Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Kevin--The "Other Guy"

It’s been awhile since my last family member post. I got lazy and have no excuses. It’s certainly not because I didn’t want to write about Kevin because in many ways his story is interesting and certainly different. You may have heard the old saying that events and things always happen to “the other guy”? Well, allow me to introduce you to our very own “other guy”, Kevin.

Kevin was born in Korea just like our other kids. He is the younger brother of Christy and Scott and his birth name was Kee Seong. He was nine years old when he came to live with us and was used to being the baby of the family. With us he now had a younger sister and brother (Jennifer and Michael) who took his place as the youngest and it required him to act accordingly. There are still times he acts like the youngest at thirty-three years. For example, during the opening of Christmas presents last year we tried to open them in order of age, the youngest to the oldest. Kevin opened his before most of us had even found a seat! I’m getting ahead of myself and will try to get back to his story.

While still in Korea he and his brother, Scott, were returning from school one afternoon. They were walking alongside the road when a taxi swerved and accidentally hit Kevin. He had surgery to repair the damage to his internal organs and carries a huge scar on his abdomen. There was no long term damage and this became the first known event in Kevin’s “other guy” history.

After his arrival in Ventura he started school in the second grade. Because of his lack of English his teacher elected to have him play with modeling clay on a daily basis. Not much teaching was happening until we received his first parent-teacher conference and saw his lack of progress. His sister and brother, Christy and Scott, had been assigned to dedicated teachers and were making good progress in school; Kevin’s teacher was either overwhelmed with her class requirements or Kevin’s lack of English to give him the attention he needed. After meetings with the school principal to correct this deficiency he went on to do very well in elementary school.

Along this time he began playing soccer in AYSO. He was aggressive, quick, and had played the game in Korea. Soccer was not Kevin’s favorite sport but it provided his next brush with tempting fate. A soccer ball went over a chain link fence and Kevin climbed the fence to retrieve it. All went well until he was returning over the fence and his fore arm caught on the top of the fence and ripped it. The injury required stitches and was to become the first of many visits to the Emergency Room.

When Kevin was in middle school he would ride his bike to school. One day he was riding home and crossing a busy intersection near home. A car didn’t see him and he was hit; he had seen the car coming and moved his leg just in time to avoid serious injury. The impact threw him onto the hood of the car and he then fell to the ground hitting his head. He was knocked unconscious and an ambulance was called. A neighbor saw the accident and came to our door to tell us he was on the way to “the hospital” with no information which hospital or about his condition. After a few anxious moments we determined which hospital and we arrived just after the ambulance had dropped him there. He was now conscious but the doctor wanted to examine him and keep him a short while for observation. Lora tried to fill out the paperwork but was having trouble because her hand was shaking so badly. He had a whopper of a headache but was otherwise unhurt. His bicycle, however, was totaled with a bent frame and wheel.

I suppose we should have been wary when he came to us in high school and wanted to play football? Like his brother, Scott, he was aggressive and quick. He was not, however, very big but he could take a hit and was happy when we gave him permission to play. He was happy until the day he went to make a tackle and dislocated his shoulder. When I got to the stadium he was sitting on the sideline and his face was a deathly shade of gray. I’m told the pain of a dislocated shoulder can be extreme and from the look on his face I would not argue. We went to a sports orthopedist who attempted to put his shoulder back where it belonged. It took two big doctors, a nurse, and me to hold him while they manipulated his shoulder back in place under a local anesthetic. He would later have the shoulder surgically repaired. While at a party several years later a friend tackled him to the floor and they landed on the shoulder re-injuring it again. Today he must be careful how he moves because it still goes out occasionally.

Kevin attended a party given by a friend. It was the typical parents-out-of-town scenario with kids, lots of noise, and alcohol. During the night a group of uninvited guys decided to join the party. Kevin, accompanying the resident kid, went to the group and asked them to leave. The group proceeded to pull out tire irons, knives, and bats and started swinging. Kevin was hit over the head with a tire iron and when down one of the boys tried to stab him multiple times. One attempt was successful and Kevin was taken to the hospital ER. We arrived just as the ER doctor was examining him and determined the six inch knife blade had been stopped by a rib.

The attacker group was somewhat known to Kevin and the others and charges were filed. The guy who stabbed Kevin was on parole and he went to prison. There was lots of drama during the trial where the guy’s pregnant girlfriend confronted Lora in the courtroom after Lora read a statement during the sentencing. Lora accepted the offer of a sheriff’s escort to her car after the incident and we remained wary of strangers in our neighborhood for a long time after.

Just thinking of all these events in Kevin’s life as I write has me thinking about how fortunate most of us are. Kevin on the other hand was not through, yet. He had just started work with one of our local home improvement stores when a young female co-worker challenged him to a street race in his new car. She and her husband were street racing competitors with modified cars and she wanted to show Kevin her skills and provide Kevin with the opportunity to see how his new car might perform. The girl’s husband performed the starter’s role and they were racing their cars around an industrial area, at night, at speeds reaching ninety-five miles per hour. There were no drugs or alcohol involved which was the only fortunate part of this story. The girl rounded a corner and lost control of her car and hit a parked semi-truck at ninety miles an hour. She was killed, instantly, and Kevin and her husband pulled her from the wreckage.

