The Culture Challenge
Parents who adopt internationally find diverse
ways to connect kids with their native heritage.

by Tom Livingston

Delaware Valley parents who adopt children from other countries encounter a challenge typically faced by immigrant families: How should they connect their kids with their native cultures?

Whether to teach children their native languages seems to be a key divide. For example, many families who have adopted from China regard Chinese language instruction as the lynchpin in providing cultural education. Families of kids from Russia tend to seek each other's company, attend festivals and often connect through church groups, but language classes are seldom a factor.

Sam Wojnilower is the Russian program coordinator for Adoptions of the Heart and the adoptive parent of twin 6-year-old girls and a son, age 4. He says his kids have learned a few Russian words, but learning language is not a priority. "I think it's important that we help the kids develop a positive sense of their origins and pride in their countries of birth," he says.

The Wojnilowers take their kids to cultural events such as the annual Russian festival at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, to Russian restaurants and to an annual holiday party featuring the fairy tale figure Father Frost, sponsored by FRUA (Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption).

For More Info

Adoptions From The Heart,
Wynne-wood, PA 19096,

After Adoption and Parenting Services for Families, Phila.,

BRAG: Building Relationships through Adoptions from Guatemala,

Ding Hao Chinese School, Radnor, PA, 610-527-2548,

FCC: Families with Children from China (Delaware Valley Chapter),,

FRUA: Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, Philadelphia Chapter, Jennifer Greenman,

South Jersey Adoption Group,

Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center, Jenkintown, PA,

“One thing we recommend to the families we work with, is when they go to bring back their children, they take pictures and bring back various cultural items that they can later share,” he says. “We have pictures of the places that they’re from, toys and dolls, different things that the children can see and play with and make positive associations.”

Building Relationships
First things first, says Elaine Frank, co-director of After Adoption and Parenting Services for Families. "A child who comes from an orphanage can take at least six months, if not three years, just to experience what it means to have a mother and father, to know what to expect."

"We encourage parents not to send the kids to full day care or school for the first six months. We support forming an attachment, a positive parent-child relationship. The kids have to get over the losses they have experienced and connect in a way that they feel they really belong to you."

Frank sees imparting the child's native culture as an opportunity for the family to enjoy activities together. As parents learn their child's interests and temperament, they can gauge what sort of activities will work best.

"When you think about any kind of immigrants, they hold onto their culture in some ways and assimilate in others," she says. She cites the experience of an 11-year-old girl adopted from China whose school decided to replace French instruction with Chinese. "She was incensed," says Frank. "She wanted to learn French!"

Chinese Dynamo
Many kids adopted from China have no such qualms, in large part because of the dynamic tutelage of Betty Foo, who received national recognition last month as an Angel in Adoption, presented by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Foo founded the Ding Hao Chinese School in Radnor, PA, for kids whose parents are not fluent in Chinese. About two-thirds of the 160 students, ages 3-14, are adopted. She has started a second school, Ming De, for children with parents who speak Chinese.

"At Ding Hao, we use English to teach Chinese as a second language," she explains. "We put the emphasis on conversation and cultural activities, and we use easier characters."

In addition to language instruction, Ding Hao sponsors cultural activities, including teacher-led trips to China where children visit the orphanages from which they came.

"Our parents build a strong relationship," says Foo. "Many of the kids grow up together. Our staff is very impressed at how the parents want their kids not to forget their Chinese background and heritage." Foo has just launched a language program for parents who want to learn Chinese along with their children.

"While I was still in China, right after my daughter was placed in my arms, I wondered how was I ever going to let her know about her place of origin," recalls Elaine Margolis, president of the Ding Hao PTO.

When her daughter, Lia Jiening, was age 21/2, "I wrote an article for FCC (Families with Children from China) and had an amazing response. We started the Wa Wa class, a little play group, and had enough kids to fill two classes at Ding Hao."

2006 U.S.Adoptions
by Country

China (mainland) 6,493 Guatemala 4,135
Russia 3,706
S. Korea 1,376
Ethiopia 732
Kazakhstan 587
Ukraine 460
Liberia 353
Colombia 344

Source: U.S. Department
of Homeland Security

Other Cultures
Families who have adopted from Ukraine also have a unifying resource, the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown, PA. The Center offers many cultural activities in addition to language instruction, even a Ukrainian scouting troup. But unlike at Ding Hao, almost all the parents are also of Ukrainian origin, says the center's executive director, Oryshia Hewka.

"Parents wonder how do you acclimate an adopted child, when will he learn English?" says Hewka. "Don't worry about that. Kids are like sponges. Within a half-year, there they are in Ukrainian school. With TV, cartoons, schools, the kids can lose their mother tongues immediately. Meanwhile, the parents are struggling with English!"

Angela Allchin, who adopted a child from Guatemala, has used a Yahoo! online group to organize the South Jersey Adoption Group. Although about 90 percent of its members adopted from Guatemala, the group welcomes all adoptive families.

"We meet all over the place, usually the third Saturday of every month," she says. "It's important for the kids to get to know and see each other at a fun family outing. My son gets to see other children like him, so he knows he's not the only one."

Similarly, the organization BRAG (Building Relationships through Adoptions from Guatemala), a group of 85 Delaware Valley families, gets together monthly for parent-child activities. Several bilingual BRAG parents will soon offer family Spanish lessons, says founder Maria Pownall.

Allchin says when her son is older, she plans to take him to Guatemala to learn about his heritage, but "I don't know if Spanish is something we'll pursue."

Russian Pride
For families with kids from Russia, churches often provide cultural activities. "I take my children every year to St. Michaels Russian Orthodox Church, to their annual Russian Festival," says Anna Burdumy of Thornton, PA, who with husband Rob adopted Kristina, 9, from Russia and Nick, 4, from Belarus.

"My daughter is very proud to be Russian and has always been interested in learning about her birth country," she says. However, "I never really thought about having them learn Russian."
That might be fortunate. When Susan Hoaglund of Bryn Mawr, PA, recently tried to find Russian instruction for her adopted daughter, Julia, 7, "I discovered that there are no Russian programs in our area." She then contacted Bryn Mawr College, where she found an undergraduate from Russia who will tutor Julia.

"I don't have my son, Justin, in Russian classes. He takes Spanish!" says Jennifer Greenman, president of FRUA's Philadelphia Chapter. In addition to the winter celebration with Father Frost, FRUA sponsors play groups, provides speakers on adoption issues, and provides family activities.

"We had a big hayride. The kids loved it," she says. "They like to see other people like themselves. They know most of the kids have the same backgrounds. It really excites them."

However, she says, "As they become teenagers, we're losing the kids. They don't feel they need us any more. It's happening nationally too. We're looking for a teenage liaison that can help us with programs." Trips to Hershey Park and a paint ball facility failed to draw, she says.

Know your child, says After Adoption's Elaine Frank. "Some kids might not, for whatever reason, want to be pushed into a language just because they come from that culture. Sometimes it's wonderful for kids who are adopted, and sometimes their wish is to be just like every other 1st, 2nd or 3rd grader."

Tom Livingston is executive editor of MetroKids.