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An Adoptee waits for another Adoption from Kazakhstan.


THE FACE OF ADOPTION: Couple wait, wonder if boy will join family.

Dr. Cheryl Bigger always taught her children to look out for others, accept people for who they are and see beyond one-dimensional barriers such as race, color and nationality.

It's a lesson she learned from her grandmother, who adopted her as a child and raised her as one of her own. It's a lesson she instilled in all of her children, both biological and adopted, as well as the ones she simply took in off the street or whose parents she counseled for various mental health or drug programs.

Everyone who came to live in her home, be they black, white, Latino, U.S.- or foreign-born, were welcome with open arms and treated as if they were her own.

"People don't understand that when you adopt a child, it's not like they're a stranger," said Bigger, a retired psychiatrist and counselor who practiced in the Santa Barbara area before moving to the Monterey Peninsula 10 years ago. "They're a family member from the moment you adopt them."

Now, the lessons that she instilled in her children have resonated during an arduous international adoption process for her biological son and his wife. Bigger and her family have spent most of the year awaiting the arrival of her yet-to-be adopted grandson from a war-torn Russian state, with an uncertain, and possibly unfulfilled, conclusion.

Bigger's son and daughter-in-law, Jason and Melissa Woods of Oak View, near Santa Barbara, have spent the past year trying to adopt Maksim "Maks" Ignatova. The 3-year-old orphan lives in the town of Ust, Kazakstan, in the former Soviet Union.

The couple came in contact with Maks after enlisting with an organization, Adoption International Inc., that handles the overseas process. It was Jason who took an immediate liking to the young boy.

"He... reminded me of myself a little bit," Jason said of the first time he saw Maks. "We got a video of him early on and just how unsure of himself (he seemed) and I just wanted to bring him some comfort. For some reason, he just kind of called to me."

Kazakhstan is currently in the midst of a violent conflict with its neighboring state, Uzbekistan. The war has only helped to bog down the adoption process in red tape for the past year.

Meanwhile, the family has gotten to know Maks only through pictures and written and verbal reports from the agency and adopting parents from America who have visited the orphanage where he is staying. They speak of him as if he is already living with the family.

"He is my grandson, and when I say that, people look at me like 'How can you say that,'" Bigger said. "The connection is there... He is my grandson as much as anyone can be my grandson."

Still, there is absolutely no guarantee that this will be the case once everything is finalized.

The problem has to do with the constant stream of legalities that has flooded the adoption process. Just filling out the paperwork and getting verification from a number of different authorities, both in the United States and Kazakhstan, has taken more than 10 months, according to a timeline that the couple have kept on their online blog, http://woodstokaz.blog spot.com.

It began in February when they applied with Adoption International and filed the request for adoption; as of late October, the couple were still dealing with clearance from the FBI to possibly bring Maks into the country.

Further complicating matters is the Kazakhstan government's strict rules on adoption. Kazakhstan law states an adoption cannot be made official until the family has met the child and undergone a two-week bonding period. The family must then travel to Almaty, a far-off town in Kazakhstan where a U.S. Embassy provides the paperwork to bring the child home.

The whole process, from bonding to final approval, will take an additional eight weeks at best, assuming the couple get final clearance from both governments to go into the country.

"We were supposed to leave in July. Unfortunately we've had to resubmit our dossier," said Jason Woods, referring to the paperwork that details everything about the couple's personal lives, from professional to medical to legal records. "We've made it further than we have in our paperwork at any point. Now, we're just waiting for a letter of invitation" to the country, he said.

The couple have their sights set on January as the time they will head out to the country, but in the end it may all be for naught. Any number of circumstances may prevent the couple from bringing Maks home.

A failure to connect during the bonding period, or the potential that a distant relative from Maks' family who cannot care for him may decide he or she does not want Maks to leave the country, could curtail the adoption.

"We know it's possible we won't get him and that makes it quite hard," said Melissa. "We'll know a week before we travel if he'll be there and if everything is going to work out timing wise."

The prospect is one that the couple are well aware of, but at the same time they can't dwell on it too much.

"It makes it hard because you have this picture of a child that you've grown to love," Melissa said. "But it's possible that he won't be there when we get there... Or we may not be able to bring him back with us."

Money has also become an issue for the couple. They have estimated it will cost them more than $40,000 to cover registration and adoption fees, as well as the cost of traveling to the country on two separate trips, the first during the bonding period and a second to finalize the adoption.

To cover the cost, Melissa has taken up a collection of old cell phones. She sells the phones to a company that collects the old phones, which are not biodegradable, and then uses the spare parts for various things, including repaving roads in poor countries as well as to make new cell phones.

Melissa discovered the recycling program on the Internet. Bigger has collected close to 100 cell phones at the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Pacific Grove, where she is a volunteer.

"You're not only saving children's lives you're keeping these phones out of landfills," Bigger said. "It's a win-win."

The international adoption process has proven to be taxing for the family. Still, the idea of going outside the country captured them mainly because they had heard stories of unsuccessful domestic adoptions.

"Adoption processes all over have their pros and cons, but for international, we really liked that it was a shorter time," Melissa said, saying that it was a one- to two-year process to get an international adoption, as opposed to a minimum two-year wait for domestic adoptions.

Melissa added, "In domestic (adoptions), the biological parents have a lot of rights. We had heard scary stories about biological parents coming into the picture and the child being removed."

Adoption was an obvious choice for them because of their own upbringings. Melissa's mother and aunt were both raised by adopted parents. Jason has an adopted brother and sister who were raised with him in the family's home in Ventura.

"I grew up with so many different adopted siblings that I think it just gives me a little perspective also on how it might feel to be an adopted child," he said. "I think we're as equipped as anyone to handle it."

Bigger said that she had also raised a few other children that were not her own, including a girl from Mexico whose mother she had counseled. Bigger couldn't adopt the girl because she was not born stateside, but she retained legal guardianship until the girl's 18th birthday.

"She would have been sent back to Mexico to a grandmother who didn't care for her if I hadn't stepped in," Bigger said.

Bigger said she raised the girl Catholic and always made sure that she was aware of her cultural heritage.

"I made it a point to keep the child's culture alive," she said.

And now, with Maks' potential arrival, the couple are doing what they can to ensure that Maks is not only loved, but has a sense of his culture. They have both taken lessons in Russian language, while studying up on the culture and history of the country. All of this is keeping in line with the way Bigger raised her children.

"We have a very UNICEF type of family. It's a real cultural soup right here," Bigger said. "Maks will fit right in here from Russia."

And possibly he will find a home with the Woods family and experience a new life with a group of people who can't wait to meet him.

Want to help? To donate a used cell phone and support the Woods family adoption, send the phone to St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, c/o Dr. Cheryl Bigger, 214 Ave, Pacific Grove.


This article originally appeared in the Monterey Herald, Salinas Bureau, and was written by Marc Cabrera.

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