Kevin was convicted for misdemeanor manslaughter for his participation in the race; the husband of the deceased girl was not charged. He was sentenced to serve thirty days in work-furlough and was released in twenty for good behavior. But this was not the end to Kevin’s problems related to this accident. Not long after he received a DUI; he was medicating the severe trauma of the accident and spiraling downward. While awaiting the court date for the DUI he received a second DUI. Now he was really in trouble and was sent to the county jail.

He hadn’t been too long in jail when he contracted pneumonia. He was lucky when a concerned sheriff took notice of his medical condition and rushed him to the hospital ER; the same ER he had visited several times before. His temperature was very high and his condition was critical enough we were told he might not have survived if the deputy had delayed bringing him in much longer. He spent a week in the hospital and was returned to the jail just in time to be released.

On a brighter note, Kevin, is doing well now and appears to be getting back to a more normal routine. Somewhere during his job trail he learned a lot about the wine industry and has become somewhat of an expert of different types, the vineyards, and the subtleties that make a good wine. Kevin is also a people person and has worked extensively with the public where he has a faithful following in the local wine bar/tasting establishments.

Additionally, Kevin appears to be finally dealing in a positive way with the accident. He recently received his driver’s license (restricted) along with insurance to drive. He has started to attend the court ordered AA classes and counseling and has been mentoring a friend through that process.

Kevin has always been an animal lover. His dog, Dozer, keeps him occupied with walks and another reason to act responsibly. His earlier dog, Teddy, is now fourteen and continues to live with us but responds to Kevin as her long term personal human. Kevin’s future looks brighter these days and we’re hopeful that his “other guy” days are over.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Scott--The Contrarian

“Half the people in the world are below average.”—Anonymous

From the earliest reports we have about Scott it’s clear he considered himself above average. In the Initial Social History document, dated May 28, 1984, it states, “…(he) wants to become president in the future.” A progress report the following year has him still claiming presidential goals or becoming a “brave air force officer”.

Scott’s father (the father of Christy and Kevin, too) was a truck driver who died in 1978 when Scott would have been three. We know his father was only thirty years old and that he was a high school graduate. Their mother was an elementary school graduate.

Given this background where would Scott have gained such ambition? My belief is that part is due to the fact he was the first male born into their small family. In Korea, as it is in many male oriented societies, the first male is the designated heir to the family fortunes. As to presidential aspirations I can’t answer; the air force officer is probably due to a nearby American Air Force base. The kids have told us of occasional visits from Air Force personnel who visited the orphanage and would pass out small gifts and candy.

In a later part of our story I’ll relate details of our family visit to South Korea in 1995 and the privilege we had of visiting with Scott’s birth mother, grandparents, and multiple other family members. For now I want to introduce it because it helps to explain how we came to know of the time between Scott’s father’s death and his entrance into the orphanage. We were told during our time with his birth family some of the details of that six year period—

When Scott’s father passed away his mother tried to support her three young children by doing cleaning work. While at work she left the children with her parents. Scott was an energetic and mischievous young boy who gave his grandparents more than they wanted to handle. They were still raising their own children and their youngest about four years older than Scott. As the story goes there finally came a time when it was decided that the grandparents could no longer provide care for Scott and his siblings so their mother placed them for adoption.

In some of the follow up reports about Scott there are brief passages about his commanding personality and resistance to direction. We now know these were hints of challenges we would face when attempting to bond with him and include him as a member of the family unit. These same reports also praised him for his excellence in math, his athletic prowess, and outgoing personality with his peers. Additionally, he easily made friends and could comfortably make conversation with people of all ages.

When Scott arrived in the United States it soon became obvious there were going to be adjustment issues. While in the orphanage he, along with his brother, were more or less in charge of their own daily schedules with little adult supervision. Here, under our roof, there was a sudden stream of instructions of what, and what not, to do and when. This young, independent, and strong willed boy of eleven decided this was not right. One quote from a progress report in 1985 says, “…he fights to the end if he thinks he is right.”

He knew how to take care of himself and needed no adult intervention. This was particularly so when Lora attempted to tell him what was needed. We believe Lora represented the mother, and grandmother, who had abandoned him in Korea and he was still very angry. So much so he would willfully defy Lora’s direction and yell at her in defiance. With me he could be defiant but rarely dared to yell and he would finally yield to my authority.

On one day as I entered our home I came across Lora and Scott in a heated argument. She was crying and he was loudly yelling at her. I didn’t know the reasons and honestly didn’t care. I had had enough of his bold disobedience. I grabbed him by the front of his shirt and lifted him off the ground; there was a cabinet corner directly behind him and I roughly pushed his head into it with a loud crack. Lucky for me he wasn’t hurt (it is widely known Korean heads are hard!). It ended the yelling and argument but I knew I had made a serious mistake and I was scared.

Never before had I lost my temper to the point of violence. I had just committed child abuse on a child belonging to the State of California. I reported myself to the adoption agency who was obligated to report me to the county authorities. I was visited by an officer of the county and was ordered to undergo counseling. I learned we all have a breaking point but there are better ways to deal with the anger besides damaging a child.

