For many couples, the moment comes in a hospital when a newborn emerges red and wrinkly and, hopefully, screaming with gusto into the world.
By the numbers
A decade of adoptions from Russia2011 9622010 1,0792009 1,5862008 1,8572007 2,3032006 3,7022005 4,6312004 5,8622003 5,2212002 4,9502001 4,292Top 5countries from which U.S. parents adopted in 2011:1. China2. Ethiopia3. Russia4. South Korea5. UkraineFor more information: Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State, http://adoption.state.gov, AskCI@state.gov or 888-407-4747Source: U.S. Office of Children’s Issues
For the Dickinsons of West Ashley, the moment came in a small room at a Russian orphanage when a caregiver delivered 7-month-old Mae into Jenny Dickinson’s eager arms.
The moment came again at another Russian orphanage when 3-year-old Ellen peeked through the sliver of an open door to see the American couple who traveled so far to meet her. Slowly, nerves of expectation palpable, Ellen stepped through the doorway.
She made her way over and set her tiny hand on top of the Very Rev. R. Peet Dickinson’s. It was the hand that soon would guide her through life.
“Papa,” she whispered.
If ever there were a happier papa, Peet Dickinson cannot imagine one.
Their two daughters are 6 and 9 now, and the Dickinsons have felt the early stirrings of God’s call to adopt a third. Naturally, they think of the beautiful Siberian landscape where Mae and Ellen were born.
They think of the other children there who need families.
But that won’t be possible, not in Russia, anyway.
On Dec. 28, President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning American families from adopting Russian children. It went into effect Jan. 1 as part of a bill that retaliated against human rights sanctions President Barack Obama signed into law last month.
Critics call it a vengeful move that makes political pawns of Russia’s more than 700,000 children who are orphans or lack parental care, according to UNICEF.
“The rationale and motive are purely political,” Peet says. “And it’s affecting innocent children.”
When the Dickinsons had trouble conceiving, they felt God call them to adopt.
They thought of what they could offer a child: a stable family, faith and quality education.
But with so many needy children in the world, where to look?
The Dickinsons had lived in Oxford, England, while Peet attended Wycliffe Hall and were drawn to international adoption. Peet loved Russian history and culture, so why not start there?
Christian World Adoption had a Charleston office at the time, so they went to a seminar and began a year of paperwork and persistence. Peet credits his wife’s tenacity.
“There is no accidental adoption,” says Peet, dean of the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. “You have to really want it.”
Finally, a letter arrived with a description and photo of a young orphan girl identified for them, along with her medical background. They took the paperwork to the Medical University of South Carolina International Adoption Clinic, which specializes in medical and developmental evaluations for internationally adopted children.
Soon after, the Dickinsons made the long and anxious journey to Siberia to meet a tiny child who, just maybe, would become their own.
Along the way, Russians welcomed them and their efforts. The Dickinsons didn’t feel the sting of scorn that characterizes some Russian officials’ comments supporting the adoption ban.
“A lot of people in Russia truly care about these children,” Jenny says.
Many children in orphanages wind up there because their birth families live in poverty. Others have disabilities or other special needs. Not enough Russian families can, or are able to, adopt them.
Putin has promised more incentives to change that. But the Dickinsons remain leery.
They note that more than 700,000 orphans are in need of loving homes.
“That is just one country,” Jenny says. “But now it is on people’s minds. My prayer is that this will spur people on if they are called to adopt.”
Russia ranks third in countries from which Americans adopt children. Last year, Americans adopted 962 Russian children. That is down dramatically from a high of 5,862 in 2004, according to the U.S. State Department.
It will drop to zero unless something changes.
The Dickinsons feel for families in midprocess of adopting. Even more, they pray for the Russian children waiting for a bedroom they saw in a photograph and the people they expected to call Mom and Dad.
“They know what they want, and they desperately want parents,” Peet says.
When the Dickinsons traveled to meet 7-month-old Mae, they arrived at the orphanage jittery with nervous delight.
They went into a little room to discuss Mae’s medical history, a meeting they expected to take a few minutes. Instead, a woman walked right in carrying a little girl with chubby cheeks and wide eyes.
She handed little Mae to Jenny. Peet fumbled for his camera.
“It was the most amazing moment,” Jenny recalls.
Then they had to leave her for a month until the adoption was finalized. They hated to say goodbye.
Yet when they walked out of the orphanage’s doors and slipped into a cab, both felt a profound peace settle upon them. They looked at each other. And they felt certain.
God was assuring them: They would be parents.
With Ellen, they faced more obstacles. First, she was born prematurely and weighed less than 2 pounds at birth. She spoke no English and had spent her young life in an orphanage.
Peet compares it to raising a child in a day care.
The orphanage was clean and the caregivers loving. But Ellen had never seen a kitchen or a knife. She didn’t know what it meant when something was too hot because her caregivers brought her food at appropriate temperatures and toys meant for small children.
When she peered through the sliver of that open door, they fell in love. She emerged, teary with nerves. She knew, on whatever level a 3-year-old can know, what this meeting meant.
She walked over and sat on their laps. She put her hand on Peet’s.
“I was sold,” Peet says.
Due to a waiting period, the Dickinsons had to remain in Russia for almost a month. They saw Ellen daily. They also saw the other children in her orphanage, the ones they could not take home.
“I think about them all of the time,” Peet says.
Never more than now, knowing so many remain waiting without the hope of American adoption.
“I’ve seen the face of God in my experience as an adoptive father,” Peet says. “And my heart breaks for the children we couldn’t adopt. It stirs those deep, core value that all people are created in the image of God.”
The Dickinsons adopted Mae in June 2004 and Ellen in March 2010.
Today, Ellen is a kindergartner at Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School, where big sister Mae is a third-grader.
On the first day of school, Jenny thought, “Three years ago, she was in an orphanage. And now she’s in a regular kindergarten classroom!”
The girls even look remarkably alike — and together like their father.
But Mae is an outdoors woman; Ellen is more a Fancy Nancy.
Two years ago, Mae asked her dad to talk in church about orphans. She was just 7 when she wrote her story. While her father was in the pulpit, Mae walked up with everyone watching.
She handed him the paper. Peet read her story aloud.
“To say it was a powerful moment is an understatement,” he says.
They’d still like to visit Siberia to show Ellen and Mae their birth towns. Jenny often imagines returning to see the beauty of Siberia and to revisit friends.
And she holds out hope that one day families like hers again will be able to adopt children in need there.
“That country stays in your heart,” Jenny says.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her at www.facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.
The Very Rev. Peet Dickinson walks into his West Ashley living room as wife Jenny helps 6-year-old daughter Ellen with her pencil and 9-year-old daughter Mae plays with a toy. The two girls were adopted from Russia.×
Mae and Ellen Dickinson (holding sign) celebrated the day after Ellen’s arrival in the United States.×
Jenny Dickinson holds her new daughter, 7-month-old Mae, after arriving at the Charleston International Airport from Russia.×
Jenny and Peet Dickinson visited with 7-month-old Mae in Tomsk, Russia, before adopting her. (provided)×
Jenny Dickinson got to interact with Ellen while in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, before Ellen’s adoption was finalized.×