On a recent afternoon, Georgetown's swank Ipsa salon is filled with an unusual group of customers. About 15 children in bright red shirts crowd around a coffee table looking at fashion magazines, and show off their chosen styles to hovering adults. The normally Zen atmosphere is abuzz with excitement.
Elena looks in the mirror, smiling sweetly as Micki Cheung works on her long brown hair.
Receptionist Roxana Schwenk asks her how old she is. Schwenk holds up her fingers: 9? 10? Elena quickly flashes 10 and two more fingers.
And all the children hanging on the chair, fascinated by the haircut process, follow suit. They are 8, 9, 10 and 11. Past the age when they have more than a slim chance of being adopted in their own countries. They are orphans from Russia and Kazakhstan, brought to Washington by Kidsave International for its six-week Summer Miracles program.
At this moment, the language barrier is a challenge. Sveta, 11, says "No, no, no!" and kicks in frustration when the stylists seat her at the sink to wash her hair. Cheung coaxes Sveta to the barber chair and very slowly trims centimeters off her already short and boyish cut.
Veronique de la Bruyere, coordinator of the Washington Summer Miracles program, explains that before Sveta left for America, her long blond hair was cut off in three big chunks. But by the time Cheung has finished transforming the messy cut into a pretty style, Sveta is grinning.
The nonprofit Kidsave is at the forefront of a trend in international adoptions: bringing children to stay with potential adoptive parents. They can make sure children are healthy, mentally and physically. They can also see if the children will fit into their families.
Of the 714 children who traveled to the United States for a summer vacation with Kidsave from 1999 to 2001, 630 have been adopted by American families. Other groups running summer camps for orphans -- including International Family Services, Cradle of Hope adoption agency and the Frank Foundation -- also report that almost all of their charges have found adoptive families.
Parents considering adopting older children may wonder, says Carol Mardock of IFS, "Are they so horribly damaged by the system that they can't attach? Families find out that it's just the opposite."
The children here for Summer Miracles 2002 seem desperate to attach. They love getting hugs. Many even call their host parents Mama and Papa.
"Although we were told that wasn't significant because they will call any caregiver that, it felt like it was," says Melanie Berkemeyer, who with husband Don is hosting Sasha, 10, and his 9-year-old sister, Maria. "It made it easier to imagine them as part of our family." At 43 and 47, Melanie and Don were "a little terrified by the prospect of diapers and bottles," she says. "An older kid is a little more appropriate for our family," he adds.
The Summer Miracles program found adoptive families for 24 of the 26 children who visited Washington last year. The two children who didn't find homes, says Kidsave President Terry Baugh, had behavioral problems.
But Kidsave has committed to supporting even these difficult cases, and is trying to find the children adoptive families in Russia. Baugh's challenge this summer is Sasha, an 8-year-old who is going to have surgery to repair a cleft palate. Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church has agreed to donate the operation, but Baugh had to find a family to help Sasha recover: "He's been in my house, how can I send him back? The last one who was in my house I adopted. I can't do that anymore."
A few days after Sasha was featured on the Channel 5 News, however, a family came forward and offered to host him. "In the vast majority of cases there's a family out there for a child," Baugh says.
But what if there isn't? Critics of programs like Kidsave worry about those who aren't adopted. All the Summer Miracles children return to their orphanages while families begin the adoption process. Children who are not adopted will see their friends depart the orphanage to return to the United States for good.
"The reason that they're in the orphanage they're in is because of the neglect or trauma they've experienced," says Joyce Maguire Pavao, whose Center for Family Connections provides pre- and post-adoption services. "For them to go back and be settled and make sense of it is one thing, but to see others go back . . . I'm sure these children already have issues of loss."
Pavao would prefer that parents "leave their comfort zone" and travel to the adoptee's country to meet and spend time with him. The California-based Yunona Orphan Relief Fund has begun such an experimental program this summer. The group brings families interested in adoption to summer camps on the Black Sea to spend time with Russian orphans.
Kidsave began when Baugh traveled to Russia to adopt her first child, Dasha, then age 1. At the same time, her colleague Randi Thompson, the executive director of Kidsave, was working in Kazakhstan. They both saw similar problems in the countries' orphanages -- poor facilities, lack of supervision, undernourishment.