This incident would delay our normal finalization of adopting Scott, Kevin and Christy because of the counseling. It was further delayed because Scott’s age required his written consent and he refused. Christy and Kevin were ready to sign their consent but wanted to wait for Scott to be included. Twenty-nine months (the minimum wait is six months) later on April 20, 1989 we finally went to court to legally adopt him and the others. In front of Judge McNally, Scott suddenly had a change of heart and refused, again. The judge, with infinite wisdom, simply turned to Christy and Kevin and asked them if they wanted to proceed without Scott—they answered, “Yes”. Upon seeing the boat leaving without him he decided then to join us and signed his consent.
There were positive stories during this turbulent transition for Scott. In January 1987 he tested 88.0% in math after being in the U.S. only two months and still struggling with a new language. His fifth grade teacher took a personal interest in assisting Scott with his transition to America. She made it possible for him to be included in the outdoor school experience when we couldn’t afford to send him. She encouraged him with his studies and he ended fifth grade with “Outstanding” marks in Math, Spelling, and Accepting Responsibility. In middle school the next year he scored in the 90th percentile in math. His language skills still hovered in the 20-30th percentile but he was learning fast!

#23 on defense, Scott Ruffin

Then in high school Scott wanted to play football. I figured it was just the sort of physical activity to use some of his boundless energy. The school had an academic requirement of a “C” grade average to participate in sports; given Scott’s desire to play I made it a “B” average because I knew he was capable of more. He rose to the challenge and made Honor Roll! He played aggressively until he damaged his shoulder tackling a runner and his football days were over.

Going to the prom in high school.

He then tried baseball with limited success. Here he was playing with kids brought up in the Little League system and his lack of experience made it obvious he would not be a competitive member of the team. He moved from there to soccer and here he found his upbringing gave him the ability to contribute to the team’s success. He had played soccer while in the orphanage and was noted for his quickness and aggressive play. On the high school varsity team he played defense with his speed and fearless attack of anyone trying to move the ball past him. Playing soccer at the high school level is almost as physical as football without helmets and padding and he did well.

Scott graduation from high school.

After high school Scott did a brief stint in the United States Navy. He trained to be a fireman and was part of a damage control team aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kittyhawk during an Indian Ocean deployment. Memories of my Naval Aviation experience were brought back to life via Scott’s experience on the carrier. His goal of someday becoming a fireman were cut short, however, when an unfortunate accident nearly cost him his leg and he was excused from further duty.

Out of the Navy Scott went into the building trades as a pipe fitter/plumber. He successfully completed a five year certification course through the local community college and continues to earn additional licenses. Being a pipe fitter allows Scott to exercise his math excellence in a real world vocation. The challenge with his work has been the availability of jobs in our down economy. He has moved where the jobs are and has recently returned from Washington for a project here in Ventura.

Scott at Michael's graduation from San Francisco State University.

Scott, at thirty-five (2010), is single. He has had steady girlfriends and was engaged for a short time. By his own admission he is a difficult person to be with in a relationship. We believe, and he has agreed, that he is subconsciously challenging any woman in his life to stick with him due to abandonment issues as a young boy. He is generous to a fault, has a kind heart, is a loving uncle to his niece and nephew, and is a loyal friend. It will, however, take a strong woman to share life with Scott.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Determined--Christy's Story

“Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.” - Lou Holtz

I was tempted to name Christy’s story, “Stubborn”. In the end, however, I settled on “Determined” because it’s more positive. “Christy’s Story” deserves to be a positive story of hope and personal determination (stubbornness?) to live the American dream. From the moment we first saw her in Korea she has been hard working and dedicated to experience all she can—she is a daughter any parent would be proud to call their own.

Her entrance into middle school in December, 1986 was a significant challenge. She had not been in school for three years; did not speak English; and, she was older than her classmates by almost two years. Her home room teacher took Christy under her wing and provided her with a safe environment where she learn at a pace she could tolerate. Of great benefit was our Korean dentist’s wife who took time from her own young family to tutor Christy and her brothers. And she had the help of another adoptive mother who, even though she was not Korean speaking, managed to supplement Christy’s early English education.

Through sheer determination she excelled. English continued to be a challenge until high school graduation but in her other subjects she earned excellent grades. Math, history, science, and P.E. did not have the same writing requirements as an English class. Because her teachers recognized her willingness to accept responsibility for her studies they made allowances for her. And she thrived!

When Christy arrived she was an awkward, shy, and quiet young girl. She quickly gained what we called her “American persona”. The clothes we bought in Korea for her homecoming were not the kind of clothes her classmates wore to school. Her ungainly walk turned into the “slinky” walk of a young female teenager. She laughed and chatted as she walked to school with new friends. She wanted it all and she absorbed her new lease-on-life with a voracious appetite.

She still retained her “mother” role with her two brothers. When they were too rowdy or disrespectful she would rattle off a heated stream of Korean. And even to this day she continues to be their guardian; the older sister who would not abandon them in the orphanage. Interestingly, they still turn to her for help after all these years.

Three years after her arrival she entered high school. By now she was “all American” and into the experience of being an older teen. She tried out for the girl’s soccer team but her lack of experience made her non-competitive. She knew I had been a long distance runner and asked me to “coach” her before she went for try-outs. I wasn’t running anymore but I agreed to ride my bike alongside and do what I could to help. She turned out to be a natural runner with a compact, smooth stride. I watched her that first day and told her I couldn’t help her anymore. She just needed to run to get more fit with the training schedule I gave her.

This is when we learned that Christy’s “determination” was also competitive. She was as dogged in her dedication to be a competitive runner as she had been in her studies. She tried out for the Cross-Country team and earned her spot with good times. She became one of the best contributors and typically finished first or second place for the varsity team. Christy applied her same hard work ethic to the track team and became one of their leading runners for the distance events.

