home on Chebeague Island.

Dasha and Vika tickle Denis as the siblings play together after school on Chebeague Island. Vika arrived Sept. 14 to join her brother and sister.

Vika discovers a seashell Christmas ornament in one of the Johnsons' drawers in her new home.

Dasha and Vika concentrate on painting eggs together in the kitchen of their home on Chebeague Island. Vika had been separated from her younger brother and sister for about three years when they were reunited.

Vika shows her love of ice cream and her distaste for having her picture taken while eating in the kitchen of her new home.

Staff photos by Gordon Chibroski

By Rebecca Griffin
Staff Writer
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND - Beverly Johnson was tucking in her newly adopted son and daughter one night last November when they started talking about their older sister, Vika, and her pretty, long brown hair.

In broken, heavily accented English, Denis told how Vika used to take care of them back in Russia. Denis missed her, and lying in his bed, he began to cry.

''Do you think you can find her?'' he asked his new mother through tears.

''Well, we can try,'' replied Johnson, who at that moment realized her new family would not be whole until she could find and reunite Dasha, 5, and Denis, 7, with the sister neither had seen in 2 years.

Determined, she quickly set out on an arduous task that on its face appeared destined for failure. Locating the child would be difficult enough, adoption officials warned. And even if the girl was found, arranging an adoption might be impossible, they said.

The effort to reunite the children began last fall, within a month of Beverly and Stephen Johnson's return from Russia with Denis and Dasha. It ended last month when the Johnsons adopted Vika and brought her to Maine to live again with her brother and sister.

Beverly Johnson, 48, contacted the Maine Adoption Placement Service International, a service that has placed more than 350 Russian children in the United States in the past seven years. MAPS helped the Johnsons adopt Dasha and Denis.

This time, Karen Stager, director of MAPS International, tried to protect the couple from the disappointment of a search that could very well turn up nothing. She explained that the agency could not know if an older child such as Vika, if she was located, would be suitable or even available for adoption.

''We always had to keep an open mind to that,'' Beverly Johnson said.

Beverly and Stephen were not sure how the children ended up in an orphanage in the first place or how they became separated. From what they could tell, Dasha and Denis' Russian parents lost their parental rights to the children. Before that, Vika, being the oldest, had acted as surrogate mother, finding food and taking care of her little brother and sister.

Beverly Johnson could only speculate that Vika was sent to a different orphanage because she was older.

It took several weeks and dozens of phone calls before they got a break. A MAPS Russian liaison, they learned, heard there was a ''Victoria'' living in an orphanage in Krasnador, Russia.

A Russian MAPS representative traveled 2 hours to the orphanage to verify the information. Sure enough, the girl called Victoria turned out to be Dasha and Denis' sister, Vika.

Equally important, the representative concluded that Vika was a healthy little girl with a positive outlook on life. Those qualities made the girl a good candidate for adoption.

''It became very clear that this was a very special and unique little girl,'' Stager said.

The Johnsons decided they needed to try to add the final piece to their family puzzle.

Beverly Johnson is a plumber and her husband, Stephen, 51, a lobsterman. Throughout most of their 25-year marriage, they wanted children but had come to accept that she could not bear a child. Occasionally, they considered adoption without ever pursuing it.

For years, the couple's house had been full of nieces and nephews. But when the kids grew up and didn't visit as much, Beverly found the house strangely quiet.

''I didn't have anybody to play with,'' Beverly said with a laugh. ''I guess I felt a real loss at not having my own children.''

Then, early in 1996, she met a woman who had adopted Russian twins. After hearing about her experience, Beverly Johnson wanted to know more.

''I said, 'Gee, that sounds like something for me,' '' she said. The next day, she called MAPS and told them she was looking to adopt siblings who were old enough to have bonded with each other.

Within days, she and her husband were filling out the paperwork to adopt children from Russia.

In September 1996, without knowing much about the children's personalities beyond a third-hand description that they were ''nice,'' the Johnsons traveled to Russia and took Dasha and Denis from the orphanage.

They found Dasha to be a charmer. With her blond hair and outgoing smile, she soon grew especially close to her new father.

Denis was more timid. His face often carried a serious expression, his forehead dimpling when he needed to concentrate. But underneath that seriousness, they found a quirky sense of humor.

Now, all that was missing was their older sister.

'I love you very much'

By the time officials with MAPS found 11-year-old Vika, the girl somehow already knew her two siblings had been adopted by Americans.

On April 21, the MAPS liaison interviewed Vika in the Russian orphanage. The girl asked her to mail a letter she had written to her brother and sister.

Vika wrote that she was happy her siblings had been adopted, and she hoped they were happy as well. She asked if they had been able to swim in the ocean.

''I love you very much,'' she wrote.

At that point, Vika had no idea the Johnsons were thinking about adopting her.

Beverly Johnson remembers Denis' excitement when he heard his sister had been found. But he became confused when he saw new pictures of her. It had been almost three years since they were last together, and the long hair he remembered had been cut shorter.

Eventually, Denis accepted that the girl in the picture was his Vika. He proudly took the pictures to school.

The Johnsons soon sent a letter back to Vika. ''We would love it if you came and lived with us and be our daughter,'' they wrote.

In September, Beverly Johnson traveled to Russia to pick up Vika. When she arrived at the orphanage, Vika now 12, hugged her and smiled constantly - even though they were unable to communicate with each other through words.

They arrived at the Portland International Jetport on Sept. 14.

The emotional reunion included uncomfortable moments. Denis saw his sister and turned instantly shy. He clung to his mother. On the way home, Beverly recalled, ''Denis just . . . slithered behind the seat of the van. (Vika) kept hugging him and he was just limp.''

Beverly Johnson said it was Denis' typical reaction when he is placed in unfamiliar situations.

Dasha was more enthusiastic, embracing her sister and smiling.

''She was happy and hugged her and was fine,'' Beverly Johnson said. ''But of course, she was still a complete stranger to her.''

That first night, the three children - separated for a little more than three years - all slept together in one bed. ''It was nice,'' she said. ''It was very rewarding to see them so close so quickly.''

But in some ways, the transition has been difficult.

Dasha can no longer speak Russian, and Denis remembers just enough to sometimes translate what Vika is saying.

''(Denis and Vika) thought they were just going to pick up where they left off,'' Beverly Johnson said. ''They were surprised to realize things were not the same anymore.''

But for the past month, the siblings have been getting reacquainted, communicating in the language of play. They chase each other, ride their bikes, and squabble together, just like any other children.

Denis still sometimes talks about what he remembers about Vika from Russia.

''I remember that she was in charge of me all the time, and she called me 'baby,' '' he said.

Dasha laughed. ''She called you 'baby?' ''

''Well, she called you an inch worm!'' Denis answered.

New challenges emerge

Every day, Beverly and Stephen Johnson face the challenges and joys of parenthood. For weeks after Dasha and Denis arrived, for example, the children ate only hot dogs. Lately, Beverly Johnson has resorted to serving a nightly smorgasbord to satisfy three finicky eaters.

But the Johnsons also have extraordinary moments. At times, they have needed to call a translator to sort out the family rules.

Altogether, Beverly Johnson said, the experience has made the couple's lives complete.

''I feel that they were meant to be ours,'' she said. ''It's really enhanced our whole lives and enhanced the lives of these three children, who (lately) we feel like we've always had.''

Maine Adoption Placement Service MAPS

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