Baugh now has three children from Russia -- Luda, 9, Dasha, 10, and Constantine, 12, whom she adopted after he stayed with her during Summer Miracles. Her office in a cramped Dupont Circle brownstone is decorated with her children's drawings and Kidsave mementos: Russian matryoshka dolls, a map of Kazakhstan and a Madonna-and-child icon, which hangs in the window. The office furniture, including a wobbly table, has seen better days. Baugh admits that the energy and funds it takes to run Summer Miracles distracts from Kidsave's broader goal -- "ending the harmful institutionalization of children."
"But for our staff," she says, "seeing and touching these kids, and seeing the difference it makes in their lives, is what motivates people to go on."
The staff and the adoptive families reach out to the community to find the children homes, and to raise the funds it takes to run the program. It costs about $4,500 for each Summer Miracles child, for example. Once they arrive, though, the kids are their own best ambassadors. During a tour of Fresh Fields in Georgetown they recruited another potential Summer Miracles family.
Bruno and Janet Andreades, visiting Washington from Durham, N.C., were eating in the cafe when the children came in and sat down for their lunch. They were polite and quiet, with a giggle here or there, as they wolfed down cheese cubes and fruit.
"When they arrived I was immediately intrigued and I thought they were a beautiful group of children," says Janet, after the couple had spoken to Baugh about hosting. "We will absolutely follow up."
Kidsave seems to have a way of turning adults without a prior interest in adoption into parents. Last summer, Gayle Calahan was volunteering in Kidsave's office when De la Bruyere asked her to host a brother and sister. Calahan -- who with husband Phil Anderson, an Army aviator stationed in Korea, had tried to have children using in vitro fertilization -- "fell in love" with Katya, now 14, and Sasha, now 12. She phoned her husband overseas and said, "You need to meet the kids," Calahan recalled at a recent Kidsave picnic in Georgetown's Montrose Park.
Anderson took an emergency 10-day trip home. "It was very, very comfortable for all of us," Calahan says.
Then they point out Katya and Sasha, playing volleyball nearby, whom Gayle and Phil adopted on Jan. 30. After Summer Miracles all the children -- who come to the United States on tourist visas -- have to return to their orphanages. Then the adoption process can begin.
Before Anderson and Calahan could pick up their children, Gayle called them every week in the orphanage. She has since learned that Katya and Sasha's biological father was alcoholic and abusive. In 1995 the children were removed from their home. Their mother, who died in 1998, "was a loving force in their life, so they know what love is," Calahan says. Still, she marvels, "I don't know how these kids can be so normal."
Of course the Anderson children aren't normal in every respect. They won't, for example, let their parents give them anything. "I would try to give them an allowance for doing the chores," says Calahan. "We had a box where we were saving money to bring Rita over. They would put it in there." Rita, 14, was Katya's best friend in the orphanage. At the picnic, she comes over for a hug from Anderson, looking nervous and uncomfortable. "I told Katya to explain to her that it's just a summer camp," says Calahan. "That was her dream, to get Rita over here, to give her a family."
Elena, the dreamy girl from the salon, and her brother Sasha, 10, are staying with Micale and Bary Maddox, who live in Bethesda. They were "looking into options for having a family" when they heard about Kidsave. "The plight of these kids who are 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and don't stand a chance of being adopted" moved him, Bary says at the Kidsave picnic.
"They're good kids," says Micale. "They're kind to each other. We figure if they have a brother or sister they already have a family, they just need parents."
But the children "bicker, bicker, bicker," says Micale. "We've had a crash course in Parenting 101."
A week later, Micale was looking less nervous when she joined the Summer Miracles group for a lunch hosted by Nora Pouillon at her chic Florida Avenue restaurant. It was not typical Nora fare of yellowfin tuna or Amish duck breast -- for the children she prepared ziti and meatballs.
Her own adopted daughter, Nadia, 12, "told me what they would like. Simple foods. For them to get a banana, it's a treat."
"It's good they're here for six weeks rather than two, because at the end of two, you're like, whoa, no way," Micale Maddox said. "But today I had a realization. I thought about it and realized that I am going to parent these children. I feel much better now."
Elena, sitting next to her and oblivious to the adult conversation, gabbed away in Russian while clutching Maddox's hand.