Her team and coach recognized her achievements when she won the Dia Rounds Award for 1993. This award was in honor of a young lady who had exemplified the same hard work and determination to excel in Cross-Country and Track before she was unfortunately killed in an automobile accident. Winning this award was a proud moment in our lives and affirmed our adoption decision.

Christy still struggled with writing the English language. In her senior year she had yet to pass the English proficiency exam. On the last opportunity she earned a passing grade and was now ready to graduate from high school. We didn’t know before this, however, that she was going to graduate with Honors! Her class had over five hundred students; she was one of nineteen students to graduate with Honors that day. Again, what a testament to Christy’s determination to do it all! She had been in the United States less than seven years and had already achieved so much.

Christy from 8 years to high school graduation. (Click on picture to zoom)
There is a darker side to Christy. Many times as a teen she would enter into what we came to call her “Princess Dark Cloud” personality. These were typically brought on by disagreements with her siblings or when we exercised “parental guidance” on some subject. She would literally not talk for days. On several episodes of non-talk I would finally just sit on her bed and talk to her until she began to respond. There were times I spoke for over two hours before breaking through. The silver lining here was that we developed a close bond that continues to this day.

Christy continued her education by attending junior college near our home. She earned her AA Degree but again writing English was a roadblock. There is some disagreement as to why Christy stopped any further college. As it stands now, if she elects to go back to earn a degree, she has an open offer that her school costs would be our responsibility.

Somewhere along this time we had a major falling out caused by a misunderstanding. Christy felt wrongly accused and we didn’t back off on our interpretation of the events that caused the rift. As a consequence Christy moved out and we didn’t communicate the better part of six months. We finally agreed to disagree because we missed her and wanted to be a part of her life. We had seen adoptees estranged from their adoptive parents and we were determined not to have that happen to us.

When Christy was old enough to work she got a job. Her first employer was Taco Bell. It was located only a few blocks from home and she usually walked to work. After her shift was over, however, we would pick her up because it was dark. I still remember the smell of her clothes when she got in the car—yuk! It was a sickening blend of spoiled lettuce, ground beef, salsa, beans, and who knows what else.

With her employment she was earning money. She soon saved up enough to purchase her first car, a 1972 Mustang. It was in great shape, ran well, and offered her a level of freedom never before experienced. She did not know how to drive so I became a driving teacher. We have a joke between us that she still does not know the meaning of a green signal versus red. One of our earlier lessons had her careening around a corner on two wheels right through a red light; she claims it was green but at the speed she was driving she couldn’t have seen it! We laugh now but at the time it was not funny.


All during high school, college, and after there was an interest in the boys. Some of them had our approval and some did not. She was working at Sav-On Drugs when she met their Coke rep, Shane. At six foot-three he was as tall as she is small (Christy is five-three). Soon we were helping with wedding plans with a date set for October 7, 2000. Christy and Shane were married with Jennifer as part of the wedding party and Shane’s long time friend as his best man. They honeymooned aboard the Disney cruise ship in the Caribbean and enjoyed the blue waters and warm breezes.

You should see by now Christy’s determination to work hard, experience life and to take advantage of opportunities afforded her? Not long after her wedding she began the tedious process of becoming a United States citizen. Many people we’ve talked to over the years are surprised to learn that citizenship does not come with adoption. Some of the rules have changed for younger adoptees but it’s not automatic and older kids still go through the entire application process. It was another proud day when we traveled to the Pomona Fairgrounds to watch Christy, along with 3,000 other applicants, swear allegiance to the United States.
Grandkids Alexis and Zachary
As Christy stood during her citizen ceremony she was pregnant. On August 27, 2002, Alexis Mae was born after nearly twenty-four hours of labor. Christy gave me and Lora permission to be with her in the delivery room; after five kids and not seeing any of them being born it was a supreme privilege. In June of 2004 Zachary Tyler joined their young family. Again, Christy allowed me in the delivery room and the marvel of his birth was amazing. I still get tears in my eyes when I think of watching my grandkids being born.

Christy and Shane had their kids while living in a good sized condominium which was perfect for their first home. But again Christy wanted more and they purchased their first home just a few miles from us. They bought a nice three bedroom house near an elementary school where the kids now attend. It’s been difficult for them since they bought when the market hit its peak but I’m confident our determined daughter will prevail and make it through the challenge.

Christy is still running and I’ve started again, too. In the past three years we’ve run lots of training miles and have completed one marathon and two half marathons. She’s nice enough to start with me but I’m soon running alone. I hope we can continue for many years to come because it continues to nurture that bond we developed many years ago.

My next story is going to be about Scott who is now thirty-five. Scott’s tale will be quite different from the others because he has, without apology, challenged us for most of the time he’s been home. Let’s call his story, “Scott, the Contrarian”.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Zero-To-Five In Three Years

In an earlier post I talked about the difficulty of going from one child to two and how the effort and energy expended just didn’t seem proportional. I know now that it was only preparing us for the leap from two to five. Jennifer, our first, had arrived in October 1983. In November of 1986 we were now the parents of five! How did we do it??? We still ask ourselves that question.

We named the Huh Siblings as follows: Eun Kyung became Christina Joy (Christy), Kee Haeng changed to Scott Robert, and Kee Seong, Kevin Walter. Joy was my mother's middle name; Robert was my father's name, and Walter was the middle name of Lora’s father. They spoke no English beyond hello, good-bye, and thank you. They could count to ten and had learned their ABC’s but had no idea how to use either. While still in Korea, I used my "survival Korean" to get them to come, sit, be quiet, hello, and thank you. Its amazing how much can be accomplished with so little!

