Adopted Ukraine girl has first birthday party

Posted: May 18, 2013

The Winchester Star

Avonlea was born in Ukraine and spent most of her early years in an orphanage.
Stephen and Laura Byers pose for a family portrait with their children (clockwise from top): Addison, 11, Adelaide, 8, Avonlea, 9, and Avery, 5.


Avonlea Diana Byers had her first birthday party May 3, even though she was turning 9 years old.

Avonlea, daughter of Stephen and Laura Conrow Byers, was born in Ukraine and spent most of her early years in an orphanage.

Ukrainian orphanages don’t celebrate birthdays. “She didn’t know when her birthday was,” said Laura Byers.

The Byers family lives in Gaithersburg, Md., but Stephen and Laura grew up in the Winchester area and their parents still live here.

They returned to Winchester last week with Avonlea to let the grandparents share in her first birthday party.

The couple decided last year to adopt a child to add to their family of two sons and a daughter.

It was a family decision.

“We didn’t adopt because we couldn’t have more children,” Laura said. “We wanted to do it. God puts emphasis on caring for the widow and orphan.”

Having friends who had adopted a child from Ukraine led them there.

The process is lengthy and expensive, the couple warned. “It can cost up to $40,000,” Laura said.

As in Russia, Ukraine officials demand that prospective parents come to the country to be interviewed, and that at least one of them stay a month, if approved.

Laura said “a wave of fear swept through me” last fall when the Russian government banned Americans from adopting children.

But the Ukrainians told her they were not following Russia’s lead.

It is best to work through an agency in the United States that can steer the adoptive parents through the process, she added. The Byerses used Life Line Children’s Services in Alabama.

A “facilitator” in Ukraine is also required.

Some officials have issues with Americans, Stephen added. And the country has some rules that Americans may not understand.

For example: “You can’t say the child’s name until after you have legally adopted her.”

But the couple said it is worth the effort, considering the difference that can be made in a child’s life.

Just before Christmas, the Byerses traveled 15 hours, from the Ukraine capital of Kiev to the coal-mining town of Snizhne, to meet the soon-to-be Avonlea Diana Byers.

“Diana was her name in Ukraine,” Laura said.

The orphanage was a cavernous building, she said, with all the doors closed and everything sterile. It was so cold inside, they had to wear coats.

The children seemed small for their ages and very slim. “It was a decent place,” Laura said, ‘but it was not a home.”

Some 100,000 orphans reportedly live in Ukraine, and while the Byerses had no idea which child would join them until they arrived in Kiev, Laura said God guided them to the right one.

“We connected very well from the start,” she said. “You’ll just know” if the child is the right one.

It’s a feeling that can’t be described in words, Laura said, but as soon as Avonlea walked into the room, “Steve started to cry. We just knew.”

After that first meeting, Laura had to stay in the country until the end of January to complete the legal requirements.

She spent most of that time at the orphanage with Avonlea. During that time, she said, the children presented a ballet, which Laura attended.

In a way, it was very sad, she said, because no one outside the orphanage came to see the children perform.

Laura said Avonlea kept looking at her during the show. “I was so glad to be there that day.”

The Byerses said their new daughter was “very serious” when they first met her.

Gradually, she has offered more smiles.

Laura has a picture of her receiving a “sandwich kiss” from her new parents, one on each cheek.

“She laughed,” Laura recalled.

Stephen noted that children such as Avonlea are very brave. They leave behind their culture, everything they have ever known and go away with strangers to a country and a home where no one speaks the language they know.

The couple works to ease the transition and also to help her retain her culture.

Laura prepares food familiar to Avonlea, who rarely was given meat in Ukraine.

She recalled the meal they had at a McDonald’s restaurant in Kiev on their way home. Avonlea didn’t think much of the hamburger, but she did enjoy the French fries.

Asked her favorite food, Avonlea is quick to reply: “Chocolate.”

Although Laura home-schools her other three children, Avonlea attends Laytonsville Elementary School, because the Ukrainian government requires it.

The family has also decided that Avonlea should get help to retain her knowledge of the Russian language.

“I want her to feel she has a connection with her past, as much as she wants,” Laura said.

Stephen said most foreign adopted children lose their native language in a very short time, because they no longer use it or hear it spoken.

Laura is taking an online Russian language course and the family uses a Google translator program. But the best Russian speaker is her daughter Adelaide, 8, who is learning from Avonlea.

“She speaks Russian in her sleep,” she said of Adelaide.

Laura said the newest Byers is emotionally and psychologically younger than her biological age, which she attributes to the fact that she had no mothering in the orphanage.

“Who is not going to have emotional issues without a mom or dad?” her husband asked.

The child often needs to be cradled and held and given affection.

“It’s a joy to do it,” Laura said.

The world has many “hurting children,” she said, and Stephen added that he and his family are happy “that we can make a little dent in the problem.”

— Contact Val Van Meterat