Our arrival at Los Angeles International Airport on November 18, 1986 was a story in itself. We were greeted in the immigration and customs area by representatives of our agency who were volunteers authorized into the secured areas. They were there to help us through the inspection of the kids' visas, travel certificates and baggage. One of them collected the paperwork to hold while I loaded our large, heavy bags onto a cart. She then left the area to report back to Lora, who was waiting upstairs, that we were there and it would take awhile for us to get through the lines. Meanwhile, we're now in line without any paperwork—do you see the problem, yet? The officials didn't like us standing before them without identification and we were now subject to their arbitrary wrath. We were finally able to get our volunteer back downstairs with the papers but the damage was already done.

While in Korea I had purchased lots of shoes and clothing because the kids would be coming home with just the clothes on their backs. The customs officer grilled me about my reasons for attempting to bring so much past her table. It didn't seem to matter that I was accompanied by three children who were entering the United States to be adopted. She inspected every item in our bags which had to be re-packed once she was satisfied. She also levied a tax for the amount in excess of our allowance; the person ahead of me had spent double my purchases yet she was cleared without an inspection or tax. We had officially ticked off the system and our “friendly” customs inspector made it her duty to punish me. After more than two hours we were finally cleared while the rest of our fellow passengers were long gone.

The initial meeting upstairs was exciting and tearful. Lora and family members, after their long wait, were rewarded with our smiling faces and relieved we had finally made it. As for me, I was just relieved. The entire trip had been physically and emotionally stressful. I didn't realize how stressful until we boarded the plane in Korea; I collapsed into my seat and started shaking with what felt like a fever. Fortunately, the plane was not full and I was able to stretch out across several seats and sleep a good portion of the twelve hour flight. I remember awakening at one point and the kids were sleeping alongside me; I learned they were concerned about me and wanted to be close in case I needed help.

Aside from the stress of adoption issues was the political unrest in Korea while we were there. It was rumored that the president of North Korea had been assassinated. South Korea was on high alert with all public transportation, and some street corners, guarded by armed soldiers. One of our paperwork issues required the American embassy to endorse a document and notarize our signatures. (Notice I said, "Our" signatures; they wanted Lora's signature, too. I was finally able to convince them that my signature would be sufficient since she was home in the states with no way to notarize her signature before our departure.) Getting into the embassy grounds required us to vacate our vehicle while it was searched for bombs. My briefcase, filled with adoption documents, was searched, as well. In addition, as we approached the airport for our return flight we would go through the same search procedure; my thought at the time was, "Just get me out of here!"

Finally, we arrived home in Ventura. Michael was going to share his room with Scott and Kevin. Jennifer was going to bunk with her new older sister, Christy. Our home was small and their rooms are about 9x9 feet square. Bunk beds were the only way the three boys would fit. Our kitchen table wasn't really big enough for seven but it would have to do for now. Although we had two baths only one had a shower which was off our bedroom. That one shower ended up being used by all seven family members. After many years and thousands of showers it would require a complete demolition to repair the damage.

We had made arrangements with a young Korean adoptee to live with us the first two weeks of the kid's homecoming. She was invaluable in being able to communicate, in Korean, the daily routines including the use of the bathroom, the shower, dirty clothes, and our expectations about helping with the household chores. She was in high school and spent the night on our couch. We couldn't have done it without her and we would recommend a similar arrangement as a way to make it easier on everyone during a very difficult adjustment for older adoptees.

We had planned to start the kids in school after the Christmas holidays. Around the first of December, however, they communicated that they were bored and wanted to go to school. We had already met with the schools to give them a head's up about three Korean speaking children coming to enroll. In preparation, I had attended a bi-lingual parent meeting before traveling to Korea; the meeting was conducted in Spanish! One of the presenters recognized my lack of understanding and translated for me. There were no Korean interpreters, tutors, or assistance being offered for our situation. After the kid's arrival we did find language help but it was without the school district's assistance. Christy, at thirteen, entered sixth grade. Scott would enter fifth and Kevin third.

Although Christy, Scott, and Kevin spoke no English they were essentially given the same expectations to complete their daily studies as their English speaking classmates. Christy was fortunate because her home room teacher took extra time and patience to encourage her. Scott, too, was lucky to have a wonderful teacher who made his transition much easier. Kevin, by contrast, had a teacher who was overwhelmed at the difficulty of working with a non-English speaking student and gave him a block of clay to keep him busy throughout the day. We didn’t learn of Kevin’s lack of instruction until parent conferences in the spring of 1987.

Homework became a nightly ritual that required one-on-one time. Many nights were spent sitting at the kitchen table with all three. They sat armed with their Korean-to-English dictionaries; I had my English-to-Korean dictionary and together we connected the dots in their lessons. Much of the time it was a form of charades or a key word that got the message across. They readily understood math problems because math is a universal language, however, their counting and figuring in Korean left me in the dark if they didn’t come up with the correct answer.

When one is immersed into a new culture and language verbal skills develop first. Then comes reading with writing being the last and hardest skill to acquire. The kids did a remarkable job of trying to use English from the beginning. Arguments, however, reverted back to their native language and from the sound were quite heated. So we made a rule that arguments had to be in English. It slowed them down for awhile but they soon adapted and were yelling in heavily accented English. We also began to notice certain Korean words had special emphasis and we could only imagine what the translation was!

One of the more difficult challenges we faced was the age differences of our two sets of kids. The younger ones were still infants and required lots of attention and care. The older kids, however, had never really received the same nurturing and their perception was (and to some extent still is) that they were somehow second-class citizen’s less worthy of our consideration. We tried our best to treat all of our children, equally, in an age appropriate way. It has been a hard, thin line for us as parents and it was totally unexpected.

I need to stop now to organize my thoughts about Christy, Scott, and Kevin. Each will get their own story but it will differ from Jennifer and Michael. You already have their homecoming story and a little of the transition to life in the United States. My next post will concentrate on Christy and her resolve to take full advantage of the opportunities with her new family. I’m going to call it, “Determined—Christy’s Story”.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Leap of Faith

This is the story of our day in Pyongtaek. Although this is the name of a small town the adoption agency referred to their orphanage located there by the same name. This was to be my first experience of visiting an orphanage. I anticipated the emotions but until you’ve been there you cannot imagine. It is here where the title of this post originated, “You Can’t Save Them All.” I walked around the entire time, with my camera in my upraised hands, trying to avoid each little hand that reached up to me for a touch, a hug, or any loving touch I could give. The children pictures are a collection of pictures taken this day as well as on subsequent trips.

Ho Mi Yung at Pyongtaek
There was, however, one face that appeared at nearly every corner we turned. She had a sweet, sad smile on her face and we couldn’t help but notice her. Lora and I whispered to each other that perhaps she might make a nice older sister to Jennifer and Michael. We thought she was about ten years old. You see her here in the cafeteria lunch line just as we first saw her. Our hosts noticed our interest and asked if we wanted to know more about her? Cautiously, we said yes. They told us she was thirteen and had been in the orphanage since she was ten. We understood them to say her name was Ho Mi Yung (phonetic spelling—we had it all wrong but it will do for now). Still showing some interest we had our picture taken with her.

It was at our lunch afterward when our hosts told us she had two brothers at Pyongtaek. That was all we needed to hear, there was no way we were going to adopt three more kids; especially a sibling group of older children! Thanks, but no thanks! We would have to be insane to even consider it.

Allow me to relate another lesson in the realities of female children at Pyongtaek. Ho Mi Yung was thirteen and had not been in school since arriving in the orphanage. She was too old to attend school because it required a small tuition; any available funds would go to the male orphans. She “earned” her room and board by being a caretaker of small children. Look closely, you’ll be able to pick her out in some of the pictures. At sixteen she would have to leave the orphanage and provide for herself without an education or skills to get employment. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination but it was not an easy life awaiting her.

We returned home to Ventura and our two infants on July 1st, 1986. Jennifer and Michael had stayed at my sister’s during our two week trip and we were relieved they remembered us. We, on the other hand, still remembered Ho Mi Yung. Between the two of us we discussed the insanity of bringing all three into our home. Most days one of us was pro with the other against; until one day we found ourselves on the same side. We thought we knew how difficult it would be; and we also knew we could offer them a better life with a loving home and an education.

We contacted our agency director and asked if she could make inquiries that might lead to adoption. Their referral was in Minnesota and the agency was happy to forward us their file for review prior to our final decision. We learned their correct names; Ho Mi Yung was actually Huh, Eun Kyung and her brothers were Huh, Kee Haeng and Huh, Kee Seong. Eun Kyung was thirteen, Kee Haeng was eleven, and Kee Seong was nine.

Huh Siblings--Eun Kyung, Kee Haeng & Kee Seong at Pyongtaek

Their story was much like some of the cultural information shared earlier. Their natural father was dead and their mother had tried, in vain, to provide for them. She had placed them in her parent’s care but they were still raising their family, too. Finally, they were placed in one of the regional orphanages on Eun Kyung’s tenth birthday and soon transferred to Pyongtaek. While at Pyongtaek, Eun Kyung was offered placement with several families but she would not leave her brothers.
Huh Siblings in new home--Ventura, CA USA!
Older children are termed “hard-to-place”; and older siblings are closer to “impossible”. They stayed there with little hope of adoption until the “plan” introduced them to us. We gave the final okay and in November (just four months after our first trip) I traveled to South Korea to take custody of the Huh Siblings. I had just started a new job and asked for five days leave to bring them home. I ended up being gone ten days due to paperwork issues. Fortunately, my new employer was fully supportive and actually gave me paid vacation time!

This post was all about “You Can’t Save Them All”. We, on the other hand, were doing our best to save all we thought we could afford and fit into our small home. Our first two, Jennifer and Michael, were to fulfill our needs to be parents; adopting the next three was more about giving them a chance to have a better life. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty but there is a huge need for people who have hearts to love children and can find room to give them a home.

In my next post I’ll share our experiences of adopting older siblings and their transition to life in the United States. It is not a story for the faint of heart. Please return for “Zero to Five in Three Years”.

You Can't Save Them All

Cousin Greg, Michael & Jennifer
In 1984 Ventura County lost its state funding to operate the Intercountry Adoption program. By now, we knew dozens of couples who had adopted and many of them wanted to adopt another child. In addition, there were many couples, just like us, who had reviewed their options to begin a family and were looking at international adoption because of the lower risk.

There was an obvious need for international adoptions to continue. I don’t recall the exact origin of the conversation but I remember the first gathering of several couples to explore starting our own adoption agency. We determined we had a core group of couples who would commit to making the idea come alive. One of our couples provided legal expertise, another helped with the finances, another had political connections that helped with the state bureaucracy, and others had small business experience.

Many meetings later, Adoption Services International (ASI), was licensed to provide adoptions in Ventura County. Legally it was California Adoption Services but we did business as ASI to avoid confusion with being a state agency. We hired our social worker away from the county to be our agency director. She knew the technical and legal necessities of adoption and she had contacts in South Korea where children were waiting for families.

Me, I was a volunteer ready to lend a hand wherever needed and I had good business and organization skills. I was also a salesperson and therefore had the “mouth”. At one of those early meetings my talented “mouth” got the better of me and I found myself voted the Board of Directors’ President. This was no lofty title—it meant I was the “Head Volunteer” and spokesperson for the group.
Michael & Jennifer
By now you can see how the “plan” was beginning to emerge? Imagine the difference in our lives if we had been able to have our own children? There would have been no Jennifer or Michael and the adoption agency, if it happened, would have been without the “mouth”. The “plan” continued to take shape and our own family was about to take a gigantic leap of faith.

In the summer of 1986 the Board of Directors decided we needed a face-to-face meeting with our South Korean partners. So far, all arrangements for working together had been done via phone, fax, and letters. During the preliminary negotiations we determined our license to deliver adoption services in Ventura County needed expansion to the entire state. We were being led to believe we could receive up to two hundred referrals per year and we were anxious to share with South Korea our readiness to accept responsibility for these children.

In late June, 1986, we departed Los Angeles International Airport for Seoul, South Korea. Our delegation included me, Lora, our agency director, one of her adopted Korean daughters, and our director’s stepmother. Later, the joke was that I was along for the trip because the ladies needed someone to carry the heavy shopping bags. They nicknamed me “sherp”, short for the Sherpa mountain guides who carry unbelievable loads to the summit of Mount Everest.

Danny in Seoul, South Korea
South Korea, in 1986, was still two years from the Seoul Summer Olympics. Most of the street and store signs were written only in Korean and therefore a challenge for us. When I was in the Navy I visited many foreign countries in Europe but this was my first visit to the Far East. The sounds, smells, and food were different from anything I had experienced so far. Our hosts had good English language skills but my ear was not accustomed to understanding English with a Korean accent.

Therefore, when we went to meet with the head of our partner agency, my presentation to him was going to be difficult and stressful. He was a surgeon trained in the United States with good English language skills but this turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Bluntly, he informed us that our information regarding two hundred referrals was incorrect and our state-wide California license was of no interest to him. It was then I became a believer in telepathic messaging; our director and I exchanged looks of bewilderment and somehow managed to communicate without the benefit of words. What I said next to our host is lost now in the confusion but we somehow conveyed we would be happy to work with his agency on whatever terms he was dictating. This appeared to satisfy his ego and we were left to figure out how we were going to downsize our statewide strategy when we returned home.

Family Reunion 1986

The next days were filled with more meetings along with sightseeing, shopping, and the reunion of our director’s daughter with her Korean sisters. Pictured here you see her in the red dress along with her sisters and a young niece. The lady on the right was our director.

We also took a tour of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea and experienced the very real tensions under the watchful eyes of North Korean border guards. In the building where the armistice was signed we walked to the North Korean side of the negotiating table, and for the moment, we were in North Korea.

This seems like a good place to end this part of our South Korean trip. Up to this point we were occupied with the business of the agency and making attempts to establish a working relationship with our South Korean partners. Overall, the trip was a huge success and our arrangement with them lasted fifteen years and hundreds of children. The last journey on our visit included a visit to the countryside, south of Seoul, to visit the orphanage site named, “Pyongtaek”, shown here at left. Join us for the ride as we come face-to-face with our own “A Leap of Faith”.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Michael--I Want A Son

Michael’s story begins before we finalized Jennifer’s adoption. We had planned to adopt another child but we also thought we would wait a year or two before beginning the process. Much like natural childbirth, having another child right away is not foremost in your mind.

Recall that the Intercountry Adoption program in Ventura County was the one and only county in all of California to benefit from state funds to operate? Well, soon after Jennifer’s arrival we learned that California was going to discontinue its support and the county would be out of the intercountry adoption business. We could, however, make application right away for another child in a race to beat the closing deadline.

So we dove into the tedious paperwork process including another round of home-study interviews. By now we were well acquainted with our social worker. In truth, she could have written her evaluation without our participation but for one minor detail. During our last interview she paused and asked the one question we hadn’t covered. Was our next child to be girl or a boy? At that time it was possible to state a preference. Later rules allowed the choice of a boy or girl on your first adoption while subsequent adoptions were based on available children and their needs. Lora immediately answered it was to be a girl—I looked at her and said, “I want a son.” Our social worker, with a slight smile on her face, suggested we take a break to discuss our differences!

Lora explained that a girl would benefit from having an older sister and share a room as she had done with her twin sister, Lorna. She could also use her older sister’s hand-me-downs and we could save on the expense. Lora provided good, logical reasons for another girl except I wanted a son. Lora was sensitive to my wishes and we agreed on the spot that our next child would be a boy. We could not submit our final adoption paperwork until Jennifer’s legal adoption was complete in April, 1984.

Here, again, we believe there was a plan at work. Going through Ventura County for adoption was less expensive and therefore desirable. We were going to be able to adopt both of our children through this program before its closure. Also, remember the two couples who had gone through domestic adoption and were fighting for custody? (See “Crossroads” post) On the day we went to court to formally adopt Jennifer we knew one of those two couples was to be there to finalize the adoption of their little girl. They asked us not to acknowledge them during our wait outside the court because the birth parents did not know them by sight. Our greeting, using their names, would have told the birth parents who to approach before losing their custody rights in this final court appearance. We made the right decision!

We were now in the “hurry up and wait” period, again. We received approval for placement of a healthy male infant under the age of six months without delay. The next step would be the child referral. His name would be Michael Lee. Lee is my middle name and we both liked Michael. Now we needed his referral to put a face with the name.

Michael was born on July 23, 1984. He was 6 pounds, 9 ounces and 19 ¼ inches long. His birth parents were a young unmarried couple and did not plan to marry. He was placed for adoption on July 28th.

Here is where I want to explain a little about the Korean culture so that you have a better understanding of how a child like Michael is placed for adoption. The Korean culture is very old and proud. A big part of this proud way of life is the “blood line”. A child, born of a marriage between two Korean adults becomes a member of the family’s blood line, pure and unadulterated. A child, like Michael, does not have the marriage requirement and will not unless the couple marries or the father recognizes the child by providing some sort of support. The father will not give this support, typically, because by doing so it legitimizes the family ties. If the child is the offspring of a bi-racial marriage it cannot be recognized in the family. Additionally, the child of one man will not be accepted by a new husband in the event of the father’s death or divorce. And finally, because of the male dominance in the workplace, a single mother will often find it impossible to provide for her child and will relinquish the child for adoption.

A domestic adoption, in Korea, has been done by couples unable to have their own children. It is, however, a rare occurrence because of the blood issue. Couples have been known to move to an area away from family and friends so that the “pregnancy” can produce a child complete with the mother-to-be wearing padding to simulate being with child, etc.

We did not learn of Michael’s existence until October, 1984, nearly a year after Jennifer came home. As you might guess, it appears our process was moving quickly but when you are waiting parents nothing seems quick! Our expectation, based on our Jennifer experience, was we might be parents of our son sometime around the New Year?

On November 15, about a month after receiving his referral we were awakened by a knock at the front door. When we opened the door there stood our social worker with a grin. Without any explanation she said, “How about tomorrow?” Wow!

We had spent months preparing Jennifer’s room. Before her arrival we had a crib, dressing table, a chest with clothes and diapers, and a closet full of more clothes. For Michael, we had nothing! Never did we anticipate he would be arriving so soon and we actually had counted on Christmas to supply some of the essentials through gifts. We now had to scramble and get ready in twenty-four hours. Fortunately, the adoption support group came to our rescue with the necessities of bringing Michael home. Still, I was assembling his borrowed crib at 11:00 p.m. the night before.

The scene at the airport was familiar with our family and adoptive parents mingling with nervous anticipation. Michael’s flight, like Jennifer’s, had cleared customs and immigration in Seattle so our wait would be brief once he landed. When the plane door opened our social worker had permission to go aboard to get Michael. Shortly, she returned through the door and placed Michael into my arms—I had my son!

The first few days are now a blur but the first few months were memorable. It’s not fair to draw comparisons of our children’s behavior but the difference here was like night and day. I’m including it in our story because it points to our expectations and how we handled/mishandled the unexpected. Where Jennifer had been quiet and content Michael was demanding and wanted to be held all the time. Lora has said his cry was like he was mourning the loss of his foster mother’s embrace and there was nothing we could do to salve the pain. There were times we felt we had made a very serious mistake adopting another child so soon. One child plus one child did not equal two—we felt we had taken one child and now had four or five when counting the sleepless hours, diaper changes, feedings, and laundry.

Now we were the parents of two infants only fifteen months apart. Michael was four months with Jennifer a “big” nineteen months. I make a point of calling her the “big” sister because we treated her as though she was much older. In some respects I believe we did this unfairly although not consciously on our part. We hope you keep this in mind if faced with a similar situation.

Again, I would like to tell Michael’s story to adulthood in more detail later. For now here is a brief summary to the present—Michael’s adoption was complete on August 19, 1985. He is now twenty-five (2009). He went to the same neighborhood schools and graduated from high school in 2002. He played the trumpet in middle school which makes him the only child in our family to follow Dad’s musical interests; now he plays guitar, too. He was a standout soccer player from the age of five in AYSO, club soccer, and played on his high school team until breaking his ankle. At ten years old he and I started playing golf; I still “play” and he now shows me how the game is really played by scoring on a bad day in the low 80’s. (He plays only once or twice each quarter.) He was a member of his high school golf team and was their number one player. He graduated from California State University-San Francisco in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Statistics with an Emphasis in Economics. He is now in his final semester of his Master’s studies and will receive his Master of Science degree this spring (2010) in Mathematics with an Option in Applied Statistics at California State University-Long Beach. He plans to continue his education by earning a PhD after a year of practical work experience.

Most of all, we are proud and fortunate parents to have a son like Michael! Some of his early years were not all easy as you will learn later. The maturity he has exhibited the last few years with his studies has more than accounted for any trials we endured as his father and mother. We are excited by his future prospects and we will continue to support him in his efforts to achieve his goals.

My next installment on our blog is going to take a detour from introducing you to the Ruffin Family. You will learn of our involvement in the adoption community and how we assisted hundreds of children to come home to a loving family. It will be another step in our journey according to the “plan”. Please return for—“You Can’t Save Them All”.